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Defending an Art Market Perspective

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Somewhere between the best of 2009 lists and the predictions for 2010, I came across a Facebook post by the art critic Jerry Saltz that asked "Wouldn't it be great if we could have one year without any articles on oligarchs, auction prices, art fair business, the same 15 billionaires and what they're buying, and no mentions of Jeff, Damien, Takashi, Richard, or Marlene?"

The collected targets of Saltz's criticism reveal his discontent with what can be termed an "art market perspective" on the art world--a point of view that emphasizes financial activity regarding art, which a "curatorial perspective" does not. An art market perspective relies on data from historical auction prices and art fair business to contextualize and rationalize the value of artworks. In contrast, a curatorial perspective measures the artistic value and merit of an artwork, independent of its price, through an analysis of art historical trends and the exercise of aesthetic judgments.

Critics of an art market perspective, however, neglect to consider that an art market viewpoint has benefited all types of non-billionaire collectors and art-viewing audiences, and consequently art and artists more broadly. First, increased availability of auction prices provides art collectors with more data to inform purchasing decisions in an often emotionally driven market. Second, the growing importance of art fairs and instances of the commercialization of the art world have increased opportunities for collectors and art enthusiasts alike to view and acquire art. As a result, an art market perspective translates into more informed and engaged collectors and art viewers, and, in turn, into greater support for the arts and artists more generally.

An art market lens stresses the importance of price transparency and enables the use of auction prices to help those collectors, who do not have billions to spend, to make more informed decisions about the value of works they purchase, instead of making uninformed, speculative purchases.

At the same time, the proliferation of art fairs is a response to a greater demand for art by collectors and to a desire to cultivate broader audiences. While there may have been a decline in the number of satellite fairs in Miami this past December, the overall strength of the main fair demonstrated that the art fair phenomenon is not passing. The next test of this trend will be the New York Armory show in March.

Finally, instances of the commercialization of art have democratized the availability of less expensive limited edition prints and artist books. An example of this development is the recent opening of the Madison Avenue Gagosian Shop in New York, which sells publications, posters, and limited edition prints to those who may not be able to afford a work from one of the Gagosian's main galleries. The trend also brought Damien Hirst's London shop Other Criteria to the basement of the Gagosian Shop, where Hirst offers similar works and objects as those upstairs. The proliferation of lower-priced, editioned art works and objects expands the number of people who can live with art, as well as support artists.

The oligarchs and billionaire collectors may have helped fuel the market-driven perspective on the art world. However, if this perspective reduces irrational price speculation and broadens the collector base and art audiences, then this is a valuable perspective with which to examine the art world in the coming years.