Great art and great wealth have always been somewhat inseparable. In fact, our conventional wisdom essentially treats great wealth as a prerequisite for great art. Without grand fortunes, the story goes, we would have no grand art. Wealthy “patrons of the arts” — from the Medici in Renaissance Florence to Gilded Age banker J.P. Morgan — deserve our eternal gratitude.
Or so the wealthy would have us believe. But today’s insanely immense private fortunes aren’t nurturing great art. They’re suffocating it.
The artist Jeff Koons, to be sure, probably doesn’t feel particularly suffocated. His stainless steel sculpture of an inflated toy rabbit just sold at auction for $91.1 million, the highest-ever price for a work by a living artist. The ten highest-grossing artworks in this month’s New York auction high season fetched a combined $605 million, a comfortable notch above last year’s only slightly less impressive $587.4 million.
With all these millions flowing so freely, our contemporary art world ought to be absolutely thriving. But “teetering” might actually be a more accurate descriptor of today’s fine-art scene. The basic infrastructure of the art world — the networks of small galleries that sustain struggling young artists — is itself struggling. More small galleries are closing than opening.
What’s doing in this infrastructure?
“The art market,” says economist Allison Schrager, “has a 0.01 percent problem.”
Top 0.01 percenters dominate today’s art world. In 2018, only 3 percent of fine-art transactions involved works that went for over $1 million. But this 3 percent of transactions accounted for 40 percent of the art market’s total sales value.
The awesomely affluent who can afford to spend millions annually on artwork see the art they buy as an “asset class.” They bid up the price for brand-name artwork in the same way they bid up the price for choice luxury real estate in deep-pocket meccas like New York and London. These rich don’t do business with small galleries and unknown artists. They “invest” only in top-dollar artists and broker their deals through the art world’s most powerful art galleries and auction houses.
This system is working wonderfully well for those top-dollar artists. In 2018, analyst Allison Schrager points out, sales involving the top 20 living artists accounted for an astounding 64 percent of the art market’s global volume.
The consequence of this concentration? Collectors who rate as merely affluent are losing interest in an art world that’s focusing ever more intently on the super-rich. These merely affluent see a painting go for $90 million and assume, notes Schrager, that “the $50,000 work they can afford is not worth buying.”
The small galleries that depend on this $50,000 crowd are feeling this growing disinterest and fading away. In the process, they’re yanking out from under young artists a support system that’s been nurturing careers for generations.
And what about art-lovers of distinctly modest means? They’re not cheering today’s art-as-asset-class new realities either, for a variety of reasons. Much of the world’s fine art, for starters, now sits unseen, parked away by the super-rich in warehouses conveniently located in global tax-free zones. The wealthy who do this parking pay no sales tax on their purchases. Their artworks simply appreciate in temperature-controlled storage lockers until the day they can make a killing taking their treasures back on the market.
Other rich do show their artworks off, in private museums that can return the rich big tax savings. These museums typically charge the viewing public a pretty penny for the privilege of taking a peek.
The artworks pulling in the big bucks, meanwhile, are increasingly striking art critics as distinctly second-rate. Big-name artists, many critics believe, are simply churning out new inventory “in market-approved styles, bringing about a decline in quality.” The artists get big paydays. Posterity gets shlock.
But this “swaggeringly obnoxious” shlock serves a real social function in the world of the super rich. Nothing says you’ve “arrived” with more panache than flashing a $50-million bid at a posh art auction.
How can we save art from the soul-crushing dynamics that our extreme inequality imposes? We can work to create a less extremely unequal world. The powers-that-be in the art world can actually help. They can stop serving as facilitators for the filthy rich. They can start treating these rich as pariahs, not patrons.
We’ve begun to see some initial steps in that direction. Officials at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have just announced they will no longer accept donations from members of the Sackler family, the clan that has made billions foisting highly addictive opioid painkillers on an unsuspecting America.
“We feel it’s necessary to step away from gifts that are not in the public interest,” Daniel Weiss, the Met president explained.
Other art institutions, most notably the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, have made similar moves, the first signs, suggests philanthropic sector analyst Anand Giridharadas, of a “growing awareness” that the art world ought not be giving the ultra wealthy an opportunity “to scrub their consciences” and purchase “the immunity needed to profiteer at the expense of the common welfare.”
The super rich, adds Rachel Wetzler in the New Republic, have already purchased plenty of that immunity. The ranks of the world’s “most prominent art collectors,” she points out, include — besides the Sacklers — Walmart heiress Alice Walton, the arms-dealing Poju Zabludowicz, and hedge fund founder Daniel Och, “whose firm paid millions of dollars in bribes to government officials in several African countries in exchange for mining rights.”
“No doubt they’d rather be remembered for their patronage of the arts,” says Wetzler, “than for profiteering off human misery.”