Deciphering Spain's Symbols
A couple of weeks ago, artnet ran a short piece about the proactive way in which a consortium of galleries in Spain’s artistic epicenters have been combating a severe cut in government funding. The article seems to have been triggered by the announcement of a 41% decline in the Spanish government’s 2014 funding commitment to the (yes, for-profit) gallery sector, dropping the total shell-out to a mere 101,000 EUR ($130,000) from 171,000 EUR ($220,000) in 2013–both of which look anemic in comparison to the 1.2M EUR ($1.5M) in total government assistance handed to the nation’s art sellers in a brown paper sack back in 2011.
The galleries’ collective answer has been, if not exactly novel, definitely based on a solid model. That answer was to unite in order to create multiple citywide art fairs along the lines of Gallery Weekend Berlin, which has now been humming melodiously along for a decade.
The cause and effect here is that the evaporating handouts were specifically earmarked for the purposes of helping Spanish galleries promote themselves internationally, mostly through covering expenses for participation in pricey but high exposure art fairs like Art Basel, Frieze, and the Armory Show. Having very literally lost their tickets to those art world feeding frenzies abroad, the galleries responded by instead trying to create local events noteworthy enough to lure global buyers to them.
Two of the resulting events–Apertura in Madrid and Art Nou/Primera Visió in Barcelona–just completed their third annual showings. Another, Abierto Valencia, just finished its second. And while artnet notes that we have no idea how many visitors actually contributed to the participating galleries’ bottom lines by acquiring work, the 2013 edition of Apertura allegedly drew 15,000 attendees–presumably, about 15,000 more than would otherwise have felt compelled to make the trip strictly for art that weekend.
There are two ways to read this story. The first is, save for the rightfully cautious conclusion about sales figures, the general thrust of the artnet piece: Here’s a group of small businesses showing some creativity and spunk to overcome adverse conditions imposed on them by austerity-minded bureaucrats. Take that perspective, and it’s a feel-good ode to “making it work" Tim Gunn-style despite the pols’ cinching the budget garter ever tighter to pull the country’s economy back into presentable shape.
But there’s a second, less rosy interpretation, too. And I think it’s much more indicative of the state of the art market–and the impending danger for not just these Spanish galleries, but a whole host of others operating at a less than blue chip level, both domestically and abroad.
The crux of the alternative reading is the globalization of the art market. Even 20 years ago, it meant something to be a locally or nationally respected Spanish art dealer. What it meant was that you could count on the business of wealthy Spanish collectors, and probably to a lesser extent, wealthy collectors in immediately neighboring countries.
Why? Because collectors bought what was available–and availability was still in large part determined by geography.
That’s no longer the case today. Caked-up Spanish collectors not only want the same branded blue chip artists and burning young stars as wealthy collectors everywhere else in the world–they also have roughly the same access to them.
Whether through the major international art fairs that the Spanish budget hawks dive-bombed in to repel their gallerist countrymen from reaching so easily, or the rise of online and remote fine art sales (as I’ve been exploring at length in my Average Is Over series), or simply the incidental foreign gallery-hopping that comes packaged with vastly more frequent business trips abroad in our ever-flattening world economy, the local elites in any country have never been freer to acquire and indulge the same collecting tastes as their counterparts born within other borders.
From an "efficient markets” standpoint, one could argue that this is all a positive. In theory, it means that regionalism is no longer skewing the profit potential for artists across the world map. Those whom art collectors judge to be the most desirable can become global superstars, while lesser lights who were sustaining careers only because they were the best available option in a geographically-restricted set of choices are much more likely to short out. Ask practically any economist at my alma mater, and they’ll tell you that’s a win for both collectors and the industry as a whole.
The problem, of course, is the infamous creative destruction involved in that process. What was once a locally renowned Spanish (or Russian, or Canadian, or whichever nationality) gallery suddenly becomes only a mid-tier gallery in the greater context of a worldwide market. And as I’ve written more than once, being a mid-tier gallery is an increasingly fingernail-gnawing long-term proposition given the industry’s trend lines.
Please don’t misunderstand: I applaud the masterminds behind the Spanish fairs for wedging a crowbar into the world-economic trash compactor trying to reduce them to patty meat. But the pressures of globalization are only going to mount as time wears on, especially with e-commerce continuing to size up its market share.
Gallery Weekend Berlin might look like it suggests the crowbar could hold for the medium term, but with all due respect, Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia are not Berlin–generally regarded as one of the world’s four most important art cities alongside New York, London, and Los Angeles. So if I were one of the sellers involved in Apertura, ArtNou/Primera Visió, or Abierto Valencia, I’d spend this stay of execution figuring out a more permanent solution–and fast. Because even if the light is leaking in for now, they’re still down in the dumps waiting to be crushed.