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"RED HOT: Asian Art from the Chaney Family Collection"

Like Sui Jianguo's Jurassic Age (pictured)? McClain Gallery has a smaller version for $8,000.
Thomas R. DuBrock

When Robert Chaney and family purchase a work of art, it's no impulse buy. It's a carefully considered, business-based decision. In a 12-year period, the Houston wildcatter, oilman and venture capitalist, along with his wife Jereann and 11-year old daughter Holland, have systematically amassed what Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director Peter Marzio terms "one of this country's foremost surveys of contemporary art." Selections from the Asian portion of the Chaney Family Collection make up "RED HOT: Asian Art from the Chaney Family Collection" at the MFAH.

"RED HOT" is the MFAH's first overview of contemporary Asian art — and it's drawn from a private collection rather than chosen by trained curators. The curating process has been privatized. I suppose you get more bang for the museum buck this way because, as one Houston arts professional points out, showing a private collection is "phenomenally cheaper" than a self-organized show. But collectors are not curators. What criteria do they use to select their work?

Collectors have none of the obligations and responsibilities a museum has to educate and inform — they can buy whatever the hell they want. But problems arise when a private collector's tastes become the only version of contemporary art from a little-seen region. We've dealt with this before at the MFAH. In "African Art Now: Masterpieces from the Jean Pigozzi Collection," the tastes of one Swiss collector became our window into contemporary African art. Now the Chaneys' choices are providing the MFAH's vision of contemporary art on the Asian continent.

Asia, specifically China, is "red hot" with business opportunities, and it is also "red hot" with art opportunities that have garnered a lot of press. In 2004, BusinessWeek ran a story called "Why Collectors Are Crazy for Chinese Art" that included tips on art buying. The Chaney family started collecting art from Asia — China, in particular — because Robert Chaney believes there is a correlation between great art and a great economy. His entrepreneurial and investing background is the dominant influence in his approach to buying art. The family extensively explained their collecting strategies in an interview with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Green in the "RED HOT" exhibition catalogue.

Chaney says his system of evaluating art includes a "left-brain" phase of "conducting historical research and analyzing past trends in art, trying to discern how and why they happened. I analyze macroeconomic and social trends...(We) identify what we believe to be the most lucrative areas for acquiring masterpieces [italics mine]...In my mind, successfully collecting cutting-edge art is most about finding the next new movement and trends. If you look at the last hundred and fifty years of modern art, you'll see that the majority of great artworks were made by artists who rode the wave of a new movement. They seized the 'low hanging fruit'..."

"Given our status as among the most active collectors of new contemporary art in America, having acquired more than a hundred and seventy new works during the past year, we enjoy a significant deal flow," said Chaney. This means that people hit them up to buy art all the freaking time. They move potential prospects into a system of ranking folders. Chaney says, "The core of this system is the 'forced ranking' process I learned from studying Warren Buffet's investment approach for over twenty years."

Chaney's may be a very strategic approach, but aesthetic considerations seem like a pretty low priority. Admittedly, my broke ass knows very little about investing. But as an art writer and an MFA degree holder, I do know contemporary art trends are bullshit. Artists don't think in trends — at least, good ones don't. They make work out of what interests them; those who strategically try to ride a "trend" or "movement" generally suck. They are jumping on the bandwagon instead of having something of their own to say. Dealers often try to tout "trends" as a sales tactic. I think a zeitgeist sometimes exists, but it isn't usually identified as a trend until after the fact.

While trying to ride the trends that the market is constructing may bear out financially in the short term and in some cases the long term, the work usually also has to have some intrinsic level of quality. Defining "quality" in art is always a sticky and subjective thing. I want to believe that in the end, quality translates to market value. But we all know the role hype plays.

Which brings us to ranking works against other works. Chaney is applying a business approach and business-speak to art, something a lot of art people will find horrifying. But I'll cut him some slack here because I think it is probably just a more anal and systematic way of sifting through images. Most museumgoers probably do something similar when they go through an exhibition and pick out their favorites.

If Chaney's approach to collecting art is that of a business investor, the events surrounding the exhibition have also been extremely businesslike. A talk the Saturday after the show opened presented three of Chaney's Asian art dealers (Tim Blum of Blum & Poe, Ludovic Bois of Chinese Contemporary and Max Protetch of Max Protetch Gallery) and Korean artist Do-Hoh Suh (whose work is, incidentally, the standout of the "RED HOT" show). The first speaker, Bois, expressed his amazement at the fact that he, a dealer, was actually asked to speak at the museum. "They would never do this in Europe," he said.

The moneychangers were definitely in the temple. But it is disingenuous to pretend that art is not a commodity that is bought and sold. And in places like China, the dealers are doing the most on-the-ground scouting. The three dealers spoke with varying degrees of sincerity about why they did what they did and how they came to be involved with contemporary art from Asia. It was interesting, but I couldn't help feeling I was at some dog-and-pony show for a new IPO. ASIAN ART!!! BUY NOW!!! OPPORTUNITIES ARE LIMITED!!! Additionally, having the dealers you buy your work from come in and tell everyone what a hot market Asia is seems kinda sleazy.

As with the Pigozzi exhibition of contemporary African art, other art venues have gotten on the bandwagon — or were pushed. This time it was the commercial galleries. Word on the street is that Chaney called around asking galleries to join in, using his leverage with the ones he buys art from. But with a market this allegedly hot, I doubt any thumbs had to be broken. By my count, there were at least eight commercial galleries exhibiting work from Asia simultaneously with "RED HOT." Chaney directly connected several galleries with sources for Chinese work. And the MFAH also organized a bus tour of participating galleries for out-of-town dealers.

Now it's a very cool thing to have an influx of new art and artists in the city, but the problem is that some of the galleries ultimately functioned as off-site gift shops for the show, retailing similar or smaller versions of the Chinese pop works on view at the MFAH. At McClain, for $8,000 you could buy Made in China, a small version of Sui Jianguo's Jurassic Age (2006), an enormous red Godzilla caged in front of the MFAH. The domestic-size Godzilla at McClain was No. 784 out of an edition of 1,000. I wonder who owns the other 999? Zhou Chunya's Green Dog (2006), listed as number five out of eight in the "RED HOT" catalog, was available at McClain for the amazing low price of $120,000. At New Gallery, you could get the gold version of a polychromed fiberglass Luo Brothers' sculpture of a chubby boy holding two fish and striding across the tops of Coke cans. It was one of an edition of eight and retailing for $35,200.

Those sales of similar works no doubt helped up the value of the works the Chaneys already own. Of course, the real bonus to the family is the MFAH exhibition itself. Simply having a major museum exhibition and catalog of your collection raises its value incalculably. The MFAH gets to present work from a burgeoning region without having to spend resources doing curatorial work on the ground — and curry favor with other collectors who might donate money and work to the museum. So far it's win, win for the Chaneys and the MFAH, but what about the viewer? Next week look for a review of "RED HOT" — the good, the bad and the stuff that ought to be recalled.

"RED HOT"


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