As the art world grows beyond art acquisition for pleasure or status, private collectors, public museums and corporations have been joined by art investors. Some investors choose to put their trust in funds that acquire art solely for profit. These funds buy and sell art without consulting investors; often investors have little or no knowledge of the nature of the items traded. Non-expert investors who wish to buy directly need expert advice and this one of the reasons art consultants have become so numerous. This is a risky field and one which is a minority area. Fees from providing advice for investment funds is only one source of income for the art consultant.
Art consultant is both a specific job description and wider category. Art experts, scholars, authors, gallerists, collectors and conservators all play a part in authenticating and rating art that may be for sale and can be (loosely) viewed as consultants. The art consultant is the link between the end consumer (corporation, individual or fund) and the artist or the artist’s gallery/agent. The art consultant has connections and pre-existing relationships and can save buyers time and effort. He adds a level of advice regarding not only aesthetics – what art complements the décor and existing collection, etc. – but also value. Which artist is increasing in value, which subjects are “hot” in the market, which art might be resold to (say) the Chinese market and other issues can influence buyers are questions a consultant can answer.
Of particular importance, is the question of which art is likely to make the greatest increase in value. This might seem venal but if one is investing in anything, such matters are relevant. The money that is spent by a profit-focused trader is qualitatively no different from the same sum spent by an art lover. Artists might prefer to have their art on the walls of a home rather than in a Geneva freeport warehouse. However, much of the investment goes into art by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei, which are international brands producing multiple lines using assistants working in studio-factories. Such transactions are hardly different to the investment funds which acquire high-value wines, vintage cars or Hollywood memorabilia in order for it to be stored and resold for a profit. With savings interest rates at low levels, investment is the natural outlet for excess capital. Buying a Koons print (or 0.6% of a Koons sculpture) should carry no more moral value than purchasing 10 shares in Unilever.
Self-deception is common in the arts. We tell ourselves that aesthetic appreciation of art must be detached from considerations of monetary worth, yet the more we aesthetically appreciate art, the more valuable it becomes. Art has always been produced because a patron has agreed in advance to pay for it. Money generates art and it is foolishness to claim that great art has never been made for profit. Not all art is made for money and much art we now esteem was practically worthless when it was created (the paintings of Van Gogh, for example), but many masterpieces were painted by millionaires. Poor artists are not superior to rich artists, either artistically or morally. Consider how peculiar it would be to view a handcrafted chair and start quizzing the owner on the financial and social status of the original maker before we were prepared to allow ourselves to admire it. As a society, we are particularly prone to deceiving ourselves by detaching appreciation of art from its current status and worth and instead becoming obsessed about the conditions of its production and the moral character of its creator.
So, it is perhaps understandable that we feel a touch of distaste about individuals who make their living from recommending and appraising art in material terms – especially when it is with a view to making a profit. This is, however, not necessarily so distant from the way artists themselves can think about their art. Artists are incentivised to make art that sells and that is popular. It would be naïve to think otherwise or claim that artists respond to the world in a manner that is essentially different from other people.
Art consultants also perform other roles. Just as personal shoppers advise of clothing, accessories and furniture to match merchandise to busy individuals, so art consultants match art to potential collectors who are non-experts. That may range from a high-flying executive, a rich but timid individual, a large firm to a professional investor. Art collectors may invite consultants at an early stage in their collecting (i.e., before the collector has established his taste, eye and contacts). Consultants can open doors for collectors; conversely, collector money makes a consultant a favoured guest at any gallery or private view.
A corporation allocates a budget for the decoration of its offices with art that reaffirms a firm’s values without potentially offending staff or visitors. They generally do not have a dedicated member of staff for this, simply give the position of Head of Art Collection to a senior member of staff who takes an interest in the visual arts. This individual is likely to employ the services of a consultant occasionally, most often when a new piece of art is to be commissioned.
We should not overlook the changing roles of auction houses. Rather than simply acting as middlemen providing a space where collectors buy and sell items, auction houses want to take on a more active role, guiding the art market. A move into the primary market (selling art fresh from the artist’s studio to collectors) from the secondary market (selling art between third parties without involvement of the artist) by auction houses, shows how the auctioneers are eyeing the role of curators. Auction houses are stepping into the role of gallerists by holding curated exhibitions that sell.
Likewise, the rise of the curator has displaced the critic. The artist-curator (such as American Glenn Ligon) now no longer has to prove his worth by making art, he can simply appropriate it. As Duchamp appropriated the coat hook and urinal, designating them art, so the artist-curator gathers art of others and designates it as a joint work of the curator and artists. He takes on the power of a conjurer, summoning art to perform an ensemble show in the service of a theme, often political. Ligon’s curated displays are usually based around race and American politics. So, he can summon a Louise Bourgeois print and a de Kooning pastel and force them – almost through an act of ventriloquism – to murmur approval for a political cause neither artist publicly commented upon. One might speculate on the hostile and vainglorious motives of a failed artist taking the title of artist-curator. Further, we might wonder about the absence of self-respect and critical faculties in a society that accorded such behaviour any respect.
The lines between artist, curator, critic and consultant have dissolved when the reagent of Post-Modernism has been applied.
Actions of art consultants have two ultimate outcomes. With regard to established artists that the consultants favour, they reaffirm their importance. With regard to emerging artists, they act as gatekeepers. With the huge oversupply of artists, constrictions on the amount of economically viable gallerists/agents to represent those artists and a limited market for fine art, consultants add another route for artists to reach buyers and begin their careers. It has to be noted that most consultants tend to recommend artists who already have some track record and have a gallery but not all artists fall into that area. Consultants have a financial advantage over gallerists in that they do not have to maintain a display space in a metropolitan location, store art or arrange for publications, art fairs and packing art. They can maintain an office or work from home, hiring a city office at an hourly rate for meetings. Their costs can be very low and thus the barriers to entry are also low. They rely entirely on their reputation and contacts and on striking advantageous deals, either for a consultancy fee or for a small percentage of any art purchased.
Art consultants have in some respects replaced art critics. The art critic used to be a considerable figure. Straddling high-brow and middle-brow culture, the art critic could make or break an artist’s career. They would synthesise art theory and assessment of new art in an accessible way, explaining the latest developments in the art world. Sunday-newspaper reviews would be eagerly awaited and circulated avidly. Think of the stature of Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, John Berger, Peter Fuller, Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer. There is no living art critic that most moderately-educated individuals (in North America and Great Britain) could name. It seems unlikely – in an age of fragmented media outlets and widespread deprecation of connoisseurship – that a widely influential art critic could emerge.
Greenberg was a New-York based art critic who wrote for journals through the 1930s to early 1960s and championed the Abstract Expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock. One complaint that was made about Greenberg was that his writing verged into the territory of a stock-market tipster. He was seen as too involved in the status (and, indirectly, monetary value) of the art he was writing about; he was ranking as much as reviewing. The fact that Greenberg seemed to attach his own prestige to that of “his” artists was what made some suspicious of him. As the Abstract Expressionists rose in prominence, so did their chief explicator. In the 1950s, blurring the line between art critic and artist’s agent was viewed dimly by discerning outsiders. Today, most art critics (the few that still exist) are so poorly paid that for additional income they write essays for exhibition catalogues for commercial galleries. These pieces are little more than gentle high-minded promotion.
Art collectors are bypassing art critics as arbiters. Specialist art publications are diminishing in importance and newspapers are contracting in the amount of art criticism they publish and in terms of circulation figures. While art consultants are not public figures – one could not name a prominent consultant that any layman would recognise – their privately-preferred artists are taking the place of critically favoured artists. In the vacuum created by the decline of criticism, the vacated area is filled by tipsters and social networkers.
We should not fall into the traps of either seeing art consultants as much more than labour/time-saving facilitators of the art trade or of seeing them as figures with undue influence or control. Consultants follow the money, as most people have to. They also follow fashion and they are as likely to become part of the hype loop around a new artist or school of artists as anyone else would. In that respect, consultants do present a minor concern because they are likely to inflate the financial bubble of unrealistic valuation and prestige regarding fashionable art.
Perhaps the best we can take from the art consultancy boom of the last decade is to note how the needs of money-rich and time-poor collectors have provided an opportunity for the emergence of a new micro-profession, one which assists them in spending money and saving time whilst building art collections. It says nothing much about the art or collectors, it only demonstrates division of labour has become minute in a complex socio-economic system, one over which the clouds of authoritarianism and financial collapse now gather.