The Global Art Business Is Better, but Not Booming


After struggling with the Covid pandemic, the industry is now dealing with inflation, high interest rates and international conflicts.

Sun, sand and champagne are sure to greet attendees at Art Basel Miami Beach as it celebrates its 21st birthday with a bubbly mix of gallery displays, outdoor art and beach parties.

Yet underneath the surface, the global art business is cooling: While choice works by desirable artists can still fetch sky-high prices, the market is not what it used to be before the Covid pandemic.

“We’ve come out of a period of unprecedented growth in the numbers of artists collected and valued, and the prices which people pay, and those kinds of buying cycles always go through shifts — in good times and bad,” said Allan Schwartzman, a New York-based art adviser and founder of the Schwartzman& advisory firm.

A painting by Dana Schutz at the David Zwirner Gallery stand at Paris+ by Art Basel in October.Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“You’ve had a slowdown because it was natural: There were a lot of people who ate too much at the buffet, and now they realize that they want to be a little more select in what they choose to eat or put on their plate,” Mr. Schwartzman added.

He noted that inflation and high interest rates “slow things down greatly,” and that conflicts in places such as Ukraine and the Middle East were “never helpful for what is often thought of as luxury spending.”

The figures bear out that assessment. According to the Art Basel and UBS Survey of Global Collecting 2023, published in November and written by the economist Clare McAndrew, sales by the four major auction houses were down 16 percent in the first half of 2023 compared with a year earlier.

This year, Art Basel Miami Beach will feature 277 international galleries, nearly two-thirds of them from North and Latin America, and 25 of them newcomers. The Miami Beach fair is part of one of the two big international fair franchises: Art Basel and Frieze, each of which hold fairs in four different cities every year.

Visitors and exhibitors at Frieze New York at in Manhattan in May.Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

What is clear, regardless of which franchise you look at, is that the fair business has still not regained the market share it lost during the pandemic. Unlike certain other components of the art market — such as auction houses, which were, by and large, able to continue operating by switching to online bidding — in-person fairs were shuttered completely as soon as Covid-19 began to spread in 2020, and they only partially reopened in 2021. Galleries had to set up online viewing rooms instead.

As a result, out of the $37.2 billion in dealer sales generated in 2022, only 35 percent came from art fairs, down from 42 percent before Covid, according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, published in April.

The pandemic was “incredibly disruptive,” said Elizabeth Dee, founder and owner of the Independent New York and Independent 20th Century fairs. She called fairs “critical to the gallery business.”

“We all acknowledge that the market has softened,” Ms. Dee added. “But it hasn’t softened across the board in the same way.”

It all depended on pricing and geography, she said. Works by certain known artists were no longer finding buyers at their previous price levels, while certain new and undiscovered works were being purchased, she explained.

Geographically speaking, China was “down quite a lot” as a market for art, and London suffered from the costs and consequences of Britain’s vote to exit the European Union in 2016, she said. Yet the United States was doing well, and many Asian and European galleries were looking to set up shop there.

According to the April Art Basel and UBS report, in 2022, U.S. art sales totaled $30.2 billion — nearly half of the world total. The U.S. market was helped by a “major uplift at the high end of the auction sector” and “more moderate but positive growth in dealer sales.”

What kind of a market will Art Basel Miami Beach be?

The answer to that question is yet to be determined. Yet some exhibitors are taking heart from the results of another recent fair: Paris+ by Art Basel, which had its second iteration in the French capital in October, and where many galleries reported doing strong business. The most eye-popping announcement came from David Zwirner, whose gallery said it had sold more than $20 million on the first day, led by a $6 million Kerry James Marshall painting.

Workers in October near “Wave,” a sculpture by Urs Fischer, shown on the Place Vendôme as part of Paris+ by Art Basel.Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Paris+, which was inaugurated last year in the Grand Palais Éphémère temporary tent at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, has a few things going for it: the allure of Paris as a city; the caliber of artworks that gallerists choose to bring; and the dizzying array of concurrent exhibitions programmed at museums and art foundations in the French capital. Next year, the fair will get an additional boost when it moves into its grandiose new digs, the refurbished Grand Palais.

Another gallery that reported strong sales at Paris+ was Pace. Most of the newly commissioned set of works it offered on its stand sold for more than $100,000 each, the gallery said. And at the Frieze fairs in London the previous week, Pace sold a sculpture by Louise Nevelson for $2 million.

Still, Pace’s chief executive, Marc Glimcher, acknowledged that selling art nowadays required a lot more effort and attention to quality. “You can get pretty lazy when you just stick a bunch of pictures on the wall and everybody comes running into the art fair and buys them,” he said. “That’s not going to cut it right now.”

“Olive Over Red,” by Mark Rothko, shown by Pace Gallery at Paris+ by Art Basel.Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Presentations had better be pretty extraordinary if we’re interested in having that same result that we’ve been having over the last 10 or 20 years,” he added.

Missing from the market were the “young, very wealthy, very excited” entrepreneurs who had previously been able to borrow at historically low interest rates — “virtually free” — and purchase artworks with the cash.

“When you buy art with the borrowed money, and the value of the art is going up, it’s just painless,” Mr. Glimcher said. “Now, the value of that lump of money that you were borrowing against is not going up, it’s going down. And it’s costing you 7 or 8 percent to borrow that money.” The context, he added, “doesn’t feel so fun to a lot of young people who dove headfirst into this debt-fueled excitement about becoming art collectors.”

Another set of buyers — “rich people getting richer while they were sitting at home” during the pandemic — have gone back to work and are no longer shopping for young and emerging art the way they used to be, Mr. Schwartzman said.

“That kind of growth of new generations of artists is not sustainable in the long run,” he explained. “The amount of greatness in art does not multiply in proportion to the money available to collect art.”

Over the last three and a half years, the art market has managed to dodge a number of major obstacles — the pandemic, inflation, soaring interest rates, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and come out alive. But there is a new risk: the conflict in the Middle East.

The situation there “is definitely rearranging people’s priorities” and having an effect, Mr. Glimcher said. Should it develop into a wider conflict, “the art market is going to be severely impacted.”

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