A Different Kind of Currency

What if coins were mini sculptures able to fit into a wallet?  And dollars, shreds of painted canvas?  Sounds crazy, but in a sense this is kinda of already the case.  Cultural currency.  This is the idea that works of art in museums, in private collections, in corporate collections, in public spaces, are all players in a larger exchange system that generates a great deal of value.  

Lets start with museums.  The artwork in a museum collection is  never static.  There are entire departments that work on acquisitions, and other departments who work on traveling their museums work to other institutions.  New investments in art are made at the same time that previous investments are being leveraged.  The simple fact that almost every museum always has permanent exhibitions in additions to temporary ones proves that art is always on the move.  So, where exactly is it moving to?  Sometimes it moves to an auction house where private dealers buy the art to add to their own collection, which presumably, at the passing of the private owner, will eventually end up in some kind of public institution.  Art also goes to art fairs, and art museums.  Just like a multi-national company, each piece of art may have its headquarters in one country, but it certainly has office branches all over the world.  

The next question then arises: If art is so international, how can it be simultaneously universal and representative of a specific region or tradition?  One purpose  of art is to reflect to its audience new perspectives, and new thoughts.  If the art does not have a clear origin point, how can the audience understand the origin and thus foundation of these new thoughts?  In my opinion, they cannot.  Thus the tension between art as an object born from a specific context, yet desired by a universal audience, arises.  But maybe this is not as much of a tension point as it seems.  While the exposure a piece of art gets is universal, or better international, that does not mean that the way in which it is interpreted by said audience is universal.  It is an interesting paradox, universal exposure yet individual interpretation, pointing to the power of art.  

Because art is both individual and universal, private and public, it requires very specific safeguards.  Intellectual property rights outline these safeguards.  Who has the right to circulate visual ideas?  How much credit does the person dealing and exchanging these ideas, which are in the form of art objects, get to receive?  A painting is just like the formula for Coca-Cola in the sense that it is a new idea that has the potential to cause a new social trend.  Coca-Cola’s social trend exists on the popular culture level and occurs in the (relatively) short term.  A paintings social trend simply occurs on a different level, the level of artists, dealers, and art historians, and takes centuries to reveal itself as it is dependent on time to show how it speaks to deep cultural truths.  Art then, requires a kind of patent.  But it is not that simple, because art can be legally visually consumed by anyone, at any time, in almost any way.  Internet, or in person, rich or poor, young or old, American or Chinese, the list goes on.  Who then protects the intellectual property rights art should have?  Looks like we are back to museums.  

In the globalizing world however, museums are taking on a new role.  They are drawing new lines, ones that are blurred between public institution and brand.  I mentioned earlier that art is a kind of currency.  This means money.  This means markets.  This means profit.  Museums mainly have non-profit morals, but their operating systems are often times structured to mimic a for-profit business.  Many people are upset that the safe houses for art should ever enter the big bad world of capitalism, but I see it quite differently.  In my opinion, where there is a market, there is innovation, where there is innovation, there is real upward growth, and where there is growth, there are new safety nets to support the high risk, high reward nature of cross-cultural collaborations.

I was recently reading about the Guggenheim Museum.  I have a feeling a lot of people know this name.  Many say it has become a brand more than a museum.  Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.  That is a different argument.  What I want to focus on is its unique structure.  It is a museum based in New York with museums in Venice, Bilbao, and soon Abu Dhabi.  It has also attempted to build up satellite locations in Berlin, Mexico, as well as in SoHo and Wall Street in New York.  As an institution it is constantly looking to grow.  And recently, they have launched a public-private partnership with UBS called the Global Map Initiative .  This initiative identifies stakeholders for  public-private partnerships in South and Southeast Asia, Latin America and Middle East and North Africa.  These partnerships will result in a robust programming of exhibitions of those respective areas modern and contemporary art as well as educational programming.  The exhibitions will travel between all of these regions. Furthermore, the art from those regions will be acquired by the Guggenheim after the projects completion.  So, a major collection is rounding out its collection to include more artwork by first investing in the origin of those pieces of art to further a larger audiences understanding of those artworks.  Again, it is a simultaneous specific and universal investment and reward all caused by the cultural currency of an art object.  And just one final layer to this whole puzzle.  Who is the Guggenheim?  What are its origin points?  Well, the Guggenheims are individuals who were actually immigrants from Switzerland to the United States who worked their way up to acquire wealth.  They were then able to pass that wealth onto their future generations who then decided to invest it in art.  Who then gets credit for the existence of this global art bringer-together institution?  Switzerland?  America?  One person?  A family?  The very structure that is causing cross-cultural exchanges is cross cultural itself.  These new kinds of at-their-core international institutions need a unique kind of currency, a mode of exchange that allows them to understand their value, and I am thinking that is art.    


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