in other words

Transcript #78 Covid-19 is Exposing the Fault Lines

by Charlotte Burns

Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.

I’m your host, Charlotte Burns and today’s recording is brought to you from my closet, where I am joined remotely by Allan Schwartzman, the co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a co-chair of Sotheby’s.

Allan Schwartzman: What’s shifting is an increased sense of the essential needs of what keeps an art system alive, healthy and generating new ideas.

Charlotte Burns: Before we begin, here is a quick reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at Now, onto today’s show.

Morning, Allan. How are you?

Allan Schwartzman: Good morning. I’m okay.

Charlotte Burns: I was speaking to a lot of people in preparation for this call. I wanted to have other people’s thoughts to help frame mine. I interviewed a lot of dealers, collectors, some artists, curators. And, it’s really interesting because going into this, at the very beginning of this pandemic, there was a sense that: “We’re all in this together. This is a great equalizer.” That everybody’s humbled by this and experiencing levels of anxiety and isolation and financial stress, grief, gratitude; lots of different emotions.

But it’s becoming clearer that that’s not really true—that we’re not really in this together because some of us have access to more stable lives than others.

Speaking to an art dealer, he was very optimistic, saying, “Perhaps it will be a moment to take stock and reflect and come back with changes and innovate in the art world.” I felt a little more pessimistic than him because I don’t feel that people can truly be creative if they’re experiencing existential fear. This was just at the end of March, and he said, “We’re not at that point yet. We’re still feeling productive and optimistic.” I thought that perhaps that was just to do with the ends of an economic scale. That a lot of the people I’m talking to—who work in restaurants, or artists who have jobs to help keep them afloat, my peers—a lot of these people were wondering how they were going to pay rent on 1 April, or get out of paying rent on 1 April. The reality, I think, is sinking in in different stages for different people and that social gap is, of course, something in the art world that we see too—but I feel like we’re experiencing this unraveling at different speeds. Do you feel that’s the case?

Allan Schwartzman: Yeah. I think that that will become more and more apparent as time goes on. In a sense, we’re in this together alone, meaning that everyone’s life is impacted by this virus. What’s required of each of us to try to remain safe and well is the same. Life as we knew it or practiced it has come to a halt.

But you know it’s very different for some people. Clearly, the impact on emergency care workers and the risks that they are taking are far more acute than any of the rest of us.

I think it’s apparent to everybody, whether they agree or not, that there are certain discrepancies that I, and I would say most of my friends, would refer to as obscene discrepancies between what our federal leadership says, and what’s actually going on. And that’s grim. Maybe not surprising, but shocking nonetheless and has huge implications in terms of death and the amounts of illness.

It’s shocking to people in other parts of the world how this can happen here, that this is the United States—the richest, ostensibly most powerful country in the world, one of the most advanced in terms of science—and we have a broken down system of healthcare, of how to take care of our people, the ability to feed people or to house them.

One hopes that these discrepancies become so widely understood and viewed that that can result in some very substantial change. I’m not convinced that that will be the case because this is hardly the first, second, or third time that we’ve had something that has drawn that attention to the discrepancies in our nation. Maybe it’s never been as dysfunctional as it is now, but I’m not entirely sure that that really changes—

Charlotte Burns: One of the statistics I was reading about today was this idea that social distancing is a privilege. This huge discrepancy and the death toll right now across America—who is dying first? It is tending to be people of color, people who are working class, essential workers who aren’t deemed essential enough to have a living wage.

I wonder in the art world, is this something that people will notice in any way? Will it shape the art world? Or will it be something that we go blind on? Like, for generations there were things that the art world was blind to about the kind of injustices of who got to have a voice, whose work got to be shown. We’re seeing that playing out in a very real way, in a life and death way, across the country. Do you think that’s something that the art world will remain in a bubble about? Or do you think it will be something that the art world in any way grapples with?

Allan Schwartzman: That’s a really interesting question, with compound answers. Prior to this, we’ve seen an acute increase in the interest of the work of African American artists and the work of women.

Similarly, we were also starting to look at institutions and some of the problems within institutions: who they represent, who makes decisions, who the audience is, who gets to speak for what the audience sees and experiences. And certainly, museums are at the frontline of having to reduce their staffs.

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: These are nonprofit organizations. They don’t have the same revenues and their boards have a fiduciary responsibility to keep them alive. When we come out of this, do we feel a responsibility to supporting the art system to a greater extent than we have tended to?

I mean, I’ve been seeing over the last few years an increasing divide between the art market at its highest financial levels and at its greatest ability to objectify the art, on the one hand. On the other hand, the art ecosystem and its needs. And I think we’re going to see that bifurcation happening even more so.

But I also think that these very acute challenges—many of them life and death or the difference between comfort and day-to-day struggle—will have a likelihood of having a big impact on the cultural population, institutions.

Certainly, there are artist foundations, like the Warhol Foundation [which will provide $1.6m in emergency grants to artists. Funds can be used for things like food, rent, medical and childcare] and the Rauschenberg Foundation [which, in partnership with the New York Foundation for the Arts, has launched a new program for emergency medical grants] that are right now addressing immediate needs. They are responding to crisis of the moment.

All these institutions that are going to have to face certain realities. Maybe that results in a substantial culling. Maybe it results, in larger institutions, in a substantial shift in how they fund and program. I can’t imagine that the museum associations will not be obliged to rethink the core requirements of economic survival in relation to some of the assets that they own in their collections.

Certain things that were naturally in the process of happening, or that were inevitable, are going to be sped up by all of this. And the reality is that we don’t know what the future is going to look like in, let’s say, four or six months in terms of coronavirus. Will we reach a point where science can protect people? Or will the idea of social distance be with us for a very, very long time?

We don’t even know yet what parameters are going to be set for the future. We can look at this as what happens if life goes back to normal in X number of months, or some version of normal, and I still think there’ll be substantial change; or how much of this permanently changes how life exists? Whether you hug people, and so on? All of that will affect the nature of public experience and space.

Charlotte Burns: I think what you just said about some of these problems, it’s an accelerant on some of the structural issues that were underlying anyway. There was a great article the other day in the Financial Times by the novelist Arundhati Roy. She talks about, actually what you expressed in the beginning, this sense of horror watching the news and thinking how could this be America? But she also talked very eloquently, and unsparingly, about the situation in India and what is happening there, and kind of concluded with this idea that there will be nothing worse than a return to normal. Normal is what got us here. Normal is how this is spreading so fast, in so many countries. It’s just horrifying to imagine that that’s the governmental response.

She says: “Night after night, from halfway across the world, some of us watch the New York governor’s press briefings with a fascination that is hard to explain. We follow the statistics, and hear the stories of overwhelmed hospitals in the US, of underpaid, overworked nurses having to make masks out of garbage bin liners and old raincoats, risking everything to bring succor to the sick. About states being forced to bid against each other for ventilators, about doctors’ dilemmas over which patient should get one and which left to die. And we think to ourselves, ‘My God! This is America!’”

And then she gets to the end, which is a powerful point, where she says: “Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and has brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

I thought that got to the heart of what so many people are thinking about. This is a kind of huge mirror to everything that was right and wrong with a world that we were inhabiting in the before, and we are not yet in the after. The structural inequalities: who’s dying and who’s dying first, the breakdowns of society; that we would be very prepared right now if this were actually a military war, but since it’s a war on the human bodies within the countries we are not prepared at all. The nurses aren’t prepared, the doctors aren’t prepared. What we have prioritized in the world, and also in the art world too, is this idea of growth at any cost.

I kind of agree with her. I don’t really want a return to normality. I think there was a lot wrong with normal and who got to run things and how. I think a big shift is what’s needed.

And a lot of art dealers are saying that to me, too. I’ve been interviewing a lot of people this week, and one of them was saying that they very quickly cut down their overheads by two-thirds, from a very high figure to a more manageable figure. And he said, “We are slowly realizing the bloat of what we do. The dinners, the art fairs, the travel. I’m more concerned about what the world would look like when we get out of this. I’m not alone in saying that there is no humanly possible way we will reenter the world in the same way we left it.”

What do you think about that? Do you think there’s a way that, in a year’s time, everyone will be… Where are we now? We’re in April. People will be getting ready for TEFAF, and thinking about shipping things to Art Basel in Switzerland and whatever other events we’re all bound to—those gravitational pulls of the art fairs and the openings and the biennales? Do you imagine we’ll be doing a live review from Venice in two years’ time like we did last summer?

Allan Schwartzman: Well, some of it depends upon how much it’s possible to return to the normality of the public, and that’s unclear. Certainly, before this crisis has even crested in this country, we do have a president who is actively demanding that we return to normality, knowing the cost of it is human life and somehow feeling like the math would make it okay to lose that human life.

Let’s see what impact this has first on the political system and on the political future. This is a system that so many people have been disenfranchised by for a very long time, and increasingly so over the last decade plus, while at the same time, we haven’t really seen change. And while we’re seeing it with a few state leaders, because they are facing acute pressures, we are not seeing it across the system.

So, I’m a cynically hopeful person in that regard. I think the system that this country—even though we have the conditions of inequities that often result in revolutions in other places—we’re still a kind of me-centered, more apolitical than political nation. So, I’m not convinced that we’re going to get there unless things get a lot worse, but may I be wrong.

I think you will certainly see parts of the art market that will race toward being, let’s call them carpetbaggers, who will want to return to normality and to be able to profit and be nimble at being able to profit from openings that are made as a result of other people’s problems.

It’s inevitable that there will be much more of a focus and an empowerment on the core values of a healthy art world. A healthy art world grows out of a healthy population of artists who are making compelling work and who have various kinds of support systems that value what it is that they do. I do see a much greater focus on that.

I think there are far more galleries that are likely to be responsive to this then one might think. Galleries do recognize that you need a healthy developing pool of creativity in our system to continue to cycle forward. If we don’t have hope in the future for art, then we have an art market of objects rather than makers, and that means you have much more of a commoditization of the market then is what drove most people to it.

Part of what I find interesting about this, or revealing, is that up until not that long ago, the art market was never a consistent market. A gallery always had to be prepared for slow times. I mean, galleries used to close sometime in June and reopen towards the end of September.

In more recent years, there has been a kind of expectation of flow in the art market that could never be depended upon in the past. And as a result, many galleries need that constant cashflow in order to survive.

So in the past, a gallery wouldn’t open for business unless it was opening in a down-and-dirty, by-the-seat-of-your-pants way without at least a year and a half of cash to carry it through without making sales. I think there are many galleries that can’t make it through three or four months without sales.

There are some galleries that have reached out to me and said, “We’re making an X percent discount across the board for primary market work in order to get things going.” There have been some interesting and hopefully effective innovations, such as David Zwirner’s “Platform”, where he invited about a dozen interesting galleries in New York so that the work of some of their artists can be viewed on his website—which then hopefully draws business to those galleries. I think that’s a really fantastic thing.

Charlotte Burns: Do you think that there’s a world in which the kind of two art worlds that we were seeing—that increasing commodification at the upper ends of the market and the kind of art market art—do you think there’s a world in which those things will just sort of split completely off?

Because, like you say, a lot of the galleries are reacting pretty quickly to this to help support each other and artists. In London, 55 galleries immediately made a WhatsApp group sharing worries, news, advice—and it goes from the very top of the tree to the very junior galleries. It was Sadie Coles and Vanessa Carlos who set that up. And they’re all helping each other. They’re working with each other to try and stay afloat.

You mentioned the David Zwirner “Platform”. Hauser & Wirth will be donating 10% of all online sales profits to the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Response Fund for coronavirus. And so, there are galleries who are immediately reacting to try and help others. Artists are designing face masks.

Then when we think about the market, the most likely thing coming out the other side of this is that there’ll be even more of a focus on the idea of quality: that conservative, risk-averse attitude to collecting that’s increasingly made the market very, very narrow and hyper-focused—not only just on certain artists, but on specific works within specific bodies by those particular artists. Do you see an increasing narrowing at that end, or do you think there’s a way in which people would become more risk-friendly in the market after this?

Allan Schwartzman: Well, the market has been moving in that direction quite acutely over the last few years, so I don’t really see that escalating. I think it has kind of already happened. I do think that a new generation of collectors who emerge in this time period will be entering for different reasons in a different time. That always changes things.

Certainly, big shifts in society, in economies, in the nature of day-to-day life always result in changes in taste and what is valued. I’ve seen this many times in my 40-plus years in the art world—which I like to think is not that long a period of time—and sometimes they’re tied to economic challenges and sometimes they’re not.

One of the biggest took place in the 1980s, which started with an art that was very skeptical of the notion of masterpiece, art that was filtered through the notion of the media, that questioned ideas of authorship and originality. And then within that work—more of it the work made by men than by women—as it started to be collected, was more actively pursuing the notion of the masterwork that that work was often created as a critique of before, where it got bigger and brasher, more painterly and bolder and more colorful—while the work of women artists of that same generation stayed a course of remaining within, let’s say, photography as a medium and so on.

But by the end of the decade, the big and brash was looking showy and indulgent and egotistical when compared to the work of artists that were seeming more essential in the latter part of the 1980s like Bob Gober and Charlie Ray. In Europe, Marlene Dumas was starting to emerge then when we were living in a very different time, when the AIDS crisis was devastating creative communities.

So yes, there was an economic element in the late 1980s too, but it wasn’t the economy that shifted that. It was the tenor of the times that shifted that.

So inevitably we will. Yes, the system’s gotten very fattened. Whether it’s at the high or the medium or the low end, there will be change. Some of it will be artists that are victimized by or unjustifiably cast off by the market. There will be an increase in interest in art that people have confidence has real staying power.

Charlotte Burns: You were saying that artists will change. And one thing I was wondering… We’ve been talking about living in this international, globalized art world for over a decade now. And in some ways, that’s still true. Some of the dealers I’m talking to who have bases in Asia, for example, are reporting better business than the galleries with just bases in the West, which is currently at the more acute end of the pandemic.

But having said that, when I talk to people in different countries—when you speak to people in the U.S, there is a very different sense of anxiety then when I speak to people in the U.K. And it’s largely to do with the systems.

For example, in the U.S., healthcare is tied to employment and it’s much easier to get rid of staff. And so there has been very, very quickly record unemployment in America: 10m people currently unemployed. People are really scared about being homeless, about not having healthcare if they get sick.

People in the U.K. have guaranteed health care. They’re not worrying about that. The government has a different package for underwriting. It’s not focusing so much on corporations and airlines and cruise ships. It’s focusing more on the salaried worker.

It seems to me that even talking to people in London right now, the dealers there are doing different things, the artists are, than the dealers and artists in New York.

Again, back to Arundhati Roy’s piece–thinking about the differences in India and America—it just seems that the way in which everyone is experiencing this pandemic is so different and so much of it comes down to the relationship with the state that I wonder if, on the other side of this, things become much more national and even within that local, coming down to the ways in which people survive this and got through this. Do you think that will happen?

Allan Schwartzman: Well, if we’re talking about art specifically and not the culture in general, I’m not convinced that that will be the case. Even though different places experience challenge in different ways, this is an international art market and art audience.

What I do find interesting to consider is, for example, let’s say six months from now it is okay and healthy to have art fairs and there is an appetite or similar appetite for an audience to be present. I think it’s very likely that galleries will play a more significant, active role in the spirit, style and content of an art fair than in the past.

Everything in this art world had grown so much that it was starting to deaden a lot. It was always feeling like the tail was wagging the dog or that the business and its need to continue to multiply was driving this. And I think there are dealers who were saying, “You know what, even if life kind of goes back to normal, I’m not going to do seven art fairs a year. I personally require a different quality of experience.”

I think it’s interesting to consider dealers at a point in their lives and in their development as businesses where they can step back and say, “Is all of this growth and expansion fulfilling me to the extent that I want? Or can I think of this differently? Or am I interested in taking some of this hyper-success, channeling it in other ways that are productive, that support other parts of art production and the art ecosystem?” So, I think we’ll inevitably find change to international kinds of events, like art fairs and biennials, and that I find exciting.

And it’s going to have greater potential for empowerment, which is the voice of the artist within the larger system of culture. So, the artist has been the maker off to the side, getting very rich, many of them; and more recently, you have artists say that the way certain things are practiced are not okay. How can you separate us and our audience and our background from the decisions you make? Because maybe there’s become too much of a homogenization of a type of person on a board of directors, not even necessarily because that was conscious, but museums needed to bring in more and more people who could write bigger and bigger checks for their survival—

Charlotte Burns: Right.

Allan Schwartzman: –and so, a lot of museums which in the past would have had artists and critics and art historians on their boards stopped having them. So, I think we will see permanent shifts that will actually be creatively interesting. And that inevitably has to trickle into the art market.

And over time maybe there becomes more of a separation between the auction market and the gallery market, for example.

Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s what I was wondering.

I was speaking to a dealer this weekend. He was saying, “The truth is that everyone has been miserable, and we just didn’t know how to talk about this. So, we talked about expand, expand, expand,” which is to your point. And another dealer was saying that they have like-minded friends, they want to work differently. They’re talking about doing things differently. Whether that’s extracting themselves from real estate in cities where the property market is going to be completely different after this. So, I think a lot of people are reevaluating their real estate decisions, too.

To your point about artists, one dealer was saying to me that they actually are having a lot of people still asking for artists, but that with things being the way they are, that artists who have a larger production—they have studios and they employ people—they’re not working on those productions anymore. And so, even in the sense of what artists can do, if you’re running a major operation: that’s not running right now. You’re not an essential worker.

And so, it’s also affecting the scale and scope of production: paintings for this biennale, for this art fair, for this museum exhibition. That pressure to produce all of that, the tap has turned off. And so, I wonder how that’s going to affect the art making itself, because the artists, like all of us, they’re in a different production cycle.

Allan Schwartzman: Well, I think we’ll be hearing the word, “No.” Or the phrase, “No, thank you,” more frequently than we were. Regarding the scale of production, I think that’s completely linked to how long this pandemic remains in its acute state. Whether we reach back to a kind of normalcy or to what extent the way life as it’s lived as forever changed.

I do know that art at its core is usually at the forefront. So maybe that won’t change the way certain mega studios function or hope to function. It may change the content of what they produce. If they can’t employ a hundred people, that’ll necessarily change what artists can produce.

But I do think it changes who goes to art school after this. It changes what they’re thinking about, what they’re talking about, what they’re interested in. So, absolutely, we have fundamental change coming about. It will be in the artist communities; it will be in arts organizations. How far it extends through those arts organizations has yet to be defined, and that will be defined by the pandemic and how quickly we recover or are forever changed by this.

Charlotte Burns: One of the industries that is going to be most affected negatively, unfortunately, is going to be the art media, which has already been in a death spiral. If you think of the salaries of art writers, they have been reducing over the past several years: journalists are doing more for less money, and people are paying less, if anything, for media whilst expecting more. And there is a general sense of a mistrust of the media that’s been engendered by the political situation and the breakdown of discourse.

So, right now I know a lot of journalists very worried because advertising’s going to be down. What are galleries going to advertise? There are no big art fairs driving your revenue. And so, for media coming out of this, I think it’s going to be really tough. So if anybody listening cares about the media, now is a great time to take out subscriptions to any newspapers that you feel are doing great work, because I’m sure they’re going to need that to get through, because the advertising certainly will not bring media companies through this.

I am sure they need more support. They need support very, very quickly.

I think we’re near the end. I wanted to ask you a question about the comfort of art, or the politicization of art. I was thinking this week about the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald, which is a triptych, and it shows the suffering of the crucified Christ with mourners gathered around, lamenting the death. What was interesting about that work is that it was used to comfort victims of the plague. People were wheeled out in front of it, and they found some kind of relief in their own suffering.

Then later during the war, the painting was situated in Alsace on the French-German border, and it became the subject of a political fallout that was closely tied to the war situation because Alsace was a disputed territory. The French felt that the painting was theirs, that it mirrored their suffering, their God, their redemption. They were the heroes. The German soldiers felt the same thing.

And I was looking at that painting online this week, thinking about how, through centuries, sick people have been wheeled out in front of that work to try and find their own redemption or release. And I was wondering, are you finding relief in art? Are you able to? You obviously can’t visit anything; you have your own collection. Is there anything that’s giving you comfort in this time, art-wise?

Allan Schwartzman: Oh, that’s a very interesting question. Yeah, there are images of works of art that pop into my head in ways that they naturally would not have in a simpler period. And that always brings me back to the essence of all of this—

Charlotte Burns: Yeah.

Allan Schwartzman: –And in fact, most of that has been pre-Modern art.

But at the same time, I think even more importantly for me, it’s something I’ve always been aware of but it drives home even more to me how much the art world matters. And this is what New York was losing its sense of. This is where New York went from being the center of production to the center of distribution. And I see that changing forever. I shouldn’t say, “see it changing forever”. I see that changing with greater momentum as we move through this situation. And ultimately, if you don’t have the generative system that is the reason why all of this exists front and center, then you don’t really have a meaningful market, a meaningful notion of what collecting is.

Ultimately, the centrality of the artist and the systems that support the artist, however much many of those will be challenged right now, especially, that’s where we’re going to see a lot more focus of attention and support on the part of artists, collectors, community-driven collectors.

We realize however big this industry has become, that the art world is still—however much larger it’s become—it’s still a world. That’s what I keep returning to, is the solace of the notion of the art world.

I’m fairly clear in my own mind about what art has been undervalued and is worthy of, and hopefully inevitably will be getting a lot more attention in the near future. So that part of my thinking isn’t really shifting. What’s shifting is an increased sense of the essential needs of what keeps an art system alive, healthy and generating new ideas.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s a great place to end it. Thank you, Allan, for joining me today.

Allan Schwartzman: Oh, thank you, Charlotte.

Charlotte Burns: And if anybody wants to get in touch with us, please do. We want to know what you want to hear about at this time. And actually, several of you did last time we made that call. It was really lovely to hear from you all, so be in touch. Email me at

Allan Schwartzman: We really would love to hear back from you whether it’s questions, comments, criticisms, suggestions of topics. And if we hear back enough, then we will do a follow-up podcast. We’d love to turn this into much more of an ongoing dialogue since we are right in the middle of something acute, that is affecting us every day.

May I add just one thing?

Charlotte, I’ve always been so inspired and engaged by the conversations that we have that don’t get into print, or that don’t get recorded, that I’m evermore appreciative of this opportunity to have a freewheeling talk about the art world and market and where we are. Thank you so much.

Charlotte Burns: Well, until the next time, thank you very much.

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