Whitney Museum artwork sale proves polarising

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has decided to “de-accession” (sell) seven works from its collection, once again raising the issue of whether museums should consider key pieces as financial assets. Four works by Edward Hopper, including the landscape painting “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro” (1930-33, estimate $8mn-$12mn), have been consigned for sale at Sotheby’s New York next month along with two pieces by John Marin and a painting by Maurice Prendergast.

The funds will be used to expand the museum’s collection with a focus on contemporary art, says the Whitney, whose endowment is $411mn. “The works were carefully reviewed and selected by Whitney Museum stakeholders as part of this scholarly examination of the institution’s collections. It was determined that the works were duplicative within the collection,” the museum adds.

But disposing of works for sale is polarising. A former US museum director, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: “Provided that the museum uses all sale proceeds for the purchase and direct care of newly acquired artworks, this is in line with the Association of Art Museum Directors guidelines. The only question is the extent to which mining historical collections to purchase contemporary art will become a trend, and in so doing sacrifice works that in the fullness of time will be missed.”

Image of a brightly coloured tiger in a sitting room, with small figures climbing on him, and cats around him
‘Hojakdo by the Fireplace’ by Na Ri Choi (2022)

The Korean wave rolls on with the launch of a new art fair in London this summer at Mall Galleries near Trafalgar Square. The new event, known as Korean Art London (July 6-22), is founded and funded by Rok Hee Hwang, chief executive of Mews Gallery in Gangwon-do, South Korea. Hwang is a businesswoman who has worked in hotels, real estate and galleries in South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

She is bringing works by more than 30 contemporary South Korean artists to London, including Na Ri Choi, Ha Jin Lee and Sung Hee Kim. “The artists do not pay to participate. They have been selected and are a combination of established names and emerging talent,” says a spokesperson for the fair. Each of the artists will be given a solo booth, with price points ranging from a few hundred pounds to thousands.

“My priority with Korean Art London is to bring a survey of first-rate South Korean contemporary art to the London market . . . I also want to provide an opportunity for Europeans to start their Korean art collections,” says Hwang. She is planning to open a London gallery after the fair that will specialise in Korean art.

“The art world is still notoriously opaque when it comes to disclosing details about pay, promotions and opportunities,” says the foreword to a new report which aims to lift the lid on pay across the sector, produced by London-based recruitment business Sophie Macpherson Ltd. The data, informed by the company’s work between January and December 2022, delves into salaries in organisations such as art advisories, auction houses, commercial galleries and communications agencies. A senior director at a UK art advisory can, for instance, earn an average base salary of around £100,000, rising to over £150,000; in the US, the equivalent post can come with a salary of more than $200,000.

The report, billed as the first of its kind to focus specifically on the art market, stresses that “there is mounting pressure on art world businesses to not only review their pay structures in line with socio-economic developments, but also to be more upfront and open about the basic pay they are offering”. The US has led the way, with state-led transparency laws rolled out in New York last November.

Ominously, the report notes that “since Brexit, and in the aftermath of the pandemic, the import and export of art has become more complicated in the UK. As such, the local job market is no longer evolving at the same rate, or with the same fervour, as other global hubs.” In other words, Paris and Berlin are coming to the fore and may take the shine off London. “The UK employment market continues to be buoyant, and growing post-pandemic, just not at the same rate as other markets,” says Rosie Allan, managing director at Sophie Macpherson Ltd, who helped compile the document.

A woman sits smiling in an office, her arms resting on her desk
Keija Wu, author of ‘A Modern History of China’s Art Market’, which is published next month

A publication out next month, A Modern History of China’s Art Market, provides a detailed analysis of how China’s art trade has exploded over the past three decades. Author Kejia Wu points out in her introduction that “back in 1992, art transaction volume was so low that a standalone auction law framework had not yet been necessary to be enacted”. Today, the two largest art auction houses in China are catching up with western peers. Wu says that in 2021, total turnover of sales at Poly Auctions amounted to Rmb11.1bn ($1.72bn), 80 per cent of which was Beijing Poly, the rest Poly Hong Kong.

According to the latest Art Market report published by Art Basel and UBS, however, China’s zero-Covid policies, which meant the cancellation of many events and auction sales, led the UK to overtake it as the second biggest market in 2022. Wu’s study also highlights how the NFT market in China will be shaped by the government’s strict regulatory framework. “Once the digital infrastructure is in place [by 2025], the regulator plans to establish a unified market where all digital arts and cultural products, including NFTs, based on China’s own blockchain will be traded,” she writes.

A portrait of a woman in a gilt frame on a hallway wall
‘Type of Beauty’ by James Jacques Tissot (1880) © Barney Hindle

And finally, Sotheby’s will be hoping for a kind of magic as the eclectic collection of Queen frontman and rock legend Freddie Mercury goes under the hammer this September in London. The trove of costumes, lyrics, fine and decorative artworks and Japanese clothing has been consigned by Mercury’s close friend Mary Austin. Highlights include the last work of art Mercury bought, James Jacques Tissot’s painting “Type of Beauty” (1880; est £400,000-£600,000), which hung in his drawing room at his Garden Lodge home in Kensington.

Mercury, a Japanophile, also amassed classic works such as the woodblock print “Sudden Shower over the Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake” (1857, est £30,000-£50,000) by Utagawa Hiroshige. Austin will be donating a portion of the sale proceeds to the Mercury Phoenix Trust and the Elton John Aids Foundation.

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