Will the Art Bubble Burst?

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At the turn of the 20th century, collecting contemporary art used to be serious business for a relatively small group of people. It was an exclusive gentlemen's club with only a few ladies, such as Gertrude Stein in Paris and the Cone sisters in Baltimore, allowed to join in. An annual trip to Paris, a visit with the preeminent dealer Ambroise Vollard and, maybe, knocking on the door of Matisse or Picasso's studio would be enough for an adventurous collector with an eye on contemporary art.

If dear old Gertrude would have wanted to retain supremacy of her art collection today, she would be required to leave the comfort of her Parisian apartment and travel constantly around the world. The Venice Biennale used to be the one and only international art fair. These days the list of international art fairs counts well over one hundred and keeps growing. If, in the past, the reputations of the artists were made through prestigious museum exhibitions, these days, many reputations are forged and sustained through the global merry-go-round of art fairs. Some of the fairs are so prestigious and there are so many galleries eager to show their artists, that dealers have to fight for the chance to be included, though the honor may cost them up to one hundred thousand dollars. The rich and famous arrive the day before the public opening for the special glittering gala and I've observed the frenzied scene of competing collectors rushing along the aisles to be the first to grab the pricey artwork of fashionable artists.

Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to go to Art Basel Miami in December but according to reports everyone was there and, more importantly, everything seems to have sold out. The mutual intoxication of art and money doesn't seem to show any signs of slowing down. In his colorful report for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl talks about "hedge-fund wizards" and newly rich Russians, Asians and Latin Americans who are contributing to the current super-heated state of the art market. And then he ominously hints at the inevitability of the bursting of the bubble. But I have a more optimistic view on this subject. There are so many wealthy people now and there is such fierce competition among them for one-upmanship, with their art collection often serving as the ultimate status symbol, that demand for new art will continue to be strong. John Szarkowski, legendary former curator of photography at MOMA, in his recent interview with LA Weekly, talked about young artists making flashy art for "a million new billionaires in this country and they or their wives want to be on the board of museums." And yet, there are serious collectors whose sharp eye and commitment to art transcends market manipulation. Peter Schjeldahl ends his report from Miami stating that, "the best show in Miami was... a brilliantly curated roundup of recent art... from Los Angeles." These excellent works from the Rubell Family Collection can be seen at the private museum in Florida founded by Donald and Mera Rubell, some of America's most avid collectors. Besides mentioning such Los Angeles luminaries as Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Barbara Kruger and Raymond Pettibon, Schjeldahl marvels at the number of Southern Californian artists in the exhibition whom, he admits, he'd never heard of before. I wonder if I would be able to recognize most of these artists. But I wouldn't bet on it...

When I recently saw the 2006 California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art, an ambitious selection of 31 young artists, I recognized only a handful of participants. These days, to keep up with the ever expanding art scene, it seems one needs more than a 24 hour day.