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WYWH: NYC’s Art Business Conference 2018

By Stephanie Drawdy

The Art Business Conference, held in New York on April 17, was an ambitious day of discussion among art professionals who shared insight on the “ecosystem” of the art market. From the impact of technology on authentication to data breaches and many points in between, the Conference, now in its second year, provided hands-on information about practical issues affecting the global art market.

The art market was likened to a marathon, not a sprint, in the Conference’s opening session that dealt with the future of collecting. The panelists vigorously debated the factors that may control the viability of collecting, which included price transparency and knowing one’s client. Tech startup Artsy was represented by Devang Thakkar who discussed his company model as an online platform for galleries, museums, and foundations, and how that model meets a core need that will increase collecting. For example, its “Augment Reality” capability allows potential collectors to project images in their home, office, etc. to see how a piece works in their space. Mr. Thakkar believes this will change how people see art.

Online auctions were also discussed as a vehicle that is increasing collecting.  Dallas-based Heritage Auctions was represented by its director of American Art, Aviva Lehmann, who was formerly with Christies. Ms. Lehmann used the recent increase in the valuation of illustration art as an example of how online auctions are helping the market. She described a bidding war by two individuals who each wanted to buy the same piece by Norman Rockwell as a Mother’s Day gift. Neither bidder had a history of collecting illustration art, but the vehicle of online auction facilitated their interest in the piece and drove up the price to a multi-million dollar sale.

Art Market Economist Magnus Resch discussed implementation of new tools like block chain, the digital register that anonymously records transactions. Block chain (discussed in the recent article by Louise Carronhas the potential to impact areas of the art market like provenance by increasing the transparency of a piece’s history. Yet, because everything takes longer in the art world, according to Mr. Resch, the impact of block chain in the art market may be long in coming.

Another big topic was third party funding of art and cultural heritage claims. At the outset of her presentation, Noor Kadhim, Head of International Arbitration, Investment Planning, and Art at London’s Cubism Law, set out a wise premise: the lawyer’s job is not to give a pathway to heaven, but to prevent hell. With that, she proceeded to explain a variety of legal funding solutions that achieve the lofty public policy goal of preventing injustice, the insurance products that can be incorporated into funding, and the investment aspect of art claims. Ms. Kadhim also touched on the vital impact the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 had to lift the procedural bar on many art/cultural heritage claims that otherwise would have been abandoned. 

One panel was devoted to the creation of traveling exhibitions, and the extreme risks, challenges, and budgetary considerations involved in such a daunting task. Many within earshot (including myself) cringed when Wendy Lindstrom, Commercial Litigator with Messner Reeves, described the Gerhard Richter that was punctured while out for a traveling show. Insurance expert Anne Rappa with Huntington T. Block offered other concerning examples of art bearing the brunt of being on the road, including sheet metal sculpture insured with a policy that contained a dent exclusion; the basic take away: read the fine print.

Vastari Group’s CEO and co-founder Bernadine Bröcker Wieder suggested that institutions should create more ambitious traveling shows with the use of a business model from the outset. It was suggested that one way to raise the bar of an exhibition was to augment it with other works to build a unique theme. The Royal Academy’s 2015 exhibition of 17th century Baroque painter Rubens was cited as an example to be emulated; with its addition of works by other painters like Van Dyck and Cezanne, the Royal Academy showed how Ruben’s painterly style evolved. Interestingly, it was not expressed on the panel that the addition of other painters’ works to exhibits like the Rubens show have been frowned upon by some critics, such as Zoe Pilger with The Independent who would have preferred to see Rubens “on his own.” 

The issue of data protection was a timely topic in the Conference, given the upcoming passage of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that goes into effect in the European Union on May 25, 2018. Cyber Security Director Aaron Aanenson with S-RM, an international risk consulting firm, gave an overview of the GDPR, noting that after its effective date, the GDPR will protect anyone who suffers a data breach while in the EU, regardless of citizenship. More info about GDPR can be found here.

Somewhat less concerning than data breaches, but still quite intriguing, was one panel’s discussion of the decisions that go into and the limitations that apply to protecting artists’ legacies. Christa Blatchford, the chief executive officer of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, defined the charitable purpose of her role as the stewardship of Ms. Mitchell’s legacy, not its protection. Tiffany Bell, editor at large with Artifex Press, discussed her decisions as editor of the Agnes Martin Catalogue Raisonne, at least one of which went against Martin’s express wishes; despite Martin’s desire that her early (pre-1961) works not be seen, Bell decided to include them because, in Bell’s judgment, they enhanced the understanding of Martin’s later works. And, the lesson from this panel for estates with constrained funds: the continual nature of perpetuity is, in fact, limited .. by what’s affordable.

This was the second annual Art Business Conference in New York, with the Conference having originated in London in 2012. Here’s to its return to this side of the pond next year for further discussion of the complex, interconnected network that is the art market.

About the Author:  Stephanie Drawdy holds a B.A. in Studio Art and Political Science from the College of Charleston, a J.D. from New York Law School, and a Diploma in Arts Profession Law and Ethics from London’s Institute of Art and Law.

Disclaimer: Reading about art and law events is no substitute to formulating first-hand opinions about speakers and topics.