Via The New York Times : LONDON — The art market is almost as old as art itself. But it’s only in the last decade or so, with increased globalization, digitization and the rise of art as a multibillion-dollar investment vehicle, that the market has been viewed as an industry. And where there is industry, conferences are sure to follow.
On Tuesday, the inaugural New York edition of the Art Business Conference was held at the Time Warner Center. Aimed at “senior art market professionals,” the event sold 240 tickets, priced at $275 to $500, to representatives of more than 140 organizations.
“It’s a pause-for-thought day about where the industry is at,” said Louise Hamlin, the British-born organizer of the conference, whose company, Art Market Minds, has been holding similar events in London since 2014. Until recently, art was one of few industries without an annual conference in the United States, she added.
The audience soon learned that this is an industry that is troubled — at least in the West — by a sense of uncertainty. Britain, one of the world’s largest art markets, is leaving the European Union; auction sales were down in 2016; and established contemporary galleries such as Andrea Rosen in New York and Vilma Gold and IBID in London are closing, as is a Christie’s salesroom in the British capital.
In a session on the challenges of running art businesses in London and New York, the British dealer John Martin spoke of soaring rental bills (in the case of his gallery, totaling 250,000 pounds, or about $310,000, a year) and highly popular fairs threatening the existence of smaller galleries.
The New York art adviser Lisa Schiff talked about how the “numbing saturation” of the art world and the pressures of globalization had created an “impasse” in today’s market.
“It’s an endless cycle,” Ms. Schiff said, referring to this year’s ever-more-crowded calendar of art fairs, exhibitions and other events. “There’s simply too much now. I want to shut off the noise.”
The spring and summer are shaping up to be exceptionally “noisy.” A Mediterranean offshoot of the quinquennial Documenta survey opens on Saturday in Athens, and Damien Hirst makes a comeback on Sunday with “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable” in Venice. The 57th Venice Biennale opens next month, followed by bellwether auctions in New York, the Art Basel fair in Switzerland in June, and additional auctions and fairs in London.
It remains to be seen how much a new desire among contemporary artists and curators to engage with political issues at events such as Documenta will percolate to the commercial realm. A hand-carved marble refugee tent pitched near the Acropolis by the Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore remains a world away from the investment-grade art of auctions and art fairs.
Marta Gnyp, an art adviser and writer based in Berlin, has, like many people in the art world, noted how conservative the tastes of collectors have become in these uncertain times.
“Collectors are looking for the new, but it doesn’t necessarily mean young,” said Ms. Gnyp, who was scheduled to present a paper on Friday on the burgeoning market for works by older or deceased female artists at the 43rd conference of the Association of Art Historians in Loughborough, England.
Ms. Gnyp pointed to a “long and growing” list of artists from once-marginalized groups who are now making an impact in the market. Last month, for example, Sotheby’s achieved an auction high for the American artist Pat Steir (born in 1940), with the sale for £680,750 of the 1993 painting “Four Yellow/Red Negative Waterfall.” Influenced by minimalism and Buddhism, Ms. Steir’s “Waterfall” paintings were the subject of a solo show in November at Dominique Lévy in London.
“Galleries can present them as a discovery, but at the same time, a safe buy with the potential to grow financially,” added Ms. Gnyp, who also cited the artists Mira Schendel (Hauser & Wirth), Carmen Herrera (Lisson Gallery) and Dora Maurer (White Cube). “People think young art is risky.”
The market’s reliance on the tried and trusted was highlighted last month when the Art Basel and UBS Art Market report showed that works by roughly 48,380 artists were sold at auction in 2016. Almost half the total value of the sales came from just 1 percent of those artists. Moreover, works that sold for more than $1 million accounted for 48 percent of the auction market’s value, while representing less than 1 percent of the transactions.
Today’s collectors concentrate their buying on a limited number of 20th- and 21st-century names, from a small number of international auction houses and galleries. That everyone is essentially buying the same thing pushes up prices, reinforcing the sense that doing so is a good investment.
Doug Woodham, a former executive at Christie’s and McKinsey & Company whose book “Art Collecting Today” was published on Tuesday, calls this process “homogenization.”
“It’s a reflection of new people who want to buy a sure thing,” said Mr. Woodham, a New York collector and wealth manager who left Christie’s in 2015. “Art is so expensive now, and they are concerned about liquidity. If you buy a known name, you have a better chance to sell. It also reflects the prevalence of art advisers, and of the networked nature of the art economy.”
Mr. Woodham’s book contains startling information about the number of people in the market for the world’s most expensive art. It was based on notes taken in 2015 by an unidentified collector, whom senior specialists at Sotheby’s and Christie’s tried to persuade to sell paintings by Picasso and by Warhol. They told the collector that about 140 people worldwide had the desire and means to spend $50 million or more on a work of art, that there were perhaps 300 potential bidders for pieces valued at more than $20 million, and about 1,000 for works worth more than $5 million.
There were 124,000 people worth at least $50 million in 2015, according to data compiled by Credit Suisse.
For all the Sotheby’s and Christie’s talk of global wealth coming into the market, buying art remains a niche activity.
The New York art industry conference might have left its audience with a sense of “What next?”, but in reality, the top end of the sector, particularly at auction, increasingly resembles a washing machine. A few things are added to the load — a Njideka Akunyili Crosby here, a Wolfgang Tillmans there — but the same basket of major art brands, such as Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Lucio Fontana, and Christopher Wool, keep circulating in that “endless cycle,” generating more or less financial froth from that 1 percent of the 0.1 percent.
“The worldwide art scene has agreed these are good artists,” said Jean Minguet, an art market analyst at the French auctions database Artprice. “These are safe investments. It’s getting kind of boring.”
But that is the nature of industry. It’s all about global brands.