What Happens When Billionaires Buy Art?

I found this article by Vancouver Island School of Art director Wendy Welch very interesting! Its so easy to assume it's a great thing when a piece of art sells for an enormous price- what an eye opener!

Where does expensive art spend the night?

The news of Canadian artist Lawren Harris' Mountain Forms selling for $11.21 million at auction has gone viral. The high price of art has little to do with the art itself, but rather the economic structure of supply and demand. Billionaires are looking to own things that are rare - fancy cars, houses and airplanes are always on the list of desired acquisitions, but they are not "one of a kind" so they are never quite enough. Original paintings are by their very nature unique, and therefore inherently "rare". Interest in Harris' paintings has risen in large part because movie star Steve Martin recently curated an exhibition of the artist's work. Martin feels he "discovered" Harris for Americans. With the combination of the late artist becoming more known outside of Canada and the current accelerating art market, the price has managed to soar in a very short time period. This means that the painting will most likely leave the visible world and become hidden in a storage vault per the request of the new anonymous owner. This is what the ultra wealthy do with their art purchases; until they are ready to resell. And even then the work rarely, if ever, leaves the vault, as many art sales are done by digital image alone. People think it must be a good thing for a work by a Canadian artist to sell for such a high price. However the high cost of art doesn't help anybody but a few billionaires who make art investing a hobby. It doesn't help museums or public galleries because it makes the work more inaccessible. It doesn't help living artists who are trying to make revenue by selling their work. As Russell Smith wrote in the Globe and Mail about the sale of Harris' work: "I am not sure why we need to be excited that this might make some extremely wealthy art owners even wealthier." Russell is not a fan of Harris and thinks we should be talking about the actual merit of the work as opposed to the cost. However, even if you do love the painting, this sale means you won't be seeing it for a very long time, if ever. Perhaps these high-end art purchasers actually like art, but most of the time the art gets stored in a vault and nobody gets to see it. An example being the tax-free art storage in Geneva Free Port. This is where the super-rich store their artwork. These huge storage units are filled to the brim with artwork of all kinds that will never see the light of day, unless to be released to sell at the next auction. After that, the work will likely return to this very drab storage area. There are at least four of these units in Switzerland and more being built. The owner of the Geneva Fine Art Fund Group, Jean-Rene Saillard, says that if the Geneva Free Port were a museum, it would be the best museum in the world. There are around one million works of art stored here. The more expensive an artwork becomes, the more secure its location needs to be, and the less likely that the public will ever see the work again. The rich have always had access to art, whether by private commissions or buying outright. The only difference between our times and previous centuries, is that in the past, art was commissioned so the art "patron" could have it hanging in his palace (castle, mansion or home) where he could admire it and show off the work to others (this eventually led to the creation of "art museums".) Capitalism is bringing art to a new state of absurdity where work is made, bought and then hidden from light or from another's gaze. There is something slightly insane about this entire scenario. So no, I'm not excited that a Lawren Harris painting sold for $11.21 million. News such as this means saying good-bye to the art because it is going to the sleep in obscurity with the other paintings of the same art market value.

View of inside of Geneva Free Port storage unit

Wendy Welch Executive Director, Vancouver Island School of Art


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