A recurrent question I get asked quite a lot is: what do you think is going to happen in the art world in the future? With all these art fairs proliferating at the speed of lightning and crazy record numbers at auction, or [enter whatever other concern/curiosity you may have], what can we expect?
While unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball, all I can do is answer is from my own observation:
Artists: I don’t think ever in art history have so many artists wielded as much power as they do now. Some of you will say: but most artists don’t have any money, and nobody buys their work and they never become famous. Well, that is true as a general overview, but the same concept applies to many professions across too many industries. Not every doctor is a Nobel Prize winner, not every computer programmer opens companies like Facebook, not every fashion designer takes their businesses public… but the ones who have some talent (or lack thereof) and know how to play the system, insist on what they want and appeal to a group of collectors, will have some measure of success. Forever? No, I don’t think there is room for all current successful artists to be in the forever category, but I have seen a tremendous amount of money and support pouring in benefiting young and mid-career artists in a way that I had never seen before. Black artists are having a moment that is here to stay. I also see an increasing number of women artists succeeding and that makes me extremely happy. What concerns me is that a group of successful young women artists are making work that looks very similar to one another. And it seems as if every other week there is a new one that surfaces and shows something amazing. It is starting to become indistinguishable, derivative and repetitive.
Galleries: The pace at which galleries have proliferated in New York, Los Angeles and the world over in the past three years doesn’t match, even remotely, the pace at which collectors multiply. Not young or old collectors, or casual collectors or decorators. There is a miscalculation here from new gallerists that is part naïve and part hopeful. The market isn’t that big, and the gallery business requires a very sizable investment in marketing, fairs, overhead, etc. Because there are more and more of them, they get diluted and need more and more fairs and more and more marketing. And sometimes all of that doesn’t even pay off. I think there will be some consolidations, mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, or whatever legal structure gallerists want to bet on to create bigger and stronger galleries that have some synergies to benefit from and some economies of scale that will help reduce costs in the long run. Perhaps we will see more of this at a medium-to-large level. Several small galleries will disappear.
Auction Houses: Let’s never forget that Christie’s is owned by Francois Henri-Pinault and Sotheby’s is a public company whose stock is traded in the NYSE. The basic strategy of businesses of this size and caliber is: “how do we make our profits larger, so our shareholders become richer?” Now, I have zero problem with that, auction houses large and small are doing the job they are meant to do. That’s their business model and I respect it. What I know for sure is that they need more assets to sell and more record-breaking numbers, more Hockney’s, more Salvator Mundi’s, whatever it takes. And we will see that in 2019. Where I take issue isn’t with the auction house model or with the record-breaking numbers. My issue is with hypocritical dealers and sometimes artists who cry and complain about where their market is going to go “after that work that was estimated in $200,000 sold for $1 million, now we will have to raise all the prices, and just sell to two or three collectors a year….” Oh, what a problem to have. To engage as accomplices in market-making activities, involuntarily, all because of the auction houses. Give me a break, please.
Museums: Most museums in the age of Instagram selfies are facing the conundrum of having to raise funds to have mega-shows every year, and if all goes well, have long lines around the block with attendance records and massive ticket sales. In a way, this is good - people are back in the museums. In another way, it is bad because the bar is way too high, the expectations of everyone from museum-goers to critics are unreasonable and people aren’t spending more time understanding what the shows are about or interacting with their surroundings in a meaningful way. Besides, ticket sales are insufficient to pay for both the museum operations and the mega exhibits. In addition, there are too many “art experiences” and too many new institutions as collectors around the world are opening their ego-trip foundations and competing in attention with everything else.
Art fairs: In 2018, I counted at the very least 150 art fairs, from Cape Town to New Delhi and everywhere in between. I may attend 25 every year, some of them highly concentrated in New York and in Miami at the same time. I still believe in art fairs. But not at this pace. I’m becoming a bit jaded; I do have some fair fatigue. I’m not as excited about much. No experience, party, dinner, booth, or performance is original or mind-blowing. People in this industry feel that they have seen it all. That isn’t good. Some fairs are already folding, some have had too many problems, and some will push through. I don’t see the fair model going anywhere or slowing down anytime soon. Many galleries, however, aren’t meeting any new collectors that are worth the expense of participating in several fairs every year and as purely marketing banner, it can become very expensive, very quickly.
Blockchain: Let me see how to put this in the easiest possible way: blockchain isn’t synonymous with cryptocurrency and it isn’t only a registry that lends transparency and information to art transactions. Blockchain is a technology platform that allows a marketplace to exist. But besides regular currencies, people can use cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum to buy art “tokens” in blockchain platforms in the same way that we can use US Dollars or British Pounds or Euros or whatever currency is accepted by a stock exchange (stock exchanges don’t accept cryptocurrencies). Some blockchain platforms will put an initial emphasis on building up a database that includes provenance and history of the artwork (Artory is doing this), but in the future, once the registration process is complete, and the authenticity and value of the work are set, then issuing tokens that represent the value of that specific piece of art will open up a new market. And those tokens can be split in as many units and freely traded - for example many people can own one Picasso and when one of the owners gets tired of owning that 10% of a Picasso or they need liquidity, they can sell their token on the blockchain platform for the current value and cash out of that 10%, allowing someone else to own that portion of the Picasso. That is in a nutshell the most fundamental structure of blockchain as applied to art and we will see as many variations and combinations in the future as the marketplace allows: auction houses, auction platforms, galleries and artists together, etc. A bit soulless to me, but hey, I’ve seen worse things happen in the art world and beyond.