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15 October 2009

Deep Frieze

Where next for the global art market?

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Look, bubbles create other bubbles, they’re like derivative bubbles . . .

An anonymous hedge-fund manager, quoted in the new issue of N+1

Among the “derivative bubbles” created by the bubble in financial assets was a bubble in the global art market. And one event, more than any other, came to symbolise its excesses: Frieze, the annual art fair held in London, was, as Tim Adams put in a New Statesman piece last year, a “frenzied narcosis of Prada and oligarchs”, a three-ring circus of conspicuous consumption.

Until the near-collapse of global financial capitalism, that is. At last year’s Frieze, Adams reported, the “excess . . . seemed finally to have run dry”. The art, he wrote, “was never quite the point of Frieze; that was always the buzz, generally loud enough to drown out any shouts about the emperor’s new clothes”. And the buzz stopped abruptly on the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy (last year’s Frieze took place exactly a month after Lehman went down).

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At last night’s private view for the 2009 iteration of the fair, there wasn’t any frenzied narcosis — at least, none that I saw (though I wasn’t allowed into the inner sanctum of the Deutsche Bank VIP suite) — but the crush at the bars was discernibly thicker than it was last year. The bald figures, however, suggest that, for all the “buoyancy” of the mood last night, the art market is still in the doldrums.

Only 135 galleries are participating in the main fair this year, compared with 150 last year. And, as one artist I spoke to remarked mordantly, most of the gallerists who have turned up are showing second-rate work, as if they’re hoarding the best stuff through the financial winter. (One exception to the medicore, reheated conceptualism that tends to predominate at Frieze were the vaguely hallucinatory paintings of the Belgian artist Michaël Borremans.)

Another sign that the art market won’t be recovering any time soon is ArtReview magazine’s “Power 100” list, announced today. “This year’s list inevitably refects the financial tumult of the last 12 months,” the press release reads, “with just about a third of last year’s entries falling off and being replaced with newcomers. Collectors as a bracket suffered the heaviest fall within the list, with many former high-rollers going or gone.” Perhaps the most precipitous fall is that of Charles Saatchi, who has fallen from 14th in 2008 to 72nd.

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