In a relatively upbeat year for the art market, moral signals have become de rigueur. Brian Noone reports on the expanding art world and the increasing ubiquity of good intentions, from restitution to transparency and progressive pricing
More than a year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron made headlines when he tweeted, “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.” It sounded to many like an appeasement directed to his African audience – he was in Burkina Faso – but now, it seems, Macron was in earnest. This November, the report he commissioned was made public, and its recommendations have put Western museums on edge: all objects taken without consent, the report says, should be returned permanently to the countries from which they were taken.
The prospect of restitution has elicited both relief at the righting of some of our ancestors’ wrongs and, at the same time, astonishment that some institutions might be crippled beyond repair if the report were to be taken seriously – the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, for instance, would stand to lose more than half of its 70,000-strong African collection. But as ground-breaking as the report may have been in its recommendations, close observers of the art world were not surprised by the overriding moral message. Increasingly, as we turn to 2019, those who sell and collect art are becoming accustomed to seeing ethical considerations emerge everywhere, from the provenance of art objects and the transparency of pricing to the active policing of monopolies and the calling-out of sexism and racism. This infusion of ethics has not yet transformed the industry – as it has in, say, gem-mining and jewellery design – but it does point to the possibility of a future in which business as usual is gone for good.
Context matters when it comes to reading these signals. State-run museums, like the Quai Branly, are partially political entities, so public negotiations about restitution are difficult to separate from exercises of soft power by political leaders. Take, for instance, the October agreement by a number of European institutions, including the British Museum, to loan the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria when a new museum opens in the African country in 2021. It may or may not be a coincidence that British Prime Minister Theresa May was in Nigeria signing two pacts – for trade and security – just two months earlier.
In Germany, meanwhile, the €595m Humboldt Forum is scheduled to open later this year, a rival, when complete, to the British Museum. But the German populace, having already been through the moral quagmire of post-WWII restitution, is already demonstrating its discomfort with the range of objects to be on display, most of which were acquired during Germany’s pre-WWI colonial period. The furore has reached such a pitch that Professor Bénédicte Savoy, who recently resigned from the Humboldt’s advisory board, declared of the institution, “The baby is dead on arrival.” With a built-but-unopened airport already causing tension in the German capital, it’s not hard to imagine that the forum may join it as a major project doomed to be delayed.
Elsewhere in the art world, moral concerns are being paired with financial security, a two-for-one that finds universal appeal. In November, for instance, Christie’s sold one of the great collections of 20th-century American art, that of Barney Ebsworth, for $323.1m. The entirety of the two-day auction was recorded on a digital blockchain registry administered by Artory, one of a handful of firms that is trying to introduce the digital technology to art.
Most notably used with cryptocurrencies, blockchain has the related benefits of being exceptionally secure and publically readable, which means that artworks registered with a blockchain title-registry stamp are, in theory, much less subject to questions about provenance, which enhances trust in the buying process and, as more works are registered, will make forgeries harder to bring to market.
Blockchain has additional benefits as well: it adds another layer of confidence to the secondary market for digital artworks, many of which struggle to find buyers at the moment, in part because of their easy reproducibility. And blockchain also makes fractional ownership of art a more savoury proposition, as the public registry ensures that none of the partial owners can sell it without the others’ knowledge. Investment platform Maecenas sold 31.5% of an Andy Warhol work in this manner over the summer, and has announced plans to divide a Picasso painting in the same way.
The buzz around blockchain seems to be bigger than its bite at the moment – these are all marginal improvements on existing technologies – but every advance in transparency and trust makes a difference in the shadowy corners of the art world, at all price levels.
And, increasingly, that matters to more people. The latest Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report asserts that the art market has grown 12% from the previous year, and public awareness of art seems to have grown even more than that: everyone, no matter how small their interest in auctions, heard about the partially shredded Banksy picture at Sotheby’s in October. HBO’s incisive documentary, The Price of Everything, also drew global attention this autumn and offered a largely sympathetic portrait of the market, including interviews with artist Jeff Koons and Sotheby’s ascendant dealmaker Amy Cappellazzo. Less sympathetic, but perhaps more impactful, were the Swedish film The Square and British art market writer Georgina Adam’s book, Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses of the Art Market in the 21st Century, both of which offered a glimpse of the top of the art market, a sphere that may remain accessible only to the very wealthy but which is increasingly understood and talked about by the wider public.
One firm trying explicitly to democratise works by heavyweight artists is Acute Art, a two-year-old London-based company specialising in virtual reality and augmented reality art that has worked with Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramovič, among others, and presents works free of charge on its smartphone app. At the turn of 2019, Daniel Birnbaum, one of the art world’s leading lights, will take over as creative director of Acute Art, a lateral-at-best move from his position as director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and a very different role from when he directed the Venice Biennale in 2009. And yet for all the ribbing Birnbaum has received, his peers have taken note of the bold move and of Acute Art’s stated anti-elitist aim to “take digital artwork to the public”.
Ethics has crept in to even the arch-commercial realm of the art fair. MCH, the parent company of Art Basel, has also agreed to a new fee structure for its three flagship Art Basel fairs, beginning this summer in Switzerland: small galleries will pay 8% less per square metre for booths, while large galleries will pay 9% more. There is self-interest here for all parties involved – a more diverse range of galleries will bring more clients to the fairs – but there is also a recognition of the role that a diverse ecosystem of galleries can play in developing artists, a sea change for what has become a gallery-eat-gallery industry.
It’s now been just over 10 years since the fatefully symbolic September day when Damien Hirst sold tens of millions of dollars of his works at Sotheby’s and, halfway around the world, Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was a startling moment of incongruity and a much ballyhooed warning of just how out-of-step the art market was with the rest of the world. The moral correction beginning now, or at least the signals of one, seems to be making the industry stronger for the long term. Only time will tell if it’s successful.
Centurion Compendium, 2018