There’s No Business Like Art Business Like No Business I Know by Edward Lucie-Smith

I’m looking forward to the Art Business conference due to be held at Church House here in London on Thursday 1st December and hope to report on what is said there.

However, looking at the programme, some aspects of it seem to dodge important issues. It’s all well and good, for example, to discuss the art market in Dubai and the Middle East, a subject that will occupy the whole of the first session, immediately the conference opens. I am willing to bet, however, that there won’t be much, or indeed probably any, discussion of what is happening in Qatar. At the moment of writing the two most expensive pictures ever sold – Gauguin’s When Will You Marry Me? (almost $300 million, February 2015) and Cézanne’s The Card Players ($274 million, 2011) – were bought by the Qatar Museums Authority. Since then, there has been a change of ruling Emirs in Qatar and both paintings seem to have vanished from view.

Of even greater general interest is another big topic, crucial to any consideration of what is actually happening here in Britain, and in Western art markets in general. There is one subject the organizers appear to have been careful to leave out: the complex relationship between the commercial sector, including specifically high-value art auctions and the big international art fairs on the one hand, and the publicly controlled sector of museums and affiliated major institutions on the other. In many ways, they are obviously co-dependent. High prices make news – the kind of news that implants the idea that art is  important, and brings the punters in.

Yet, despite current much-hyped museum populism, and the enormously increased public attendance at official exhibitions – over a million visitors to Tate Modern since its vast new wing opened – the two sectors often seem to be pulling in different directions. Big art auctions are elitist: it’s built into the economic nature of the event. Big museums strive to be the opposite but still retain a nostalgic attachment, in spite of themselves, subscribing to elitist ideas and values.

There are further paradoxes built into this big one. For instance, there can be few more ‘elitist’ young art stars than the Indian-born and now British resident Raqib Shaw. His current show at White Cube Bermondsey (closes September 11th) showcases intricate, laboriously crafted paintings of a kind that, in recent auctions, have made well into six figures, and sometimes much more. In October 2007 his huge Garden of Earthly Delights III, 120” x 60”, made  $4,891,680 in a sale at Sotheby’s, London. If you want to see the White Cube exhibition, nip in there quick – it won’t cost you a penny. When I went, on a weekday lunchtime, there were probably five other people there.

At Tate Modern, when you want to see their big Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective, adult admission is £19 (or, as they tell you, £17.20 ‘without donation’). If you’re a totally skint art lover, which are you going to choose?

In addition to all this, one has to consider the fact that museum groups such as Tate – two locations in London, one in Liverpool, one in St Ives – are undoubtedly businesses in the fullest sense of the word. They publicize and market events, run boutiques and bookstores, have highly professional public relations teams, and – also – have to embark on complex financial relations with both central and local government, just as other kinds of business, operating within the bounds of a democracy, have to do.

Today the words ‘art’ and ‘business’ can hardly be separated, though there are still a number of disapproving people around who might like to keep them apart. In the kind of society we live in, the visual arts depend heavily on commercial innovation, and particularly on the kind of commercial innovation that is wedded to technology, not just to make a livelihood possible for artists, but also to ensure the kind of forward thinking that keeps art itself alive and interesting. For artists, in a modern society, the best motto, in all senses of the adjective, is: ‘Make it new!’ But try telling that to the Sir Humphreys who would like to keep art and commerce strictly apart.

Photo: Larry Gagosian by P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016

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