Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Global Art Market? By Valerie Kabov
This article appeared in the inaugural September issue of ART AFRICA magazine, which was launched to enormous enthusiasm at the FNB JoburgArtFair 2015. You will also be able to read this exclusive content in the September Digital Issue (FREE app download here for Apple and here for Android).
Presently, the art world finds itself at an interesting juncture. Over the past decade, the market for art – assisted by exponential advances in communications and technology – has become an overwhelming force, actively moving to shape, influence and change the face of contemporary art on a global scale. To many art world stakeholders, this shift signifies the end of the world as we know it – and for some, not in a good way. Interviews, articles and reportages bemoaning the state of the art market have become a staple of art media.
Concerns include the commercial nature of art fairs, that artists have been irrevocably corrupted by the new developments, the closure of more traditional galleries, the ‘new world’ of galleries where sales and money are the be-all and end-all and finally, a strong aversion to the new class of upstart collectors, who see art merely as an asset and who have been driving prices astronomically by ‘flipping’ the value of works by emerging artists. While most of these comments are earnest and reflect real concerns, it is useful to locate them in the context of broader art history to identify the real (as opposed to perceived) novelty. In this moment, the market finds synergy with important movements in art history.
Among this synergy is the rebalancing of the central and peripheral relationships in the art world – and building recognition for underexplored art scenes. The contemporary art scene in Africa is one such example of this rebalancing. This scene encompasses a particularly unique set of characteristics, and the manner in which it is approached and engaged with will determine whether this is truly a historical moment.
Even the scantiest view to art history will reveal, that the current ‘moment’ is far from novel. The Medicis, who were nouveau riche, consolidated their power and prestige with art and cultural patronage and commanded geniuses like Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo to do their bidding and interfere in ways that would seem monstrous today. And yet today we are thrilled to be mining history thanks to these very interventions. Superstar artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo were multi-millionaires in their time, traveling Europe on mega-commissions, wined and dined by the mighty of the world. Rembrandt, a saintly figure in the art canon, authorised his apprentices to paint his ‘self-portrait’ as a form of branding and advertising. In late 19th century Paris, Daniel Kahnweiler, another nouveau riche, began buying work in bulk for resale from artists he figured might have a future – Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’)
There is, however, a historically significant shift that many are missing in their self-righteous protestations of ‘too much too-new money ruining art’ – that some of this market power really does come from new money. This is a major paradigm shift, because part of the self-titled ‘old guard’s discomfort is that the new money and new movements in the art world are shifting the centers of the art world beyond Paris, London and New York. That this new money punts and supports artists not from the West attests to lasting change in visual culture and its paradigms. Increasingly, artists and art sectors outside of the West are gaining exposure and recognition. Could it then be posited that they too are the ‘products’ of rampant globalisation, new money and the horror of art fairs?
If the market – by way of being the only mechanism with which to leverage valuable opportunities – is devoid of a moral compass, then it must be the responsibility of the historians, critics, curators and academics in (and interacting with) the sector, to maintain and preserve a sense of morality. The emergence of the contemporary art sector in Africa on the global stage is a case study of and an experiment in the symbiotic relationship between market and academia. As Mark Coetzee asserted in a panel discussion at this year’s Art Basel, “African art is currently in fashion.”1 African curators and academics have been building the foundations for engaging with the international art community for decades, confirming and validating the current opportunity. This groundwork comprises noteworthy exhibitions such as ‘Art from the Commonwealth’ in 1962 to ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in 1989 and ‘Africa Remix’ in 2004, publications such as Nka Magazine and Revue Noire, initiatives like the Triangle Network, galleries like October Gallery and many other art professionals, curators, writers, historians and gallerists who have worked hard to advance the cause of art and artists on the continent.
However, as Coetzee also correctly pointed out, fashions come and go with predictable, and somewhat disappointing, regularity. So for now, while euphoria and optimism rule in African contemporary art, we need to make a sober analysis of what this present moment means and what is required of us to engender vibrant and successful art sectors.
This is a complex question with difficult answers as there are a number of crucial factors differentiating the spotlight on Africa from others and which can characterise its aftermath.
One of these factors is that – unlike most other art scenes touched upon by the global largess, such as Brazil, India, China and the Middle East – Africa (with the few exceptions of South Africa, Nigeria and Angola) does not have supportive domestic markets for contemporary art. The new money in the aforementioned foreign art markets comes from within – and is used to support and attract attention to their national art scene. When the prices for the (then) fad of Chinese contemporary art dropped and the temporary art market bubble burst circa 2008, an interesting thing happened – the prices dropped substantially only for those artists favoured by Western collectors. The prices for artists supported by local collectors remained stable, allowing for the rebuilding of the Chinese contemporary market, now a dominant sector in the art world only a few years later.
The same cannot be said about Africa. It isn’t an unrealistic assessment that African contemporary art is still largely supported by old money – or to put it another way – not enough of it is supported by new money. This lack of support is exacerbated by inadequate art infrastructure on the continent. These gaps in infrastructure have already created, and continue to contribute to, a talent and resource drain – not to mention that as a result many African contemporary art masterpieces will be lost to local audiences. Another vulnerability is that the global spotlight, with few notable exceptions, has been on emerging or young artists. While this focus on emerging artists is a global phenomenon, in the African context it is uniquely problematic – given the disparities in market and infrastructure outlined above.
Often, young artists move away from Africa in pursuit of educational and career opportunities. This relocation affects generational mentorship and local systems of support, as well as their own practice, which has to be reshaped in relation to a new context and the assumption of a new identity. Back in Africa, foreign galleries who sign African artists inevitably contribute to the drain on local talent and general economy, as the profits and commissions of their sales are circulated abroad. Significantly, without support systems at home or experience of international markets, young artists are more likely to be negatively impacted by market pressures and the related exploitative practices.
Concurrently, there are also gifted artists outside of the ‘golden youth’ spectrum who have simply been overshadowed in the market juggernaut. These artists may then feel helpless and hopeless in a way that their peers in countries with stable art economies and a culture of collecting do not. In an effort to build strong cultural identities – without which the emerging generation can only default to foreign learning and achievement – it is crucial that we recognise the broader context in which art develops and emerges. It is more than likely that the global market will, in due course, view mature artists in the West as yet another under-valued opportunity. However, when the global market reaches this realisation, it will have been neatly prepared for it by decades of institutional and academic support, along with substantial bodies of work. The African peers of such artists, who are currently in the shadows and bereft of institutional attention and publishing validation, could be left behind. This problem is not reserved only for the artists or the history of art in Africa.
Rather, it is a collective concern for global art history – the effort to shift the nexus cannot be the responsibility and product of one generation.
It is highly unlikely that there will be sufficient time to address these issues with market and infrastructure by the time the fashion moves on to wherever it will (if this year’s Havana Biennale is anything to go on). While Western galleries, who have turned to representing African artists, are able shift focus by taking on artists from whatever scene is next in vogue, galleries and artists on the continent can be left vulnerable.
Looking to history as a predictor, we could surmise that the countries on the continent with the strongest markets and infrastructure, who have already taken the lead in building private and public collections, will forge ahead in carving out their own niche in the global scene – leaving the rest to fend for themselves. And yet this is not the paradigm shift that so many have worked tirelessly to achieve. While for now ‘African Contemporary Art’ is a useful marketing term to those of us working in the field, it speaks to a broader vision and ethos of brotherhood on the continent, an ambition that supersedes mere market concerns.