Besides being a total dumpster fire that we may never want to speak of ever again, 2020 also shone a spotlight on certain key trends in the art world such as the financialisation of the art market, interest in public art and surrealist art, toxic organisational practices and the resilience of Asia’s art scene. Here we take a look back at the year and five key trends that unfolded.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
2020 can only be described as a tsunami in a bottle—surreal, often times adverse, yet mostly revealing, all while we are hunkered down in our various homes and countries. As of 8 December, there have been more than 1.5 million deaths this year directly attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still taking its toll around the world. However, 2020 also saw the fastest development of vaccine in history while strong public healthcare and social compact (the often implicit agreement within a society to act in benefit for each other) proved its mettle in certain parts of the world such as Taiwan and New Zealand.
This year even saw attempts at innovation in the art world, some largely questionable such as the OVRs we have come to love and loathe, other efforts a tad more intriguing such as the entertaining livestreamed auctions. In fact, 2020 is essentially a resounding kick into the 21st century, reminding us this is the future, and we are living and shaping it on a daily basis. So, it makes sense to take a look at some of the trends in the art world this year, tongue firmly in cheek, hope in our hearts, and eyes and mind wide, wide open.
The Art World Is Thirsty For Money And Doesn’t Care Who Knows
The art market, worth slightly over US$64 billion and the single largest unregulated financial space in the world, has always been the playground of the uber-rich but 2020 made this notion uncomfortably blatant. For example, following their company’s bankruptcy filing, American luxury department store Neiman Marcus sold an Alexander Calder work from their corporate collection for twice its estimate at US$18.2 million during Sotheby’s inaugural hybrid Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale livestreamed from New York earlier this month.
It almost seemed as if the wariness the art world displayed a decade ago about the financialisation of the art market is long gone. Like Hong Kong’s tai-tai dance clubs or a New Orleans Swingers Convention, galleries and art fairs have grown even more brazen this year, ambitiously expanding into other industry roles and regions.
In February, Pace Gallery, Gagosian, and Acquavella came together to jointly sell the approximately US$450 million collection of the late philanthropist Donald Marron, when it was originally expected that either auction house Christie’s or Sotheby’s would manage the sale of the estate. Then there is Frieze’s seemingly imperialistic ambition in Asia, with talk on the ground in South Korea’s art scene that the fair conglomerate is “laying the groundwork for a fair in Seoul in the fall of 2022”. The annual art fair circuit is going to be even worse in the post-pandemic era, isn’t it?
The Most Used Word Of 2020: Toxic
Another aspect of the art world that became more obvious this year: the insular and elitist threads that run beneath its polished, progressive veneer. Take for example, the recruitment of two senior staff in April 2020 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York, the same week 92 employees were furloughed. Additionally, one of the new senior hires, a white male, was announced by Director Richard Armstrong in August, around the same time the museum introduced their highly publicised two-year Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion Plan.
This was also a few months into the Black Lives Matter protests which led to a slew of social media accounts and online platforms such as A Better Guggenheim, xSFM0MA Workers and ChangeTheMuseum sharing first person accounts of toxic workplace behaviour and practices, discrimination, harassment, pay inequity and a lack of inclusion on many levels. Even private art galleries were not exempt from the on-the-ground push to be transparent about toxic workplace practices and situations—looking right at you, Pace Gallery.
Underestimate Asia At Your Own Peril
While creative industries across the world are facing financial losses and setbacks, the adverse impact of COVID-19 varies from country to country, city to city, even within Asia itself. Art galleries in places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong have stayed open and active far longer than their western counterparts in the US, UK and Europe, being able to operate on an appointment basis with precautionary measures in place.
On the auction end, international sales of art were buoyed by demand from Asian art collectors. According to The Canvas, CEO of auction house Phillips, Edward Dolman, said that while bidding was split pretty evenly between Europe, North America, and Asia, “what pushed the prices to such heights was the client participation from Asia.”
Both Hong Kong and Shanghai also managed to pull off physical art fairs towards the end of the year. While Hong Kong kept it local, some international dealers and galleries actually flew into Shanghai and quarantined for the sake of attending the fairs. Sales were strong for the usual blue-chip galleries with talk of “revenge buying” by Chinese art collectors and even a physical fundraising gala, but the pace was reportedly “less frenetic”. Alongside such physical forays, museums, biennales, art galleries and art fairs across the region also ventured into the digital realm to engage with collectors and audiences regionally and internationally.
All We Want Is (Politically Correct, Otherworldly) Public Art
Some advice to any town, village, city, obscure mountain or valley looking to make it big in the art world and beyond—put up a bright and shiny monolith with no visible evidence of its installation or deinstallation. Currently, the art world is still chasing its tail trying to figure out who are behind these monoliths.
Even without extraterrestrial intervention, public art took on a whole new tenor earlier this year. During the widespread Black Lives Matter protests, statues and memorials of US Confederate soldiers and other figures who stood for oppression were vandalised or torn down or scheduled for removal around the world. Remember the viral video of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston’s statue being pushed into Bristol Harbour in the UK?
Public art remained controversial even when it was created with our better angels in mind. In November, British artist Maggi Hambling’s silver bronzed sculpture of Mary Wollstonecraft, “the 18th-century radical, author and mother of feminism” incited public furor online and amongst critics when unveiled in north London.
The points of contention varied, from the work being seen as plain ugly to its Barbie-like physical sizing, prominent pubic hair and nudity. Who knows, maybe Mary would have done much better as a metallic monolith.
All We Want Is Art That Does Not Remind Us Of Reality, Please
Last year, the market for Surrealist master Magritte experienced its largest amount of sold lots, with over US$108 million record auction turnover. This year, Christie’s offered the US$8.1 million 130.6 x 162 cm L’Arc de Triomphe (1962) by Magritte as a highlight of the London session of its global “ONE” sale of modern and contemporary art in July.
However, the interest in Surrealism goes beyond the art market. “Dalí & Magritte” at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium ran till the beginning of this year. Even overlooked female Surrealist artists have been gaining traction; there was also “Alice Rahon: Poetic Invocations” at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami at the end of 2019.
The metaphysical roots of Surrealism were heavily influenced by Greece born Italian artist and writer Girogio de Chirico who wrote, “What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”
That is definitely an intriguing perspective to view our currently shifting realities. Maybe staring wholeheartedly at a Surrealist artwork could make the collective vertigo we are experiencing on a daily basis bearable. Either that, or just stay off social media, ignore the news and binge watch The Mandalorian.