Lenny

On the return of stolen Cuban artwork

There are a lot of museums in Europe, mostly France, and a lot of collectors in Europe and Asia, and several major auction houses that are nervously looking to what happens in Cuba once its brutal dictatorship finally ends.

They are nervous because worldwide courts have consistently recognized the right of original owners to the return of artwork which has been looted by governments and dictatorships, confiscated, sold and re-sold.

It has taken in some cases several decades for the artwork to return to the familial descendants of the original and rightful owners, but essentially international law is pretty clear on the subject that generally no government can confiscate private property.

There are, of course, many dictatorships worldwide where one of the foundations of those regimes is that private citizens under their yoke cannot own private property.

It occurred to me recently that when the current Cuban dictatorship took control of that unfortunate island on January 1, 1959, one of the first things that they did after they executed thousands of people, burned and banned books, jailed all political opposition, and closed down newspapers and magazines, was to confiscate most private property.

And there was a lot of artwork confiscated in Cuba; stolen from their rightful owners. A lot of that artwork in now in Europe.

We’ve been led to believe that in 1959 Cuba was just another Latin American cesspool, but the facts are that in 1959 Cuba had one of the highest standards of living of any nation in the Americas and a higher per capita income than several European nations and higher than Japan, as well as a positive immigration flow from Europe to Cuba, as well as the third highest protein consumption in the Western Hemisphere. Today the island’s food rations are actually lower than the slave rations mandated by the Spanish King in 1842.

The island also had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, ranked ahead of France, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, Austria, Italy and Spain. The average wage of a Cuban worker was higher than for workers in West Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium and in the late 50s Cuban labor received 66.6 per cent of the nation’s GNP, again higher than several European nations (the US figure is 68%). And the 8 hour week was mandated by law in Cuba in 1933, five years before FDR’s New Deal got to doing it in the US. And in the 1950s, 44% of Cubans were covered by social legislation, a higher percent than the US at that time.

And while we’ve been led to also believe that Cuban peasants and farm workers lived in a near feudal state, the average farm wage in Cuba in 1959 ($3.00 a day) was higher than those of farm workers in France ($2.73), Belgium ($2.70), Denmark ($2.74) or Germany ($2.73). In the US it was $4.06. And in 1959 only 34% of the Cuban population was rural and the nation had the lowest inflation rate in the Americas, 1.4% - the US was at 2.73%

So this was not a nation mired in poverty, as we have been led to believe, but a nation under the yoke of a very brutal dictator in the person of Fulgencio Batista.

The very wealthy Cuban upper and business class hated Batista and became the financial backers of the Castro Revolution, raising millions of dollars for the rebels. They also owned many art masterpieces from both European and Latin American masters.

As a thank you, nearly all of this work was confiscated by the Castro dictatorship and by 1961 most of the best work had made its way to government-owned museums and collections, and most of the owners had made their way to the United States in the largest proportional mass exodus in contemporary history.

When the abomination known as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s and Cuba’s sugar daddy stopped sending billions of dollars in subsidy to the Castro brothers, the Cuban economy collapsed, and one of the results of that collapse was the mass selling, by the Cuban government, of those confiscated masterpieces, most of which found their way to European museums and European and Asian private collections via French auction houses. Thus many masterpieces once owned by the Fanjul family, or the Bacardi family, or by sugar magnate Julio Lobo (whose interest in Napoleonic memorabilia led to him amassing one of the world’s largest collections of Bonaparte memorabilia such as weapons, furniture, paintings, letters, etc.) were sold to European museums and collectors.

But now I think that the end of the brutal Castro dictatorship is nigh, and one day soon, when the rule of law and democracy and freedom returns to Cuba, one of the first things that the descendants of those families should do is to go after whoever now possesses their families’ stolen artwork and goods, and in some cases even copyrights.

And the details of these illegal sales have left bloody footprints. For example, according to Maritza Beato’s excellent article in El Nuevo Herald titled “El Saqueo del Patrimonio Cultural Cubano” (The Looting of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony), the sale of the Julio Lobo Napoleonic collection to a French museum was orchestrated by a French official attached to the French Embassy in Havana. His name is Antoine Anvil.

And if I was one of those auction houses or museums in Europe or collectors or dealers around the world, I’d be a little nervous.

What goes around comes around.

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Lenny

Itsuki Ogihara steals the “Paper” show at Projects

A few days ago I dropped by Projects Gallery in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood in order to deliver some of my artwork, as they are taking my work to a couple of fairs in Miami this weekend.

Hanging at the gallery was their “Paper” show, in which I actually have a few pieces of my own work.

When you first walk into the gallery you see this:
Projects Gallery

The wallpaper like artwork all the way on that far wall, seemingly a sort of artist wallpaper at first sight, is one of the most amazing conceptual pieces with a powerful delivery mechanism and one of the most innovative and intelligent works of art that I have ever seen.
Itsuki Ogihara Population Series
Itsuki Ogihara. Population Series. 17”H x 17”W. Digital prints

Like all of you, I was initially fooled by the subject matter macro visual, and it wasn’t until I zoomed in and understood what I was seeing, that this young Japanese-born artist (and a student at UPenn I believe) struck me with the powerful punch of that ellusive artistic goal: something new.

Itsuki Ogihara is her name, and this is her latest project (see earlier projects here) and after I describe it for you, I think you will see why I came away so impressed.

Each one of those 17″ x 17″ digital prints represents an American city. Each “city” has a different design.
work by Itsuki Ogihara, image by Roberta Fallon
Ogihara has taken data from the US Census to determine that city’s racial and ethnic demographics, and using an artistic algorithm, she then designs each print to represent that city. The macro design in each city is made up of 100 tiny silhouetted figures in various poses and activities. As an example, in the Salt Lake City print, there are 83 white silhouettes, 2 black, and so on to describe that city’s racial and ethnic make-up.
from Itsuki Ogihara Population Series - image by Roberta Fallon
Pretty interesting so far. And then when you study each figure, you realize that they are each individuals. That’s right, each individual figure is a separate and distinct image on its own.

What she has done is actually taken hundreds of portraits of people; real people and real photographs, and shrunk them down to the tiny size seen in the prints, and then colored them to represent each race (white for Caucasians, black for African-American, red for Native Americans and yellow for Asians) and one ethnicity (brown for Latinos).

It is such a labor intensive endeavor that it leaves me tired just to think of it. And it is also one of the rare conceptual ideas where the art actually delivers on a par with the idea or wall text about the concept.

Itsuki Ogihara’s demographic wallpaper is an unexpected treat delivered in a superbly professional and unique delivery mechanism, which employs concepts of mass production generalization to delve deep into our shared consciousness about race and ethnicity and art.

I see great things in the future of this young artist.

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Bill

Tale of a Lost Leger

It’s a tragic story, one that institutions everywhere should heed now that remodeling, renovation and rebuilding seem to be a nationwide phenomenon.

According to WCVB’s website, Wellesley College seems to have lost a painting by Fernand Leger.

Here’s how this unfortunate event appears to have unfolded:

Painted in 1921, “Woman and Child” had been on loan to an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. When it was returned to Wellesley, the college’s museum was in the midst of a construction project. So the crate sat around someplace, apparently. The sense one gets from the article is that it was just chucked in a corner, more or less. I realize that sounds harsh, but so, to all of us, is the loss of an artwork by an acknowledged master.

Finally, with construction complete, it came time to assess where things were. And no one knew where the Leger was. Talk is that it might even have been thrown away with a bunch of similar, empty crates.

Ladies and gents, the facts are clear: had this multi-million-dollar treasure of an artwork been stored in a high-tech art storage facility such as Mind’s Eye, it would continue to bring pleasure and inspiration to future generations. And at what cost, anything even remotely comparable to the loss sustained by Wellesley College? I think not.

As these museum reconstruction programs continue, I hope that those in charge are giving serious consideration to the temporary storage of their works of art. This is no task for interns or do-it-yourselfers.

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Lenny

Pricing Artwork

Recently I had an interesting email exchange with a very well-known artist, whose work I have sold (in my capacity as an art dealer and gallerist) many times in the past, including to American and Latin American museums.

She was giving me prices for her new work, and checking up with me (and all her other dealers I assume), because she had noticed that some galleries were selling a particular limited edition etching for “$3,000 each, when the gallery price should be $5,000.”

I’ve never seen this work listed for under $5,000, but I digress.

She affirmed that the gallery price for that particular work was $5,000 and that only she could sell her own work in her own studio for $3,000.

What?

This is a harsh lesson that most artists need to learn very quickly: An artist cannot afford to compete with him/herself when it comes to prices.

Nearly all emerging artists, when first dealing with a gallery encounter the business fact that a gallery has to make a commission from the artist’s work in order to make ends meet as a business. The first reaction of the artist is sometimes to “bump” the price to meet the gallery’s commission.

No good!

The exact same editioned work can’t be sold for $1000 in DC, for $4000 in London, for $800 in Brazil and for $500 bucks in your studio. The same size painting cannot wonder all over the price scale depending where it’s being sold.

See what that does?

1. It can damage the reputation of a dealer. Imagine the collector who pays $1,000 in London and then he sees the same work for $500 elsewhere? The immediate reaction is “that dealer ripped me off,” not realizing that the artist is the one who is ripping everyone off by creating price confusion and trying to pass the gallery commission off to the collector. A good artist and gallery relationship is a symbiotic one, not a money struggle.

2. It will damage the reputation of the artist and will always bring the “real” price of the work down to the lowest price, when the idea is for art dealers and artists to work together to raise demand and thus prices; not have prices wondering all over the scale.

This is very different from the secondary art market, where auction prices can wonder wildly all over the place.

But artists must be consistent in their pricing and accept the fact that if they are going to work with an art gallery or art dealer or both, then they can’t have them competing with each other and also with the artist, because a good art dealer’s job is to protect both the artist and the collector.

Of course there are nuances to this process… both dealers and artists should have a specified leeway to give collector’s discounts to ahhh… collectors, and also offer discounts to multiple buys when someone buys several works at once.

But not discount your own work by 50% just because it is being sold out of your studio.

That just drags your prices down and will cause your art dealer to scold and educate you, or even drop you.

Of course, like some artists that I know, if you do not need an art dealer and can sell your own work all the time, then — since you are the only one selling it — you control prices and can do whatever you want, and hopefully won’t be having art “sales” where you’ll be “discounting” the work that you sold to collectors a week earlier for a specific price, to a much lower price.

It’s a little complicated at first, but once you truly examine the issue, then it should be clear to see that the idea and goal is to expose your artwork, get it seen, commented upon and — if that’s your goal — sold for a fair and reasonable price, and letting the laws of economics take it to where it should be.

But definitely not under the “blue light special” of your own studio.

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Scott

Big News at the ARTtistics

We’ve added our newest ARTtistic, Joanne Mattera!

Here’s a bit on Joanne:

Joanne Mattera is a studio artist whose focus is lush color and geometric composition, an aesthetic she describes as “lush minimalism.” She has had solo shows in New York City at the Stephen Haller Gallery, where she was a represented artist, and at OK Harris Works of Art, where her second solo with the gallery, “Silk Road,” took place in May 2007. She has also participated in group shows at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Thatcher Projects, the Heidi Cho Gallery, and Garson Baker Fine Art.

Read More Here 

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Bill

Writing a New Story of Art

I’ve begun to think of much of art history in the last part of the twentieth century as a story about a vital organ of humanity slowly peeling away from the rest, becoming rarefied, highfalutin, relevant to its time perhaps but in ways that few could appreciate. But a funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century: the story of art exploded. Or, as some have put it and as I like to say, one story of art history ended, and a new one began.

Whether you agree or disagree with that thought, it’s clear that something fundamental has changed in the art world. Broad, powerful movements seem no longer to arise, at least not in the same way as Pop and Ab-Ex, for example, while micro-movements, so to speak, seem to appear and evaporate over just a few years. Small works abound and are taken seriously, abstractions proliferate, video and multimedia work seems more prominent than ever, new aesthetics develop and fade away like fantastic, flowering weeds. The aspect of the fine arts discourse that once took place between a few artists in a few bars in a few cities on a few nights is now an ongoing conversation between hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of artists in thousands of cities and towns around the world.

I’ve become so impressed with the sense of newness these changes imply that my approach to art, both my own and of others, is much more immediate than in prior decades. I tend to be less interested in an artist’s intent, for example, or in the way a contemporary work might relate to historical work, at least until I’ve come to an appreciation based on other aspects. I’ve come to suspect that it’s a detriment if a work of art requires a deep or esoteric understanding of any other subject. My patience for art that comes with a homework requirement has worn very thin.

It appears to me that, as artists and as those who enjoy, write about, exhibit, collect and otherwise interpret art, an exhilarating opportunity has been placed before us to write a new story. This story can be – in fact already is – incredibly inclusive, rather than restricted to ideas enunciated by deceased Western academics. It can inspire most if not all viewers, rather than single out a few for inspiration and leave the rest gaping deadly, resenting sometimes that their tax dollars funded it. In this new story, art could be written deeply into the culture at large, enriching and bringing perspective and added dimensions of education.

Perhaps, with time, we’ll see that this supposed new story of art is really just the old story repackaged and refurbished, Vasari 2.0. Even if this turns out to be the case, the way in which art now appears to develop, along multiple axes and in many different directions at once, promises to bear fascinating fruit.

That’s why I’m excited about writing for this new publication, and why I hope you’ll keep reading, contributing with your comments, and being involved with art in whatever way makes sense for you. And, who knows? Maybe as we write the next story of art together, we can write a better story for humanity as well.

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