Presentation by Vermeir & Heiremans, 'A Modest Proposal: activating public resources as a commons?'
Recording of Vermeir & Heireman's presentation at SOTA
Thanks SOTA for organizing this camp and Caveat for inviting us.
We hope our presentation can shed an alternative light on the ongoing discussions on sustainability in the arts and beyond.
Since 2006 we have been working as the artist duo Vermeir & Heiremans. Our focus has been on the dynamics between art, real estate, economy and governing from a very personal perspective. In our collaborative practice we define our own loft apartment in Brussels as an artwork. The art house is not open for visits, but instead we create 'mediated extensions' of the space. These extensions translate our domestic environment into installations, videos, publications...
Sometimes the art house is a point of departure or inspiration and the work resulting from it relates to questions how 'living in a house' is linked to a wider economy, property laws, gentrification, governing and so on...
What first opened our eyes on these topics was a book written by Sharon Zukin, Loft Living, Culture and Capital in Urban Change from 1989. Zukin's book investigates the meeting of art and real estate markets. It is a story of how in Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s empty warehouses became hot commodities. It explains how investors and corporations, after de-investing in the industrial parts of Manhattan, were filling the area with an “artistic mode of production”.
Zukin describes the part artists played in state policies that implied changing zoning laws and redirecting capital investments so that the deserted industrial sites would become profitable once again. She details the role of artists in a process that today is commonly referred to as gentrification, but which in fact is part of a much larger dynamic, namely FIRE. So-called FIRE industries encapsulate Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.
Right here, in front of these tents, we have a clear example of top down governing policies that instrumentalise art as a useful tool for social engineering through lucrative real estate developments... Yet also here FIRE is the larger context – in this case embodied by the white high rise on your left, Up site, the first real estate development in which international capital was invested to close the rent gap, the gap between the current and possible rental income... Knowingly or not, our presence here is a contributing factor in this economic dynamic.
Art as a means for competition among states, and for the distribution of the so-called 'artistic mode of production', meaning loft living, creative industries, lifestyles... has meanwhile travelled the world. There are many examples... People like Richard Florida or Charles Landry advised governments on their art and creativity policies, and even their governing policies, from Asia to Africa.
But maybe now it is more important to explain why these industrial sites have become vacant for redevelopment through the arts in the first place. We've already mentioned 'de-investment' in Manhattan... In his book The Long Twentieth Century Giovanni Arrighi offers interesting arguments for that. He describes recurring cycles of development in the history of capitalism. His analysis shows how since the Renaissance falling rates of profit have triggered shifts from the initial cycle of trade and production to a secondary cycle of financialization.
This is the de-investment scenario that Zukin describes in her book on New York lofts. In this secondary cycle, instead of investing surplus capital in more trade and production (M-C-M), most of it is invested in ways in which capital can reproduce itself (M-M) – through financial intermediation and speculation –, as well as in real estate and art or other luxury goods, which are usually referred to as SWAG – silver, wine, art & gold! So when there's mention of a booming art market – the boom is about the heightened interest in art as an investment vehicle, not about a growing interest in art per se.
Of course not all art enjoys the attention and investments of surplus capital. value is created for the upper layers of the art market, the so-called blue chip art, but it is time that we all realize that it is a regime of free labour and (self)exploitation in the art world, or what Gregory Sholette has labeled its (invisible) dark matter, that drives the global cultural industries.
With FIRE centre stage we wanted to investigate the possibilities for repurposing a number of financial tools that are currently being developed for contemporary art, reducing art to merely an investible asset. We formulated A MODEST PROPOSAL (in a Black Box) (AMP), a new video installation that we are now working on, in opposition to the current dynamics in this niche of the financial markets. Since in none of these financial constructions there seems to be any impetus to consider other parties but the investor's, we saw an urgency to thinking or imagining new financial products as inclusive.
Our ambition was to develop a financial concept that describes how current modes of financialization can be repurposed towards a more sustainable model benefitting directly the artist, the producer, the art worker, and not only the investor or for that matter, the art industries.
Considering the often precarious conditions artists, art workers and small institutions face, we started to look at the riches our society has in the form of public assets like art collections and museum buildings. The problem with these assets is that their value cannot be accessed. It is secluded in their material form. They remain so-called 'frozen' assets.
A MODEST PROPOSAL (in a Black Box) considers the financialization of those frozen assets.
Before going into that let's first try to understand what we mean when we use the term financialization? In our case it refers to an economic process by which exchange is facilitated through the intermediation of financial instruments. For example oil or grain is hard to buy and sell physically in large quantities, but through the use of financial instruments they become accessible for many investors. The initial purpose of those instruments, in essence they are contracts, was risk management in f.e. agriculture, but today have become widely traded financial assets in their own right, starting a life of their own and circulating globally.
Let's first have a look at what financialization of art could mean, and how this plays out already today.
In 1990 Rosalind Kraus wrote about the cultural shift of museums in an essay with the title 'The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum'. She explains that “now non-invested surplus capital is exactly one way of describing the holdings – both in land and in art – of museums.” She elaborates on how many museum figures are describing their museums as a 'museum industry'. In order to increase 'market share' these museum figures insist on the need for a 'larger inventory' (meaning a bigger collection) more 'physical outlets' (meaning more franchises) and for 'leveraging the collection' (meaning not selling it, but rather moving the collection into the credit sector, or the circulation of capital...”).
This account seems to contradict established ethical codes for museums stating that collections should not be regarded as financial assets and that selling them to generate a profit or mortgaging them would damage public confidence in museums. But these ethical codes are neither legally binding (except in France), nor inherently profitable and many museums hide what is happening behind the screens.
It is clear that since the 1990s the continuous 'industrialisation' of museums has accelerated with f.e. Guggenheim, Louvre and Pompidou franchises opening around the world. Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel recently opened. Pompidou has a new franchise in Brussels, in the old Citroen garage in the canal district. For being allowed to use the brand name, and lending from the art collection, Pompidou will charge Brussels 2 million euros every year... Peanuts in the global art economy of today, but a small fortune for a local community of precarious art workers... This while all the time a collection of contemporary art (admittedly less impressive) sits invisible in a warehouse somewhere... Let's keep that in mind!
Now let's look into the financialization of buildings and cities....
As we said, when proposing AMP in institutions we will focus on financializing collections. Without a collection to be financialized we will focus on the museum building as an asset. We don't think financialization of museum buildings does exist yet, but we can say that within real estate markets, museum buildings take up a unique position. Many cities feel inclined to invite 'starchitects' to design iconic buildings or refurbishments. Worldwide a combination of iconic architecture and blue chip art has set in motion a pilgrimage of art and architecture lovers, and tourists in general.
According to the company Artprice “The industry is producing no less than 700 museums a year on five continents, all with “international” vocations and a minimum of 4,500 works of art. The Soft Power race between major powers (with China now dominating the USA on the Art market) is a powerful geopolitical motor of the exponential development of the Museum Industry®.” 10 This is also Art Price's explanation of acquisition of the Salvator Mundi painting by Da Vinci being bought for 450 million $ by Mohammad Bin Salman (the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia) with the intention to display it at the new Louvre building.
These museum buildings primary purpose however is financial remediation, or what David Harvey famously termed 'spatial fix': money shifting from trade and production to real estate markets. On top of that cultural infrastructure is always supposed to create the 'Bilbao Effect', a regeneration of the city by drawing in the culture tourist. But let's not forget to FIRE up this scheme...
Once the building is there, a whole horizon of new possibilities opens up. Financialization can liquify stone, bricks and glass easily. A telling example is the Empire State building in New York which is traded through the Empire State Realty Trust, a Real Estate Investment Trust (REITS) which provide investors with an extremely liquid stake in real estate. In accordance with iconic buildings like the Empire State building that have been financialized already, museum buildings could also be considered assets ready to be consumed by FIRE as it were. This would allow for an abstraction of museum real estate, from 'bricks to clicks', making these buildings more tradable and accessible for investors world-wide.
*All artists, whether their work is in a museum collection or not, are part of the value creation chain which benefits the museum industry, and by extension the cities in which these museums are located. Artists co-create social and economic wealth through intense cultural exchange, by circulating ideas and, last but not least, by collectively underwriting confidence in art's values.
AMP can make streams of economic and social wealth, produced by exchange, flow back to its origins – the artists and art workers – to create more sustainable conditions and futures in which art can flourish as an ecology of practices.
AMP will build a portfolio that introduces real estate assets and art collections as investable assets. These will be carefully accumulated in partnership with different art institutions world-wide. It is important to stress that none of these public assets have to be sold, or de-accessioned, or taken off the walls.
AMP does not own the art collections or museum buildings. It aims to create an exchange that can monetise their current value, or to put it into financial terms, their property equity.
Equity is the difference between the fair market value of an asset (a collection, a building or even IP) and the outstanding balance of all debts on the asset. AMP portfolio will offer fractions of this equity, available worldwide to investors, collectors and artists who can trade them peer to peer within an online market. This online market will measure values real time through existing art- and property indices, or a mixture of these two.
So for example a museum can sell 25% of its real estate property equity on the exchange. Ownership of the museum will not change, only capital growth on the real estate will be shared with investors in the percentage of the equity that the museum sold. The same mechanism can be put in place for the art collections.
You could call this fictitious un-realised value, since the assets are not sold, but for sure their values could be circulated among investors. Next to capital growth, also any rental incomes or income from loaning art works for example, if any, will partially flow to investors in the percentages of sold equity. This means that the museum real estate and artworks remain public property, but as such only 75% of the economic benefits can be enjoyed, sharing with investors the other 25%.
Imagine applying this model to the art collection that sits invisible in a warehouse... What would come out of this? Making their buildings and artworks liquid, would allow museums and art institutions to use the freed up money streams to buy new artworks, build a new museum extension. Maybe even a fair remuneration to the artists in their programmes can be considered?
To make sure it is considered AMP intends to make sustainable practices independent from the goodwill of museum directors. An automated contract will calculate a monthly percentage as dividend, flowing from the AMP exchange to the stakeholders in this cycle of wealth generation, including artists and art workers, whereupon this cycle can start all over again.
After formulating our intuitive ideas on the issue, we started investigating in which direction an inclusive financial model should actually be oriented. How could a counterveiling power be restored? Can one create new modes of value production from within? Or do we accept that the master's tool will not bring down the master's house?
At that point unresolved issues of taxation and governing kept sparking discussions: should the return on investment (ROI) on public art collections or museum real estate be reinvested in the institutions for art and its producers themselves, in line with the museum's goals and tasks?
Can we be seduced to allocate surplus generated by public assets to a certain industry? Should not rather a parliamentary debate attribute these resources, making them available for healthcare, education or even military expenses etc... But not only did we find out in our research that this allocation to certain industries is already a existing policy... so of course here again, if you want to change governing policies, or try to change institutions from within, which would rather be our approach, government and institutions need to be trustworthy. There needs to be a possibility to hold them accountable.
It is clear that AMP generates some challenging questions on art's place, including that of the museum, in society at large, questions that might allow to map out some of the concerns on financialization and consequent governing choices that might further put pressure on society as we know it today.
Thank you for your attention.