Crunch Time for the Art World

04/11/2011 12:19 GMT | Updated 02/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Next month the annual Crunch festival, which I organise with a small but indefatigable team, returns to Hay-on-Wye. Launched just before the eponymous credit collapse, the festival continues to raise questions about the art market, its stability and foibles. This year, Jake Chapman, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Susan Hiller, Griselda Pollock, and Martin Kemp, among many others, will be trying to make sense of where the art world is going. At a time of financial uncertainty, what is it about art that stirs us from the greyest of slumbers, and where can green shoots be found?

Last month's Frieze Art Fair provided many clues to the answers. The fair, which featured over 170 international galleries, showed that the art world is in recovery mode. Not least because the reaches of the main fair have extended through the city, so that Frieze is now a dizzying week of private views, museum shows, talks and projects. "Many deals are done to the background noise of a party," says Nick Hackworth, director of Paradise Row. Champagne-fuelled events, as dealers know, tend to whet the money-spending appetite.

Hackworth's Douglas White show was a Frieze Week highlight (Saatchi purchased the "fantastic but difficult sculpture" at the heart of it), as was The Museum of Everything's retrospective of American self-taught sculptor, Judith Scott, whose disabilities saw her institutionalized and alienated from the mainstream gallery system. Eleanor Lindsay Fynn, who will be unveiling a manifesto for change at Crunch, presented Yellow Faces on Hoxton Square, showing what can be achieved by a young artist managing her own career and providing a powerful off-set to the gallery dominated fair. Julia Vogl, who exhibited as part of Saatchi's New Sensations, tested public engagement with Disinfecting Dirty Deeds, asking viewers to clean their hands by selecting the coloured soap dispenser which best fit the dirty deed they wanted to wash away.

The Justin Eagle show at Vitrine Gallery gave us another reason to visit Bermondsey, which welcomed the masses for the new White Cube launch. It also provided the quote of the week, as owner Alys Williams compared the opening of the 58,000 square foot premises to "the arrival of Tesco in a small village."

Since the credit crunch, the mood at the main fair has been invariably cautious. But by day two, false confidence has usually set in. Optimism is wrenched from the clutches of fear and gallerists delight in revealing that the art world is defying the downturn. Strangely, this year's event lacked both the usual buoyancy and bravado. Caution hung in the air like a graduate installation until it was, eventually, replaced by an only slightly less cautious mood.

The fair was muted in other areas, too. Like London Fashion Week, Frieze has a reputation for showcasing bold, in-your-face art. For the most part, however, large, graphic, sexualized and politicised works were absent from Regent's Park.

"In this market, it would be foolish not to play it safe," a European collector told me. Buyers favoured familiar work, rather than the more challenging pieces by younger artists that once characterized the fair. In comparison to past years, higher-cost works by established names sold, while cheaper works by relatively unknown artists struggled. The price may have been right, but the artist and gallery were wrong.

Collectors were careful to opt for artists with a proven track record of museum shows and sale history. Marian Goodman's decision to show a new work by Gerhard Richter, at a time when his Tate exhibition is both widely publicized and visited, proved savvy. His piece Strip (CR921-1) was held for a museum, priced at £1.5 million.

Some artists met the economic uncertainty head on. Michael Landy on the Thomas Dane stand gave us Credit Card Destroying Machine, a contraption that exchanged plastic for a mechanical drawing signed by the artist. Paul Johnson's Temple, 2011, a huge papier-mâché construct shown by Ancient & Modern, more subtly asked visitors to consider the value of religion and the creation of new gods in a consumer-led, money-worshipping art fair. Claire Fontaine was more blatant in presenting art as commodity. It presented a lit sign reading: "This neon sign was made by Vladimir Ustinov for the remuneration of one hundred and sixty-nine thousand rubles."

For some, however, making sales wasn't the main focus. "The fair this year seemed less about the acquisition of the art therein and more about the discussion of it," says James Brett, director of The Museum of Everything who presided over a debate on self-taught, unintentional artists with Antony Gormley and Hayward Gallery directors at Selfridges. "The brilliant thing about Frieze is that it is a platform for expression. Yes, it can be about money. But it is really about communication."

In a case of the Emperor's New Art, Christian Jankowski presented Christian, 2011, a luxury 10 metre-long Aquariva Cento yacht, priced at € 500,000, which was available as a signed limited edition for €125,000 more. A 68-metre mega yacht was also up for grabs (€65m or €75m with emblazoned name). Jankowski argued that, as a piece of art, rather than just a boat, the yacht will gain, rather than lose, value. Raising interesting ideas about the arbitrariness of the monetary value placed on art, and fundamental questions about what constitutes art, the notion of a €10 million signature was funny until you realized that someone might actually buy it.

So what does all this mean for Crunch? We'll consider whether the 'safe money' born out of caution will stifle innovation. In an era of global revolution, we'll also ask if art has a duty to be primarily engaged in political change whether or not it is at the top of a buyer's wish list. Most importantly, when faced with the realities of an art world slowly piecing itself back together and an economic climate that promises little immediate relief, the transformative power of creativity is worthy of our discussion.