Ping Pong with Michael Itkoff, Round 6



After a short break, it’s round 6 of my ongoing series of conversations with Michael Itkoff, this time about art fairs and art bubbles. (more)

Jörg Colberg: When I came to New York for a couple days about a week ago, I noticed that everybody assumed I had come for the art fairs. The fact that that was not the case resulted in many surprised faces. Maybe the art fairs are a good topic to talk about? Did you go? And if you did, why exactly did you go? What for?

Michael Itkoff: No doubt, New York’s Armory Show and the surrounding ‘Art Week’ is a big draw for collectors and curators from all over the world. In previous years, I have found the fairs to be overwhelming in the sheer amount of art on display not to mention the continual crowds on the floor. It is a pretty amazing way to encounter actual objects from artists and galleries around the globe but the funnest part has to be the accompanying festivities of dinners and parties. This year I was so busy preparing, hosting and recovering from our book launch party on March 4th that I barely had the opportunity to browse the Armory show. What I did see was a bit underwhelming. A couple people I talked to discussed the thawing market in Europe and had high hopes for this years fair. This week, of course, AIPAD will be coming to the Park Avenue Armory, any plans to be in town for that?

JC: First of all, your book launch party was great, I’m glad I was able to attend it. The books look great!

To answer your question, no, I won’t be able to come since I’ll be in Amsterdam, at a meet-up that is part of FOAM’s What’s Next? But it’s unlikely I would have gone to AIPAD. It’s not that I don’t like seeing photography, and I also don’t mind seeing gallery shows - I go regularly. But art fairs or events like AIPAD are way too much about selling photography - or “the market” as people like to call it - and that’s just not interesting for me. I’m interested in photography and what it can say, but I’m not interested in the market.

Maybe I’m going to be a bit provocative here. The talk about “the market” in photography reminds me a bit of the talk of the stock market and the economy as a whole. People love talking about the stock market, and it seems that as long as the stock market is fine, all is well. But when you talk to people who are not involved in the financial sector, the situation is quite different. Unemployment is a big problem right now, but you wouldn’t really know that from the front pages, because as long as “the market” is fine, everything is fine. An example, fresh from today. At some meeting in Queens, New York Fed President William Dudley tried to tell people that inflation wasn’t such a big deal, because even though food might have got more expensive the new iPad 2, which can do so much more, costs the same as the old one. I love the reaction of one of the audience members quoted in the article: “I can’t eat an iPad.” So there’s this fundamental disconnect going on there, between someone who obviously doesn’t have to worry about buying groceries and who can easily afford to be amazed about an iPad, and people who do have to worry about their groceries and who probably can’t afford an iPad.

I can’t help but think about all the photographers I’ve talked to recently, especially commercial/editorial ones, who have told me about the immense business problems. A lot of people really don’t know whether their businesses will survive. Photographers in what we call the “fine art” sector of course have known these kinds of problems for a while, but obviously the recession hasn’t helped. I don’t want to sound like a cheap populist here, but measuring how well photographers are doing by how well people are selling what actually really is just the tip of the tip of that giant iceberg that is the photo scene - that just seems very wrong to me. And an iceberg seems like a good metaphor for the photography scene: Most of it is under water, invisible. I like what’s produced by that shiny tip, but I also want to know about the mass under water.

So I’m much more interested in how photographers as a whole are making money than to find out whether the art fairs or AIPAD are a success. A recent example of something that could help photographers, in this case photojournalists, is a site called, a platform to raise money for photography projects (much like Kickstarter) and to connect audiences with photographers. That’s very important for me. I have been writing about photography on my website for a long time, and I’ve always been interested in how to connect photographers with wider audiences, audiences beyond the caviar crowd. Because I still think that many photographers have stories to tell that really can make this planet a very slightly better place (we talked about this in an earlier conversation). Just think of the two books that Daylight just published - of course, those are stories that ideally will reach a larger group of people. It will help you guys to make back your money (and thus lay the foundation for more books), but it will also expose many people to things they might not see otherwise, not in what’s left of their newspapers and certainly not on TV.

But I’ve also become increasingly concerned that there is a real disconnect between parts of contemporary photography and the public. As I said I’m not interested in making this populist or drag out the old and boring “elitism” debate. And maybe I’m completely off here. But still… What’s your take on this?

MI: Well, I don’t really disagree with you on anything here. I am glad to see emerging models for funding projects as this has always been a struggle for independent creatives and ‘crowd-sourcing’ seems natural in this hyper-connected digital era. One of the founders of is Tina Ahrens who, appropriately enough, used to work in Geo’s New York office before it was shuttered last year. In light of this, Daylight’s main goal is to provide a platform for quality work and we have attempted to do this with our magazine, multimedia, blog, iPad app and, most recently, books. I am glad to hear you like them! We have had a positive response so far with write-ups in the New Yorker, New York Times and the UK’s Telegraph running the multimedia piece for Bruce Haley’s Sunder.

As far as the fairs go, the art market has proven itself to be nearly as mutable as stocks with old masters behaving as more or less reliable commodities and younger artists hyped up (in the manner of green tech) as representing the (under funded) future. Of course, the stock market’s boom and bust, bull and bear, mentality applied to the arts leads inevitably to overinflated appraisals of value and and the danger of burst bubbles. Belts are tighter all around right now and there is absolutely a disconnect between most of society and the small contingent of art-world elite that attend major art fairs let alone take the ‘Grand Tour’.

Since the recession there have been some fantastic pop-up spaces filling in the gaps where other institutions once existed. For example, Daylight’s book launch was held at 25CPW which was once a Gristedes supermarket. This massive space had trouble finding commercial renters and, for the last 18 months, has hosted a number of interesting exhibitions, launches and fundraisers. Just last month I stopped by 25CPW for the launch of the second edition of Swipe Magazine featuring the artwork of Met Museum guards. Other notable efforts include the X Initiative which appeared in the former DIA space on 22nd street, Boffo, and No Longer Empty. Some shows spring up in alleys and warehouses and are torn down just as quickly - check out some of the activities in Bushwick. On a final note there have been successful attempts to make art collecting more accessible notably Jen Bekman’s 20x200.

While the landscape of contemporary photography is certainly shifting the creative responses (ie. and pop-up spaces) have been inspiring. Living outside of the city are you less concerned with physical venues for exhibition? What is the arts community like in your neck of the woods?

JC: I don’t think the solution to art’s problems is to convert more people into collectors, aka consumers. I really don’t. At least for me that’s not what art is about. Art is about so much more, and having an “original print” in your house is only a small part of that. Art is about experiencing something.

What you really want is more people to become permanently interested in art, resulting in an overall larger participation in what the art world has to offer. I don’t even understand why the collecting aspect is supposed to be so important. I mean by placing an emphasis on affordable art, we’re basically throwing art into the same bin as plastic Godzillas, say, or 1970’s Kenner Star Wars figurines or Barbies. Don’t get me wrong, my book shelf has tons of Godzillas in front of my photobooks. But there is a large difference for me between the two. The Godzillas are for the giggles. The books, at least the ones I look at regularly, are for something much more profound.

I like the idea of “independent” art spaces, whatever they might be. Of course New York City is almost an impossible place to pull something like that off because the city is so expensive now. Doing “guerrilla” shows or using spaces that are available just for a short period of time clearly seems like something that has tremendous potential. Since I don’t live in New York, I’ve never been to any, unfortunately.

My neck of the woods is vastly different from the city, of course. For the kind of art I’m interested in, this area is pretty much hopeless. Or maybe I should say there is almost nothing going on (apart from the occasional OK show at UMass Amherst). This area would be ideal for shows of all kinds, since there is so much space available. There are so many communities where you could buy or rent space for almost nothing. You could stage fantastic shows here, but of course that would require people from New York or Boston, say, willing to drive out here. Not going to happen. I even have trouble convincing people to come up and visit. People who grew up in Boston think any place that requires an hour driving is basically a foreign country (you can tell them we got Dunkin Donuts here, but they don’t believe that); and people in Manhattan… I don’t know what it is. The art world is weird that way. There is a bit of an insular thing going on, where people seem to prefer to stay in their own bubble. Don’t get me wrong, New York is a pretty cool bubble. But it’s still a bubble.

The arts community here is centered more on an older generation. A lot of people moved here in the 1960s when things here were really cheap. There are some art programs at the local colleges, but graduates pretty much leave as soon as they can. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there is a lot of pottery here. Stuff like that. I mean pottery might be nice and all, but it’s just not what I’m interested in.

Thinking about it, what I called the art bubble that is New York, which is really a physical thing, seems to be connected to the bubble that is the art world in general. I don’t know whether that makes any sense, though. What do you think?

MI: Yes, I see a pretty direct connection although the surface of the bubbles’ are of various degrees of thickness. The insular art world operates on hype and scarcity inflating the price-point of various artists and increasing the perceived value of their output. For the most part it is all a lot of hot air and, as the bubble expands, it gets thinner and thinner until it pops. The insularity of the New York art scene, on the other hand, is dependant on a perceived exclusivity defined loosely by geography and social circles. In this case the bubble is a protective shield surrounding a select group and keeping others out…

The distance between the real-world effects of art making/exhibition and the mechanization’s of the art market is ironic at best. In general, we seem to agree on the value of the distribution of art and the potential for non-urban centers to create alternative art-world meccas. DIA Beacon, for example, is an amazing space and a worthy (not to mention beautiful) day trip from Manhattan. Speaking of Beacon it now boasts two interesting art venues in addition to a not-to-be-missed Retro Arcade Museum. Fovea Exhibitions has had a strong exhibition history (including a show I curated of Christopher Churchill’s work in 2009) and the recently opened Estuary Gallery has its inaugural exhibition on display until May 1st. I am sorry to hear that there is not a lot going on up where you are. Do you have a basement or garage we could transform into a gallery? Or at least put a pool table in?

As far as over-arching goals for art I am less concerned with “larger participation” in the art world than, perhaps, with engendering a higher degree of critical/creative engagement with the world at large. Put another way, I believe arts most valuable function is re-orienting us towards a new relationship with ourselves and society. The most successful art can and does catalyze this re-positioning often operating entirely outside of traditional institutions. However, I do enjoy when museums make an effort to draw the public in with late-night openings, free admission and/or parties. PS1, MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum all have been pursuing these programs for a few years now. More novel still, the Rubin Museum, what I consider a soft institution, recently held a Dream-Over where members of the public were invited to spend a night amongst the art with live sitar music!

JC: Well, for people to experience what art has to offer - which can be, as you say, to re-orient us - people have to engage with it. So we’re talking about the same thing here. To tell you the truth, I’m quite skeptical about museums - especially about museums inside the New York bubble - because you don’t have a real museum culture here, where people might go to a museum on a lazy Sunday. Some people might do that, but most people won’t. Plus, by construction, museum shows are organized by museum curators, and what museum curators see as important often is at odds with what most people would see as important. Not that I have anything against museum curators, of course.

It seems to me that something fundamental has to change. Parties or free admission at museums is great, but if that’s the kind of incentive for people to go to a museum I don’t think that cuts it. I mean all of the events you talked about might be great for a New York crowd, but again, I’m interested in how to get more people interested in what art has to offer. A lot of people in New York read my blog, but so do a lot of people not living there, and I often notice that people think that things are only happening in New York and not elsewhere. That might actually not even be the case, but there certainly is some truth to this.

So what interests me is how we could use the web to break out of these same-old, long-tried ways of trying to lure people into the bubble? It seems to me the most obvious way - which is tied in with what the internet does - is to have more people participate. I’m probably repeating myself here, but the internet has lately become mostly a marketing tool. That’s a huge missed opportunity. Even so-called social networking seems to be 95% about marketing (I’m talking about photography here, maybe if I looked at pottery it would be different).

There are some attempts, however, to change things around; and I believe that photographers should really look at the web not as a way to distribute their PR only, but really as a big, big tool to share with people what they do, to get people interested in that. Thing is many photographers are passionate about something or have a story to tell. And people love stories. I’m thinking, for example, of my friend Mark Tucker’s new website - - where he goes out to take photos of people he runs into (plus movies), and he publishes those stories online. More well-known is Phil Toledano’s Of course, the sites are photography based, but they’re about more than that.

So when I think of combining such efforts with, let’s say, renting a barn out here in Western Mass (where there are tons of cheap places), to stage a show, that has me really excited. It would be straightforward to combine using such an unusual venue with whatever the web has to offer btw (just think of how Winkleman Gallery used the web for their show #hashtag). Because it would leave the bubble so much art is happening in. It would literally take things out of the kinds of contexts we’re seeing things in right now. I feel that we need to take things more out of their usual contexts, to see whether there is something else. That re-orienting that you talked about - sometimes that really needs us to physically move somewhere where we haven’t been before. It’s almost like what the narrator in Thomas Bernhard’s novella Walking talks about when he notes that the act of walking is intimately tied to thinking, because when you physically move that makes your mind move.

So maybe we really need to have Daylight stage a show in, say, Western Mass? Would be cheap to do!

MI: I love taking long walks there is no doubt it helps stimulate and refresh my mind. Years ago I used to try seated meditations and breathing exercises but I have since lost the discipline. Walking, on the other hand, is a great way to practice mindfulness, focus on my breath, and let thoughts flow over and through. Ill often focus on a project and come back with a solid direction to move forward. If we look at evolution only very recently have we become a sedentary culture and normally moved around all day, foraging, hunting etc so it makes sense that I find solace in the rhythmic motion of walking. For more on that check out the Barefoot (Harvard) Professor.

Psychologically speaking there is also something purifying about moving through space, passing things and continuously encountering new information. In the city, often enough this information is a bit of rubbish or an advertisement of some sort. Last year I was taking a run and enjoying a crystal clear afternoon when I noticed a huge Geico advertisement being written in the sky! Of course that is not nearly as novel as Coca-Cola’s failed bid to use the moon as a billboard.

Advertisers have made a lot of headway in creating cross-platform strategies of engagement with their demographics. I used to love playing little games on the back of cereal boxes but now you are just as likely to receive a login code with free credits to play snack themed games. Talk about rotting your brain! Its surprising to me how few artists have really tried to work with something as participatory and popular as video games… Now there is a piece of art I could live with!

Back to the idea of barn conversion the team at the Wassaic Project that have turned an old farm into a residency and gallery space. It is right near the Metro North station and seriously worth a visit especially during their much lauded Summer Festival. That said, I am all for doing a show with you somewhere off the beaten path. Perhaps we can coordinate it—trans-platform style—with a book launch party including live video feeds, instant twitter updates and implantable cameras to keep the world informed? We can still keep it homey with some bluegrass and bourbon…

JC: I think you want to tie things in with some sort of participatory efforts so that even if you’re not there you are still part of at least something. I don’t think I think Twitter updates are so useful, though, because it is, after all, a one-way street. I find “live blogging” or “live tweeting” pretty obnoxious. There’s got to be more than doing an event in the countryside (outside of New York) just so it’s different. The countryside aspect can’t be just a gimmick.

I find it amazing that so many artists come to New York even though it’s literally the worst place for them to do art. It’s great if you want to go to all the openings, but doesn’t it more sense to spend all that time producing art instead? Producing art is really tough, and doing it in a city that’s so insanely expensive seems… crazy almost. So I think doing something that’s not an event or show in New York ideally would tie in with more that’s happening. But maybe even just starting off with a big event somewhere, renting a barn or whatever and staging a great show for a week or two - that would be quite something. And ideally, it’d be interactive in ways that the art scene currently is not, so that you could participate even if you’re not there, in whatever way. I’ve been thinking about that for a while now, one of those crazy ideas in my head.

MI: New York is a pretty nutty place to come and do anything let alone create art. Its a bit of a snowball effect as there are so many artists here, and such a lively cultural scene, that people want to come and be a part of it. I grew up not two hours away and was pulled in by the city’s gravity like so many others…. There is something to be said for the energy and excitement of the events and openings but there is also, as Nayland Blake once said, the “danger of becoming a constant spectator.” Its no picnic but it aint boring neither!

I am interested in exploring this idea of remote participation but I am also interested in helping to create local art scenes that are vibrant and self-sufficient. Its one thing to have a cabin in the middle of nowhere with, say, projected content submitted by artists/browsers online and another if there is the possibility a real time dialogue created between two groups of people… In any case I am excited to explore this idea more with you - as long as we can keep the beer cold and the blues hot!

(Image by Mila Zinkova, via)