How an $85 Million Auction House Acquisition May Impact Dallas’ Public Art Museum

Here’s a bit of art world news that may not seem to have much to do with Dallas, but may actually have a real impact on how this city’s art scene – and its public art museum – are perceived.

Here’s a bit of art world news that may not seem to have much to do with Dallas, but may actually have a real impact on how this city’s art scene — and its public art museum — are perceived. Auction behemoth Sotheby’s announced that it is acquiring Art Agency, Partners, a boutique art advisory firm, for $85 million. One of Art Agency, Partners principals is none other than Allan Schwarztman. That’s a name that should be recognizable to anyone familiar with our local collector scene. Schwartzman has been Howard Rachofsky’s art adviser for some time, and he has been influential in shaping that collection into one of the most renowned in the world.

According to industry watchers, Sotheby’s acquisition is an attempt by the auction house to add new revenue streams to its business, particularly by expanding its role in private sales. Sotheby’s stock has been dipping, and auction results have trailed off of late. There’s also chatter of an art market bubble. That’s not surprising in light of a statement buried deep in the NYT article made by an asset manager who states plainly that “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today — compared with gold in the past — are contemporary art and real estate.” All that equity plowing its way into the contemporary art market have led to years of record-breaking, headline-making auction events. One assumes the party can’t go on forever.

But here’s why this is all so interesting for Dallas. Think about the situation the acquisition of the art advisory firm by the auction house creates. Howard Rachofsky has a particular relationship with the Dallas Museum of Art. Not only is he one of the museum’s major donors and supporters, but because of his “bequest” – a promise he and two other prominent collector families made in 2007 that will ensure that his collection is donated to the museum after his passing – Rachofsky’s  collection essentially forms the foundation of the DMA’s contemporary art program. Not only are the works in his collection at the museum’s disposal, but a number of exhibitions at the museum in recent years have been mounted in consort with the collector’s latest acquisitions and interests. Now we have a situation where the person who is shaping that collection – and, by extension, playing a real role in shaping the DMA’s contemporary art program – is also an employee of one of the largest auction houses in the world.

To really appreciate the apparent conflict this creates, you have to remember how value is created in the world of art. Museums establish provenance, and that provenance comes with an attached value. If museums suddenly take interest in an artist or an artistic movement – like, say, post-war Japanese art – then the perception is that that art has new historical value. The market value of that artist goes up accordingly. Certainly museums don’t exclusively play a role in art market making. Collectors, dealers, art advisers, and auction houses have been effective in building markets around artists themselves. But having an adviser to the Rachofsky collection who also serve as an employee of Sotheby’s brings the auction house and this city’s public art museum into a very cozy alignment.

You could look at this transaction and say that all it does is make more explicit and transparent the relationships between museums, dealers, auction houses, and collectors that already exist and have helped establish the character of the contemporary art market. The art world can’t function as a storehouse of the world’s wealth without the ability to create value. (It is not a coincidence, for example, that most museums pluck artists from a limited list of top galleries.) At the end of the day, it all sheds light on the fact that the real significant movement in contemporary art over the past few decades has not been aesthetic, but rather financial – a kind of pseudo-Duchampian appropriation that has transformed of art objects into financial securities.

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