Jun 4, 2022 - Economy & Business

Deglobalization hits the art world

An image of a fractured globe

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Institutions don't want to be "world-class" as much as they used to; companies boast less often of being "world-beating." Even the most global competition of all, the Olympics, is losing its luster.

Why it matters: Deglobalization has arrived, and the implications aren't just being felt on earnings calls featuring terrible words like "glocal" or "friendshoring."

  • Arts institutions, in particular, are spending much more time on cultivating local communities and less time trying to impress a global elite of critics and tastemakers.

What's happening: Arts administrators are starting to try to measure things like mental and even physical well-being as a gauge of how successful their programs are, and are using terms like "impact framework." The idea, at heart, is that the arts are a means to an end, rather than being an end in themselves.

  • Cultural districts around the world are asking their local communities what they would like to see and experience. A desire to reach younger audiences often results in concerts from big-name musicians — one of the areas of the arts that bounced back the most quickly from the pandemic, even as audiences shunned more recondite material.
  • Cities, after years of subsidizing large arts organizations, are beginning to pivot toward cultivating their "naturally occurring cultural districts" — one of the hot buzz phrases of the cultural-production industry.

Context: Global high culture has been getting extraordinarily expensive. That's partly because of its inherently low productivity growth (aka Baumol's cost disease), and partly because globalization has caused demand for the most sought-after art and artists to expand from a handful of cities to hundreds.

  • The founder of an arts institution in West Africa told me that, with hindsight, he moved far too quickly to get a starchitect on board early on. Expensive designs imposed from on high are often resented by the local community.

Blockbuster museum shows, like the Morozov Collection that just closed in Paris, or the Cézanne exhibit that just opened in Chicago, now involve so much financial and logistical muscle that, in an echo of professional soccer, only a tiny elite group of institutions can hope to compete.

  • Everybody else is being forced to make a virtue of necessity and to set a local agenda rather than a global one.

Global culture spent the past century becoming increasingly homogenous. That trend is far from over — but cultural institutions are beginning to have second thoughts about the role they play in driving that bus.

The Chinese art center revolution

One of the drivers of increased localization in the arts is, counterintuitively, China — a country that has built 128 major new arts centers over the past 30 years.

Context: The Guggenheim Bilbao, inaugurated in 1997, turbocharged a trend of cities trying to attract international tourists by building arts centers.

  • Most would-be copycats failed — and although high-profile projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi continue to attempt the same feat, most of them are obvious vanity projects from inception.
  • As one academic put it to me: "Rich cities attempt to become sexy cities, converting financial capital into cultural capital."

The big picture: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong have established themselves on the international cultural scene and attracted millions of international tourists before COVID-19 effectively shut China off from such activity entirely.

  • Other Chinese cities, however, collectively account for the majority of new Chinese projects — and don't have the same ambitions. In a country the size of China being a local arts hub, rather than an international one, is a major achievement, well worth a large investment. Especially if the arts hub looks great in photographs.

The Chinese Communist Party is now putting pressure on local governments not to spend lavishly on international starchitects. That doesn't mean the end of stunning architectural projects; more likely it's going to market the beginning of a new generation of Chinese architects who are better attuned to regional cultural heritage.

Museums are selling 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 (Ohio) Museum of Art imply that the answer is no.

  • Demand for museum-quality works from world-class artists remains white hot. So, in the face of loud criticism, the Toledo museum sold a Matisse, a Cézanne and a Renoir at auction in May for a combined $60 million.

What they're saying: The aim of the sales is to double the amount of money that the museum can spend on art each year, thereby helping to put together a collection that is less dominated by dead white European men and that features more "female artists, African American artists, or other ethnicities," in the words of Gary Gonya, who sports the job title "director of brand strategy" at the museum.

  • Deaccessioning a masterpiece like Toledo's $41.7 million Cézanne is always going to be controversial. Museums don't just exist to improve the well-being of their communities; they're also centers of conservation and scholarship, holding priceless treasures in public trust.

The bottom line: The more that arts centers concentrate on parochial concerns, the more likely it is that some of the world's greatest artworks will end up in private hands.

  • The overarching logic is simple: If the museum had $40 million, it wouldn't spend it on a Cézanne. It would rather have $40 million than the Cézanne. Therefore, if it can sell the Cézanne for $40 million, it should.
  • Taken to its natural conclusion, that logic implies a lot more deaccessioning than we've been used to until now.
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