Don't look back

Art in 2008 recedes like nobody's business, and it might be time to come home

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Twelve months ago, as I sat down to write a year-end appraisal of 2007, I was still in awe of "© Murakami," the Takashi Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. It brilliantly captured the crass apex of global capitalism, mostly through celebrity-studded receptions and the appropriated — call it sculptural — form of a Louis Vuitton boutique. What a difference a year makes. At the close of 2008, the whole art world is watching as the highly regarded MOCA teeters precariously on a financial abyss, while Vuitton maven Marc Jacobs recently canceled his extravagantly performance-arty holiday party in the name of "recessionista" austerity.

Suddenly, commentaries on luxury goods seem so '07, as evidenced by the critical response to a Chanel-sponsored, Zaha Hadid-designed quilted handbag exhibition that landed in Central Park this fall. "If devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional," architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff opined in The New York Times. At this particular moment, it's as difficult to summon up the flush feeling of the recent past as it is to contemplate a belt-tightening future.

To look forward is to confront anxious uncertainty. Optimists, however, anticipate a period in which art is tempered by a sense of hopefulness and focus rather than being driven by auction reports. Contemporary art will become more thoughtful, they predict. A good percentage of San Francisco art dealers jetted off to Miami for the recent spate of fairs, fingers crossed, expectations lowered. Word on the street said the outcome wasn't as bad as expected, though sales were slow. Collectors actually had time to look and think about the art they were interested in, in contrast to automatically joining the grab-and-go sellers' market of years past. Like everything else in our culture, the art world appears poised to embrace a more manageable scale. I wonder if this also means that art activities will become more homegrown.

This fall, the Bay Area saw a whole lot of contemporary art from China, with big shows at the Berkeley Art Museum ("Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art From the Sigg Collection") and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ("Half Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art") providing a welcome crash course in Far East art production. It seems unlikely, though, that either will have a lasting impact on community consciousness. Interest in Chinese art mirrors an American preoccupation with economic miracles. Numerous Western galleries opened Beijing outposts this year, positioning for anticipated new markets, but fantasies of financial success have been exposed as illusion — much like the sounds and images from Zhang Yimou's over-the-top opening of Beijing Olympics.

The Bay Area museum scene was robust in the summer. Unsurprisingly, "Frida" gave SFMOMA a summer blockbuster, albeit one outsold by "Chihuly at the de Young." The latter presented a problematic expression of the tensions between art, craft, and design — Kenneth Baker's slam review in the San Francisco Chronicle incited a welcome, if contentious, flurry of public online dialogue. The Contemporary Jewish Museum opened its new building in June with solid shows and events, making that institution a more prominent cultural resource (albeit one that still needs to prove itself through upcoming programming). There were lower budget alternative visions to be found. A plethora of apartment and hallway galleries popped up around town.

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