The Magazine

The Art of Bailouts

Another asset class in deep doodoo.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Here's how it works. Created by our new administration, the Bad Museum will buy what can only be called Bad Art--artworks that either have not sold at a gallery or an art fair or have not met their pre-auction estimate. The Bad Museum may be set up in Washington, but I think it would be more appropriate if it were to be located in one of the soon-to-be-abandoned sites that symbolize the false ideals of the Bush administration: the Yucca, Nevada, nuclear fuel storage area; the National Petroleum Strategic Reserve; or the climate-controlled buildings of the Guantánamo Detention Center.

What's more, the Bad Museum would morally undo the mistakes of the Bush-era art market, in which buyers and sellers determined an object's worth. Instead, there would be strict scientific standards of judgment to justify its purchases, in keeping with the Obama administration's resolve to place science first in policy-making, replacing mere politics in importance. To define these new standards for art, we can do no better than to do what Penny Pritzker, the Soros family, and many others have done: hire Thea Westreich, art adviser.

Like a 21st-century Cassandra, Westreich foresaw the present crisis long ago. In 2006, she told New York magazine exactly what was wrong with collectors of contemporary art: "Today's art market is by and large misinformed." Collectors are "buying based on market trends rather than art-historical standards." Ignoring art-historical standards is a common mistake, but easy to avoid with the proper advice. When Westreich advised George Soros's son to buy a Christopher Wool piece for six times more than anyone had ever paid for one before, it seemed expensive--imagine Westreich's fee on top of the $600,000 for the piece--but allowed young Soros to align himself with history. When Westreich advised Penny Pritzker which among 25 artists she should hire to adorn the Pritzker family's new Hyatt Center office complex in Chicago, she didn't focus on cost, but certainty. Keith Tyson, the British artist who won the test, now hangs in the atrium--not just décor but Turner Prize-winning décor (and just imagine what kind of cartoonish art an uncultivated kitsch-frau like Sarah Palin might choose for a major federal building site!). As Westreich has said, "what is great in the history of art stays expensive." The taxpayers can't lose.

The naïve art-lover-in-the-street may raise objections to my scheme. The artists whose works aren't selling are the very same artists whose prices have risen so high for the past 15 years, and their works are in major collections worldwide. Would it not tend to devalue the investment that museum curators and still-solvent hedge fund operators have made? And would it not therefore shake the collateral value of a whole class of Good Art in Good Museums, Good Galleries, and Good Collections?

It would be a fair objection, had it been raised before November 5, 2008. But we now can see it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the fact that the Bush-era art market must be done away with. The Bad Art acquired by the Bad Museum would not in fact be what used to be called aesthetically bad--not part of art history. It would merely have a scientifically determined floor put under its impartially determined art-historical value. The art market as a whole will soon recover, as the survivors of the financial crash (which, in a curious coincidence, took place at the very same time as the art-market crash) start to spend again. At this point, the buyers will turn to the Bad Museum to make discreet purchases of Bad Art at an advantageous discount. Best of all, upon delivery, this Bad Art will immediately become great art--the kind of art that collectors may buy to own, but really, as Westreich says, they are "just caring for works that really belong to art history."

We do live in the real world, and so for public consumption, my conception of the Bad Museum must of course be rebranded. I suggest that the actual Bad Museum be named the Joan Mondale Museum, in honor of the ceramicist/Second Lady whom ArtNews dubbed "Joan of Art" in 1977 for her work in bringing the arts under the protective wing of government where they belong.

There is little time to waste in the present crisis. I'm still a young man, but I'm old enough to weary my friends with memories of Julian Schna-bel clearing my table at Max's Kansas City in 1972. That I could use some fresh anecdotes I won't deny, but I don't want them to be tales of disaster. Spare me from telling my grandchildren about how the once-fashionable painter Cecily Brown was reduced to bringing me my Old-Fashioneds at Whiskey Park--just the way I like them--simply because the art collecting quants couldn't determine the NPV of her luscious, ripe canvasses.