IMC in the Spectator, on the venality of the blue chip art market

“You’ve probably heard that we’re in a boom time for the art business, breaking sales records as fast as we can make them. This might seem strange, in a time of such political uncertainty, but look closer: the art world is a fascinating canary in our cultural/social/economic coal mine, an odd liminal zone where profound reflection on the human condition is strung up on a white wall, and traded for increasingly wild sums of money.

This ostensibly deep, meditative stuff, most often forged on dirty floors by spiritually hungry oddballs, is being gobbled up by real-estate tycoons, hedge funders and tech giants from every part of the globe, especially, lately, China and the Middle East. There is some debate about how to measure the overall size of the market, but everyone agrees that we’re somewhere in the mid 11 figures, annually ($40bn-70bn).

It pays to be rich, in the art world as everywhere else. The most recent figures available show that in 2016, galleries with less than $500,000 in revenue saw their sales decline by 7 per cent. Dealers with revenues of $500,000 to $1 million did just a little better, declining by 5 per cent. Things look different for the big guys. Dealers with business of $1 million to $10 million a 7 per cent increase in sales, while those with sales of $10 million or more grew by 2 per cent. The really big guys – those with business above $50 million – had a bumper year, with a 19 per cent rise in sales. Small and mid-size galleries are closing at alarming rates.

There’s much talk in the art world, and some substantial handwringing, about the increasing dominance of mega-galleries like Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and PACE. These small corporations each operate several outposts around the wealthy world, and have annual revenues that flirt with a billion dollars. Why this increasing concentration of wealth?”

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