The Art World Today: Defections, Disillusion and Copious Cash

The art world is torn between contradictory realities: on the one hand, auctions report record and rocketing prices; on the other, artists defect, critics throw up their hands and their pens, blue-chip names are accused of overproduction, and the middle market is in a process of collapse. At the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) on Saturday night, a panel of experts convened to try and disentangle this strange state of affairs.

Members of the panel linked many of the art world’s problems to the overwhelming influence of super-rich collectors. JJ Charlesworth, Associate Editor of Art Review, described the approach of such collectors – perhaps more accurately described as ‘investors’ – as “spray and pray.” They buy up the work of young artists in great bulk, and at high cost, and hope that a few come close to generating the same kind of value as Hirst or Richter.

James Mayor, director of the Mayor Gallery, added that this approach drives middle-income collectors out of the market. “The old-fashioned amateur has disappeared, the doctors and dentists don’t have the money anymore,” he said.

One consequence of a market dominated by super-rich collectors is that smaller galleries are placed under great financial pressure. “The great dealers used to be small,” said Mayor. But with the super-rich drawn to the glamour and thrill of the big auction houses, and less interested in closely studying new art for its own sake, this has left mid-range galleries with a dwindling clientele.

And as more and more of the people financing art become interested in it as an investment and a status symbol, rather than as an aesthetic and particularly multifaceted experience, the role of critic is being eroded too. Art Review’s Charlesworth said that the importance of historically informed, sensitive criticism has diminished dramatically.

“Art was bought by people with a real interest in art, but now nobody really wants to know what the significance of a piece is.”

Mayor concurred, adding: “very few billionaires know what they’re collecting.” Such expertise is delegated to teams of advisers and art consultants.

And with criticism displaced by the hand of the market, galleries and investors are putting more pressure on artists to produce work that they can then sell on while the artist’s star – or at least, market valuation – is high. This leads to an overproduction by some artists, which damages the quality of their work. As another panellist, Georgina Adam, editor of The Art Newspaper and arts writer for the Financial Times, asked: “how many of Hirst’s ‘Spot Paintings’ are out there?” Overall, it was an unusually downbeat evening at the ICA.

ICA Quickfire: The End of the Art World…? 19th January 2013

Chaired by Gregor Muir (ICA Executive Director), this Quickfire talk addresses the profound sea change presently gripping the art world. Muir is accompanied by a panel including Georgina Adam (Art Correspondent, Financial Times/Editor at Large, The Art Newspaper), JJ Charlesworth (ArtReview, Associate Editor), Danielle Horn (Director, Nettie Horn Gallery) and James Mayor (Mayor Gallery).

Words Toby Hill / Photo © ArtLyst 2012

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