An Artful Business


As art aficionados speculate over whether or not the art bubble has finally burst, it pays to take a look at how the market is changing; the shift away from the gallery and into the auction house marks a break with tradition. Why is this happening? And what does it mean for the future of the gallery, the owners, and for the artist himself?


Damien Hirst’s obscenely successful Sotheby’s auction, which crushed pre-auction estimates –  taking over £70 mill in the first night alone, has given the  green flag to a marketing revoution in the art world. The often criticised British artist has been descibed as a hack “both simple minded and sensationalist,” (Robert Hughes), whose skills lie in his ability to manipulate rich would-be collectors into perceiving his work as authentic and indispensable, rather than in his actual artistic merit. In effect, no matter how unjust this appraisal may be, Hirst is frequently viewed as a con artist.

Whatever views the public holds on the value of Hirst’s butterflies, spot paintings, corpses in formaldehyde, and diamond skulls, the collectariat are nevertheless still lapping it up. The success of the Sotheby’s auction was a radical attempt to divorce the artist from the stranglehold of the gallery system, which Hirst claimed “indocrinated” him into the belief that “you don’t do auctions”.

Traditionally, new art is the dealer’s responsibility to sell in the gallery. The works inevitably turn up at auction later, after a few years. This is the “unofficial” arrangement between dealers and gallery owners. Hirst’s dissatisfaction with the art dealer’s 50% plus cut of the profit, and his “greed is good” mantra, led him to the idea of bypassing the gallery system and heading straight to the auction rooms  – “if you don’t like the rules, change the rules” he quipped.

Hirst is not the only artist to feel cheated by the gallery system, and more and more artists are considering sellling their new work directly at auction.

One example of this is Swedish born portrait artist, Mon Seifert. Mon laments, “the relationship between the artist and the gallery has been soured,” her disatisfaction coming in part from the massive cut taken by the dealers, “when they receive half the profit…it’s almost as though they are stealing half of your idea.”

In the battle between the artist and private dealer only time will tell who wins and who loses, but taking the power back is no mean feat for the modern artist. To the victor go the spoils…

Isabelle Brooks

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