June 27, 2014 6:22 pm

Winners and losers from the art market’s new rules

Boundaries are blurred in the strange world of commercial art, with the shifting landscape benefiting some while hitting others
Lynn Chadwick’s ‘Stranger III’ (1959) (Photograph: Blain Southern)©Blain Southern

Lynn Chadwick’s ‘Stranger III’ (1959) (Photograph: Blain Southern)

The commercial art world can seem a very confusing place. Between galleries of various sorts, art fairs and biennales, auction houses with their public and private sales and selling exhibitions, art advisers and investment funds, not to mention the whole gamut of online offerings, it’s hardly surprising that would-be collectors can be baffled – or discouraged altogether.

Not so long ago, things were simpler: everyone knew their place, and encroached on each other’s territory only at their peril. (Or so the old-timers will have us believe.) New work straight from the artist’s studio was handled by the artist’s dealer and shown in his gallery (and I use the pronoun advisedly); the dealer’s role importantly also extended to advising and managing his artists’ careers, usually for the long term. Other galleries specialised in the art of the past, usually in clear and fairly narrow bands: antiquities, say, or 19th-century painting. The auction houses sold only work that was not new (secondary market), and only in the form of public auction.

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For more than a century, that was essentially that.

But over the past decade almost every one of the rules of this game has been challenged, sometimes abruptly, sometimes subtly. Once-rigid dividing walls have come tumbling down, or simply crumbled. Auction houses now regularly host selling exhibitions – in effect crossing right over into the territory traditionally held by the galleries. They also – and it was the infamous Damien Hirst sale in 2008 that boldly heralded this shift – sell primary market work, straight from the studio. Meanwhile, the bigger commercial galleries now stage curated exhibitions, often beautifully put together with loans of work even from public collections: a confusing move, this (is anything for sale?). Artists may be represented by more than one gallery, or none at all. Galleries may be trading in their artists’ work on the secondary market, as well as fresh work.

And the ever-accelerating spread of art fairs, which come with a level of hype reaching near-hysteria, have criss-crossed all the boundaries even further, as fair organisers commission and curate non-commercial work alongside the main bazaar. The fair craze could be said to have introduced a kind of panic buying among the super-rich (read Tom Wolfe’s hilarious picture of billionaires shoving each other aside like fractious schoolchildren at a fair’s VVIP opening in his novel Back to Blood ), but has also turned contemporary art into a spectator sport and fashion accessory. Art advisers shop for their clients from a list of must-have names while art funds trumpet the rates of return to be made from investing in the artists du jour.

Even biennales, supposedly non-commercial, are now part of the international market system. The internet, as it always does, changes everything by widening access almost infinitely. The benefits of this need no explanation; less happy is the development of sites such as ArtRank, in which artists are brutally listed under headings that include “buy now”, “sell now” and “liquidate” if their stock is considered to have peaked. Not much room for aesthetic values there.

Even the press (we should hold up our hands) feeds some of the negative hype – and often distorts the overall picture – through our fascinated reporting of the vast sums achieved by the slenderest of top layers, ignoring anything but the glimmering mirage of vast riches apparently to be made simply by acquiring art.

Almost the only certainty is that public galleries are not (yet) selling art straight off their walls. Even so, Tate Modern sailed pretty close to that possibility when, in the shop at the exit of its magnificent Gerhard Richter retrospective in 2012, a full-size digital ink-jet version of one of the mighty abstract canvases in the show, “Cage IV”, was for sale. The price was £48,000, for all 16 parts of the “grid” into which it was divided. I saw one of the edition of 9 on sale at an art fair last month – with vastly higher price tag.

‘Stern of Barge and Marine Equipment’ (2014) by Leon Morrocco at John Martin Gallery (Photograph: John Martin Gallery)©John Martin Gallery

‘Stern of Barge and Marine Equipment’ (2014) by Leon Morrocco at John Martin Gallery (Photograph: John Martin Gallery)

So, in this vertiginously shifting landscape, who are the winners and losers? The complications and the reported prices probably make most ordinary mortals cringe and – sadly – feel that buying art is not for them. But apart from that, what is actually wrong with these changes? With the growth of a broad international market for – and (let’s not be too cynical) aesthetic appreciation of – art, it’s surely obvious that a traditional western model might have to redraw its shape. This is especially true in countries such as China and India which had no established gallery system anyway. And the success of auction houses’ selling exhibitions, art fairs and especially the internet may be a welcome democratisation of the sometimes intimidating system of the established galleries. The old ones can appear snooty and exclusive, and the contemporary ones even worse in their operation of waiting lists, and even blacklists, for successful new work. It’s a doubly strange world, this: huge sums of money are paramount, yet money alone is not enough – gallerists wish to sell important work to the “right” people, and anyone caught “flipping” (selling work on at a profit before a decorous interval elapses) may find themselves ostracised.

With the expansion of art fairs and the encroachment of the auction houses, as well as the overemphasis on the contemporary and the new in general, it is the small-to-medium long-established galleries that may be suffering the most. Especially if they are based in districts where rents are spiralling upwards, pricing out all but the luxury goods moguls. Yet we should value these galleries: they are probably the places where most of us, if we can afford any art and want to start collecting, will be buying, and where we will find ourselves glad of their traditional strengths: expertise, sensible pricing, reliable advice and the chance of a longer-term relationship for those who are thinking of building a collection over time.

Next weekend in London’s Mayfair, some 80-plus galleries of all shapes and sizes are getting together in an Art Weekend. Their aim is partly to fight back against the looming threat of rent rises that are driving them out of the area, and to remind us of their enduring values in an art world focused on the new and transient – and, simply, to welcome us in freely. The weekend, focused on and sponsored by Brown’s Hotel, follows on from Master Paintings and Drawings Week, and includes tours, talks and a Hix Art Brunch (with talks hosted by the FT) at 11am next Saturday and Sunday, July 5-6. See londonartweekend.co.uk for the full programmes.

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