In Other Words – The Art Media

Guest Judd Tully and host Charlotte Burns. Photo credit: Colin Miller, courtesy Art Agency Partners

The Following is a transcript of the Podcast In Other Words which Judd Tully participated in June 2017.  Please click here to hear the original podcast at Art Agency Partners.

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to “In Other Words”. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, the senior editor at Art Agency, Partners. Joining us today for a discussion on the state of the art press are Jori Finkel, the West Coast correspondent for The Art Newspaper and a regular contributor to the New York Times arts pages. Hi Jori.

Jori Finkel: Hi Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: And we have Judd Tully, an award-winning journalist, widely-published writer and critic, who is the Editor-At-Large at Blouin Art + Auction magazine and Blouin Art Info. Hi Judd.

Judd Tully: Hi Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: And Amy Cappellazzo, the co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a Chairman at Sotheby’s Global Fine Arts Division. Hi Amy.

Amy Cappellazzo: Hi Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: So I thought that we should try and answer the question about what the state of current art journalism is. And perhaps look at who’s innovating rather than just where the problems are.

There are cuts, coverage changes and reductions at broad sheets and major media outlets. There are reduced budgets at trade publications, falling subscription and advertising levels, and it seems that this sort of idea of the “click-being-king is changing the way that news is commissioned. And audiences are fragmenting. None of us read things in exactly the same way.

Amy Cappellazzo: We have to just accept that the attention span of the average reader for anything is shorter than it used to be. You’ve got to kind of hit the point in a condensed way unless it’s truly a meaty topic.

The thing that I find a little bit dispiriting is we have very little in the realm of critical voice because it’s all been covering the social side of the art world. So a lot of what would have been criticism is now morphed into a sort of kind of a social discourse or dialogue about the art world.

Then from the sort of market reporting, I think we get market round ups of what’s going on or speculation of where the market is. But we don’t get serious hardcore business news reporting about the market as a sector. So maybe our market is large enough and textured and nuanced enough where you could actually have someone look at it that way.

And data is king, so we’re getting to a place now where data can really be discussed and analyzed and worked with to understand the marketplace much better.

Charlotte Burns: Part of the market reporting problem is that the gatekeepers more tightly control the information. Whether that’s a PR person, or a gallery, or an auction, their job is to control that flow of information. And in the art market, information is king, because so much of is it is not public.

If you’re reporting on museums, you do have a certain degree of information that you can just ask for and receive, and it’s a very simple transaction. Whereas getting information in the art market isn’t straightforward in that way. Galleries don’t have to report. Two of the three auction houses don’t have to report. So I’m not sure that we are getting clearer data in the art market.

Amy Cappellazzo: Well, there’s so much available now. So for example, the Keith Haring market is up 50% over the last three years, basically. And so that’s a story. That’s an interesting story. Keith always lagged behind his generational peers, he was a little bit like Basquiat in that they had these very abbreviated lives and only had about eight years of production or something like this.

So it would be a very interesting story to talk about how and why the Haring market is up year on year; what’s going on with the Keith Haring Foundation—they’ve changed galleries a couple of times; how much inventory does the Foundation really still own; where are the major paintings? The thing about Keith is he was never bought by museums. And you can look at all the auction comparables and speak to the four or five dealers that trade in the Haring market and really put together a complete picture.

Judd Tully: But what really struck me at Sotheby’s, where we’re sitting, during the record price that the Basquiat achieved, the buyer put it on Instagram.

Amy Cappellazzo: Instantly.

Judd Tully: Instantly. That in itself is a game-changer. But it was pretty amazing. I thought that the power, the reach of Instagram, and even the style of this collector—and that’s how he wanted it to be released, knowing it would get who knows how many…

Amy Cappellazzo: It’s kind of cool, don’t you think?

Judd Tully: Very cool. But it’s very new. At another time in the late ‘80s when the Japanese economy was huge, there was a lot of buying going in both Post-War Impressionist and Modern art. And you had these very wealthy Japanese collectors coming to New York with advisors. One I remember vividly in the lobby of Sotheby’s had his own video crew filming him bidding on some—but it was all staged, and this was his own production. But it’s—you know, Instagram is a lot cheaper.

Charlotte Burns: That preceded the idea of shaping your own narrative, which is what you can do with social media.

Judd, I wanted to ask you, how many years have you been covering the market beat?

Judd Tully: Too many. I was primarily covering, from ‘86-’87, contemporary art and Impressionist and Modern art. And these were tiny sales. Minuscule. I mean I can remember a headline: “Christie’s Contemporary Art: $12 million”. The total. Not for, say, a Mark Grotjahn painting, but the whole sale.

Amy Cappellazzo: I had my first auction at Christie’s fall of 2001. So it was 9/11, actually. It was a very weird season to be putting together a sale, for obvious reasons. The budget was like $34 million. That seemed Herculean, like how could we do that? But clearly the market’s gotten much bigger.

Jori Finkel: Amy, don’t you feel that one limitation of market coverage is that we treat high-end auction sales as interchangeable with the market? But we don’t cover middle market.

Amy Cappellazzo: One of the things that’s always very frustrating to me is that it’s all around the theatrics of the night sale. But actually the day sales are fascinating and more interesting places to cover the market, if you really want to cover the market.

Jori Finkel: Do you get any coverage of the day sale?

Amy Cappellazzo: Nearly none.

Jori Finkel: I feel like there’s something we’re doing as journalists that’s deeply misleading because we’re acting as though these top sales are indicative of how the rest of the market works. The same thing happens when you cover galleries. If you cover the sales at Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth as though that’s how galleries sell, you’re leaving out 95% of the galleries that operate differently and at different price points.

I really think it skews our perception. When we say art market, sometimes I define art market as this strange consensus-making machine, but when you think about the complexity—all the different players, all the different components—in journalistic coverage, we tend to reduce it to, yes, the nighttime auction sales.

Amy Cappellazzo: I get in the evening sales you have these big, spectacular prices and moments. The way you come to understand the market as a journalist is you think: “Well, who would pay $48 million for that?” And you say: “Well, actually there were four bidders up to $28 million, and that’s probably where the depth of market is, and after that it was a chase between two, and maybe we’re not really pricing the value of this object, we’re pricing what capital means to those two people who can afford to chase it. We’re in a different zone right here of value proposition.”

Whereas when you sit at a day sale and that work is estimated $80,000-$120,000, and it sells for $130,000 hammer—that is such a clear and tangible marketplace to understand.

Jori Finkel: I think this obsession with record breaking really shapes the way stories are reported. What would art market reporting look like if it weren’t tied so much to the evening sales?

Judd Tully: It would depend on what platform or publication. Because, for instance, if it was a trade publication, the day sale would certainly be of more interest to a dealer or an art advisor or anyone trying to determine the value of something. But you can’t—I don’t know what interest that would attract…

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. That’s what I was wondering.

Judd Tully: …beyond this very small segment.

Charlotte Burns: I think, at those publications, that’s then a function of demand and bandwidth. A good word rate is probably still the same now as it was in the 1980s. And yet the same journalist, instead of writing something once a month for a publication and being asked to write something overnight and for the monthly and do special reporting around the increasingly event-driven world, so they’re going to art fairs. They’re also probably tweeting and crafting a social media message for the publication. There’s just much, much more expected and less time.

Judd Tully: If there was any indication—I mean, not to talk about the beleaguered state of the profession—I was totally shocked; a few months ago, the New York Times eliminated this Friday art market column that for years had been written by Carol Vogel. That, to me, signaled a shift in…just information.

Jori Finkel: I think the column really faced a kind of existential crisis, which is: what does it mean to be a weekly column in the age of Internet news?

Judd Tully: From my point of view, the New York Times dropped the ball in terms of having that kind of power and whether it was that Friday column or whatever it would be. I think they lost opportunity to report on things that are important that other journalists, or other publications, can’t drill into in the same way.

Charlotte Burns: Yes, I agree.

Judd Tully: And have the clout to get people to speak that wouldn’t speak to another publication. I cannot tell you how many times I would receive a press release emailed to me after I had read Carol Vogel’s column that morning over coffee, announcing something for the first time. She had that embargoed thing going beautifully for many years, and hats off to her.

Amy Cappellazzo: I always want great stories about the market on the business page.

Jori Finkel: I think it’s a good question though: why don’t the business pages of these newspapers devote more resources to art market coverage as well? You do have to be careful what you wish for because then you might get general business reporters without much art expertise at all coming in once every five months for a story.

I think art journalism suffers from the same challenges regarding breaking hard news and investigative journalism that more mainstream journalism does as well.

Amy Cappellazzo: And collateral information.

Jori Finkel: What is the funding model? Is there enough time to do it? Is it rewarded by the current click-being-king system you mentioned before? Investigative journalism has always been a rare species. It’s never been the main form of journalism of any publication, but it’s becoming more of an endangered species than ever before.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right, but one of the vague frustrations: if you want to write about the art market, you have understand markets. Most people covering the market came from covering art criticism or writing reviews, so there’s like a gap of knowledge and information. If you’re the journalist who invests four hours in understanding the tax code as it pertains to works of art, you are the authority right now.

Jori Finkel: It’s not just that we’re desperate for news. We really want the news analysis that not a lot of writers are either equipped to do, prepared to do or paid well enough to do.

Amy Cappellazzo: That’s part of it. Let’s talk to like, one of the great foundations in the world that supports free speech, because I do feel like a summit for art writers, all art journalists—and I love you all, and think I wouldn’t want to be in this business if you weren’t covering it so thank you very much—I think you all need like a two-week spa vacation where you talk about your field and your industry and how to make it better, and how to be more empowered and emboldened to go out and have the information you need to write stories that take the discussion somewhere further.

Judd Tully: Well, I mean the question about the state of the market for reporting on these things, for writing about them, or analyzing them: by coincidence, there’s a Nieman fellow at Harvard who’s doing a survey, a “Survey of Visual Art Journalists 2017”. That whole like: digital versus print; are you being compensated; what percentage of your income is derived form writing about art. It was aimed not just at full-time people but bloggers and freelancers.

There are a lot of issues surrounding it, but I think it does come back to that metrics thing about who’s really watching the space, and it is still a pretty small world…

Amy Cappellazzo: It is a small world.

Judd Tully:…of people that want information about visual art.

Amy Cappellazzo: But we are a little bit like the tail that wags the dog. I always felt that. I’m like in the alternative currency business. I can value this very esoteric asset class that engages the richest people around the globe. I could tell you tastes and who has the same tastes, from Beijing to the Upper East Side. It’s a fascinating world, and the participants are all interesting people. And the cultural forces that shape an artist being sort of au courant or outré are incredibly fascinating

Charlotte Burns: There’s also this question—I was thinking as you were all talking—if we can see trend lines through this, it’s the idea that journalism itself has gravitated towards the market. There are probably more writers writing about the market, and they all gravitate to the biggest names and the biggest sales and who the billionaires are selling, X, Y, and Z.

And maybe that’s just part of a broader trend that we’re seeing in the art world, which is the trend towards spectacle and the role of culture and how we see culture. And we see that playing out in museums, too—this idea of attracting people and data in that sense. Quantifying art. And that just seems to be a moment we’re living through: how art is valued and perhaps that idea of getting bums to sit on seats in art museums, which didn’t used to be the metric you judged a success by. Now attendance figures and that helps you get sponsorship deals, and that helps you get funding and your economic impact on the area around you.

Maybe it’s part of a broader conversation about the value of art, this idea of spectacle and engaging.

Jori Finkel: Charlotte I want to take exception with your initial idea that there’s more reporting now in the market. I don’t think that’s the case, or that’s not the case globally. I think that might feel like it’s the case from New York—and you were an art market editor—so just keep in mind that the conversation we’re having is primarily taking place in New York about New York press.

If you look at whom in LA is writing, they’re not writing about the market. And there are more people writing about art than every before. A year ago, when Hauser, Wirth and Schimmel—no longer Hauser, Wirth and Schimnel—opened in Los Angeles, there were nearly 100 people who turned out for the press preview.

When I moved here, I could have counted on one hand or two hands the number of people writing about art in Los Angeles. Not all journalists, some critics and some crossover—they write about design or architecture. But I think we’re seeing more people write about art generally—maybe not get paid for it—with the expansion of the blogosphere and social media and the possibility of having not just mainstream art publications, but having small, niche publications that actually can find an audience because of the Internet.

Amy Cappellazzo: Well, LA is about the five times the size artistically of what it was back in, you know—it’s a vast, massive, great art scene.

Jori Finkel: You can find publications like Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal maybe getting more involved in market coverage than they had in years past, if you’re taking a 10 year view or 20 year view. But this idea that the growth in art growth is a growth in art market coverage, I’m just not sure that’s true.

Charlotte Burns: Okay, maybe I should rephrase it and say, around the market events, and in paid publications. I think there are a lot of people blogging for free; I’m probably not even counting that. I’m really talking more about the professional, paid, career people who are writing.

When I was working in art PR a million years ago, that was definitely the case: that more people wanted to write about the market than, for example, wanted to write about museums and if you go to the opening of an art fair, there’s…

Amy Cappellazzo: So much more glamorous.

Charlotte Burns: …hundreds of people who are talking about themselves as if they’re market reporters. And before, we didn’t have daily fair papers. Everybody now reports daily on the art fairs. We didn’t have the blogs. There are millions of people writing, but that’s like everybody has a stall on Etsy: it doesn’t mean there are more great artists.

Amy Cappellazzo: Right. And the writing about big prices is sort of the porn of the art market, like: “My god that’s so sexy and alluring.” That doesn’t really tell the whole story, certainly. But it’s shocking and headline grabbing and makes your eyes pop out—you know: “Wow.”

Charlotte Burns: Do you feel that the media—that there is a crisis of art journalism? Because you seem pretty positive about it, which is nice to hear.

Jori Finkel: I think there’s always been a crisis in art journalism, you know. It’s a small, small field.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Jori Finkel: No, I’ve been thinking about kind of what it means to be a niche journalist. In newspaper terms, it would be a beat journalist, right? You have a very specific beat. I cover visual arts.

So what does it mean to be in a niche? And I actually think in some ways it’s a better time to be in a niche because it’s an easier time to find your readership because of the Internet. Why I feel optimistic about it: because of the Internet, a lot of journalists and a lot of art writers are able to reach an audience they weren’t able to reach before. Some of them are unpaid, but some of the writers are being paid in small amounts. The challenge is the business model. How do we make this sustainable?

Judd Tully: Yeah I’m not so sure that’s really possible in print, you know, unless you have—Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, and in the time that he’s bought it, the paper has zoomed up in coverage and becoming more important again. But that’s the kind of resources that you need, or on some different scale.

Charlotte Burns: There are models like that. ProPublica is a great model. If you are interested in the kind of investigations that most newspapers can’t afford because most investigations don’t really yield much, and they take a lot of time, a lot of commitment and every now and then you get Watergate. But usually you just get water.

We can lament the state of the art media, but it’s clear that the old career paths don’t really work if you want to be paid.

Amy Cappellazzo: A minor detail, I suppose.

Charlotte Burns: It was ever thus that it was a lot of writers in the art world did not need to be paid, especially critics.

Jori Finkel: Or critics are professors. Critics are either getting paid for teaching.

Charlotte Burns: What I mean is that their words, in this sense, aren’t valued. And that’s not a new thing. That’s a very longstanding model. So not everybody always expected to be paid in the art world, but some people do. So I wonder where the innovation is in that.

I was thinking it might be an interesting question to ask you: the last great piece of writing on the art world that you read. It doesn’t have to be the market. I know mine, to kick us off, was a piece of Christina Ruiz wrote on the Venice Biennale that I felt was really fantastic because it had a strong opinion. Rather than this hodgepodge Instagram feed of different things that are going on, it was somebody telling me why she thought it was not successful: this sort of “poverty tourism”, as she called it, of the main pavilion. That was really interesting cause it was opinionated and informed, and she knows her art history

Judd Tully: I had lunch today with an old friend of mine and he had brought along a young friend of his: a recent college graduate, very bright, very interested in the art world. The question came up of where to go, what to do. And this person’s interest was partially in journalism and criticism and then also possibly in more of an art advising kind of direction. And I couldn’t believe my own words, but saying: “Well, I really think you should try the art advising route in terms of opportunities, in terms of career, in terms of what else it could lead to.” And I don’t know if I would have said that at some other stage. Luckily I’m not starting out and trying to figure out how I’m going to make a living writing. But I think it’s…

Amy Cappellazzo: You’re established. You have your reputation. You’ve been doing this a long time. But as someone just starting, it’s a very different industry than the one you walked into. Yes.

Judd Tully: Especially if you are aware of it.

Amy Cappellazzo: Yes.

Judd Tully: You know, and maybe that’s the beauty of being young and not knowing. It’s pretty daunting to think of. Jori and I used to write for Art & Auction Magazine at a time when the magazine was very well funded and had a great editor. From my point of view, it was a very stellar publication. And it’s very hard to have that today. It was owned by a very wealthy publisher. Do you remember those days, Jori?

Jori Finkel: I was there for a total of six years, and I always joked that I was like getting my PhD in the art market. It was such great training ground. So yes, I can imagine when you are talking to kind of a young, aspiring art writer today, you might have advice about where are outlets they can go to. But advice on the larger career path, or what a career trajectory might look like—yes, that’s pretty challenging. And then, you think about it and you think some of the most ambitious journalists have become art fair directors over the last 10 years.

Amy Cappellazzo: I would like the record to show that my very first job in the art world was at ArtForum Magazine, so I have my own auspicious start in art publishing. But the ad revenues were really piling up tremendously because the galleries were in full blossom. And Soho was absolutely thriving. But it was a very colorful place to work. It was lucky to have sort of an angel publisher who was happy to see the larger picture and not really manager-mind the PNLs as a justification.

Jori Finkel: There has been a lot of philanthropy in art publishing already, we just don’t call it that.

Amy Cappellazzo: Yes.

Jori Finkel: And unfortunately it can be capricious. Sometimes we harken back to kind of a golden age of journalism. That construct might have some validity for other forms of journalism. I’m not sure Judd, do you think there was a golden age of art journalism?

Judd Tully: I would say from when I—a name rings: a Geraldine Norman. British based journalist who wrote for The Times of London I believe.

Charlotte Burns: I think so. Yes.

Judd Tully: And later other publications. But she was the doyenne of art market journalism. Had these incredible scoops and was a big presence in this other sort of larger than life—these are two Brits, Godfrey Barker. I don’t know if that was the golden age, but it just seemed to be a bit larger than life.

Amy Cappellazzo: But it was also a world where one or two people could have a scoop and have the authority.

Jori Finkel: Right.

Judd Tully: Yes. And this is preeminent.

Amy Cappellazzo: Like authority isn’t distributed that freely anymore.

Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting how fast things change. I remember at a Venice Biennale around 2006—which was sort of boom time—somebody who worked for ArtForum telling me that their arms hurt so much because there were so many ads in the magazine that they were schlepping around. “Oh my God, I can’t even lift my right arm.” And they were waving it around for a little bit of life. And I don’t know that anybody who worked in print publishing at this year’s Venice Biennale would be complaining about the weight of her or his publication because of all those expensive ads. And that’s a decade. It’s quite interesting.

So it may not have been a golden age, but it was the most sustainable age, and I think that’s the difference: is that now you have people who are established in their careers, quite senior journalists, saying: “I don’t know what to do next.” Or leaving the game, and that’s interesting. I think it’s a period to change.

Jori Finkel: The legacy of print journalism is going. And what you were talking about are the magazines where you felt like you could be employed for 10, 20, 30 years.

Charlotte Burns: Right. And I don’t think you can do that now.

Jori Finkel: And those magazines have dwindled or winnowed or merged. And not so many jobs left there.

Charlotte Burns: So if you guys had one wish to end us on innovation, what would it be? What would you like to read? What form would you like it to take?

Jori Finkel: I would like to throw something out: I think a number of different platforms have been trying to do this, but I haven’t seen it done well yet. I’m waiting for short documentaries about the art world. Market and otherwise. I’m talking about five minute films, kind of along the lines of what you see in the New York Times Op-Docs, where there could be a real point of view. It’s wishful thinking right now because I don’t think anyone has figured out how to fund it. But one, we are talking about visual art, and two, the theatrics that go along with the art world these days I think would be really ripe for that kind of coverage.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s a great idea.

Judd Tully: So do I. But you need a team to do that.

Jori Finkel: True.

Charlotte Burns: And it’s expensive. It’s much more expensive to do video than send one journalist to ask one person a question.

Judd Tully: Yes. And it wasn’t about art, but this novel by George Gissing in the 19th century called “New Grub Street”, which was about the life and times of a struggling journalist—tragic, kind of dark. In certain ways, it’s that realm of being a journalist I think that implies some of that, in terms of a struggle. He was writing about the London newspaper world of the late 19th century.

Charlotte Burns: Amy, what about you?

Amy Cappellazzo: It would be really nice if you had one journalist in the business section covering art. But they have to have serious business acumen.

Charlotte Burns: Brilliant. Great, I think we are there. Thank you so much everybody, so thank you Judd, thank you Jori, thank you Amy.

Amy Cappellazzo: Thank you.

Judd Tully: Thank you.

Jori Finkel: Thank you.

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