The Top Art News Stories of 2017—Part 1

Artsy Editors
Dec 22, 2017 4:54PM

Here’s part one of our look back at the top 20 art world news stories this year, arranged in chronological order.

01  A French court acquitted billionaire art dealer Guy Wildenstein of hiding millions in art and other inherited assets from the country’s tax authorities.

In a shocking move, Judge Olivier Géron cleared Wildenstein and the family members and associates implicated in the trial on January 12th. Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Wildenstein to pay a €250 million fine and serve four years in prison (two suspended) for tax fraud and money-laundering in a case that has thrown a very public spotlight onto the famous family known in France simply as “les W.” The trial began in September of 2016, with prosecutors charging that Wildenstein and his late brother, Alec, and others used secretive trusts to move $250 million in art from New York to Switzerland just days after their father, Daniel Wildenstein, died, without paying taxes. The judge stated that while he found “clear intention” by Wildenstein and others to conceal the extent of their fortune from the state, their conduct was not illegal under French law at the time. The acquittal was a disappointment to those hoping to crack down on tax evasion by the wealthy. While the judge acknowledged this interpretation of his decision, he noted that the law must apply equally to all defendants “be they rich or destitute.”

02  Maria Balshaw became the first woman to head London’s Tate following the departure of longtime director Sir Nicholas Serota.

Balshaw, a community-oriented and institutionally experienced leader who is beloved by artists, was appointed to the post on January 17th. She began her tenure at the Tate in June after some 10 years as director of the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, among other positions. Another London institution saw a major change in leadership this year as well, with Tristram Hunt taking over Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in February. In contrast to Balshaw, Hunt had no professional experience running a museum (though did a stint as a trustee for the Heritage Lottery Fund and as was a former judge for the Art Fund’s UK Museum of the Year award), having previously served as a Labour Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Both Hunt and Balshaw are now in positions to shape London’s art scene over 2018, and likely well beyond.

03  A tightening market and higher operating costs caused a number of small and mid-sized galleries to close or adapt their business models.

Established Chelsea gallerist Andrea Rosen announced on February 21st that she would cease to represent living artists and “no longer have a typical permanent public space.” News of the closure reverberated through the art world, and Rosen’s proved to be just one of several galleries to shutter this year including Limoncello and Vilma Gold in London, and On Stellar Rays Gallery and Off Vendome in New York. The closures come as mega-galleries at the top of the market (among them, Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, Pace Gallery, and David Zwirner) continue to expand their international reach. In November, news broke that dealer Leo Xu would be shuttering his beloved gallery in Shanghai to lead Zwirner’s soon-to-open gallery in Hong Kong. But rather than close, some smaller galleries are adapting in the face of the changing market, tweaking their business model by renting out studio spaces to supplement costs, pulling in revenue beyond art sales, skipping expensive art fairs in favor of longer exhibition periods, or showing more limited artist rosters.

04  A painting by Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial caused a firestorm over the white artist’s use and depiction of Emmett Till.

Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) is an abstracted painting of Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting. Till’s murderers were promptly acquitted. On March 17th, the day the Whitney Biennial opened to the public, artist Parker Bright stood in front of Schutz’s painting wearing a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle,” blocking the work from view for several hours. The British artist Hannah Black subsequently published a public letter calling for the piece to be removed and destroyed, writing that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.” The biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, rejected calls to remove the work because they “believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.” Schutz has also stood by the piece and noted it will never be sold. In The Guardian, Schutz responded, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.” But as Antwaun Sargent wrote for Artsy, “the controversy surrounding this work is, at its core, about the failure of the art world to truly represent black humanity, despite its recent insistence on ‘diversity.’”

05  U.S. President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts.

A budget proposal released by the Trump administration in mid-March after initial news of the proposed cuts surfaced in January would have entirely eliminated public funding to National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) along with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The NEA has long been a target for conservatives, who view it as a waste of public funds. But opponents of the funding cut challenged this fiscal rationale given how little the NEA actually receives in government funding—about $147.9 million in fiscal year 2016, or 0.004% of the $3.9 trillion federal budget. With this relatively miniscule budget, the agency has an outsize impact, both through its grants programs as well as an indemnity program that saves museums millions of dollars. It helps arts organizations raise private funds, and its geographical mandate ensures that funds are distributed beyond the nation’s cultural capitals, reaching into electoral districts across the political spectrum. 55 percent of Americans actually support doubling the agency’s budget, according to a 2016 opinion poll by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, and the NEA found support among some Republicans as well as Democrats. Under a spending bill passed in May, the agency actually saw its budget increase by $2 million. The funding amounted to an important reprieve. With Congress now preparing to draft a new federal budget for the next fiscal year, it remains to be seen if arts advocates will have to fight for the NEA once again.

06  A monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee was removed from a public pedestal in New Orleans, one of numerous controversial statues of Confederate figures taken down this year.

The New Orleans city council voted to remove four Confederate monuments in December of 2015, with the last of the four statues, the statue of Lee, finally coming down on May 19th. There are hundreds of monuments to figures from the Confederate side of the Civil War across the United States, and critics who argue they memorialize a racist cause have long agitated for their removal. The movement found mainstream backing from some lawmakers after a violent rally on August 12th in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which white supremacists marched to defend a monument of Lee. Numerous Confederate monuments were all removed in the ensuing days from cities across the country, including Baltimore, Maryland, Austin, Texas, and New York, reported the New York Times.

07  Salvador Dalí’s body was exhumed as part of a long-running, and ultimately failed, paternity lawsuit.

Pilar Abel, a Spanish tarot card reader, claimed that she was descended from the Surrealist artist, filing suit in 2015. If true, she would have stood to inherit a vast percentage of his lucrative estate. A judge overseeing the case granted permission on June 26th for Dalí’s body to be exhumed in order to gather a DNA sample that could definitively lay Abel’s claim to rest. The exhumation, which occured on July 20th, revealed that Dalí’s famous mustache remains intact, while DNA tests subsequently proved in September that Abel is not related to the artist. The finding put the long-running paternity suit, which the Dalí foundation consistently claimed was baseless, to an end. In October, the court ordered Abel to pay for the cost of exhuming Dalí’s body.

08  The U.S. Department of Justice filed to seize works by Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat allegedly purchased with stolen money from the 1MDB fund.

The U.S. government has so far moved to seize $1.8 billion in assets tied to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), Bloomberg reported. The roughly $4.5 billion 1MDB fund was setup by the Malaysian government to foster economic development but has been embroiled in controversy following allegations last year that officials pilfered the money for private use, in what U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called “kleptocracy at its worst.” Among the assets the U.S. government moved to seize in June 15th are a $9.2 million collage by Basquiat and an approximately $3.2 million Picasso work given to actor Leonardo DiCaprio by Jho Low, a Malaysian financer who has been ensnared in the Department of Justice’s corruption probe. The government also moved to seize a photo by Diane Arbus, as well as the rights to films financed with money from 1MDB including the The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) and Dumb and Dumber To (2014).

09  The arts and crafts supply chain Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit thousands of smuggled artifacts as part of a settlement with the U.S. Government.

Hobby Lobby seemingly ignored red flags about the the provenance of the objects, purchased in 2010, that were raised by an internal expert. The company also allegedly worked with dealers who actively attempted to hide the objects’ value and import into the United States from customs officers. Under the terms of an July 5th settlement with the Justice Department, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine and agreed to forfeit more than 5,500 illicitly acquired objects—including cuneiform tablets and clay seals—purchased from dealers for $1.6 million. Additionally, Hobby Lobby was required to submit reports on its acquisitions for the subsequent 18 months following the agreement, hire customs brokers and advisers, and abide by industry guidelines governing the purchase of such works while tightening its own internal review processes. “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” Hobby Lobby president Steve Green said in a statement at the time. Green, an evangelical christian, invested $500 million into a “Museum of the Bible,” the largest exhibition dedicated to the Judeo-Christian text, which opened in Washington D.C. in November.

10  A judge temporarily halted the Berkshire Museum’s controversial sale of 40 artworks after a last-minute appeal launched by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.

On July 12th, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, announced the sale 40 artworks (including works by Norman Rockwell, Alexander Calder and others) at Sotheby’s. The expected $60 million the auction was to bring in would have gone towards bolstering the museum’s endowment and paying for renovations, violating industry guidelines, which generally prohibit art sales for operating costs. The sale brought fierce opposition of industry groups and prompted two lawsuits to halt it. In November, the week before the auction, a judge ruled the sale could go forward. But the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) intervened, filing a last-minute appeal to halt the sale, which a Massachusetts appellate justice temporarily did on November 10th. The AGO is now investigating whether the sale of the 40 artworks is a violation of the museum trustees’ fiduciary duty to the institution, the Berkshire Eagle reported. Pending the results of that inquiry, the Massachusetts appeals court is likely to make a final determination next year on whether or not the sale can proceed.

Artsy Editors

Header image by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images.