We’ve heard a lot about how the economy is bad for the arts, but the current downturn brings with it some upsides:

For contemporary art: With less hope of easy sales, artists could refocus on making difficult, complex, less-marketable art. If you can’t sell, you can’t sell out. We might see fewer attractive paintings with a veneer of substance (Peter Doig might fade from view) and more works that directly address the substance of life (the films of Tacita Dean could take up the slack).

For museum exhibitions: A crash-chastened audience could learn to reject glitz (the flashing lights of Leo Villareal installed at the National Gallery, for instance) in favor of substance. Bling is out on Wall Street. Maybe it will fall from fashion in museums, too.

For auction sales: With no prospect of breaking records — they were all set in an inflated era — collectors will have less incentive to overpay for things. That means fewer minor artworks (that $104 million “Boy With a Pipe,” painted by an immature Picasso) getting attention just for their sticker prices.

For artists: Empty retail, office and industrial buildings will likely mean cheaper studios. (Look at New York in the 1970s, and its great SoHo scene.)

For museum collections (1): As financial bubbles pop, speculators may stop investing in the art market, which would bring its prices back to earth. Those lower prices would help museums stretch their acquisition funds.

For museum collections (2): When companies retrench, they tend to ditch their art collections. Those often end up in museums, such as when Altria gave its collection to the Whitney last year.

For museum buildings: Could the crash mean the end of architectural elephantiasis? Museum expansions often do more harm than good: The long process of making them happen can distract from artistic priorities, and once they’re done, they turn museum visits into marathons. What visitor can take in all of the Museum of Modern Art, at its post-expansion scale?

For us: With the crash, things of the mind and “spirit” — art among them — could start replacing wealth and goods.

Blake Gopnik
Washington Post