A striking moment happened in our meeting: Mike Medavoy walked in and paced while squeezing a wire hanger and telling us that between his two ex-wives, they could open a museum; one of them could “own him;” and the 1960s were a great time for art, movies and the Vietnam war.
I swear the whole time all I could think was: coat-hanger abortions. Hannah's thought was more on-target: this Ai Weiwei sculpture depicting the head of Marcel Duchamp (image above).
It was a moment rife with unintended tension, history, love, loss, maybe regret, maybe revenge… A quintessential art moment, really. And while I assume Mike is a rich man and his art collection excessively valuable, the moment wasn’t about money. It wasn’t even really about art. It involved art but only because the art was a reflection of his life, his relationships, his choices. That’s the thing about art, no matter the valuation, it does not reflect our wealth; it mirrors our humanity. That’s how it’s possible for a married postal worker and librarian to amass the greatest modern art collection in history; and for a Russian oligarch to buy a fake Rothko.
You are right that the common public perception is the art world is about “candy.” (Billionaires, yachts, the spoils and hangups of the one percent…) It’s actually a perfect metaphor. We all think we want candy: it’s shiny, pretty, gets you high for a little while but ultimately it’s empty. It does not satisfy because it is not real food. Plus, it’s not true. So what are we to do? Make a show that sacrifices the truth in favor of catering to the perception? No. We acknowledge the fantasy, offer a necessary “access point” but then we show them what they cannot yet see.
BRYCE lusts after the fantasy because she’s never experienced it; MORGAN indulges the high but then faces intense shame/self-hatred. Because she’s seen the dead bodies. She’s becoming a dead body.
The dead bodies are our shadow selves. Our souls. Our regrets/pain/debts. The dead bodies are our betrayals. The engine of the show is alcoholism, declining self worth and death.
We will acknowledge and undermine the fantasy in each episode. In the pilot, we’ll do it in the first sequence.
Female-driven, darkly-comic, insider one-hour series about art dealers in Los Angeles and the hierarchies of value. The show is about our desire to secure ourselves through an attachment to something or someone else. The theme is expressed most prominently in the central relationship between our two main characters who meet in the pilot episode.
—BRYCE, an art novice who comes from a family of compulsive gamblers and grew up in Vegas. Her father is indebted to a casino and the only way he can pay off his debts is by luring whales to lose their money at the tables. He physically and psychologically abuses Bryce’s mother who does not leave him. Bryce sees the art market as a casino. To her, money affords safety/freedom.
—MORGAN, an art expert who reveres art and feels a debilitating-level of responsibility to protect and uphold its integrity. Something impossible to achieve in a commercial market. This POV was partially formed when a close artist friend committed suicide in Morgan’s apartment after she fell asleep. The reverb manifests in a paralysis causing Morgan to stay and suffer the abuse of her boss. To her, money is poison. She feels stuck and sees no way out other than drinking herself to death and escaping into a mind-twisting affair.
PRICELESS | episode 101
We open on a visual sequence of Morgan traveling the globe, eating art world pop rocks INTERCUT with the capture, kill and crucification of a butterfly.
- Morgan boards a small private jet carrying a locked portfolio case.
- Morgan rides in the back seat of a town car in London’s late afternoon traffic.
- Morgan walks through a stately English mansion, escorted by three men in suits. Air-locked doors open to reveal a futuristic, temperature-controlled storage room. Morgan and the men put on identical parkas and enter the refrigerated archive. They hold their breath as Morgan unlocks the portfolio and raises up a small, matted object with her white-gloved hands.
- Another airplane; Morgan dons a sleep mask and headphones as flight attendants push carts of bloody marys.
- Morgan sits fifth row at Sotheby’s New York and bids $1mm on a Damien Hirst collage of crucified butterflies pinned together in a kaleidoscopic pattern in the shape of a cathedral window.
Narrated by Morgan’s VO: “My favorite photograph is William Eggleston’s Boy in the Green Room. It’s a simple image, really: a boy reclining in a wing-backed chair. But the sly smirk smeared across his face, the way the dye transfer printing makes the colors explode off the paper… It’s a special picture. That’s what I used to think anyway. Before I was an art dealer. Now I know the truth. The only thing special about that picture is how much money it’s worth. Damien Hirst was right: art is about life and the art world is about money. We’re a bunch of cunts selling shit to fools.”
REVEAL Morgan sitting in an airport bar next to a young kid who asks, “Is that true?”
Morgan: “I don’t know.”
She raises her Rolleiflex and takes a portrait of the child who flinches, “I wasn’t ready.”
Now we’re inside the Vegas McCarran airport. Bryce plays slots in a clear smoking box. A guy sitting a few machines down notices she doesn’t have a cigarette. Offers, “Need a cig?”
Bryce, “I don’t smoke.”
Guy: “There are slot machines outside, you know.”
Bryce: “This way I won’t play for too long.”
Guy: “Bachelorette party..?”
Bryce: “My parents are stuck inside a casino.”
Guy: “That’s funny.”
Bryce: “Well, really it’s just my dad. My mom could leave. But she doesn’t have any money.”
Guy: “Why not?”
Bryce shrugs. “Some people like being trapped.”
SMASH CUT. MAIN TITLES.
Morgan returns to LA to her manic gallery boss, Pamela who is ecstatic over her “win” at auction. Morgan assumed they bought the Hirst on behalf of a client. No. Pamela dropped $1mm as a show of force—to get her name in the paper and let the east coast/international elite dealers know she intends to become their rival. She’s tired of the glass ceiling inherent in exclusively dealing photography. The highest selling print is a drop in the bucket compared to a master painting.
Morgan submits her receipts for her travel incidentals (taxi fare, espresso, champagne) to the gallery manager who tells her there isn’t enough money in the account to reimburse her. Morgan is disappointed but not surprised; this is par for the course. She does not challenge it, she’s too tired.
Morgan has been visiting with an older artist with a long, substantial but unrecognized career. She spends her free time digging through the artist’s archives; fantasizing about curating an exhibition that would honor and protect her contributions to the medium. Morgan finally works up the nerve to ask Pamela if she can hang a small selection of the artist’s prints in their gallery presentation room. In a bizarre moment of kindness/weakness, Pamela agrees.
But then the floor drops out… Pamela’s overhead for the last 25 years has been covered by the loyalty/addiction of one collector. But today, he announces he’s quitting collecting, leaving his wife for Pamela’s director and dumping his entire collection (literally thousands of works) at auction all at once. Pamela begs him to reconsider but he remains firm. Plus, he’s pissed because after receiving the estimates from the auction house, he knows Pamela fucked him on prices. So much for loyalty.
Morgan is made the de-facto director (a position she does not want), her curatorial project is canceled and the entire gallery staff go into damage-control mode.
By the end of the day Pamela’s staff has done as much as they can, which is basically nothing. No one can be prepared for this kind of landslide. Pamela sits smoking a cigarette in the dark. For the first time in the eight years Morgan has worked for Pamela, she sees a fearful, vulnerable woman. She doesn’t know how to get out of this. They would need millions of dollars to buy all of the work but the collector wouldn’t sell to her anyway; he intends to ruin and publicly humiliate her. The gallery faces a long, hard battle if they are to make it out of this alive.
Over the course of the season: Pamela plots a way to enact revenge on her previous director as punishment. Morgan imagines Pamela’s machinations drive the former director into a mental institution. These fever dreams eventually inspire Morgan's first artistic photographic series.
Across the parking lot at the dilapidated SETH BERMAN GALLERY, Bryce (gallery assistant) and Lucia (sales director) are locking horns over a sale. Bryce claims it’s hers, Lucia disagrees. Seth arrives and is called upon to referee. He defers to Lucia. She scares him more and (for now) makes him more money. Morgan walks across the parking lot. Bryce tracks her like her father taught her to track players in a poker game. Bryce does not know Morgan but recognizes her power. She identifies Morgan as “the money” and also “a weak spot.” She marks Morgan as her potential entrée into the opaque elite art world. An obstacle: Morgan is a fortress of secrets with zero friends.
Not wanting to give up on showing her artist, Morgan approaches Seth (whom she does not know) and asks if she can curate a show in his smaller annex. Seth’s gallery is a mess, off-the-radar (she knows Pamela will never walk in there) but is close enough in proximity that Morgan can monitor the show without tipping off Pamela (who would never allow Morgan to do anything on her own).
Seth is reluctant to give Morgan the space, especially when she asks him if he’ll clean it up. He says no, she’ll have to accept him “as is.” Bryce is in ear-shot and pipes in, “I’ll do it.” This is Bryce’s chance to carve out something for herself that Lucia can’t steal and a prime opportunity to ingratiate herself with Morgan. Bryce would love to work for Morgan (i.e., have Morgan’s life). She sees Pamela’s gallery as glamorous and high-ranking; the complete opposite of Seth’s embarrassing presentation/reputation. This establishes the conflict between Bryce and Seth. Bryce wants Seth to change, Seth wants to stay as he is.
In a quiet moment, Bryce convinces Seth to cut her in on part of the commission Lucia stole from her. Seth agrees. We see Seth’s desire to “do the right thing.” (Or is it merely keeping the peace, a show of love for Bryce…all of the above?) He goes into the back of the gallery, lifts one of the floorboards and pulls out a small amount of cash. Bryce glimpses a trove of Raymond Pettibons… Veritable, blue-chip, punk-rock. (Rejected by the system, created by an outsider, now coveted by the system.) A stark counterpoint to their mediocre program of represented artists. Hmmm, why aren’t they selling these? Seth is a true collector. He’ll never sell. His goal is to show them all in a museum show one day, when the time is right and if the establishment ever recognizes or accepts him.
We learn that Bryce is sending the small amounts of money she earns to her mother in an attempt to scrounge up enough for a security deposit on an apartment in Vegas. Inexplicably to Bryce, her mother gives all the money to her husband who promptly gambles it away. Morgan and Bryce have a brief encounter before the episode closes. Morgan apologizes that she won’t be able to help Bryce sand the walls because her lungs are weak; a lingering ailment from being born premature.
Bryce: “My mother was born premature. She was the first baby in her hospital to have an incubator.”
Morgan: “Why was that?”
Bryce: “My grandparents bought it for them. My dad said that’s why he married her.”
Morgan: “Because she was premature?”
Bryce: “Because he thought she was rich.”
A moment of recognition.
Bryce: “She wasn’t rich. But that’s not the real reason he married her. He married her because he thought she was weak.”
Bryce’s inability to save her mother is incredibly painful. As Bryce and Morgan’s friendship intensifies and Bryce learns more of Morgan's secrets/sees more of her pain, Bryce tries to save her with the same intensity with which she tried and failed to save her mother. But neither will ever walk out the door.
ART WORLD OVERVIEW
Art used to be the driving force of the art world. Now it’s money. As expressed by art headlines focused on the obscene amounts of money spent at auction—a Picasso set a new world record last year; selling for $179 mm—rather than thoughtful, critical dialogue surrounding creative output.
Today art critics sound a lot more like PR mouthpieces with art magazines running obtuse, impossible to understand editorials about Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who are only of interest to the handful of people who can afford to actively trade in their work anyway. Collecting has become a blood sport for the uber-rich and their economy—unlike ours—is booming. Which could be good; no one is saying that artists shouldn’t make money. But the small number who are, are either dead, or the product of feverish market manipulation spearheaded by mega-dealers and a new breed of “trophy-hunting” collectors who value access over aesthetic nourishment and authentic connection.
The consequences of this expanding culture are collections that are grossly interchangeable as people herd towards the same thing—wrangled by a ring of insiders—and spend more time examining resumes, auction results and attending galas than actually viewing art and interacting with artists. They donate to museums in exchange for seats on the board and pressure curators to exhibit the work of artists in their own portfolios to protect their investments and showcase their “good taste” and “speculative foresight.”
It’s a game and it sublimates art into commodity.
But it isn’t all about investment. In the upper brackets, it's about displaying extreme wealth. You don’t spend 179 mill on a Picasso because you hope to flip it for 200. If you do, you’re a fucking idiot. You buy it to show that you can—or launder money and avoid taxes, but more on that later.
“There are certain artists, I guess we know who they are—we talk about guys having trophy wives, they make trophy art. At one of the Venice Biennales, at some function, Eli Broad introduced this guy to me, a Russian billionaire. The first thing he said to me is, ‘I own a work of yours that’s the most expensive of any of your work.’ So I’m curious about what that would be—and he didn’t know what it was. So he called his wife over and he said, ‘Can you describe that piece that we have?’ She said, ‘Well it’s in our New York apartment and it’s out in the hall.’ That’s all she could say! It’s not about art. It’s about owning something that’s really expensive.” —John Baldessari, artist.
The art market is completely unregulated and to exist in this new landscape, insider trading is not only legal but fundamental. For the artists, dealers and collectors in the ninety-nine percent, the art world is their shot at the California Gold Rush. And just like in the 1840s, there are a ton of people looking for gold but it's mainly the middlemen selling the pick axes and gold pans who stand to make the biggest profit. However, this enterprise is not without extreme risk as a market controlled by money rather than substance is highly unstable. And for some, debilitatingly depressing.
“And you ask me what my agency is in all of this. My agency is to try to make it possible for real art to survive. Because right now the artists are producing to sell, because that’s the only thing they can show in galleries. And I’m worried, I’m really worried, like many people are. There could be a lost generation.” —Alain Servais, collector.
LA is in the throes of a new art world Manifest Destiny as artists and galleries pour in from the east coast and abroad; attracted by sprawling square footage at reasonable rents and a fantasy fueled by the press that here you don’t have to sell as much art to survive so creativity can exist without commercial restraint. Make no mistake, that is a fantasy. LA is competing for prestige and market share and to do that, they will have to play the same game as everyone else.
The art world—especially the LA art world—has not yet been given its due in television or film outside of a few stale clichés clearly told from a tangential point of view. Not entirely surprising given the art world’s opaque and exclusive nature. But we didn’t research this world; we live in it. This is our story.
—dana sorman and hannah sloan.