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Forum: Does today’s art market benefit young artists?

21 April 2014

Below is an extract from Apollo’s Forum in the current April issue, in which Rodolphe Von Hofmannsthal and Eliza Bonham Carter debate whether today’s art market benefits emerging artists.

The market for contemporary art is stronger than it’s ever been, particularly at auction, with young artists – many of them recent graduates – achieving astonishing results. Prices for pieces by Oscar Murillo and Lucien Smith have surged by more than 3,000 per cent in the past two years alone. But how does this speculation and hype affect emerging artists? In the long term, does today’s burgeoning market benefit them?

YES: Rodolphe Van Hofmannsthal, associate director of David Zwirner in London

After the financial crisis of 2008, the contemporary art market split in two, with blue-chip, established artists on one end and emerging artists on the other. This is no bad thing: the top end of the market’s growth has allowed galleries to help support younger artists, and take risks in producing ambitious and sometimes incredible projects. Often these big galleries are perceived as corporate behemoths that only think about money, and while this might be true of some dealerships, at David Zwirner I’ve seen first-hand the care the gallery puts into managing artists, and the way it has consistently supported the development of their careers. It’s not about square footage and locations, as many think, but about the expertise and manpower that the gallery dedicates to the artists it – quite literally – looks after.

If anything, the buoyancy of the contemporary art market expands the scope and potential of what artists today are able to create. Imagination no longer has any limits. With the right support, anything an artist can dream up can be realised.

NO: Eliza Bonham Carter, head of the RA Schools

What happens to the lucky artist taken up by the market? Can they sit back and relax whilst they watch their price rise and the money roll in? Selling work might be affirmative and useful, but in today’s market it’s also inherently problematic. The very word market gives it away. Once embroiled, the artist has to deal with the speculators, the flippers, the entrepreneurs whose interest is to turn a profit. A young artist may sell through their dealer at a reasonable price only to have their work ‘flipped’, sold on at a huge profit, their price rising out of their control to unsustainable levels; later to be devalued as collectors lose their nerve and dump the work in the auction rooms.

To maintain their position, the artist can become a slave to the machine – making work to feed global demand that requires industrial levels of production and the hire of assistants to supply new work for the endless rotation of art fairs. The artist may look like he (usually it is he) is doing well, but this process gets some into debt while the flipper walks away with the profit.

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