Changes in the Global Art Market
It was in the mid-1980s when the Guerrilla Girls started protesting the paucity of women artists at The Whitney Biennial and other prominent exhibitions. In the ensuing decades, much has been written about the far lower prices for works by women compared to men, and the lack of inclusion of artists from developing countries in international shows has been a hot topic for several years.
Thankfully, there have been significant changes in the global art market over the years. Most major biennials are now well represented by a more diverse group of artists, many of whom are addressing issues of gender and race.
But while we’ve made strides in creating more inclusive exhibits — which is essential — the art market has the largest say in promoting and sustaining underrepresented artists. That means that it’s up to collectors and museums to ultimately drive up the prices of the work from these artists.
Unprecedented Change Happening Now
That fact is as true now as it was before the pandemic, but the art market has experienced an unprecedented change in the last 15 months, when all institutions, art fairs, biennials, and art galleries were shut down. The Black Lives Matter movement brought a sharper focus to the discourse on civil rights and equity, which has influenced everything from the names of baseball teams to public art and institutional responsibility.
Even before the pandemic and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement, prices of women artists were increasing substantially: works by Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, and Yayoi Kusama soared in value, though no woman artist’s work has yet to sell for prices realized by the top ten men.
The resale prices of artists of color were also increasing dramatically, though a Basquiat was already monumentally expensive.
What we see since March 2020 is a rapid increase in secondary prices of women artists and artists of color. At any major night sale auction of the big three: Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, many if not most of the early lots are works by African American artists, primarily figurative, and mostly younger.
Their prices have sold for many times the estimates, doubling and quadrupling one auction after another, sometimes reaching the millions.
In 1997 Robert Colescott, age 72, represented the U.S. in Venice. His large paintings depicting such scenes as a Black George Washington crossing The Delaware were selling for around $25,000 and remained near that until just a few years ago. This May, a major work sold for over $16 million.
Sam Gilliam, 87, a Washington Color Field painter, saw his market catapult only in the past five years, with prices now exceeding $3 million. I know Sam and spent much time in his studio when I was a 25-year-old research fellow at The National Cancer Institute. His work was always deserving, but what changed?
Women Artists, People of Color, and Others Now in Demand
Money talks. Collectors have to be willing to pay the price. This is no longer a world of just white collectors in the U.S. and Europe. More and more of the leading players are international: China, Southeast Asia, South America, Mexico, India, and South Africa.
There seems to be a torrential interest by collectors across the globe in acquiring works of women artists and artists of color, especially younger artists.
I have collected art for more than 50 years, and I’ve owned a gallery in New York City for nine years. I see these changes close up, and I know many of the leading collectors and many of these artists. And while I believe that the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have played a prominent role in these market changes, I don’t understand it completely.
Collecting is mostly a private matter. One doesn’t have to tell anyone what they’re buying. At auction, the identity of the buyer is usually confidential. Are these savvy collectors purchasing the work as never before because they recognize that an appreciation of underrepresented artists is long overdue?
Are they buying because they are catching up? Are they buying because suddenly so many of the best artists of the moment are artists of color? Or are they concerned that their collections might be thought of as wanting in the absence of such works?
The Global Art Market is Quantitative
Each buyer has their own reasons and needs, and all it requires is holding up a paddle until the hammer comes down. One shouldn’t have to say there have always been women artists, artists of color, indigenous artists, Native American artists and more, deserving of such parity. But alas it’s happening now and in the privacy of an online bid.
The market is quantitative. It impacts careers and attitudes. If a Van Gogh painting were still $100,000, who would be teaching it? Market and importance are not coincident. Rembrandt’s market had more than 200 dry years. Sam Gilliam had 50. Colescott even more.
Quality should always win out, but who determines that is a difficult question (one for another blog post).
For now, this revisionist moment is necessary, and welcome.
Marc Straus is an art collector, gallery owner, author, and poet. He’s also an oncologist and former Chairman of Oncology and Professor of Medicine. He has authored some 100 scientific papers and edited three textbooks on lung cancer in addition to three collections of poetry.
The MARC STRAUS gallery represents 24 artists from 16 different countries. Originally focused on emerging artists not previously exhibited in New York, it is now mixed with a few mid-career and late-career artists from the US, Asia, and Europe. See marcstraus.com for more info.
His newest book, One-Legged Mongoose: Secrets, Legacies and Coming of Age in 1950s New York, will be released this September. Connect with Marc on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Sign up for his newsletter here.