Why the art world must not be the same after COVID-19

In the run-up to last month’s virtual version of Art Basel’s most important annual fair, the one that usually takes place in Basel, Switzerland, every June, Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s CEO, wrote this trite and self-serving op-ed piece which finally prompted me to write down two main observations about the art industry:  

Observation #1

Given the present configuration of the art industry, the vast majority of art galleries operating in the world’s major art capitals are financially unviable. For those of you who have never delved into the economics of an art gallery or been privy to a gallery P&L, the explanation is straightforward: 

  • large proportion of gallery sales takes place at art fairs (~40% in 2019); 
  • Renting a booth at an art fair is very expensive; 
  • Only art galleries operating brick and mortar retail exhibition spaces are eligible to apply to art fairs; 
  • Commercial art gallery spaces are financial sinkholes. 

These are the indispensable elements of operating a gallery at the most prestigious and lucrative echelon of the industry. (I’m able to speak from first-hand experience because I was an art dealer in Hong Kong ten years ago and am still active in the industry but no longer as a commercial gallerist.) 

Art fairs are essentially dressed up B2C trade fairs providing one-stop-shop convenience for industry stakeholders on both sides of the supply and demand equation. Over the years, they have become major sociocultural happenings attended by celebrities, curiosity-seekers and social gadflies besides. The nut of the circus is a troupe of HNW and UHNW collectors traveling from one top-tier art fair to the next in order to patronize a very elite supplier base of less than 200 major galleries. Outer rings of this universe are populated by second-tier galleries which also participate in art fairs, but less exalted ones. (I won’t go into a recitation of the top fairs but they include all the Art Basel fairs, Frieze and Masterpiece.) In the wake of each circus-like fair is a phalanx of high-end suppliers, alcohol sponsors, F&B outlets, art consultants and event organizers throwing exclusive soirees to entertain the jaded, extremely rich art collectors and their hangers-on. The reasons for ignoring the carbon footprint and sheer wastefulness of these events is twofold. First, the fairs, despite their flaws, are a comparatively efficient means of doing business. Second, why make art collectors and their retinue feel guilty about their outsize carbon footprints and self-indulgence when, in the main, they are liberal, progressive types who generally support the dispossessed, marginalized and alienated, i.e., artists. The fact that the contemporary art world is staunchly left-leaning (due to the fact that artists draw on their own torment to create art and the crucibles of their identities tend to be various forms of adversity stemming from their race/ethnicity/gender or failure to conform to conventional society), helps enormously with white-washing the unforgivable waste and decadence of the industry. (Read Anand Ghiradaradas excellent book, Winner Takes All, on how plutocrats assuage their guilt by “giving back” — but always on their own terms. Jeff Bezos’ recent pledge to spend $10B on climate change mitigation is a great example of this syndrome.)

But let’s get back to the shocking economics: The cost of a medium-size booth (70 square meters) at Art Basel is ~US$60k. That excludes the cost of sending the artwork to and from the fair, flying in the gallery staff, hotels, food, entertainment, etc. All told, the average cost for an established gallery (not a major one) to participate in an overseas art fair is ~US$100k. For a young gallery starting out, it costs less but is still a major outlay. ~US$35k is the bare minimum, provided the latter qualifies for the cheaper section of the fair dedicated to young galleries and is based in the same city as the art fair, so that no one from the gallery needs to be flown in. 

Most articles about the art industry’s lack of sustainability focus on the cost of participating in international art fairs but the problem is the double-whammy of art fair requirements, not just paying for a booth but having to operate a “real” gallery. Based on your own experience, you can probably guess that only a handful of people A WEEK may walk into a gallery space and virtually NONE of them buys an artwork. Nevertheless, galleries must still stage exhibitions open to the public. The cost of putting on an art exhibition is much more expensive than it looks. To the average gallery visitor, there’s nothing complicated or remarkable: usually less than 20 paintings hanging on white walls. But those paintings have to be insured and flown in, in custom-built crates. Moreover, the artist typically flies in to kick off the show and the gallery hosts a dinner for him or her with potential collectors on the night before the exhibition’s opening to the public. Virtually all the sales in a show take place within the first few days of an exhibition’s opening based on high-touch individual solicitation of known collectors and are almost NEVER the product of walk-ins to the art gallery. Adding to the cost of a show, featured artworks are professionally photographed and printed in a catalogue, prefaced with an introductory essay written by an authoritative curator or art professional. Therefore, the cost of a simple exhibition of conventional paintings, is ~$20k and goes up from there depending on the type of artworks shown. Considering that a gallery puts on ~6 shows a year and that the costs just mentioned exclude rent and permanent staff, you can see how expensive it is to run an art gallery, at least $300k per year (based on permanent staff and rent of US$15k per month) EXCLUDING participation in art fairs. 

It’s worth repeating: since sales result, not from the traffic afforded by a street-front location in an exclusive retail quarter but from the one-on-one relationships of art dealers with their clients, a retail art gallery is more like a stage set than a cash register. Expensive charades, namely public art exhibitions, are performed inside art galleries in order to fulfill the expectations of artists and meet the requirements of art fairs. (I failed to mention that galleries customarily mark up artworks by two times, aiming for gross margins of 50% but more often than not, collectors negotiate discounts of at least 10% if not more. It’s therefore more accurate to state a gross margin of 40%.) Assuming a gallery does one local art fair and one international art fair, costing a total of $150k (a low estimate), the annual cost of doing business is $450k, which means it needs to sell $1.125M of artworks before breaking even. $1.125M divided by $35k per artwork is 32 artworks per year. That’s 4 artworks per gallery show plus 4 artworks sold at each art fair. (New original artworks generally make their debut at art galleries before being resold at a premium on the secondary market, explaining the comparatively low price tag of $35k I’ve used. But even at that price point, galleries need some objective validation of their taste and judgment, and there is no better Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval than a gallery’s participation in the world of big art fairs. Galleries’ fair applications are judged by a panel of industry experts.) It doesn’t sound THAT difficult. But if you’re NOT Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth but competing with a hundred other small-medium size art galleries in the same city, breaking even is a 50/50 proposition, even in good times. (Just to be clear, there are lots of mom-and-pop-style galleries operating on a shoestring but their economics are just as precarious because the prices they’re able to command without the validation afforded from participation in the world of blue-chip art fairs is correspondingly less, MUCH less. These galleries tend to traffic in artists whose CVs are devoid of institutional recognition resulting in prices akin to home decoration rather than investable assets with the potential to appreciate in value. The fact remains, walk-in traffic to art galleries is scant to non-existent save for the initial burst of activity around the time of an exhibition’s opening.) 

Not surprisingly, most art world insiders are predicting a mass extinction of galleries in the wake of COVID-19. Moreover, the art world can no longer ignore the untenable gearing of the gallery business model, a model which requires art galleries to operate in a manner which is gravely inefficient. The ROI of commercial art gallery spaces is DEFINITELY less than 1.0 once the sales resulting from gallerists’ strenuous, personal sales efforts are stripped out. (Those sales could be made elsewhere or by other means and don’t require a public retail location to take place.) 

The solutions to this problem are pretty obvious:

  • The inefficiency of a commercial art gallery space is no different than most retail space. The actual footfall and number of days or even hours of commercially fruitful utilization of the space are a fraction of what is needed but the gallerist must sign a two or three year lease and hire permanent staff nonetheless. Gallerists, like almost all retailers these days, need a slice and dice solution for exhibition and sales, for example, short-term, modular commercial retail leases in pre-fitted gallery spaces which can be rented out from one day to two weeks to accommodate exhibitions of between two to 25 artworks, the sort presently conducted in conventional art galleries. This white cube arrangement would be backed up by a full-time staff of art professionals who know how to handle and talk about art and, ideally, robot-powered (vertical) art storage enabling the fast and convenient retrieval of (non-fragile, pre-assembled) artworks at the swipe of a few keystrokes. This way, galleries could follow up with clients who were unable to attend the initial exhibition by meeting with them after the show, in individual viewing rooms rentable by the hour, to show them specific artworks of interest. Such meetings could be ad hoc, rather than contingent on public exhibition dates. (Modular arrangements like this are the future of consumer retail generally, not just art galleries…) 
  • This isn’t the only solution of course. The Condo art fair, launched in 2017, uses the concept of a loose international cooperative of galleries to share space and pool resources between cities. However, this exchange is an “event,” not a permanent or institutionalized commercial  system.

The art industry urgently needs both modular AND cooperative commercial arrangements if the gallery system is to survive. Think of these as the WeWork and Airbnb of art gallery space.

Observation #2

Spiegler makes the point that no digital technology can replace the experience of viewing art in person. No one can disagree with that of course: Seeing a painting through a computer-simulated walk-through of an art gallery is not the same as walking right up to a painting and marveling at its texture and materiality up close. Most traditional art is best appreciated in the direct presence of the five senses because art itself is eminently human. Scale and positioning vis à vis our own body; the defects and compensatory fudging of our own eyesight, the kinetic movement of our own body around and along the surface of an artwork; the atmosphere of the room in which the artwork is displayed, create effects which are both visceral and ineffable. This is the essence of viewing art in person. 

However, Spiegler is right only because he refers to conventional, traditional art – painting, sculpture, with a little bit of photography and video thrown in — the sort which is the stock in trade of art fairs.  

The fact is, there is a lot of art which can be appreciated and enjoyed without standing in front of it in person. However, the art industry has largely ignored this category of art because it cannot be commercialized. This is MEDIA ART, which thrives at the intersection of visual art,  engineering, robotics, science, biotech and other fields of knowledge. It exists in a digital form but this substrate neither limits nor unifies its content. Compared to traditional art, media art is kaleidoscopic and open-ended because it invites collaboration and experimentation, e.g., video art based on the non-repeating dynamics of natural processes (like the weather or erosion), jellyfish animated through robotic respiration, mirrors which reflect back an “image” of the beholder based on infrared heat rather than light, sculptures moving in concert with brainwaves, etc. I delved into this topic two years ago because I was fed up with the repetition and venality of the commercial art world, specifically, its never-ending focus on painting and sculpture. Considering the giant palette of technologies, materials and effects available to today’s artists and how our daily lives are awash in digital imagery and experiences, painting and sculpture feel quaint at best, exhausted and threadbare as a means of exploring the boundaries of sensation, aestheticism and human existence at worst. It is perfectly understandable to cherish painting and sculpture because they are the output of the human hand.  But ask any student at a top art school these days: these techniques are anachronistic, like knitting a sweater or cutting a diamond by hand. Sure, I understand that you don’t want a tankful of roboticized jellyfish in your living room but I, for one, have never regarded art as something to collect. Rather, art, by inhabiting unspoken, liminal spaces, coaxes, provokes and invites the viewer to examine his senses and beliefs. 

I don’t believe that people are uninterested in media art — not at all. Rather, most people have never been exposed to it because it’s not present in art galleries, museums or mainstream art fairs. That’s unfortunate because it is a mind-bending carpet ride to undiscovered realms of thought and experience. Watch this video of my visit to Ars Electronica, the grand-daddy of media art fairs founded more than twenty years ago in Linz, Austria, filmed at the end of last year. Even hard-core devotees of traditional art will be drawn into this fascinating world and understand the potential of media art to pose new questions about human existence and civilization — even if they don’t want to hang it in their living room. 

Media art hasn’t penetrated mainstream art consciousness because it is still difficult to buy and sell and, therefore, hasn’t been invited into the big-money tent of the commercial art world. That tent includes museums, which are not nearly as free or independent as the public believes. Curators, art gallerists and major art collectors enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Gallerists hire curators to curate and write for their exhibitions. Museums, especially contemporary art museums, are heavily influenced by what is de rigueur in the commercial art world. In some cases, a museum is a showcase for a single collector’s artworks — all purchased in the commercial market. (The Broad Museum in LA, which I visited in January, is a case in point, for example.) Gallerists lobby museums to put on shows for their artists because they greatly boost the perceived value of their oeuvres. Major collectors are usually big museum donors. The list of intertwined back scratching goes on and on. Unbeknownst to the general public, there is no Chinese wall or strict separation of Church and State between museums and the commercial art world. Therefore, besides playing an outsize role in setting price cues for the art market, museums assist in perpetuating a definition of art which is based on its saleability. Whether they admit it or not is another question. But to believe that museums are dissociated or immune from the commercial art world is naive in the extreme. Without us being fully aware of it, art has become increasingly and insidiously shaped by commercial interests. The failure of media art to penetrate the public art world is a symptom of that phenomenon because it is undoubtedly the genre most capable of fascinating the public, reinvigorating interest in museums and making the case that art can be relevant and democratic. 

If art is defined by its potential to be bought and sold, that seems like a very impoverished and limiting definition of the word. For me personally, COVID-19 has highlighted the shallowness and irrelevancy of most of the art world and its abandonment of art’s true mission — to enable the viewer to see the world through the eyes of another.

COVID-19 has taught us that: 

  • Traditional art cannot be enjoyed from a distance, yet it is the centerpiece of the art industry. 
  • Along with art fairs, the traditional museum-going experience has been thrown into question.  Do you really want to queue or pay US$20 to stand in front of a painting thronged by ten other people? 
  • Like other industries seeking to overcome the challenges of COVID-19, the art world should welcome technological innovations which can futureproof it against the problems experienced just now. It is crucial to create new platforms and tools which can present art in a decentralized and asynchronous manner — just like the rest of consumer retail and entertainment culture.
  • That said, NOW is a good time to welcome, introduce and promote new forms of art and art appreciation. Many, if not all, forms of media art sidestep the requirements of in-person viewing associated with traditional art while providing a rich and enjoyable art experience. 

Technological solutions are at hand, including many based on blockchain. (My article here describes some of them.) But it will require a brave and influential industry stakeholder to embrace new technology if the art world is ever to undergo the reconfiguration it so badly needs. Right now, the industry continues to  look backwards instead of forward, a perverse and contradictory stance for an industry which prides itself on championing newness and progressivism. 

(I have co-produced an exhibition of media art, accompanied by a series of talks, named “Art Unchained” and sponsored by Swire Properties, that will take place in Hong Kong in November 2020. The centerpiece will be a media art installation by French artist, Patrick Tresset — robots sketching human sitters in 20 minute sessions over the span of two weeks. While I did not write today’s newsletter with a view to promoting this project, this upcoming project does show you where my heart and mind are.) 


Vlog #10: This is about NOW (The Home Truths of the Handmaid’s Tale)

(WARNING: Contains disturbing sexual and violent content suitable for mature audiences only.) A chilling work of genius that got me vlogging after a hiatus of several months, the Emmy-award-winning, Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, exaggerates and magnifies the insidious dynamics of present-day society, to bring home the profound power imbalance between men and women which, until now, remains a backdrop of, at best, silent oppression and, at worst, potential violence. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, this work isn’t predictive or even dystopian. IT’S NOW. Indeed, it’s so true that any menstruating girl will find its home truths ineluctable.

The End of Subjectivity? (Bernard Frize)

I wrote this essay after seeing the works of French “process painter”, Bernard Frize. Taken together with my impressions of the first museum show of Rana Begum at the Sainsbury Centre, it’s obvious that art is undergoing a seismic shift which mirrors the changes taking place in contemporary society. The quoted texts are from a fantastic essay by curator Eva Wittocx.

THE ARTIST AS LABOURER: “Frize burst the cult of the artist as a creator. In his view, the artist is not above anyone else: he is merely a ‘labourer’ who produces paintings.

THE REPUDIATION OF SUBJECTIVITY: As opposed to Abstract Expressionists who sought to express a certain emotion, Frize does not use painting as a ‘medium’ to express something. Therefore, the public need not decode the subjective content of a Frize painting. There is none. Rather, Frize’s art is the result of experimenting with process and technique to achieve different visual outcomes.

THE DEMOCRATISATION OF THE ARTISTIC PROCESS: Indeed, “Frize wants the public to be able to deduce every choice the artist makes from the work of art: ‘Every decision of the artist, the public must be able to infer from the painting. The public must be able to find out how the painting has been made, as if it had painted the work itself.” Reasoning logically, tracing the stream of paint, trying to read the combinations of colours, the public is able – without resorting to any frame of reference – to deduce directly how the work was created. To erase any suggestion of subjectivity, Frize moreover applies a glossy layer of resin to the canvas, so that any painterly effects attributable to materiality are eliminated, assuring the complete detachment of his paintings. All this is not to say that Frize’s paintings provoke no emotional or psychological response within the viewer. No, not at all. Simply, the public projects its own subjectivity and longings for expressive content on his artworks.

The ascendancy of artists like Frize and Rana Begum force one to ask, are we entering a new phase of art which prefers technique and effect over the masterful expression of affect? (By the way, the Centre Pompidou will be staging a retrospective of Frize’s work in 2019.) Will we one day regard artworks created to express a subjective idea or emotion as old-fashioned and quaint? That day is not around the corner. But the increasing recognition and popularity of “process art” mean that we badly want art to represent more than a veiled message.

[To see larger images of Frize’s art, see the online galleries of his work at Simon Lee Gallery and Galerie Perrotin.]


Daily Mind-ful 26 May 2017 (Central Saint Martins Graduation Show)

I make it down to London to catch the graduation show at Central Saint Martins between housefuls of guests; in Saint Pancras, a surprisingly high end train station, I ask the information desk about the closest exit to the Central Saint Martins campus and the Eastern European attendant has never even heard of the university; this is exactly the kind of thing which provokes outrage among Brexiters — and for good reason; there’s a ton of construction going on around the CSM campus; I FINALLY make it to uber-trendy Indian restaurant, Dishoom, but because it’s before 12 noon, they’re not serving rice, only breakfast foods. That’s a HUGE disappointment — because I’m Asian! My friend, Silvy, who graduated from Central Saint Martins last year, tells me that the students are getting ripped off by the university because the maximum face time with their tutor is 30 minutes per term, meaning a grand total of 90 minutes per year. That’s terrible. But making things far worse, she recounts how her tutor was expressly prohibited by the school’s management from spending additional time with any single student because it would make all the other tutors look bad. Teachers are not permitted to do the equivalent of uncompensated over-time because it makes all the other teachers look bad. It means that well-intentioned tutors are expressly proscribed from making themselves available for additional office hours with students, even on a voluntary basis; that’s a terrible indictment of the school’s culture: the deans are clearly more concerned about keeping order and maximizing enrollment rather than looking out for students’ interests; the same inadequacy of resourcing applies to the studio space allocated to students; there’s not enough of it, so most students do their projects at home; Silvy describes her experience at CSM as “a huge rip-off”; #CSMcome is the worst social media hashtag ever! We’re among the first people to enter the exhibition space and the students are still getting ready; I commit myself to filming positive feedback only but it’s hard NOT to be critical of many of the projects; Silvy reminds me that these are students and that I shouldn’t lay into them too hard; there’s way too much gratuitous incorporation of technology; the projects by the following students impressed me, for different reasons: Jessica Oag-Cooper, Hannah Willcocks, Olwyn Carroll; Silvy shows me a typical room allocated for 45 students’ studio space: it’s obviously inadequate; Central Saint Martins doesn’t emphasize technical skills or craft and that’s obvious from the graduation show (unfortunately); we visit a room upstairs is signed with a content warning outside the door – that these exhibitions might shock. They’re pretty tame and only slightly thought-provoking, transposing the sound of porn to footage of food consumption and swapping virtual guns for three-dimensional, “real” ones in a video game; the video art is probably the strongest corpus of work among all the genres on show; 80% of the projects I saw were impenetrable and left me feeling puzzled; the others were disappointing because they lacked originality or impeccable execution; there were less than five projects I would have termed outstanding; to speak with total honesty, I was seriously underwhelmed by the entire thing and I’m not sure whether it was worth the huge schlep out to Saint Pancras from the country; I rush back home to welcome my friend Michael from Hong Kong; he had to lug an entire suitcase to England in order to bring me a handbag I ordered from D’Auchel, a new accessories company based in Hong Kong; the reversible tote bag has been made entirely by hand and is comprised of hand-stitched leather panels in three different colors; John models it to singular effect.

Daily Mind-ful 19 May 2017 (Zabludowicz Collection)

My standards for my son’s behavior are pretty low: as long as he’s not a drug addict and doesn’t contract AIDS, I’m happy; I don’t look down on affordable art fairs. If anything, I like their obvious raison d’etre; high-end art fairs are the same thing but with a circus of snobbery around them; I visit the Primrose Hill studio of Djordje Ozbolt with Olga Ovenden, a London-based art consultant who, in addition to privately consulting clients one-on-one, also conducts art tours in London (and elsewhere, like Venice); Ozbolt’s paintings are vivid, sardonically whimsical and he himself appears to be incredibly hung-over accounting for why he prefers to let his gallerist do the talking; no matter, it’s an interesting excursion which allows me to capture the customary format of Ovenden’s art tours on film; I’m bummed I didn’t meet Ozbolt earlier because I definitely would have checked out his exhibition, The Grand Detour, at Holborn House last year; our next stop is the Zabludowicz Collection which is housed inside a private museum located in Primrose Hill; Paul Luckcraft, the Exhibitions Director, gives us a private tour and it’s a huge treat, because of Paul’s insight and glibness, which totally belie his youthfulness; in contrast with Photo London, which I liken to drinking from a fire hydrant without slaking my thirst, Luckcraft’s careful and restrained curation speak volumes about the evolution of art photography, with the main exhibition entitled “You are looking at something that never occurred,” containing images from Lucas Blalock, Sara Cwynar, Andreas Gursky, Elad Lassry, Richard Prince, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans and Jeff Wall, among others; I’m introduced to the layered reworkings of Blalock and Cwynar for the first time at the Zabludowicz Collection and find their images fresh and timely; Photo London proves the point: there are too many “art” photographers working within the arena of traditional method. Any keen observer of photography over the decades can see that these “purists” are now grasping at straws because of the universal availability of good, affordable cameras; finally, after an insanely jam-packed week in London, I’m back home! The best fish & chippery in Suffolk is in The Codfather, in Sudbury, my nabe; as I get older, I’m beginning to suffer from what I call “rolling short-term memory loss”; the main reason that Instagram stories are addictive is because they’re literally kinetic; Stories are a great way to winnow away Instagrammers who are a waste of protoplasm, either because they have personalities which repel you or because of their sheer vapidity (especially if they post prolifically); another sin is overweening vanity, a widespread symptom among striving fashionistas who seek to telegraph their desirability as clotheshorses and VIP guests; making matters worse, these same would-be divas, use the word “like” every few seconds and end every declarative sentence as if it was a question.

Daily Mind-ful 17 May 2017 (Goldfinger Factory)

You can’t live in Primrose Hill unless you’re a super high achiever, based on the caliber of speakers featured in the neighborhood’s lecture series. WOW! I book a ticket to the Philip Glass/Laurie Anderson concert at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival after picking up a program guide at the Colchester train station; I visit Westbourne for a reunion with my former intern, Marie. The neighborhood looks gritty as hell but is apparently trendy these days; Marie and her partner, Oliver, have founded a sprawling social enterprise called Goldfinger Factory. The main nut of it is a B2B carpentry operation which employs local craftspeople to make premium custom furniture plus a retail operation selling upcycled recycled furniture and a restaurant in Westbourne Grove, all of the same name. (Oh yeah, they’re also operating an incubator!) The long-term intention is to train and employ local people to custom-make upcycled furniture on a large scale basis. Marie interned for me at Shanghai Tang three years running so I’m not surprised at all — just impressed by the ambitious scale of her business. We eat gorgeous Italian food in the cafe so I can experience as much of Goldfinger Factory as possible during the scant hour I’m in Westbourne Grove. I then hop in a cab to meet up with a friend at Photo London, an overwhelming, confused affair which leaves me feeling like the photography industry is in a deep existential malaise. What accounts for my dissatisfaction with the fair? There was no curation, it was nakedly commercial and all different species of photography were jumbled together; I join up with a friend who brings me to a jewelry event, my first one in many, many months. It feels weird to be attending such a youthful and patently superficial event where making selfies with the designer, Ara Vartanian, is more important than inspecting the cutting-edge diamond jewels; so glad that I don’t have to host events like that any more, because that was my life before; the bank of photographers and we wait for a VIP to exit from a black car, in a moment of Instagram bated breath; alas, it’s “only” Suzy Menkes, meaning that no flash bulbs went off and there was zero fanfare; just to be clear, Menkes is a god for me and I’d be happy to intern for her any day; the best way not to lose an umbrella is to take a photo of the one you’re using on the day and to make it the screensaver of your smartphone for as long as you’re carrying it — and in danger of losing it; my friend takes me to Hunan, one of the best restaurants in London, in any category or cuisine. They serve an endless menu of Chinese dishes, tapas style. Unless you ask them to stop, they won’t. At course sixteen, Ming says, “Don’t go all white on me. You’re not allowed to stop eating.”

Daily Mind-ful 16 May 2017 (Rosey Chan)

John goes back to the country, leaving me to my own devices. YAY! Now that he’s gone, I can expatiate more on Rosey Chan’s concert at the Cafe Royal Hotel from the night before. The concert brought together ideas, music, and elements from very disparate sources. For example, there was a spoken word piece featuring Fanny Ardant and a filmic backdrop provided by Chan’s long-time partner, Mike Figgis. Rosie Chan and Mike FiggisChan’s artistic practice combines not only very different types of music but a wide range of cultural references. Long before it became commonplace – or even a necessity – to master a wide range of expertise, Chan lived and breathed the life of a modern-day Renaissance woman, romping between centuries and cultures,
to create a corpus of work which defies easy classification, except for the cornerstone of keyboard instruments; on the necessity, today, of being a jack-of-all-trades, a new graduate who seeks to make a living as a writer can’t just write brilliantly. They must be able to promote themselves effectively on social media, create and continuously update their own website and, these days, make video content to accompany their written work. For that matter, it’s hard to stand out in a crowd unless you know how to aggressively promote and distinguish yourself from your peers; if you’re still ensconced in a cushy corporate job, these prescriptions don’t apply to you. But keep in mind that your species is now officially instinct and, therefore, hold on very tight to that job! My first outing of the day is to the Saatchi Gallery and the exhibition, From Selfie to Self-Expression, which turns out to be much more thought-provoking than I ever would have expected; first, the display of Old Master paintings in the format of continuously moving slideshows projected on video monitors means that viewers must pay much closer attention than usual to the artworks in order to ensure that they don’t miss anything on display, no doubt a paradoxical result for viewers unaccustomed to paying more than a few nano-seconds of attention to anything; next, there’s no original artwork on the ground floor at all. Such a presentation asks the question: without any presentation of real artwork or consideration of its materiality, isn’t this “art exhibition” really a conceptual exercise which could have taken place outside of a museum? Not having to consider materiality means I can blow through the exhibition FAST; just met with the executive director and communications director of fantastic London-based, art non-profit, Studio Voltaire. Studio Voltaire promotes and brings attention to emerging and, sometimes, ignored, artists, like Phyllida Barlow who represented Great Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale; can’t believe Fabio Fognini beat Andy Murray at this year’s Rome Open! It’s Murray’s worst match in FOUR YEARS; my fave Indian restaurants in London aren’t Gymkhana or Trishna. But non-trendy Zayna. And my absolute fave, Chutney Mary.

Daily Mind-ful 15 May 2017 (London)

I cut my fringe — and myself — before heading to London; I realize that The Mall and Pall Mall are two different places in London! I check out the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the best resource for commissioning a traditional portrait if you live in the UK, with the artists painting across a huge and very affordable range of styles and price; I love being a tourist in London because I’m married to a great tour guide; we visit the Cabinet War Rooms now called the Churchill War Rooms, from which Churchill ran Britain’s WWII campaign because 10 Downing Street was destroyed by bombs; for the first time, I realize that, rather than developing a cold, the air pollution is causing my scratchy throat; our next stop is the National Gallery and the temporary exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano. It doesn’t spark my imagination much. Instead, the exhibition fleshes out an important historical footnote in Michelangelo’s career: that he joined forces with Sebastiano del Piombo, in order to compete better with Raphael when the latter began to enjoy favor among the same patrons. Their styles and contributions to the various artworks on display were very different but didn’t elevate the works on show to anything spectacular or memorable. Then again, I should point out that I’m not a wild devotee of Renaissance art; though we went to three museums, I feel pretty uninspired; the highlight of my day is actually the benefit recital of Rosey Chan, a friend and multi-disciplinary musician, who plays a very unusual concatenation of accordion, electronica and classical piano, in a recital to benefit the hard-hitting non-profit, Client Earth, lawyers advocating on behalf of the ultimate client, Planet Earth, and to launch her own LP — YES, a pressed vinyl album — entitled “Eight Years of My Life,” containing works written during, you guessed it, the last eight years of Rosey’s life; we end the evening with an exquisite dinner at our favorite restaurant in London, The Greenhouse; the last clip documents an unexpected and thoughtful detail from the chef – a small ball of putty stuck underneath the souffle ramekin to prevent it from slipping off the saucer, a detail which impresses and delights John.

Daily Mind-ful 12 May 2017 (The Red House)

LUCKY me: The director of the Britten Pears Foundation gives me a personal tour of The Red House, Benjamin Britten‘s home, which he shared with his partner, Peter Pears, until his death in 1976; the Red House gives visitors unwonted access and intimate proximity to Britten and Pears’ life because not only has the house been conserved in exactly the condition in which it was left, without having guard rails or glass exhibit cases installed to separate members of the public from Britten and Pears’ possessions. But all of the couple’s personal possessions, such as their clothes, accessories, board games and gew gaws, have been left in the house, as if they had just gone out for a walk. The lack of physical barriers between the public and its objects of curiosity and wonderment made for an intimate and affecting viewing experience which made me think about the nature of museum-going in general. The interposition of barriers in and of itself creates an instant atmosphere of awe and reverence which may or may not be justified by the quality/design/provenance of the objects actually being protected. Yet we experience this knee-jerk reaction because of how we have grown up thinking of museums. Therefore, we tend to give instant credit and respect to the objects behind the guard rails (when, in some cases, they might be utter crap, actually). What else impressed and even astonished me was the museum’s exhibition, Queer Talk, a historical exposition and celebration of the 50th anniversary of homosexuality’s decriminalization in Britain. You have to remember that the museum is located in rural Suffolk (Aldeburgh), an area where mostly conservative, older people voted for Brexit, making this exhibition, with its open message of liberal, progressive tolerance, discomfiting by definition. Hats off to the Director though!
It takes guts, leadership and vision to take The Red House in such a direction and proves that she is a torchbearer of the Britten’s unconventional lifestyle and career; I drove over to Snape Maltings after The Red House to meet with Roger Wright, the director of the entire Snape Maltings complex, which, these days, encompasses Aldeburgh Music, the Aldeburgh Festival and the retail complex formerly owned by the Gooderhams, a Suffolk family. I was treated to a personal tour of the whole shebang, which was a privilege and treat.

Daily Mind-ful 11 May 2017 (Higgins Museum)

[Click the full screen icon at the bottom right corner of the video in order to watch it in normal, much larger format.]
Main reason to watch today’s vlog: I discover the Higgins Museum during my day trip to visit photographer and artist, Edgar Martins, in his studio in Bedford, England. Today’s the first hot day of the year.
HOORAY; listening to too much easy, pop music is like eating junk food for all three meals in a day – not healthy or nutritious for the mind; I meet Edgar Martins, brilliant photographer-artist at his studio in Bedford and am blown away by his intensity, ideas and eloquence. Definitely a Maxell blow-the-hair-back moment!
The use of photography is incidental to his practice. In fact, his formation is philosophy and semiotics, explaining, perhaps, why I felt like I was talking to myself (for better or worse, poor guy). You can judge for yourself once you see my short film about him;
I check out Bedford and, like so many ancient English towns and cities, its historic center is beautiful and charming; I end up canning my plan to hoof it over to the Milton Keynes Art Gallery in favor of the local Higgins Museum, highly recommended by Edgar;
Higgins Museum (Bedford)
It’s always difficult for hard-core enthusiasts of contemporary art to understand my interest in every single period of art but I welcome learning about any period or style of art or, for that matter, new sub-culture; whereas the exhibition about the local airship manufacturer holds zero interest for me, the exhibition of pre-Raphaelite, Victorian painting is fascinating – mostly because this is such a little-referenced, infrequently exhibited, comparatively unpopular period of English art. Yet the quality of the captioning and exemplars at the Higgins easily propels me through it. The Higgins Museum has a very large collection of artworks from every period through the Modern period, so it stages exhibitions (like this one) in order to rotate the collection for public view; I continue my wander through the restored Higgins residence, once the home of the wealthy brewery-owning family who founded the museum and am delighted by the collection of English decorative arts. In my opinion, the best part of the museum is the design gallery, which gives a fantastic, capsule overview of the evolution and history of English decorative arts from the 16th century through the Arts & Crafts period, with an emphasis on Victorian era artifacts and furniture; by the way, I’m a nutter for Meissen porcelain, believe it or not. Deep inside, I’m an unrepentant maximalist who believes that minimalism and all-black are unforgivable design cop-outs; the Higgins Museum contains a large collection of graphic design and printed materials from Edward Bawden, one of England’s leading graphic artists, who passed away in the 1980s; I finally leave the museum — and Bedford — and what a gem of a visit! You never know what you will find tucked away in a quiet corner of England, explaining my willingness to drive far and wide to burrow into its nooks and crannies.
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