De-globalization hits the art world

Institutions no longer want to be “world class” as they used to; companies boast less often of being “global”. Even the most global competition of all, the Olympics, is losing its luster.

Why is this important: De-globalization has arrived, and the implications aren’t just felt on results calls featuring terrible words like “glocal” or “friendshoring.”

  • artistic establishments, in particular, spend far more time cultivating local communities, and less time trying to impress a global elite of critics and trend setters.

What is happening: Arts administrators are beginning to try to measure things like mental and even physical well-being to assess the success of their programs and are using terms like “impact framework.” The idea, basically, is that the arts are a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

  • Cultural districts around the world ask their local communities what they would like to see and experience. The desire to reach younger audiences often results in concerts by big-name musicians – one of the areas of the arts that has rebounded fastest from the pandemic, even as audiences have shunned more obscure material.
  • Cities, after years of subsidizing major arts organizations, are beginning to move towards cultivating their “natural cultural districts” – one of the buzzwords of the cultural production industry.

The context: World high culture has become extremely expensive. This is partly because of its inherently low productivity growth (aka Baumol’s cost disease), and in part because globalization has increased the demand for the most sought-after art and artists from a handful of cities to hundreds.

  • The founder of an arts institution in West Africa told me that in hindsight, he acted much too quickly to recruit an architect from the start. Costly designs imposed from above are often resented by the local community.

Successful museum exhibitions, as the Morozov collection which has just closed in Paris, or the Cezanne exhibition which has just opened in Chicago, now involve so much financial and logistical muscle that, echoing professional socceronly a small group of elite institutions can hope to compete.

  • All others are forced make virtue a necessity and establish a local program rather than a global one.

World culture has spent the last century becoming increasingly homogeneous. This trend is far from over, but cultural institutions are beginning to have doubts about the role they play in driving this bus.

The revolution of Chinese art centers

One of the drivers of the increased localization of the arts is, against all odds, China – a country that has built 128 major new arts centers over the past 30 years.

The context: The Guggenheim Bilbao, inaugurated in 1997, accelerated the trend of cities trying to attract international tourists by building arts centres.

  • Most would-be imitators have failed – and while high-profile projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi continue to attempt the same feat, most of them are obvious vanity projects from the get-go.
  • As one academic told me, “Rich cities try to become sexy cities, converting financial capital into cultural capital.”

The big picture: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong established themselves on the international cultural scene and attracted millions of international tourists before COVID completely closed China to such activity.

  • Other Chinese cities, however, collectively represent the majority of new Chinese projects – and do not have the same ambitions. In a country the size of China, being a local, rather than international, arts hub is a major achievement, well worth a significant investment. Especially if the arts center looks great in photos.

The Chinese Communist Party is now pressuring local governments not to overspend on international architects. This does not mean the end of superb architectural projects; it is more likely to market the beginning of a new generation of Chinese architects better suited to the regional cultural heritage.

Museums sell world-class art

If an art museum doesn’t want to be world-class, does it even need world-class art? The actions of the Toledo Museum of Art imply that the answer is no.

  • The demand for museum-quality works by world-class artists remains hot. So, facing strong criticalthe museum of Toledo sold a Matissea Cezanneand one Renoir auctioned in May for a total of $60 million.

What they say : The goal of the sales is to double the amount of money the museum can spend on art each year, helping to build a collection less dominated by dead white European men, and one that includes more “female artists, African-American artists, or other ethnicities,” in the words of Gary Gonya, who sports the title of “director of brand strategy” at the museum.

  • The disposition of a masterpiece like the $41.7 million Cézanne from Toledo will always be controversial. Museums no just exist to improve the well-being of their communities; they are also centers of conservation and scholarship, holding priceless treasures under public trust.

The bottom line: The more art centers focus on parochial concerns, the more likely it is that some of the world’s greatest works of art will end up in private hands.

  • The general logic is simple: if the museum had $40 million, it wouldn’t spend it on a Cézanne. He would rather have 40 million dollars than the Cézanne. Therefore, if he can sell the Cézanne for $40 million, he should.
  • Taken to its natural conclusion, this logic involves far more alienation than we have been accustomed to so far.

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