More and more you see art shows being coupled with support programs that, to an art goer from a couple of decades ago, would resemble more a visit to the local club than an actually gallery — albeit a club that, for whatever reason, seems to also have some “art” on the walls.
But why is that?
I hear a lot of people in the business say that the market has shifted and that — just like with any other commodity in today’s competitive business environment — the target audiences have changed, so the products and presentation have to change, too.
Well, I don’t believe that, at least not to the extent that such galleries describe the state of the “casual art consumer” to be.
The main issue I have is that a lot less energy and commitment is being given to figuring out where exactly the art market (or the art world in general) is going, but quick and careless decisions by people who operate in these “middle ground” segments cause weird and probably quite negative effects on the all-around well-being of the arts precisely by blatantly coupling arts with entertainment.
And here, it’s time for a very brief history check:
If we take a peek at what has been happening over the last few decades, it’s quite obvious that art used to be whatever the antonym of commodity is (I am yet to find out and I find this incredibly fitting for the times we are living in), where the production was scarce and quality was judged on actual craftsmanship and “objective” skill — like being able to paint a person’s portrait to the point where one could hardly distinguish between the painting and the real thing.
After science and society evolved, this merit upon which good artistic expression was evaluated had to go, at least for a while (it comes back in cycles and my guess is, it’s slowly coming back again), and exploration of “What art can be?” lead the development of both taste and the markets.
Picasso and Braque, the Futurists and Dada sealed the deal of what the Impressionists, Fauvists and Expressionists began and both the industrial and societal revolutions during that time correlated to it: the defining factor for great art became philosophical and political reflection in all its glory.
After Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s urinal (that by a combination of chance, old-school misogyny and the influence of Marcel Duchamp is still being fought over as to who really “made” the artwork that would forever change contemporary art), well, things changed.
The question of “What is art?”, or more precisely “What can be art?” was answered just a few decades after the 1917 exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists in New York, when people began to talk and discuss the oddity; while people still love to quarrel about the real definition of art, the objective fact (if there ever is one) is that art can be and therefore is, everything we decide.
There’s no heavenly blueprint of what art looks like and as such anything can be art.
This was a turning point for our business as suddenly anyone could become an artist. But one can imagine such a lack of functional barriers to entry (there’s really no official national exam for becoming an artist anywhere in the world) could not stand for long, and a merit by which artistic status was to be decided upon had to be drawn up.
And so it happened.
Economic growth and the long periods of abundance caused a lot of new money to appear and (depending on your country) legislation on tax-cuts and other subsidies for art offered the affluent a wonderful mechanism for not only saving money, but making it.
A lot of money to be exact.
Art that sold for 800€ in 1920 now sells for tens of millions — a prime example to such rising prices is the current record-holder, the alleged Da Vinci painting titled Salvator Mundi, that sold for a humble 450 million. And the best part; the art world is already happily chirping away about the first billion euro work of art coming soon.
The top end of the market has risen to heights where one can’t but start to wonder when the sun will burn down its wings and send it tumbling into a depression.
But, this is something for another blunder, today I’m focusing on a different segment that came to be exactly because of this rise in contemporary and modern art sales (and prices), but in the end could not be more disparate.
It’s the well-off but not rich folks in their 20% bigger-than-average apartments located 20% closer-to-the-city-centre-than-most-others that drive just a bit better cars and eat just a tad healthier.
I’m talking about the high end of the middle class.
This “target market” is the playground for all the primary beta galleries (the bottom feeders of the art world) as well as for some of the top players (like Saatchiart, or Saatchionline as it was once called, when it still belonged to Charles Saatchi). And this part of the market is also where more or less most of us are currently located.
But it’s not a shabby place to be, if that’s what you’re thinking.
In fact, it’s the most common place where the majority of all artists in the world can be found and, the ineffable amount of competition aside, for me a very interesting space to work in.
Let me explain:
I believe we are in the midst of an enormous change, the era of a new and dare I say never before seen market is about to unfold (the beginnings of which have been happening for almost 10 years).
Soon, a new kind of collector will arise, because her messenger — the art buyer — has already appeared.
The art buyers, distinct from the art collectors and as the name already implies, do not collect nor do they wish to use their art purchases for the same means as those that do; they only wish to be part of the action, the money action.
Art buyers are more or less real-estate flippers with a tad more cash and maybe a semi-functional understanding of art (no offence to anyone, but basic psychology agrees). They rarely care for the product they flip, and even rarer appreciate it.
All they appreciate is to buy low and flip high. And such a view is symptomatic of a degradation in standards or rules by which any game is played, because one gets a bunch of new players that completely forwent the rule-learning stage and just came to have a blast.
It’s the trust fund and second generation oligarch families that tend to appear in this group; the people in power that never learned, but more precisely understood, how power is earned, maintained and lost, and that came to lead a highly complex and decades long chess game their parents and sometimes parent’s parents started and plunge it into a gradual and slow oblivion by playing checkers.
But the art buyers are just the beginning, now we’re going to see (and already are in more developed markets) that because of the sheer amount of purchasing power and capital, floating about in our wonderful world, something’s happening with the middle class, too.
And the best part, the model for what is happening is as old as society itself, and anyone of us that wishes to ride the coming waves of potential abundance is welcome to do so with more or less a step-by-step guide lurking in every history book — all one has to do is replace carriage or copper pick-axe with computer and wi-fi, really.
The middle class is getting more and more affluent and the same thing that happens whenever a segment of the population grows in purchasing power is happening in the arts — and it’s not just more art sales in that particular segment (300€ -1000€ give or take), it’s a more specific and more refined taste in the art that is being bought that is accompanying them.
That’s why Instagram shops, Etsy and Facebook Marketplace are working so well for a lot of artists right now. And, to finally get to the main, juicy part of today’s blunder, it’s why arts and entertainment have risen as a spectacle in many a gallery and will eventually fail as a model of operation for most if not all such galleries.
People think that mid-tier art collectors need DJs and beanbags to buy art, while the main issue really resides in the fact that nobody wants to be looked down upon — especially not by a shabby, 2nd or 3rd tier gallerist that was never allowed to sit at the adult’s table and whose rooster of artists were never accepted to an evening sale at Sotheby’s.
Of course you have people that come to such openings that genuinely enjoy the lights, music and the superfluous conversations about art that happen at many an opening, but as the gallery owners are slowly beginning to find out, such people really do come for the music and wine, not to actually buy the art that’s being displayed.
This, coupled with the fact that playing in the big league now requires tens if not hundreds of millions of liquid cash in the bank, it’s no wonder that galleries are closing by the hundreds.
What the art world in this segment currently lacks is humility and understanding for the newly formed segment and a business model to back it up.
Many of them behave like textbook examples of what no to do: 1st) Dumb down your product and marketing so you’ll reach “everyone”, 2nd) package it in shiny, superfluous glitter and do a circus act to try to sell it and 3rd) magically reach a strong market saturation and expect the sophisticated buyers you’ve been targeting all along to just magically become interested in the light and music show, because a couple of hundred folks came to your opening and drank your cartoned-up Cabernet Sauvignon.
It just doesn’t work like that.
That’s why my personal belief is that a lot of us artists that have either not been born into a well-connected family or are incapable of becoming well-connected (more or less because of introversion or some other form of inability), to completely change the way we think about the art world and stop dreaming about ever getting representation by a gallery.
It’s not that it’s impossible — more than ever, our chances of getting signed are quite strong if indeed we are up to the task of delivering a quality product and are capable enough in getting to know the right people to deliver it to — but it’s improbable that such a model will work in the lower segment of the market, where more or less all of us will stay, forever.
The facilitators of art just aren’t up to the task and it will take a long time before this changes (if ever).
It’s much better to partner up with a friend or acquaintance that can help you out with marketing and finances and split the profits, because they are much more likely to actually know what the hell is going on with the people that are really going to buy the work in that segment, than many of the so called gallerists in the primary beta segment of the art market.
And to be honest, there’s a lot of good social media marketeers and a lot of fresh economic graduates to go around, many of them squirming at the thought of becoming another cog in their perspective industry’s machines in order to either sell a few more knickers or getting the cost basis for said knickers down by 3.2 percent in the next quarter.
People need and want fun and excitement, they yearn for a purpose and by god if a possibility of someday becoming professionally involved in one of the most subjective and creative industries in human existence doesn’t present itself as the universe stretching out an olive branch amongst the bleak and pointless populist nihilism of today, I don’t know what can.