Looking back over the season that just passed, consolidation is the word that best describes the dynamics of the art world now. Large entities are getting larger; smaller ones are still squeezed or struggling. The art system is mirroring larger trends in society, where recovery has come sooner to the more fortunate and the gap between the haves and have-nots has, if anything, widened.
Large institutions and corporate entities have locked in gains and begun to expand franchises. It’s a good time to make a deal, whether inexpensive real estate, cheap credit, or distressed partners prompt the opportunity.
Here in New York, large museums are showing anew an appetite for expansion. The Whitney had reason to celebrate at its gala last week, having just leased its Madison Avenue Marcel Breuer building to the Met, clearing the way for downtown construction of its new Renzo Piano headquarters. For the Met, this will be the first foray off Fifth Avenue since the opening of the Cloisters. Meanwhile, MoMA has paid $31 million to buy the beleaguered Museum of Folk Art. And the Guggenheim is eyeing a branch in Helsinki.
On the commercial side, the three main auction houses booked respectable quarters, and Phillips has moved into its flashiest digs yet, on Park Avenue. The houses are aggressively building markets overseas and pushing the boundaries of their operations into new aesthetic, digital, and financial territory. Hiring is back. Furloughs have yielded to pay increases.
Consolidation continued in the gallery business, too. Gagosian’s far-flung satellites are filling mailboxes with thick cardboard invitations almost daily. A small cluster of galleries with a truly global reach is leaving everyone else further behind. Corporate muscle is the most obvious in the seemingly never-ending expansion of art fairs. In a long awaited move, Art Basel has planted its flag in Hong Kong. Frieze announced a bold incursion into the Armory Show’s back yard, on New York’s Randall’s Island, and is also launching an old master’s fair back in London.
Consolidation trends are harder to discern among artists and collectors, where shifts are less public. Yet the ranks of living artists who command exorbitant valuations has been culled in the market retrenchment. Meanwhile, as high prices return to the resale trade, it stands to reason that trophy works are available only to a small group of collectors at the top who have the deep pockets and lingering appetite to assemble collections.
What next? As the recovery gathers steam, the middle tier of the market and the institutional system will find itself on a firmer footing. Yet something deeper is likely going on. The boom and bust cycle has served as a crucible for the continuing maturation of the visual art world as a mainstream cultural industry. Whatever your personal feelings may be about these shifts, this maturity is partly expressed in the expanding footprint and influence of the largest organizations and most highly capitalized corporations, which have been able to sustain their momentum and use their reserves to take advantage of opportunities during the boom and its aftermath.
Do you see other consolidations trends? Or the opposite?