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, in these unusual times, we’re veering off our usual course.
Collaboration as “a vaccine against present and future troubles” was something the critic Christian Viveros-Fauné wrote in a recent In Other Words newsletter. Inspired by that, we wanted to take a look at what is happening in the art world right now; how people are working together to bolster the system and rethink its infrastructure.
It’s been a busy week of interviewing remotely and, joining us for today’s show, our guests include the financial journalist Felix Salmon; gallerists Sadie Coles of Sadie Coles HQ and Vanessa Carlos of Carlos/Ishikawa; the artist Doron Langberg; the culture and politics writer Marisa Mazria Katz; the nonprofit executives Carolyn Ramo of Artadia and Deana Haggag of United States Artists.
Before we get into the episode, here is your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com.
And now, onto today’s show.
Felix Salmon: So, what we’ve seen is basically this huge global economy—this incredibly complex machine that no one really understands—has ground to a halt. The gears have stopped moving, and the whole way the machine was designed was on forward momentum. When the gears stop, everything breaks. We have hundreds of millions of people around the world losing their jobs. We have people being unable to make debt payments, rent payments; we have entire economies just contracting. The Chinese economy shrank in the first quarter of this year, which it has never done since the Cultural Revolution in 1976. We’re going to have the worst global recession, probably of all time, this year.
Felix Salmon: This is an unprecedented economic shock. Don’t just look at the stock market as an indication of what’s happening to the economy: what’s happening to the economy is much worse than what’s happening to the stock market. People are really hurting. People don’t know when they’re going to be able to go back to work; when incomes are going to be able to start flowing again.
And that’s absolutely true of the art market as well, that everything is based on flows. We have a world which is—for very, very good reason—not moving right now. And unless and until the world starts moving again, the economic shocks are just going to be absolutely massive and the reverberations are likely to last for decades.
Charlotte Burns: In these challenging times there has been, for some, both strength and comfort in numbers. At the start of the pandemic, around 55 London gallerists banded together to form a WhatsApp group. The collaboration was spearheaded by Sadie Coles, who founded Sadie Coles HQ in London in 1997 and is a recent In Other Words guest, and Vanessa Carlos, who founded Carlos/Ishikawa in 2011 and who launched the gallery-sharing initiative CONDO in 2016.
Sadie and Vanessa, can you tell me how this started and what’s been happening?
Sadie Coles: It started because we realized very quickly that there were lots of issues that every gallery, big or small, were facing, and that it would be useful to share information, resources and ideas about both practical issues and bigger picture issues.
Vanessa Carlos: Sadie gave me a call and invited me to help put this together with her. What was interesting for me about this group in particular was this act of solidarity. To acknowledge that the art world is an ecosystem and there’s an interdependency, instead of a culture of domination and competition I think is really important and it’s reflective of how I hope that we reimagine the art world or, on a larger scale, the world.
Sadie Coles: Initially it was a lot to do with how to reduce costs and how to deal with staff; how to deal with issues around the government help; how to talk to your landlords. And that’s been quite interesting because obviously there’s different levels of business help that different size galleries get, so if all that information is pooled and it’s actually been very, very useful.
But there have also been discussions about reopening and how likely that looks. Although, I have to say that it’s all gone very quiet on that front, mainly because none of us are in the position to really make any hard and fast plans.
Vanessa Carlos: For younger galleries we don’t have the recourse and resources that older galleries have in terms of consulting with lawyers and tax advisors, and all of these things—so the sharing of that information in the group has been really helpful for the more emerging galleries.
Charlotte Burns: And do you see it continuing? Do you see it reshaping the way that things work going forward?
Sadie Coles: I do see it continuing. As Vanessa said earlier, we are all protecting our small castle or encampment and promoting our own content, and thinking about that. But actually, if you start reaching out to people, it is all about dialogue and things develop from there. And I feel that only good can come of this.
Charlotte Burns: One of the key issues will be the inequity that this pandemic is exposing. Yes, we are all at sea but some of us have private yachts and some are casting about for driftwood. The virus is like a mirror that’s been smeared in accelerant: what we were, we will be more so—unless we consider new possibilities.
Right now, we exist in between extremes: grief, gratitude; poverty, wealth; possibility, collapse. It has been mere weeks since this pandemic hit America in earnest and yet already many people are desperate, without safety, salvation or even means of survival.
Many of them are artists who often exist at life’s peripheries. One of the most impressive collaborations created to deal with the impact of coronavirus is the Artist Relief Fund—an unprecedented national coalition between seven arts grant makers and a consortium of foundations. The fund is offering unrestricted $5,000 need-based grants to artists of various disciplines. The fund is currently $10m, including $5m in seed funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Joining me for this show are two of the seven grant-makers: Carolyn Ramo, who’s the executive director of the nonprofit arts organization Artadia; and Deana Haggag, president & CEO of United States Artists, which is a national arts funding organization based in Chicago.
You worked very quickly in collaboration to produce an unprecedented relief fund. How did that come about?
Carolyn Ramo: Artist Relief started with a few phone calls on a Saturday about five weeks ago with colleagues and friends. We had a “plan” on how we could provide immediate relief to artists in a manner that would be as equitable as possible. We just gave our first grants on Friday, and plan to give at least 100 grants a week until 1 September.
It has been absolutely incredible to work as a true coalition. Partners were quickly identified, mostly because of what we have in common. We’re all nonprofit organizations. We’re all grant-makers. We give directly to individual artists in many different disciplines, and we’re all national in scope.
Once we all gathered, it was important that we had a very direct conversation about the resources that each organization could supply. Committees were even formed to play to each organization’s strengths. It’s also been an entirely egoless process in every way.
Charlotte Burns: And is it a true coalition in terms of equality? Are there leaders? How does the structure of this work?
Deana Haggag: So it is a true coalition in the fact that everyone participates in it equally, in the sense that everyone is holding the work together at the same time. But we live in a legal structure, and an accounting structure, and a maintenance structure that does need a point person. So, for the time being, United States Artists is holding some of that liability.
To Carolyn’s point about ego, when it became clear that legally and infrastructurally one organization had to take on the liability, we all just decided who could, and moved accordingly. That part of it has been really beautiful. To pull off something at this scale, a lot of different pieces have to move in step. We are fundraising at the same time that we are dispersing grants. We are running communications channels at the same time that we are also configuring our messaging. We are building an application at the same time that we are administering it. So yeah, leaders all throughout it at different steps, but all of us showing up to the leadership challenge pretty equally.
Charlotte Burns: Did you work together in any way before? Is this brand new for you? How did you get to this stage of running points on so many different things in lockstep? You’re walking and talking at the same time as you’re chewing gum.
Carolyn Ramo: We absolutely did not all know each other, which is the most amazing thing about the complete trust that we have in each other. Our mission is something that has united us now: this complete steadfast focus on artists and supporting them.
It was incredible to just jump in and have this faith in each other. We are new friends and have joked that we have not all met in person but spend so much of our virtual time together now.
Charlotte Burns: Am I right in saying that all of the nonprofits are run by women?
Carolyn Ramo: You are right. We are all run by women.
Charlotte Burns: Is that key to this? Is that accidental? Is that relevant, do you think, to this spirit of collaboration? And I ask that because, In Other Words, we’ve done two annual reports in collaboration with artnet News looking at inequality in the art world. This came about simply because I knew I couldn’t do the work by myself and wanted to do it with someone whose opinion I really trusted, and whose insights and perspective would no doubt make it a much better project, and that’s with Julia Halperin, who’s the executive editor at artnet News. We talk a lot about whether that’s a specific way of working. We can’t imagine any of our male editors would ever have kind of said, oh, let’s just not be rivals and just do something better that plays to both of our strengths. What do you think?
Deana Haggag: I think, Charlotte, you just answered that question perfectly. Yes, correct. I do think that it was not intentional. No one sat down and said, hey, let me just name all the female-led individual arts grant makers that are doing incredible work, and can maybe put their egos aside and figure out a way to get this done clean, fast and smart. But that’s how the cookie crumbled. So, there it is.
Charlotte Burns: All the people I’ve been speaking to, I realized yesterday who have in this time launched collaborations, started working together in different ways, sharing power, they’re all women. I’m not an essentialist. I don’t believe that women are fundamentally different than men, but I do think that there’s probably something about the ways in which women have had to behave professionally.
Felix Salmon: It makes sense on some level, especially if the kind of maleness that has been rewarded in the art market has been a competitive greediness of wanting to make lots of money quickly, and also to beat your competitors and do better than the other guy.
A radically different paradigm—that maybe if we all group together, we can get through this in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do it on our own—just doesn’t appeal to someone who’s competitive in that way.
I’m with you. I’m not an essentialist, either, and I think that there’s plenty of men in the art world who would love to participate in that kind of thing. But as you know, the mega-galleries are all basically run by men; the big auction houses are all basically run by men; and there’s a huge ego component to buying blue-chip art, collecting it and seeing it go up in value and that kind of thing. This is where you really need to start putting your ego behind you for a while, if not permanently. I don’t know how long the ego-driven part of the art world will be able to do that.
Charlotte Burns: It is impossible to hide from the gender and racial impacts and implications of coronavirus. In the US, African American and Hispanic people have been dying at twice the rate of European Americans. Women are overwhelmingly on the front lines: one in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential, according to a New York Times analysis of census data crossed with the federal government’s essential worker guidelines. Nonwhite women are more likely to be doing essential jobs than anybody else. The Artist Relief Fund is expressly focused on need, so I was curious as to how the grant makers were assessing that—and what the applications are revealing.
Carolyn Ramo: These grants are for artists who do not have the funding for their rent, for food, for basic human needs, for medical needs, for childcare—which is again, something that probably women thought of more than men. And it is not necessarily about the work that an artist makes. That said, this is support for professional artists.
Deana Haggag: We just asked really simple questions on our application about how the pandemic is affecting folks’ personal lives. And as that information is being relayed to us, we’re really watching it map on to all of the realities that we understand to be true about how capitalism affects different genders, races, ethnicities and geographies in this country.
And so, I think first and foremost, we want to assess that you are an artist. We want to be clear that that’s the community we’re showing up for right now.
The next thing is this need. If you’ve demonstrated a dire financial emergency—which we’re defining to mean the imminent endangerment of and or already loss of food, shelter, clothing.
Some examples of what we’re hearing is parents who are skipping meals to feed their kids; elders who can’t afford their insulin; artists who are re-growing food to have something to eat because they’ve over-drafted their bank accounts and they have zero cash flow and no credit; a mother who’s expecting a child next week and has no cash flow coming in at all and is already really terrorized by that experience. So, we’re talking about some pretty severe stuff and are trying to find those stories in these applicants so that we can uplift those people and buy them some time.
And then the last thing is, the numbers don’t work. Last week we gave our first 100 grants out of 24,000 applicants. The cognitive dissonance of that is so massive. How do you even make sense of that number? As someone who’s lived pretty much my entire life and entire career for sure in the arts, of that 100 there were names I recognized and there were plenty I didn’t. Merit or no merit, this will come for everyone. But there are still real realities that black folks, indigenous communities, trans folks, disabled folks and elders face that are different.
I don’t know how we repair things from here given what some of these apps say. I think a few things become really clear that we know, but I think they really jump off the page. The amount of people that have been living in dire financial need long before the pandemic. Now this thing just topples them over in a way that’s very different. Watching folks that were moving steadily in the world suddenly just have the whole thing stopped, literally overnight, the weight of that feels so real.
Charlotte Burns: They are really devastating numbers and you must be feeling the brunt of that. How do you comb through all those applications and how do you increase it so that you can give more?
Deana Haggag: We are partnering with other nonprofit partners across the country to help us read them. It was super important for us to make sure that humans got involved in this process and that enough humans got around it so we could move through the various bias issues. We were reading a lot about moral injury. It is so hard to read these, and it is so hard to read them back to back.
And so, we knew our team couldn’t do it alone and we knew we couldn’t keep asking the same people to do it, and we’d have to rotate so that you had some stamina and defense built against us. Those partners are all listed on our website and they’re discipline specific.
Carolyn Ramo: We initially had a goal of $2m and that was surpassed pretty quickly, and we reached our goal of $10m for launch. It was an incredible day of pride when we launched, knowing that we provide so much support to so many. And then I, at least, had a wave of overwhelming malaise about the tremendous need that is out there. It is abundantly clear that we just do not have enough funding to provide anywhere close to the amount of need that there is. So, we’ve now increased our goal to again see if we can raise another $10m in the next few months. We feel confident that we’ll be able to do that. But we also need the support of the entire community to aid in that. We have a mechanism for individuals to provide support through our website. You can go directly onto our site and give at artistrelief.org and every single donation is tax exempt.
Deana Haggag: We have heard a lot of, why is it important to support artists now when the whole nation is suffering? And there is, of course, that what artists contribute to society is invaluable, full stop. But then there’s also the, hi, artists are your servers, and your schoolteachers, and the people who drive your Ubers, and the folks who are at the laundromat.
That’s been one of the most interesting parallels of some of the data, is this idea that artists actually exist at the intersection of more than one gig economy. And when we’re sitting here saying, “Why is it important to save the artists?”, we are just saving working class people, period, in addition to the fact that maybe that person is your bartender and also writing potentially the great American novel, right now.
Charlotte Burns: For Marisa Mazria Katz—a culture and politics writer who was the founding editor of Creative Time Reports and is also the editorial director of Eyebeam, overseeing its Center for the Future of Journalism—artists are more necessary than ever.
Marisa Mazria Katz: I’m very interested in artists being heard by as big of an audience as possible. And in this moment when museums are closed and you can’t visit the gallery that you love, or that public exhibition is out there but you’re not able to access and you can’t see it because you’re in quarantine: this is to me the very moment in which we need to continue hearing from artists, but we have to find channels for them to speak loudly to the world. There are so many good artists out there who have incredible ways of looking at the world, that completely upend the way that we think about the world; and yet sometimes they can be a bit sequestered, and they can be separated from the world.
Charlotte Burns: Moreover, as Marisa points out, the model of collaboration is two-way. For nonprofits, it’s often essential, and for shrinking industries—like the media, which went into this pandemic in a tough spot and is probably going to come out worse—it can be a resource for creative thinking that helps with the bottom line.
Marisa Mazria Katz: One of the reasons I have been working with art and journalism for so many years is that as a journalist—and I know you understand this really well—budgets have been shrinking for years now. And a lot of those holes that might have been filled with ambitious ideas and projects in the past are kind of shrinking, and some of them are just completely disappearing.
Simultaneous to the idea for us at Eyebeam of launching a project in which we support artists doing work around this issue were 30,000 jobs that were being shed amongst the media landscape in the United States.
So, it in many ways felt like it was underpinning this idea of collaboration as not just stop-gaps but allows publications and allows artists to work together to imagine, and to be ambitious, and to think about what we’re going through in a way that isn’t just regurgitating the news.
That was one of the very biggest ideas that have come out of this. How do we collaborate? How do we keep ambitious journalism going through the lens of art?
Charlotte Burns: Some of the most immediately impactful collaborations depend upon the generosity of the artists themselves. Some fantastic initiatives recently include Pictures for Elmhurst: 187 artists donated unlimited edition prints priced at $150 each to raise funds for Elmhurst Hospital Center, which has been called the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the coronavirus in the United States. The online sale—which raised almost $1.4m— was organized by “a handful of normal people working from our homes in a time of crisis,” says Shayna McClelland. She is the founder of McClelland communications agency and is one of the organizers of the charity initiative. “People want to help,” she says. “And collectively, we can be an unstoppable force for good. This feels like powerful knowledge.”
Just launched and running until 8 May, an emergency benefit auction, Food Bank for New York City, organized by the young artist Doron Langberg with his gallery Yossi Milo, powered by Artsy, with work donated by almost 100 artists including Nicole Eisenman, Cecily Brown and Peter Halley. Here’s what Doron had to say.
Doron Langberg: The inspiration for this came from just seeing artists on Instagram share work and offering it for sale to benefit various charities. My friend Hannah Beerman is running an Instagram page called Artists for Humans. I was just so inspired and I really imagined that we could make something really big and that artists would really mobilize. So, I started reaching out to close friends, and really without exception the response has just been so phenomenal, so generous. People that I haven’t really known very closely but maybe were acquaintances or connected through Instagram didn’t even hesitate. And it’s been exhilarating and inspiring just to feel like I have some agency, that we have some agency as a community.
Charlotte Burns: One of the things that’s so striking through all these conversations about collaborations is that most of it would be impossible at this moment of quarantine and isolation if it weren’t for technology. You were inspired by Instagram. You are managing to do a lot of this through those social media platforms, working with Artsy, which is an online company. It’s really interesting to think about the ways in which technology is coming to the forefront here in just augmenting human connections where the physical connection isn’t really possible.
Doron Langberg: Absolutely. I think that most of my communication with the artists has been through Instagram, and then obviously transitions to email. But all of us are home, all of us are anxious or frustrated or really looking for a way to be useful, to do something, to contribute. And I think that in this time people are just much more accessible. That allowed for this really huge momentum of incredible artists that joined together. Yossi Milo Gallery has done an extraordinary job receiving all the work and documenting it. It really is a group effort.
Charlotte Burns: For you as an artist, you’re obviously taking on a different role right now organizing an auction. That is, I imagine, quite different from your ordinary day job. For you, is this a kind of one-off for this moment?
Doron Langberg: It’s funny, I feel like this has definitely taken over my life the last few weeks and I don’t know if I could sustainably continue to do projects like these and still be a painter, so I’m focusing on this one time for now.
But I do think it does build on a community that already exists. Being part of this community in New York, I just know that it has so much power—both the work and just the individual members—and I knew that we can really do something meaningful to help.
Charlotte Burns: Collaborations like these create immediate impact: the fundraisers, for example, are literally saving lives. Businesses banding together also helps bolster the industry: for example, David Zwirner gallery loaned its “Platform”, titled such, to 12 smaller New York galleries—an initiative that resulted in sales for them and in the highest website traffic of the year for Zwirner.
These kinds of acts are more than just solidarity and immediate relief: they also offset some of the powerlessness people feel in this moment, they say, and many are using them as vehicles to reimagine the future. The sheer volume of applications to the Artist Relief Fund, for example, reveals something of the depth of this crisis but it has also elevated the sense of ambition for the grant-makers.
Deana Haggag: In the arts in particular, we have to figure out a way to make this work more valued and to protect these workers.
At $5,000 an artist, how do we even make sense of this? And even if we were to raise $1bn, would it solve this problem? It is more important now than it ever has been to find ways to infrastructure artists as a constituency and to make sure that artists are connected to other gig workers.
It makes me realize how much of the United States is buttressed on gig workers and how valuable artists are to this nation, not just its spirit and its morality but its economic infrastructure—and how the bottom just fell out.
One partnership that’s been really crucial to Artist Relief has been our research partnership with Americans for the Arts, which are working in overdrive right now to figure out what a short-term and long-term recovery could look like for the sector and to ensure that that is happening in concert with other industries in our nation—because we can never go back.
Charlotte Burns: Here’s what some of our guests said about what they imagine the future might look like, and what they want to see.
One of the big things that we’ve been discussing over the past few years, decades, is the economic inequality. And we’re already seeing that playing out now in how the pandemic is affecting different communities. Do you have any hope that that will shift, or do you think that will just worsen?
Felix Salmon: I see absolutely no hope. Let me rephrase that. There is a small hope. I’ve seen a few commentators come out basically saying, “This crisis has confirmed all of my priors about how bad inequality is and it’s going to change everyone else’s minds on that, too, and we’re all going to collectively unite to reverse this horrible inequality trend.” And, anything is possible.
The very rich are going to come out of this okay, to be honest. I think they’re going to come out of it like they come out of most crises, which is better than almost anyone else. They are still going to have excess money. One of the reasons why the stock market is doing so well is that it is the big companies, and the big companies have balance sheets, and they can survive. If everyone else— the small companies and the little guys—all really suffer, that’s less competition for the big guys, and the big guys do even better.
In a winner-takes-all world, there is a case to be made that the super-ultra 0.1%, which is basically the world of art collectors, is not going to be that badly affected. Now, obviously, the news for mid-market galleries and certainly small galleries is much grimmer, so it depends which bit of the art market you’re talking about.
But if you’re talking about the art market by volume, my base-case expectation is that it’s going to look a little bit like the property market in New York after 9/11. You’ll see prices go where prices go, but overall, they will be roughly sideways on massively reduced volumes; that you just won’t see the kind of frenzied trading that we used to.
Charlotte Burns: For the primary market—for artists who are living and working today—how do they make their way out of this?
Felix Salmon: There’s millions and millions of dollars just flowing into the kind of little parasitical fishes that eat the little castoff from the big guys. Whereas at the same time you have hundreds of thousands of artists who are creating work and just not really being paid at all, unless they can be lucky enough to find themselves a gallery show which people want to start buying from. And that is a really lopsided way of building an art world. And I would love to see that world change radically, so that a lot of the more parasitical jobs fade into the background a little bit and there’s more emphasis placed on normal people buying art from artists. That’s the kind of thing that people don’t do, because the art world has been seen to have grown completely out of reach for normal folks—and that’s crazy, and that needs to change.
Sadie Coles: This is an opportunity to rethink the things that weren’t working or the things that had become too excessive, or stale, or uncomfortable in some ways. I think there probably will be a swing back to local for instance, for obvious reasons: for the environment, for the fear of travel, all of that stuff. But I still feel that people will remain interested in art and committed to culture. It’s not like I want to retire and go live in the country.
Vanessa Carlos: Also, it’s interesting to refocus on the things that always mattered, having very close relationships to artists or to our collectors and so on. Given these upcoming set of new circumstances, how can you continue to develop and maintain that once you don’t have these sorts of moments in the year where you congregate? I don’t know exactly how that will play out, but I think it’s really exciting to think about how we can keep hold of those things that actually really matter in what we do and adapt them to a new set of circumstances.
Sadie Coles: Artists also seem to me to be actively, acutely attuned to the possibility of change, about what that change might be, and what that might mean for the artists themselves, and what that might mean for the art system, so to speak. It’s very likely that some of these changes and ideas will be brought to fruition by the artists.
In the spirit of collaboration and dialogue, are you going to do this town hall meeting platform?
Charlotte Burns: Oh yes. Yep. So, Sadie and I have been emailing during this time and one of the things that Sadie’s brilliantly proposed is this idea of a kind of art world town hall. Sadie, do you want to talk a bit about what the genesis of the idea was?
Sadie Coles: The genesis of the idea was that the pace of the art world has become punishing to both artists and art dealers and collectors—in fact, every practitioner who has skin in the game—and whether or not we should address some of those excesses. The original idea was to have this physical meeting in a town hall setting, a bit like Question Time where you have a number of practitioners who make State of the Nation type statements. And then their colleagues, their community, then use those statements as jumping off points to have a discussion around some of the issues.
Charlotte Burns: So, Sadie and I have been discussing this. We’re working out the best technological solution to this, since we can’t physically be in a town hall: so essentially, a virtual town hall with live questions. For any of our listeners who would like to send ideas or things they’re particularly hopeful that we discuss, now is as good a moment as any to get that dialogue going. So email me at the usual address—firstname.lastname@example.org—and we’ll keep you guys posted as we move forwards.
Sadie Coles: This is a key moment and a key opportunity to reimagine how things might be different. Even if some of the ideas that come up are crazy and impractical, at least they’re ideas.
Marisa Mazria Katz: Collaboration is needed more than ever, and the more institutions that can be that gateway; can act as the conduit to do the large collaborations that can exist, that should exist in this current moment—the better. I think we’re seeing that. We’re seeing organizations rapidly pivoting and addressing what this current moment needs. I think a lot of institutions are gearing their coming year—and years—into making and facilitating more of those kinds of collaborations.
Charlotte Burns: And that’s all from us today. A huge thanks to all of my guests for taking part from their closets and living rooms and homes around the world. Speaking of which, we’ve been hearing from more of you than ever—please keep it coming. Thank you very much for listening; thank you for getting in touch with us. Stay safe and we will be back soon.