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Globalization of the art market [emerging art markets]free

  • Olav Velthuis

Since the 1980s art markets have developed rapidly outside of Europe and the USA. In the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) this development has been particularly dynamic. With aggregate sales estimated at €11.5 billion, China is the second largest market for art and antiques in the world after the USA (McAndrew 2014). Works of art made by modern and contemporary artists from all four countries regularly fetch more than $1 million at auction.

The rise of the BRICs has coincided with the global integration of what used to be local art markets: demand for and supply of particular artists or artistic movements may now be dispersed across the globe. The boom which global art markets have witnessed in the new millennium can be attributed partially to new buyers from countries like China and Russia developing an interest in art, both old and new. In describing the emergence of the BRICs, the focus in this article will be on modern and contemporary art, since that is where market development has been most significant, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

1. History.

The main difficulty of tracing the history of art markets in the BRICs (or for that matter in many regions across the world), is that an equivalent of the Western notion of ‘art’, denoting a privileged cultural category of artefacts which circulate in specific institutional frameworks and are embedded in distinct repertoires of valuation, has long been absent. Historically, in the BRICs, cultural artefacts have circulated in a wide variety of institutional settings, including courts, clans, or religious organizations. Their markets were hardly institutionalized, if only because a clear notion of property rights was lacking.

In China, the history of art markets is to some extent identical to the history of commodity trading more generally. This history starts in the Song dynasty (960–1279), when cultural artefacts, such as illustrated books, ceramics, lacquered objects, and porcelain but also paintings, were traded between relatively anonymous sellers and buyers. During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) dealers in prints and calligraphy included peddlers by the road, Daoist monks, and ‘gentlemen dealers’ who belonged to the élite. In India, it is hard to define the earliest sales of art on a ‘free market’ because arts and crafts were intertwined.

Art markets in the BRICs have been institutionalized from the 19th century onwards. Intense interactions with Europe, in the case of India and Brazil due to colonization, have contributed to this trend. For Brazil, the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808 marks the beginning of a ‘modern capitalist system for art’ (Fioravante 2001), distinct from the earlier era of ‘primitive art’. From the 19th century onwards, artists’ training via the European academy also became institutionalized. Quickly, wealthy élites began to buy art in order to legitimate their status, while art became a nation-building tool, particularly following independence from Portugal in 1822. The first galleries opened at the turn of the 20th century in Rio de Janeiro. In Russia, regular buyers of (foreign) art on the market were Peter the Great and Catherine II, who sought to import European culture into their country. The local art market started flourishing at the end of 19th century when the first autonomous unions of artists started holding their own exhibitions and selling art there. As in Brazil, galleries and other intermediaries became widespread in Russia in the early 20th century. At the time, Russia played an integral role to the development of Modernism, and the works of such artists as Kandinsky and Malevich were sold by galleries in Europe.

In other words, the institutionalization of art markets resulted from previous waves of economic, political, and/or cultural globalization. Those waves usually also resulted in European and American audiences developing some interest in art produced in the BRICs. But during the greater part of the 20th century, globalization was halted in (Maoist) China and Communist Russia. In both countries, the commercial trade in art was hardly considered legal until the late 1980s.

2. Recent developments.

The current wave of globalization of art markets, which started at the end of the 20th century, again coinciding with a moment of wider economic and cultural globalization, is particularly strong. The recent (re-)emergence of art markets in the BRICs has been driven by two interrelated developments: first of all the rapid economic growth and the concomitant rise of economic élites in these countries and secondly a widespread interest in Europe and the USA in art produced in other regions of the world. The latter development is exemplified by the popularity of new scholarly and curatorial terms like ‘global art’ and ‘world art history’.

The symbolic starting date of the current wave is 1989, the year when the Berlin Wall fell and the irreversible crumbling of the Soviet Union was initiated—events which coincided with the Paris Biennial exhibition Les magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou and Parc de la Villette. This exhibition has widely been seen as a ground-breaking and visionary attempt to transform the ‘Western’ art system into a global inclusive system.

Art markets in the BRICs have developed in at least three interrelated ways. First of all, on the demand side, new élites have started collecting art. Their interest is in cultural heritage and classical, canonized works of art from their own countries, which are bought ‘back’ from Western collectors, in whose hands they ended up during previous waves of globalization. As a result, prices of, for instance, ancient Chinese ceramics or Russian 19th century romantic art have exploded. They are also interested in works from the Western art-historical canon, including both modern and old masters, as well as contemporary art, both works created in their own countries and those created in Europe and the USA. The pattern in their collecting activities can be characterized as follows: ‘Typically, people from recently emerged economic regions start by buying their own art, often 19th century; they then move to local contemporary art, and then on to international contemporary’ (China specialist Philip Dodd, cited in Ciotti 2012, p. 637). Indeed, of the global market for fine art and antiques, which is now estimated at €47.4 billion, post-war and contemporary art accounts for 46 per cent.

Secondly, on the supply side of the market, artists from the BRICs have made a strong appearance. In the auction season 2012–13, of the top 25 best-selling contemporary artists worldwide, 11 were Chinese (Artprice 2013). Collectors in Europe and the USA have taken an interest in their work. Their strong performance on art markets has coincided with—or better, has been enabled by—their increased visibility at and recognition by the world’s most prestigious museums and curated shows.

Thirdly, elaborate market infrastructures have been established in the BRICs. Partly this has been the work of ‘Western’ organizations, such as the world’s two main auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, who now organize auctions in India and China. Prestigious art dealers, such as the New York–based Gagosian Gallery and Pace Gallery or the London-based White Cube, have in recent years opened spaces in, among other places, Hong Kong, Beijing, and São Paulo. Another crucial part of the infrastructure is the art fair (see Biennials and art fairs). While fairs used to be few and hardly important until the 1990s, they are now seen as the global art market’s main events. In the BRICs, they are venues where both local and foreign galleries meet their collectors. Moreover, fairs are important cultural events for local art worlds, with tens of thousands of visitors, side shows of contemporary art in public venues, series of talks and debates by well-known curators, collectors, intellectuals, and artists, and, for the art scene’s inner circle, a full agenda of parties and after-parties. They have, in short, developed into one of the nuclei of the new upper-middle classes’ leisure life in the BRICs.

(i) Brazil.

Brazil has had a lively art scene for a good part of the 20th century. In 1951 the São Paulo Biennial, after Venice the world’s second oldest biennial, was established there. By the end of the 1950s dozens of galleries were already operating in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, often established by Italian, German, or Romanian immigrants who had fled Europe during World War II. Competing with auction houses, these galleries not only sold to middle-class Paulista clients, many of them of Jewish descent, but also to foreign buyers.

Nevertheless, the art market went through ups and downs due to the country’s economic (mis)fortunes and political turmoil caused by the era of dictatorship. The 21st-century market boom has been particularly strong and has coincided with an increasing global integration of Brazilian art, which is now exhibited by the world’s most established public institutions and bought by renowned private collectors. As in other countries, institutional entrepreneurs, such as the art dealers Luisa Strina and Marcântonio Vilaça, have succeeded in ‘making markets’ where previously there were none, by cultivating taste, fostering ties to foreign art worlds, organizing recognition for ‘their’ artists, and getting collectors interested.

The market continues to be burdened, however, by tax structures, import tariffs, and customs duties which inhibit foreign actors from entering the market, limit the exposure of Brazilian audiences to foreign art, and constrain the global reach of the country’s market.

(ii) Russia

Of the four BRICs, the Russian market is probably the weakest. It had a spectacular start in 1988, when Sotheby’s organized a highly successful and well-publicized auction in Moscow of underground art produced during the Soviet era. This underground art remained in vogue during the early 1990s, after which global demand for it slackened. Although the Russian art market further developed in the 2000s and flourished around 2005–8—as evidenced by the opening of a gallery district (Winzavod) in Moscow and the creation of a biennial and an annual art fair—it now is widely seen as in crisis, especially since three established gallery directors decided to close down or continue on a non-profit basis in the spring of 2012.

The relative weakness of the market has been explained in different ways. One factor may be the comparative lack of interest of economic élites, among whom are the oligarchs, in Russian modern and contemporary art. These élites have left the country and spend much of their leisure time in London or other global capitals. Their interest has been predominantly in either older Russian art or in European and American modern and contemporary art. Other explanations include the lack of government support and the radical political character of Russian contemporary art, which may render it difficult to market.

(iii) India.

The recent emergence of an art market in India can be attributed to a number of factors, including the desire among Non-resident Indians (NRI) living elsewhere, such as in the UK, to cultivate their identity by collecting modern art from their home country. Although their importance for the market’s development is waning, they were one of the first groups of buyers when the market emerged in the early 2000s. In the NRIs’ footsteps followed local buyers originating from India’s booming upper-middle classes. The latter looked for art not only to decorate their new urban dwellings, but also for sources of status and identity as well as for alternative ways to invest their wealth.

The market is dominated by modern masters such as Maqbool Fida Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Vasudeo Gaitonde, and other members of the so-called Progressive Artists’ Group. Many of these modern Indian artists received their education at British art schools in India in the first half of the 20th century and were exposed to Modernism during their extensive travels in Europe.

The Indian art market experienced a strong boom around 2005, when prices for Indian modern and contemporary artists soared. However, with the global financial crisis of 2008, the bubble burst. Many art investment funds had to close, unable to pay investors the return which they had promised. Prices dropped rapidly. The one gallery that had symbolized the boom because of its international expansion and aggressive marketing tactics—the Bodhi Art Gallery—closed.

Christie’s International Director, Asian Art, Hugo Weihe, left, acts as auctioneer for the painting of Indian artist Vasudeo S. Gaitonde during Christies first auction in India in Mumbai, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013; photo credit: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

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Ever since, the market has slowly recovered. In 2009 the India Art Fair in New Delhi was established, which has attracted annually both local and international interest from art galleries, buyers, and the wider public. In December 2013, Christie’s organized its first, highly successful auction in India, where a work by Gaitonde was sold for $3.7 million, making it the most expensive modern work of Indian art ever sold at auction.

Some structural weaknesses remain, however. First of all, India lacks a developed art world with public museums and art centres where modern and contemporary art can be nurtured. In a country with more than 1 billion inhabitants, only a handful of institutions regularly exhibit modern and contemporary art. The government seems to disregard the sector. For a stable, smoothly functioning art market, however, a flourishing art world is sine qua non. Secondly, as in Brazil, the global integration of the Indian art market is severely hindered by tax structures, import tariffs, and customs duties, which inhibit foreign galleries from entering the market.

(iv) China.

The Chinese art market began to emerge from the 1990s onwards in the slipstream of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy and the country’s opening up to cultural influences from abroad. Commercially, most successful were artists working in two styles: Cynical Realism and Political Pop. They were marketed initially by Johnson Chang, a Hong Kong–based curator and art dealer, who was interested in the mainland Chinese contemporary art world from its inception in the 1980s onwards, and had excellent local and international networks which enabled him to ‘export’ his exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art to, among others, Europe and the USA. Moreover, he successfully teamed up with Li Xianting, at the time China’s most influential art critic. As a contemporary Chinese reincarnation of what Harrison White and Cynthia White called the dealer–critic model, the couple would be instrumental in the development of global interest in Chinese contemporary art.

The first buyers of Chinese contemporary art were foreign diplomats and businessmen. Chinese collectors have been more interested in traditional media such as ceramics, Chinese painting, and calligraphy. Although the market continues to be dominated by works in these media, mainland collectors have recently developed an interest in contemporary art as well.

In mainland China, auction houses have been, from the 1990s onwards, the dominant intermediary in the market. Artists regularly consign new works of art to auction houses, a practice which is considered highly illegitimate in Europe and the USA. Non-payment by bidders has been a notorious problem for Chinese auction houses, rendering sales data unreliable. Moreover, prices tend to be inflated by artificial bidding schemes. Auctions are also widely used to acquire art which is subsequently given to government officials as bribes. As an alternative to the auction circuit, Beijing and Shanghai have developed a vibrant gallery scene. Moreover, it has been common for artists to sell art directly out of their studios to collectors. In short, the ‘Western’ model of organizing art markets has only partially been adopted in the BRICs.

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