ART NEWS: Goodbye Art World, Hello Art Industry: How the Art Market Has Transformed—Radically—Over the Past 30 Years

Today’s art business looks nothing like it did 30 years ago.

A version of this story originally appeared in the fall 2019 artnet Intelligence Report.

The date on the New York Times in your hands is September 21, 1989. You’re on the subway home, trying to read the cover story about Mikhail Gorbachev purging the USSR’s Politburo, but Mayor Ed Koch’s plan to air-condition every train in New York hasn’t reached the one you’re on, and the heat is oppressive. Besides, you’re too anxious that the big deal you’re trying to close for your auction house may just blow up in your face.


There’s a new collector in Tokyo you need to call after tonight’s episode of Cheers ends. The fax he sent you at the end of his workday came through as nothing more than a smear of black ink, so it’s still unclear if his financials actually check out. He says he’s in real estate (naturally), and the way the Japanese market has been climbing for the past few years, there’s no telling how much he could spend in November if he’s serious. A single Van Gogh almost hit $54 million less than two years ago, and the Impressionist market has stayed so volcanic since then that you’re starting to dream the record could be broken again soon.


Problem is, you couldn’t find the collector’s card in your Rolodex today. Your assistant is driving to Florida, so you won’t be able to ask where it might have gone until she calls you from a motel room to check in tomorrow morning. Too bad those new “mobile phones” Motorola just released cost $3,000. Then again, holding a wireless electronic device up to your ear all day probably gives you cancer or psychosis, so the whole product line might be dead in a year or two.



Myth 1: Contemporary Art Will Never Be Popular

It has been said that “we are what we repeatedly do.” And based on the history of Artnet Price Database searches, we have become an industry ravenous for artists who started out in graffiti, vinyl toys, and (possibly staged) documentaries. The artists who saw the greatest increase in interested users over the past 15 years include KAWS (#1), Mr. Brainwash (#6), and Banksy (#7).

The rise of street art would no doubt be jarring to the dealers and collectors who were battling over Van Goghs in the late 1980s—as would the realization that what is driving the market is the ascent of young art in general. Most of the artists occupying this list’s upper reaches—40 of the top 50 names—were born in 1945 or later.

“The attention contemporary art gets today is what we were always hoping for,” says Thaddaeus Ropac, whose five international galleries grew from a single location in Salzburg opened in 1983. “It was once a small group of followers—we were happy with whatever number of visitors we got; we were happy about any small sale. But expectations today are on a totally different level.”



November 25, 2019
of 24