Certainly any top 10 list about the most memorable events over the past decade in the visual arts must include mention of the economic bubble felt in auction houses (where bids were wildly up, then way down) as well as institutions (where philanthropy has ebbed dramatically since the onset of the recession). However, a few other sea changes crept in amid the financial furor, including the emergence of technology as a major form of outreach and engagement. Here are 10 reasons why the visual arts continued to thrill existing audiences, and reach new ones, in the first chapter of the 21st century.
1. JERRY SALTZ ON FACEBOOK
Maybe the quirkiest signal that art has officially entered the 21st century has arisen from art critic Jerry Saltzs avid and unconventional use of Facebook as a boisterous conversational platform. Adept at devising debate-spurring status updates that routinely spiral into insightful and hilarious free-for-alls (including a recent offer to pay $10,000 to anyone who can prove that painting is dead), Saltz has emerged as an unexpected master of the social networking platform. Instead of tuning in (yet again) to find out what your friends ate for lunch, try clicking on the New York-based critics page for a conversation around contemporary art with attitude and (at least some semblance of) substance.
2. INSTITUTIONS EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY
While art museums remain sites primarily of quiet contemplation, the 00s ushered in a period when visitors are not only expected but encouraged to use cell phones and portable computing devices to supplement their visits. Dial a local number to hear a given works audio label, recorded by an artist or curator (in Tampa Bay, both the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, and the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum use the technology), or download a podcast to listen to as you roam from gallery to gallery. Why stop there? Follow your favorite museum on Twitter, friend it on Facebook or check out its collection online (in the case of the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example).
3. AUCTIONS GONE WILD
Eye-popping post-auction headlines created the most transparent sign of an economic bubble in the art world. At their high points in 2006 and 2007, the record-breaking sales led New York Times reporter Carol Vogel to compare the spending spree to a game using play money.
But following the new precedents set in sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary works, the market plunged with the deepening of the recession in 2008. Perhaps a sign that things may be looking up again as the decade concludes, famed casino mogul Stephen Wynn snagged a Rembrandt self-portrait in December for the record sum of $33.2 million.
4. DAMIEN HIRSTS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
Apparently fabricated in a perverse effort to one-up his own prodigious earnings at auction, artist Damien Hirst constructed one of the most memorable artworks of the aughts. For the Love of God (pictured above), a platinum-and-diamond-encrusted skull, allegedly sold for the jaw-dropping price of nearly $100 million in 2007, seemed to some to symbolize the excessive expenditures of a decade and the arbitrariness of contemporary art valuations. Turns out the consortium that purchased the piece included Hirst as a member.
5. COLLECTOR MUSEUMS
Prominent collectors, perhaps emboldened by the skyrocketing value of their holdings on paper during the 00s, opted to build their own museums (or exhibition venues) in lieu of handing over control of their collections to existing institutions. Miamis now robust scene owes much to this trend: the Rubell Family Collection, Margulies Collection at the Warehouse and the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation are all fantastic places to visit. In LA, philanthropist Eli Broad partnered with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to create the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, which opened in 2008.
6. ART BASEL MIAMI BEACH IS BORN
Originally scheduled to launch in 2001 but postponed following 9/11, Art Basel Miami Beach marked the stateside expansion of Art Basel, an important contemporary art fair held annually in Switzerland. Since 2002, ABMB (aka, Miami Basel) has lured high rollers and celebrities, along with the art-loving masses, to South Beach for a week of exuberantly conspicuous consumption. During the December fête, finding a parking space or a dinner reservation near Collins Avenue becomes nearly impossible but thats part of the attraction. Meanwhile, Wynwood, an up-and-coming neighborhood north of downtown Miami, has turned into a burgeoning local gallery district that stays active year round.
7. NEA UNDER NEW LEADERSHIP
Since the 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts has abstained from giving grants to individual visual artists a result of scandals surrounding pornographic art including Robert Mapplethorpes homoerotic photography, once funded by the organization, and Republican congressional victories. (Instead, the NEA gives money to institutions.) While theres no indication yet that this policy will change, the Obama administrations appointment of New York theater producer Rocco Landesman has given some folks hope that the endowment will wield more power and do more to support individual artists directly again in the future.
8. MFA CRADLE-ROBBING
One of the consequences of the red-hot art market was an irrational enthusiasm among gallery owners, particularly in New York, for work by artists fresh out of MFA programs. This excitement trickled up in the form of The Generational: Younger Than Jesus, an exhibition at the New Museum in Manhattan devoted to artists under the age of 33. (That said, the 2000s were also a banner decade for Louise Bourgeois, a nonagenarian whose work was the subject of exhibitions at the Guggenheim, Tate Modern and Pompidou Center, as well as a documentary film.)
9. COMMERCIAL CULTURE AS HIGH ART
Accessibility in the sense of appealing to potential visitors with comfortable, popular content (as opposed to obscure, conceptual premises) has become something of a mantra for museums in the 21st century. The effort to bridge pop culture and the museum may have culminated with the Brooklyn Museums 2002 tribute to Star Wars, complete with costume displays and Death Star graphics, but that institution wasnt the only one to perpetuate the phenomenon. In 2000, the esteemed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum hosted an exhibition devoted to the work of fashion designer Giorgio Armani. And our own Tampa Museum of Art hosted a showcase of New York Yankees memorabilia in 2005.
10. ART:21 HITS THE AIRWAVES
Contemporary art synonymous for many people with incomprehensible and seemingly self-indulgent artistic practices gets its own riveting, super-fun mini-documentary series courtesy of PBS. Brilliantly directed and edited, the television series provides 20-minute intros to some of our most fascinating living artists, letting them come across in their own words as thoughtful, accessible and engaged with the world; John Baldessari, Kiki Smith, Roni Horn, Fred Wilson, Cai Guo-Qiang, Louise Bourgeois and dozens more speak candidly about their work. Complete episodes can be streamed online at pbs.org.