Redefining Value in the Art Market
Covid-19 has dealt a serious blow to economies of the art market and institutional artworld. As the art market has grown, value has come largely to be defined by what Hito Steyerl has termed as ‘economies of presence’ – the international calendar of biennials and fairs, private view and pre-private view, exclusive dinners and parties or the invite-only conference. The crisis has highlighted the precariousness of the systems it depends on; the privileged few, travel and logistics, limited web offer, art workers, exclusivity…
It has impacted the most vulnerable in the market – smaller sellers see the largest declines in sales, art workers are laid off. If the crisis was already amplifying the role of privilege in the artworld, the Black Lives Matter movement has put it front and centre: the vast majority of people with the power and resources in the art market are white and wealthy. “Inclusion” is not enough, the structures need to be remodelled. The aim of this programme of events is to ask how.
Each of the events, curated by Lucy Rose Sollitt and guest Co-conveners, focuses on unearthing and exploring the viability of art economies which operate outside or reverse the dominant logic of extracting value from the many at the expense of the few.
Activities are organised around a set of core themes – Expanded Formats, Shared Infrastructures, Reconsidering the Local, and Redistributing Power – which could play a key role in redefining value in the market. The aim is to provide a collaborative platform of events, contributions, reading resources and materials, so that audiences and contributors can support one another to realise alternative futures within the artworld.
Existing economies of the art market are under strain, and its failings are more visible than ever, but there is also an opportunity to reflect on what really matters and momentum to do things differently. Hope can be found in the thinking, experimentation and inventions taking place…
Online sales have increased, but on the whole, sellers with the most resources to invest tend to reap the rewards. As these top brands incorporate new tools such as AR and AI into their sales models and expand across all market segments they start to look more and more like the powerful media companies the internet is dominated by.
Those with deep understanding of the expressive potential of technologies and technopolitics could hold the key to alternative future economies.
Along with wider dissatisfaction at the centralising dynamics of platform capitalism, there is disappointment at the often narrow uses of emerging technologies within the art market. In the pursuit of scarcity, galleries, marketplaces and fairs often transpose traditional sales formats into the digital space – glitchy simulations of fair booths serve as a disappointing reminder of the inability to attend the fair in person, and bear little resemblance to the rich creations of artists working in the medium. Is the market vulnerable to disruption by the next generation of tech users and innovators?
The range of models and ideas imagined by artists, thinkers, and critical technologists could anticipate future artistic economies which generate income while freeing art from dominant market dynamics.
In a moment of economic, environmental and political turmoil, models for collectivising have become urgent. From collaboration among galleries to reduce carbon emissions, to cooperative art fairs, crowdsourced campaigns and fundraising, artist-led sales models where benefit is shared across networks, and attempts at data standardisation. Hybrid and collective ways of working have always existed in the art market, but as business models are under increasing strain such ways of working have found renewed relevance. Can the collaboration last and create a sharing economy? Can it go beyond networks of affiliation in order to break down exclusivity?
A reconsideration of resources is taking place – collaborative models for their use, both economically but also in terms of ideas, expertise, physical and digital infrastructure. Fundamentally this is about a more varied, fairer and empowered ecosystem.
Reconsidering the local
The pause on relentless travel and events has provided many with the opportunity to reconsider their priorities and how they might “slow down” and act more thoughtfully and sustainably. Overlooked as “fringe” by many in the market, regional contexts are gaining new relevance as galleries, institutions and biennials focus more strongly on the local – communities, artists and production networks – for their continued relevance and survival.
Soul-searching is taking place among institutions, galleries and collectors about the public value of art, and what it means to truly share in it. The lock-in effect caused by a powerful network of international gatekeepers who validate art looks increasingly dysfunctional in today’s context. Embedding markets in their local context seems more attractive, nurturing local ecosystems while connecting out to regional and international peers. Many parts of the puzzle already exist, what prevents growth? Is the local at odds with making money? What are the benefits of not being part of the market? Are local structures and gatekeepers unwittingly preventing the ecosystem to thrive? Now is the moment to deconstruct the barriers.
In the cash fuelled art market of the last two decades, the entanglement of art, money and power has become more visible, it is increasingly hard to deny that a privileged few reap the benefits of a dysfunctional system. Covid-19 is causing retrenchment among buyers who are opting to buy from galleries they have established relationships with.
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought laser focus on white privilege and racial inequalities in arts where certain bodies and stories are allowed to exist, while others are omitted. It is becoming harder to hide co-option, or rely solely on virtue signalling and inclusion policies. As many are pointing out, addressing systemic racism requires systemic change – not reform, but a wholesale dispersal and reconfiguration of power structures which dominate the art market and institutional artworld. In order to truly forge a fairer system, such an overhaul must entail confronting other inequalities prevalent in the art market including, class, gender and disability.
Reappraisal of collections and activist collecting, fugitive economies and networks of care, along with possibilities for broadening the collector base could all help drive consumer demand for a kinder form of capitalism.