In The Provinces

In The Provinces

Follow the money. This is a truism fundamental to the history of art.

And if you do follow the money, you will find that these days, increasingly, the money is traveling on a parallel rotation with mother earth: Eastward.

Go East, young folks. Go East.

If you live in the USA and do not live in New York or Miami (or in Los Angeles five to ten years from now); in art-world terms, you my friend, are living in the provinces.

If you live outside the USA and do not live in London, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi or Dubai; in art-world terms, you my friend, are living in outliers of the Global Village, the equivalent of living in the provinces.

In the last twenty years or so, first-tier cultural capitals extended and firmly secured their traditional grasp on the global art markets. New York and London are the West’s traditional –and only– art markets of significance. When art fairs began in earnest their global incursions, in the early 2000’s, Art Basel Miami quickly became the hippest art scene/art market in the world, establishing Miami as one of the top global art-market capitals, stealing most of the thunder from its parent fair in Basel, Switzerland.

The Middle East and China are now where the real money comes into play. China, preparing for the Olympics, transformed itself into a contemporary art juggernaut in less than ten years. The royal families of the United Arab Emirates –practical merchants that they are– are purchasing instant artistic and cultural credibility, financing spectacular franchises of the world’s most prestigious museums and art centers.

Relative to the geopolitical entities mentioned above, make of their civil societies what you will, but I will point out that, as a practical matter, the history of art and the history of human rights are not one and the same, and have borne insignificant correlation over the centuries.

In the past decade, as the scions of wealthy Middle Eastern nations immersed themselves in the art-market game, buying copious amounts of western art as an investment, they quickly learned that, in the right context, tapping into different esthetic appreciations and sensibilities, the arts could be a good business model for them as well. The main drawback was their lack of credibility as purveyors of art (their ethnic provenance clouded by the swarthy-countenance-devaluation of 9/11).

Wanting a quick piece of the action (the business action, not just the fickle trappings and trends of the art world) these wealthy individuals saw fit to buy their credibility and expertise ready-made; financing the projects at a remove, in back rooms, while the more established credibility of their well known partners substantiates and legitimizes the storefronts.

Anyone with a solid stake in the global art market is already establishing outposts in these new Idea Capitals, as they are called. Powerhouses from all walks of the art world: Galleries, museums, artists, curators, etc.; are forging their way into these brave new moneyed worlds. Gagosian the gallerist and Saatchi the collector/promoter, are making enterprising inroads alongside the more stately initiatives of the Guggenheim and the Louvre. Even NYU is getting in on the act, taking it’s brand of higher education to the desert kingdoms (as have quite a few other colleges and universities stateside, including Texas A&M).

The most important contemporary architectural commissions to come along in decades are for buildings in the Middle East, where imposing, fantastical projects with no apparent budget limitations are in various stages of planning and development. Aside from reinventing themselves as a top cultural destination, the United Arab Emirates will also become the preeminent architectural showcase of the early 21st Century.

There are many self-avowed cultural capitals in the world (Berlin and Paris being the preeminent members of the European club), but relatively few significant art markets. In the last half of the 20th Century, London and New York with a strong backbone of galleries and auction houses were the dominant players in the world’s art market. With the economic and political growth of other spheres of influence and power (Russia, China, the Middle East), and the attendant rise of personal wealth, art businesses in New York and London –the only credible players early on in the game– were able to parlay their market expertise and dominance to become the Western world’s power centers for the new global art order.

As you read this, the art world’s centers of power are not so much shifting as they are multiplying. The New Yorks and the Londons will retain their dominance as clearinghouses for Western art, no question. But significant gravitational forces are shaping new trends in art forms, catering to a wider variety of cultural tastes and, more importantly, creating new markets from scratch.

One of the drivers of these trends is an acceleration in the hybridization of art iconography, and the quick acceptance of these new forms by market makers.

Historically, art and culture have been forerunners of global exchange. In recent history, this became apparent in the music industry in the 1970’s and 80’s, when the term world-music officially made its way into the marketable categories. The visual arts business sector, because of higher price points for the product and the hierarchical insularity of the markets, took longer to embrace the notion of a more eclectic, non-regional iconography.

However, with new players driving market forces for iconographical cross-pollination; the rise in market value of contemporary international artists in China, India and the Middle East; and the spread and pervasiveness of the internet; what was once the sole domain (esthetic and market) of Western art is giving way to an unprecedented shift in the canons of the art world.

One of my favorite examples of marketable, cultural cross-pollination is the global branding of Cirque Du Soleil (early adopters of the paradigm and the premise). Few would argue the artistic and production merits of this enterprise, which saw its birth as an off-beat troupe of Canadian street performers with a cult-like following, and which has become an international mega-spectacle that plays as easily in Las Vegas as it does in Kuala Lumpur or Mexico City.

The combined eclecticism of the hybridized music and visuals in Cirque Du Soleil shows, now widely viewed as mainstream standards, were once considered risque and progressive. More to the point, a majority of the organization’s current performers come from Asia and Eastern Europe

Go East young folks. Go East.

Just stay away from the provinces.

Some provinces are more equal than others. In the United States the top-tier provincial art destinations are Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, and a few others. Arguably, the top-tier international provincial cultural centers are Berlin, Paris, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, New Delhi, Toronto (or Montreal, take your pick), and Tokyo.

What defines an art province –its level of provinciality– is the degree of an art market presence. The more of an art market the less provincial the entity, and allowing for the opposite, the lesser the art market the more provincial the entity.

Reliance on passive, public or private funding for the arts, puts any entity squarely in the camp of the provincials. It could be construed that the ratio of non-profits to commercial galleries or cultural enterprises is a good litmus test for provincialism.

If a city has a high ratio of non-profit organizations (whose survival depends on city, state, or federal grants; fundraisers; charity auctions or events; or periodic infusions of funds from private foundations), and if that city has a small number of private, commercial galleries or performance venues regularly engaging in the commerce of art, then that city is unquestionably a provincial entity.

There are countless efforts in place to rebrand lower tier cities worldwide as cultural destinations. There are many such efforts within the United States, most half-hearted in terms of budget and depth of commitment, yet heavy on the PR. This growing glut in cultural rebranding, a direct result of a provincial me-too mind set, will ultimately come to its logical and necessary consequence: A train wreck; too many trains, not enough tracks.

There can be only so many cultural destinations because there can be only so many cultural travelers, and there is only so much time in which to do it all.

Self-delusion and self-importance are rampant in the provinces because, much of what is accomplished in the provinces is relatively inconsequential and requires much self-regard for its continuance.

One of the essential problems faced by most of these provincial initiatives is that the efforts are based on rebranding. Few entities are committed to recreating.

With possibly one exception.

It seems that a few very rich, determined group of businessmen in Los Angeles, are engaged in the process of ensuring that their city will soon join the ranks of top-tier, art-market capitals, elevating itself beyond the orbit of its current, provincial status.

Some folks think of Los Angeles as being a parochial West Coast outpost for the arts, a cultural vanity project for the Hollywood elite. In response, I like to point out that Los Angeles is due East from Asia –where good old fashioned capitalism was invented– where the real money is these days, and as I mentioned above, the money is always traveling East; Los Angeles is most definitely on the Eastward path of Asian money.

Rebranding is relatively easy. Recreating requires thought, real work, commitment, and money. Lots of money. In the United States, with the exception of a few enterprising Angelenos, I see no one else with the same level of commitment.

There are however, plenty of rebranded provincials.

It’s always in the making. Make sure you are the one making it.

Michael Mehl

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