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Chunks in Action: Art Crisis

“Chunks” applies to any kind of story: profile, feature, breaking news, whatever. It’s also a good rule of thumb for pretty much everything you write.

Let’s take any news story. This one from Reuters’ James Pomfret in Hong Kong last October is as good as any:

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Global financial turmoil has caught up with the red-hot Chinese contemporary art market as bidders failed to buy top-flight paintings at a major Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong on Saturday.

For the past few years, auction rooms in London, New York and Hong Kong have crackled with fierce interest in Chinese contemporary paintings as prices broke record after record.

But in Sotheby’s marquee autumn sale of Asian contemporary artwork, a key twice-yearly barometer of market sentiment among the world’s top collectors, 19 of 47 prominent works went unsold and others barely hit low estimates.

"The results weren’t at all ideal, and prices of contemporary Chinese art seem to have reached a peak now," Jackson See, a Singaporean buyer, told Reuters in the packed auction hall.

"It is showing signs of a real correction," he added.

Works by feted artists Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei, Liao Jichun and Zeng Fanzhi failed to sell with Zeng’s "After the Long March Andy Warhol arrived in China," for instance, attracting bids far short of its HK$20 million reserve price.

Sotheby’s said that after 5 years of "unprecedented growth" the poor showing was to be expected.

"It is not surprising that there will be some leveling off, which is what we also experienced this evening, in addition to some estimates which were overly optimistic," said Evelyn Lin, the Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art department.


Now let’s break it down into chunks:

CHUNK 1: LEAD

It tells us what happened, what the story is, what’s important. In this case the financial crisis is stopping people from paying big money for Chinese art:

Global financial turmoil has caught up with the red-hot Chinese contemporary art market as bidders failed to buy top-flight paintings at a major Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong on Saturday.


CHUNK 2: CONTEXT

One or two sentences to explain the above, or give more detail and context to the above. In this case we need to tell the reader this was a big market–a fact we could only allude to in the lead because of space (‘red hot…art market’) . And then we need to give some detail, some tangible evidence of the assertion we make in the lead, that bidders failed to buy the big paintings:

For the past few years, auction rooms in London, New York and Hong Kong have crackled with fierce interest in Chinese contemporary paintings as prices broke record after record. But in Sotheby’s marquee autumn sale of Asian contemporary artwork, a key twice-yearly barometer of market sentiment among the world’s top collectors, 19 of 47 prominent works went unsold and others barely hit low estimates.


CHUNK 3: QUOTE

A quote is important, and should be inserted in the first few sentences. Some journalists prefer to put their quote immediately after the lead. I prefer after the context, for a number of reasons. The quote should, if possible, do several things:

  • back up the lead. Did the person (institution, press release, people) say(s) what we’re saying they said?
  • convey more information to the reader
  • capture some of the drama of the situation

In this case the writer here has put in a double quote, touching all bases. The first part of the quote packs information in–the market has reached a peak–but has also added a nice second part of the quote to give a sense of the excitement:

"The results weren’t at all ideal, and prices of contemporary Chinese art seem to have reached a peak now," Jackson See, a Singaporean buyer, told Reuters in the packed auction hall."It is showing signs of a real correction," he added.


CHUNK 4: FLESH

This chunk is going to flesh out the story. Many of us won’t be interested in learning more about the story, but the journalist needs to add some more detail and fact to further buttress his assertion that the market has reached a peak. He needs several things, for example:

  1. More information. In this case, which artists are not selling? What kind of prices are we talking about?
  2. Another named quote. We need to know he’s spoken to more people than just Jackson See.
  3. A bit more context: how long has the market been good for, for example, would put this information in some perspective.

That’s exactly what he gives us in a few more short sentences:

Works by feted artists Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Liu Wei, Liao Jichun and Zeng Fanzhi failed to sell with Zeng’s "After the Long March Andy Warhol arrived in China," for instance, attracting bids far short of its HK$20 million reserve price.

Sotheby’s said that after 5 years of "unprecedented growth" the poor showing was to be expected.

"It is not surprising that there will be some leveling off, which is what we also experienced this evening, in addition to some estimates which were overly optimistic," said Evelyn Lin, the Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Asian Art department.


3 Responses

  1. […] Chunks in Action: Art Crisis […]

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