Anyone thinking of taking the L or G train to the fated Domino Sugar Refinery to see Kara Walker’s installation should keep in mind literary critic Hugh Kenner’s words about conceptual art. In his definition, it is art that only needs to be described. It does not need to be experienced.
Destined to melt in a heat wave, Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” was not meant as a permanent work of art. It is a temporary conceptual project fashioned from software that permits artists to replicate their creations in real space and in almost any scale desired. Walker created the concept; the rest was an industrial process that you can get a glimpse of here.
The sugar daddy behind Walker’s Sugar Baby is Creative Time, a non-profit with a deep-pocket board and the obligatory dedication to making the world a better place. Their mission statement explains:
Creative Time commissions, produces, and presents art that engages history, breaks new ground, challenges the status quo, and infiltrates the public realm while engaging millions of people in New York City and across the globe. We are guided by a passionate belief in the power of art to create inspiring personal experiences as well as foster social progress. We privilege artists’ ideas. We get excited about their dreams and respond to them by providing big opportunities to expand their practices and take bold new risks that value process, content, and possibilities.
How fine that sounds, a high-minded echo of older utopian impulses in the arts. Like an aging torch singer, the temper keeps staging comebacks, playing to audiences that never heard it in previous voice. Creative Time’s mission statement should bring to mind Italian Futurism and the incentives of the Russian and German avant-gardes of the 1910s and 1920s. Instead, adjusted for our times and scheduled plans for the Domino property, it raises visions of bike paths, lattes on the grass, and such upscale amenities as an urban farm (organic, for sure) and a yoga studio.
Utopia has gone soft, gluten-free, and green. And it sells real estate.
On the board of Creative Time is Jed Walentas, real estate macher and co-developer, with his father David, of DUMBO. Father and son are the principals of Two Trees Management Company which owns the landmark refinery and surrounding acreage. Scheduled plans for the waterfront site include a Dubai-like high-rise complex with a gentrifying mix of luxury rentals, affordable housing, shops, office towers and public park.
I have no comment on the development itself. What matters to me here is the synthetic significance of art commissioned as a public relations gesture meant to sweeten a real estate deal.
Here, the Two Trees development earns cultural caché in an extravagant effort to defuse strong local opposition to both the demolition of the factoryonce the lifeblood of blue collar Williamsburgand the scale of the development itself. Meanwhile, Creative Time board members who collect as well as promote contemporary art see the value of their Walker pieces enhanced. It is not going out on a limb to suppose that any trustee who might not have owned Ms. Walker’s work earlier did the sensible thing and added it to their portfolio once Creative Time decided to grant her the Domino commission. This is simply the reality of museums and of arts organizations similar to Creative Time. Their boards are filled with collectors of contemporary art
Stay with that thought a few minutes. The curtained interrelations of the kind of blue-ribbon philanthropy in the arts that Creative Time represents is of far greater cultural import than Kara Walker’s installation. A sampling of the board is illustrative.
Board members Elizabeth Swig and Ellen Taubman rank high in property circles. Ms. Swig is both an heiress of the Macklowe real estate clan and ex-wife of Kent Swig, New York realtor and son of San Francisco developer Melvin Swig. In their divorce, Liz was awarded close to $12 million dollars worth of contemporary art.
Ellen Taubman, a curator in her own right, is the wife of shopping center developer William Taubman. His father, Albert, was the former owner of Sotheby’s and trustee of the Whitney. Dad was convicted in 2001 of price fixing artworks. Both Taubmans know their way around the contemporary market.
Trustee Renee Rockefeller is married to Mark, son of Nelson and Happy. This past December, The New York Times did a spread on Renee which included photo credits of the contemporary art that fills their Park Avenue maisonette. Renee acts as a consultant to the Frieze art fairs, prime movers in the contemporary market.
Suzanne Cochran lives with husband Robert on Fifth Avenue. In 2007 they bought a 5,000 square foot pied-à-terre in Tribecca to display the contemporary art they were beginning to collect. And collect they have done. With a vengeance, going by the number of times Ms. Cochran appears in the archives of Patrick McMullan’s full-service feeder of images to national and international society pages. Since March of this year, Suzanne has been photographed at The Drawing Center Gala, at Ross Bleckner’s swank opening at Mary Boone; the New York Academy of the Arts’ Tribecca Ball; and the Brooklyn Museum’s 4th Annual Brooklyn Artists Ball.
Trusteeship, couched in the aura of public service, is a potent instrument of investment. It places the trustee-collectors on the inside where they know ahead of time who is buying what. They know which artists will receive coveted prizes (e.g. the Whitney’s Bucksbaum Award, instituted by trustee Melva Bucksbaum), which will be exhibited or acquired by a museum. In short, they have all the advantages that in the financial world comprise insider trading.
Agnes Gund, president emeritus of MoMa’s board of trustees, phrased it quite nicely some years ago to Andrew Decker of ArtNews: “Why should they [trustees] give something, and get one day of parties and a champagne toast and that’s it?”
Art is serious business. And that is okay. Art’s collusion with the marketplace restores to artists their own humanity. It permits them to be what they have been all alongnot priests or seers but skilled workers like any others, morally indistinguishable from their neighbors. What is not okay is the smug aura of high-mindedness, the vanguard posturing of a media event like “A Subtlety” that wants to have it both ways.