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The Business of Looking | Steve Sabella | Contemporary Practices

Volume IX, 2011

Museum Rehabilitation

“If it does not sell, it is not art”1 . As an artist, this statement made me realize that there are two sorts of value mechanisms operating simultaneously in the art world, and that differentiating between them is important. The first value stems from the fact that when art is sold it is a sign that someone somewhere sees a certain fiscal value in the artwork. In return, this legitimizes that piece as an object of art or desire, which, accordingly, creates confidence for other collectors to follow suit and buy further works by the artist. Depending on many circumstances, this value can be developed and increased. 2 The second value is one that has to do with critical acclaim. The value is developed and legitimatized through curatorial exhibitions, critical reviews, museum shows and so on. Intriguingly, both mechanisms are based on trust with the difference being that the second value, once it starts to gain wide international acclaim, can trigger a smooth art market presence for the artist. In other words, it is easier to translate critical acclaim into economic success. Accordingly, if the art market collapses for the artist, his or her backbone will always be strong. On the other hand, the artist who rose to fame because of market fever might see a time when things cool down, creating the need to inject his/her value with several doses of critical acclaim and to go through institutional/museum rehabilitation in order to re-create confidence in their artwork.


Collecting in Virgin Art Markets

Collectors who buy with their eyes first, rather than their pockets, create an art market that is geared by passion. Most artists and galleries in an ideal situation would clearly prefer to sell art to passionate and dedicated collectors who, with their continuous support of artists, help sustain artists’ careers. Emerging art markets such as those in the Arab World and in particular in Dubai, should be careful not to perceive art for art business’s sake. This approach produces a misleading value of art and develops a generation of art business speculators (collectors) who mainly seek financial gain with no regard for how this approach might influence artists or the art scene. Galleries should be aware of speculators
who quickly offload artworks through auction – a mechanism that many reputable galleries believe does not help in promoting an artist’s career. These galleries are often careful to whom they sell art and often request first refusal from the collector in case the collector wishes to sell an artwork. Failing to comply with a gallery, the collector enters a black list. The gallery would then try to place the work in the hands of a ‘good’ collector. An auction, in most cases, goes to the highest bidder – which could deflate or inflate the value of an artwork. A bought-in artwork will have clearly negative consequences for the artist as it might generate a misleading perception about the ‘artist’s value’. Auctions give an indication how much something is worth. But, it is merely an indication! How does one expect young collectors who are developing their taste to value the intrinsic quality of art, especially because many of these collectors base their judgment on the success of auction events and artist’s sales records in the primary market? If the debate whether artists are born or are made was transferred to those who buy art, few would dispute the fact that connoisseurs or collectors are born. There is a need to differentiate between value set at the auction house and value set by the gallery, and there is definitely a need to encourage new collectors who through education and the cultivation of taste ‘buy’ art for arts sake first.


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