The Art Market: Dollars and censors

Each year Tefaf – the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Holland – sees the launch of a new report on the art market by art economist Dr Clare McAndrew. Most art market data is based solely on auction results but this report draws on interviews with dealers, collectors, industry experts and other art trade players as well as the auction houses, so offers a much broader view of the market.

McAndrew gives an estimate of global art market value as €46.1bn in 2011 – an increase of 63 per cent since the market crisis of 2009. Her figures highlight the trends in the market today: the importance of China; the blurring of the frontiers between auctioneering and dealing; the rise and rise of art fairs; the strength of modern and contemporary art; and the arrival of new players – art advisers and consultants. She also picks as trends the cult of celebrity, the artist as a market force – with artists bypassing dealers – and changes in the distribution of wealth.

“One of the most interesting findings is that 2011 showed a continued recovery of the aggregate art market but that it has been very uneven in terms of outcomes – fine art did relatively much better than decorative art, new markets did much better than mature markets and, most importantly, the top end of the market did markedly better than the middle and lower ends,” says McAndrew, who points to the wide gap developing between the spending by the super-rich and by what dealers call “ordinary collectors”.

Is this a case of keeping up with the Gagosians? Or Gilbert and George keeping up with Hirst? Shortly after Gagosian filled his 11 galleries worldwide with Hirst’s Spot Paintings, White Cube unveiled its own global challenge with exhibitions of Gilbert and George’s London Pictures. The new series of 292 pictures is formed of words culled from newspapers – “Yobs”, “Killer”, “Murder” etc – that give a bleak picture of modern urban life, although whether they work as art is a different matter. The words are superimposed in scarlet lettering on photographs of the artists themselves, or of the streets around east London. They fill White Cube’s Bermondsey, Hoxton Square and Mason’s Yard spaces, and were also the curtain-raiser for White Cube’s new Hong Kong gallery, which opened on March 2. Prices range from £50,000 to £250,000; they are “selling well”, said the gallery. From April 26 more of the series will be on view at Lehmann Maupin’s two New York spaces.

‘Fragment of a Buddha Head’, 7th-9th century, southern Thailand, part of Asia week in New York

Gagosian offered a Hirst print for anyone seeing all 11 Spot shows (114 people have done so) so I asked White Cube if there was a prize for seeing all the London Pictures shows. “No,” came the curt answer.

Meanwhile Gagosian in London is showing photographs by the German photographer Thomas Ruff, huge blow-ups of the surface of the planet Mars, culled from the Nasa website. Some are in 3D and the gallery hands out little red and green glasses to view them with. As the show opened last week five immediately sold at prices around $100,000 (the images come in editions of three) and since then, “many more have gone”, says director Stefan Ratibor. Continuing my interest in keeping up with the Gagosians/Hirsts, I asked him if Gagosian has any more plans to fill all its galleries with work by just one artist. “No,” he replied.

“Pornographic” and “anti-Islamic” were the reasons given for the quick-fire closure of an exhibition at the Al M Gallery in Kuwait last week. The mixed-media works on show were by the Kuwaiti artist Shurooq Amin; in them she explored the taboo underworld of men in the Gulf. It’s A Man’s World opened at 7pm and was closed down at 10pm after officers from the ministries of commerce and interior descended, declared the show “inappropriate” and ordered the 17 exhibits to be taken down. Most were already sold, at prices from $9,000-$15,000: “They are in a safe place,” says Amin, “because we feared they could be confiscated and destroyed. I am still under investigation and awaiting my fate.” To western eyes, the images do not seem so shocking, although the sub-texts imply homosexuality and forbidden substances.

‘The Goddess Durga’, 7th century, Vietnam or Cambodia, also part of Asia week in New York

The issue of censorship is of course not new in the Gulf; a recent scandal was the sacking of Sharjah Biennial director Jack Persekian last year after a video in the show was deemed unacceptable. The Sharjah foundation also dropped a film commissioned from independent filmmaker Caveh Zahedi on the subject of “art as a subversive act”. When they saw it, foundation officials decided to axe it: “Blasphemy here is beyond serious,” noted one.

But the beast is out of the box and the film, The Sheik and I, which pokes fun at the ruler of Sharjah among other teases, has been accepted for the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. In a trailer to the film on YouTube, Zahedi complains: “In a place where there is no freedom of speech, you cannot say there is no freedom of speech.”

Asia week has kicked off in New York with an array of exhibitions, auctions, lectures and the Arts of Pacific Asia fair. It’s open house for dealers this weekend, and then the auctions start on Monday and continue all week. Local dealers are joining with out-of-towners – among them Francesca Galloway and Johnny Eskenazi from London, the London Gallery from Tokyo – to offer everything from Indian miniatures or ancient Chinese silver and gold (Lally) to central Asian textiles (Carlo Cristi). The auctions span thousands of years, from a collection of Chinese mirrors from the Robert Ellsworth collection (Christie’s, Thursday) to modern and contemporary south-east Asian art (Sotheby’s, Monday).

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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