Art is pretty amazing. For years I’ve lived art, breathed art and wanted to be art. I started buying art at 19 when I took a trip to a little scenic Island in the West Indies, St Lucia. My first visit to Raskassa’s workshop had me gripped. I was surrounded by beautiful sculptures and I wanted to buy every piece he had ever made (of course my student budget didn’t let me). In that moment, when I was lifting, turning and running my hands over his carefully carved wooden sculptures, what mattered most to me was finding a piece I truly saw myself in. I wanted a sculpture that made me feel something, one that captivated me and made me want to revel in it for years to come. At no point did I stop to think about the value of the art beyond my satisfaction in that moment. I just wanted a sculpture and that was all I knew, to me, it was enough.
The years have gone by and I’ve become a lot more clued up about the art market and the value of art, especially the contemporary African art market. Auction houses like Bonhams and Sotheby’s have gone on to sell pieces from African artists for thousands of pounds and more recently, millions. Bonhams recently sold Ben Enwowu’s Tutu for a groundbreaking 1.2 million. There is a hunger for art made by Africans. It’s exciting, it’s interesting, but it also makes me wary. What is driving this interest? Is it a genuine fascination with the art? Or is it a frenzied commercialization of an emerging art market? Is it both?
Wealthy people have vast art collections. It fills their homes and lines their walls – acting as status symbols – other times, it gathers dust in their attic. As the African art scene has grown, so has it’s buyers. Rich Africans are increasingly buying art and not just for aesthetic reasons, but also as a viable alternative asset class. Dealers and collectors from around the world are very active in the scene and continue to purchase pieces which they keep for a few years and sell at auction for a profit. Buying art as an investment involves paying attention to the artists being exhibited in important museums and art fairs, those included in high value auctions, receiving praise from art critics, amongst other things. Buying art as an investment is different to buying art for the sake of it. The end goal is not to simply hang an aesthetically pleasing (or not so pleasing) piece on your wall, it’s also about making a profit.
Investing in art as an art lover is a great way to do something you are passionate about while supporting artists, enjoying the satisfaction of possessing art and potentially reaping rewards in the future. However, things get very complicated when we look at the way the art market is structured. As a starting point, the art market is not well regulated. Inside information is passed across discreetly between art galleries, collectors and artists without any consequences and the identity of buyers and sellers are kept secret by the dealers. This allows those with access to stakeholders in the art market more likely to gain significant returns for their investment. Those who ordinarily have this access are rich people. The rest of the world is left to carry on the guessing game or simply trust their intuition. The same people with privileged access are those who determine the value to place on artists and their art. I say artists because the art world has proven that the value of art is intrinsically linKed to who the artist is. This makes the art world a hard place to enter for budding collectors and artists alike. This makes the art world elitist.
The art market also falters when it focuses all its energy on a select few artists and ignores the rest. There is an almost cult like frenzy created around select artists which ultimately proves unsustainable (read: Damien Hirst’s work drastically losing its value in what is being called a bloodbath, the DRAMA). Prices are driven high very fast, followed by an inevitable crash. When buying art becomes mainly for profit making, the results are dire. According to Artnet, just 25 artists accounted for nearly half of public auction sales in the first six months of the year. This number is too little. When art is driven solely by investment, the larger chunk of talent is ignored. The art world has a lot of work to do in engaging a larger pool of artists and lowering the entry barriers for up and coming artists. Focusing solely on its darlings is unsustainable for those artists and detrimental to the artists left out. Njideka Akinyili Crosby recently expressed similar emotions in a recent piece by the Wall Street Journal where she discusses the complexities of the art market and the worries she has about the price of her art being inflated. She touches on the lack of transparency regarding who buys her art and the motives behind their purchase.
Buying art shouldn’t be driven by the popularity or investment value of an artist, it should be driven by your love for the art. Investment value should not be your main concern when you love a great piece and are paying an amount that matches this emotion. If you can, try speaking to an artist when their work catches your eye. Understand the story behind their art and their process. Buying art goes beyond the physical work, you are also buying a piece of an artist’s story. Make it a personal and fulfilling experience. The art market is not your friend.