Today's uneasy art world

The art world is very uneasy these days. Not only have sales been down - especially those in the low- and medium-price ranges - but Sotheby's (with Christie's one of the two great auction houses of the world) has announced that it is closing its impressive and famous Madison Avenue headquarters and showrooms to do business henceforth from its newly opened but slightly out-of-the-way York Avenue offices.

In itself that might not sound like much. Under other circumstances, it would probably have been interpreted as merely a shrewd (or foolish) move on Sotheby's part to consolidate its resources in one newly renovated building. And to a large extent, that's the way it is interpreted by many of the more experienced members of the art community.

The fly in the ointment, however (at least to some of the more anxious and articulate) and the thing that convinced them that things must be in a sorry state indeed - is that Sotheby's decision followed a rather dismal 1981-82 season in which sales declined 25 percent worldwide and 30 percent in North America.

But just as important was the symbolic nature of Sotheby's move. Its Madison Avenue offices had become an institution. Bad and good years came and went, art styles and movements followed one another in great profusion, paintings established auction records or failed to sell entirely, but Sotheby's on Madison Avenue seemed to go on forever. That's how it seemed, and that's why the art world was so taken aback when it heard the news.

The situation wasn't helped, of course, by the fact that Christie's, Sotheby's major competitor, had also had a bad 1981-82 season, with a 15 percent decline in total sales in the United States from the previous year. But Christie's was a relative newcomer to the New York art scene, and hadn't as yet become the institution Sotheby's had. No, the drama centered on Sotheby's, and when the art world heard further that the auction house had closed one of its office buildings in London, as well as its salesroom in Los Angeles - and that it had cut its international staff by over 25 percent - some began to get very uneasy, indeed.

Things wouldn't have seemed so bad if the art world had itself had a halfway decent year. But it didn't - except, of course, for those dealers who handled such sure-fire figures as Picasso and Miro, or were fortunate enough to count such ''hot'' new names as Schnabel or Salle among their artists.

The very famous names, by and large, had sold well, had even at times established new sales records. And the good, solid American names, those whose reputations had been established in the 1950s and '60s (Stella, Dine, Johns, Louis, and so forth), had also generally done well, or had at least held their own. It was the newcomers, or those on the edge of ''making it,'' who had suffered most from a shortage of sales - and their dealers had suffered with them.

All this had already created a general mood of depression in much of the art world. After so many good years, the growing realization that things might be going downhill was hard to take. It is easy, therefore, to understand why the news from Sotheby's sounded so much like the voice of doom.

But was it really the voice of doom, or was it merely the final straw in a sequence of negative events during a particularly bad season? Did it really forecast a depressed period for art, or was it only an indication that a touch of reality was returning to the art community, that the needed corrective to the art world's 20-year period of euphoria was finally at hand?

My 26-year involvement with the New York art scene convinces me of the latter. Although the news of Sotheby's closing was as big a shock to me as anyone, it has by now become just one more event in a period in which the art world has been forced to face a little bit of reality - but from which it will bounce back without any significant loss. As if to underscore that point, Sotheby's has already made great plans for the coming season, including the fall sale of one of the few Turner oils still in private hands, ''Landscape With Walton Bridges.''

If anything, all this might remind us that it is art that the art world is supposed to be about, not huge profits, dramatic, multimillion-dollar auction sales, and investment portfolios. Just as it disturbed me as an art appraiser to view art in terms of its cash value, so has it bothered me to see art treated as though it were the equivalent of stocks and bonds, or as an alternative investment to real estate.

Not that I decry art-as-business. Since it has no real patronage to speak of, art must enter the marketplace in order to show itself to the general public. The artist, loaded down with creative, family, and income-producing responsibilities, simply hasn't the time to show and sell his work by himself. He needs a dealer - and therefore the art world has a perfect reason for being.

Not that that is the only reason. We can forget neither profit nor power as motivating forces - nor the devotion certain dealers have to the art they sell, nor the wish on the part of others to spend their working lives among beautiful or stimulating things.

No indeed, the art world is a complex entity, a composite of many different attitudes. And yet its central reason for being must be art - its values, significances, and quality. All other matters must take second place. If they don't, the art world will become just one more place to make money.

Now, I'm not speaking here from a position of romantic wish fulfillment but as one who has been personally involved in the New York art world. It has been the environment within which I have lived, created, and earned my living. While in many ways it resembles a jungle, a supermarket, a junk-food emporium, an expensive jewelry store, and the floor of the New York Stock Exchange all rolled into one, it is also where beauty, integrity, and quality - as well as the highest ideals - are welcomed.

The art world may have its scoundrels and its opportunists, but it also has its devout believers, its champions of quality and of the new, and its handful of saintlike individuals. (I know because some of them are friends of mine.) It is these special people who give the art world its heart and soul - and it is they who will see to it that art and its values flourish even if the last investor in art gives up and goes back to Wall Street.

Now I know this will seem callous and indifferent to the money problems of those younger and not-as-yet established artists whose few meager sales could possibly now disappear entirely for a while - and to those dealers who had to struggle even during the boom years and who may now have to close up shop altogether. It's all well and good, they'll insist, to talk about values and ideals, but how are they themselves to survive?

The answer, quite likely, and it's a tough one, is that the real professionals will survive and the amateurs won't. That has been the case as far back as I can remember, and I see nothing in the current situation to alter it. At the same time, there's nothing to prevent an ''amateur'' from becoming a professional - if he wants to badly enough, believes deeply enough in the art he wants to sell, can steer a clear and steady course, and knows what he is doing. If those things don't apply, I would most definitely recommend a different line of endeavor.

Art, no matter how one looks at it, is an often ruthless business - at least in the marketplace. To survive there requires a great deal more than dreams and romantic ideals. It takes courage, determination, a lot of wit - and as much money as one can get one's hands on. Those who have that - including those who don't have the money - won't be deterred by a poor season or two, or by newspaper headlines announcing the end of the boom years. They will, if anything , only dig in deeper and fight harder.

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