Collecting in the contemporary art world has become a luxury exclusive only to an elite of the richest and most powerful. When a work of art makes the headlines, it is often due to the exorbitant ticket price it reached in auction. In 2015, Christie's New York sold Warhol's Colored Mona Lisa for fifty-two million dollars. In the same year, Sotheby's auctioned Cy Twombly's Untitled (New York City) for seventy million dollars. The art of collecting is no longer an art, but a market that runs parallel to the global economy. This market thrives on popularity and profitability. Buyers often see up and coming artists with the intent to resale for a profit. Some buyers are interested in the works of art because of artistic merit or because its content contributes their collection. Many others collect because of social competitiveness; acquiring art has become treasure hunting.
Artists seek validation. Being part of a group show by an established curator, an invitation to a biennial or being represented by a gallery are some of the ways in which artists obtain this validation, however, since the 1980s the goal has shifted from validation to profit. Artists are now focusing on trends, they deliberately create pieces that are controversial, they create works that are larger than life, and seek popularity; because popularity equates to money. Art studios have become factories to accommodate the demands of the collectors. Contemporary artists work on a supply and demand system, in which the demand is very high, forcing the artists to produce work at a high rate. Artists then hire a team to help them produce work at a larger scale and speed under their brand, which can cause the artist to lose touch with their practice. Although this practice of large scale art production has been in place since the time of the de' Medici, it has never been commercialized as it is today.
Jeff Koons is known by collectors and curators as one of the best marketers of is own work. Koons is an example of a production artist. Koons reproduces banal objects taken from popular culture in stainless steel, for which he holds a world record for the highest auction price for a work by a living artist. Koons himself has expressed that his work is not a critique on society, but an acceptance of society. A reproduction of Popeye made by Koons recently sold for twenty-eight million dollars in auction, it was then re-sold two weeks later for seventy millions. Although Koons is one of the best paid artists today, dealers often see much higher profits in resale than the original ticket price paid to to the artist. This is an ongoing issue because the market lacks regulation.
Museums are not exempt to these practices. Most museums are ran as non-profit organizations, therefore they rely on contributions from their trustees and donors. The boards of trustees are formed by the same elite of rich and powerful people. Because of this relationship, the trustees have great influence in the selection of the art they display. Museums rely on loans and gifts from third parties, in fact, museums own a minimal amount of the work that they exhibit. Trustees may persuade museums to exhibit a specific artist from their private collection with the intent to increases the artist's popularity and the cash value of their works. While each museum has its own code of ethics regarding possible conflicts of interests between the trustees and the institution's mission, there are no state or federal regulations in place today.
As demand for art increases, only a small number of artists can benefit from it. It is not the most talented who succeed, but the ones who know how to play the game. Art economists advice that this way of operating is not sustainable, and they foresee a drastic change in the market in the next few decades.
Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, Dir. Barry Avrich, 2017, Film.