How the art market turned into a synonym of luxury and VIP culture

The Art Syndicate Staff Writer: Constanza Ontiveros Valdés


For centuries artworks were traded, bought, and commissioned yet art dealing was established as a profession up until the 19th century and, ever since, art dealers have been instrumental to the development of art. However, the exclusive, hip, and aspirational art market system of our times dates back to the late 1990s and early 2000s when contemporary art became the favorite market and art fairs multiplied at a fast pace. Let’s look at the main events that paved the way for the transformation of the art market, composed of galleries, art dealers, artists, art advisors, art collectors, art fairs, and auction houses, into a synonym of luxury, status, and a lavish display of philanthropy.


         Trading and selling art has always been connected to the practice of art collecting which acquired a prominent role during the Renaissance when artists were revalued. As centuries went by, collecting art increasingly turned into a public display of culture and education for the newly rich. Of course, the emerging collecting base needed a connoisseur to guide their taste and to sell the art. Art dealers and also auction houses, which have been around since the 18th century, were eager and ready to provide that service bringing an aura of exclusiveness and elegance to their art transactions involving mainly European old masters.


Now, especially during the early 19th-century, art dealers became cultural trendsetters frequently introducing their wealthy clients to avant-garde art forms and establishing a new art market system. It is worth mentioning French dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (b.1831) who is recognized as the first modern art dealer that promoted a group of previously unknown artists he believed in, mainly the Impressionists. Durand-Ruel eventually won over the public and helped change Art History while obtaining financial success, something that every art dealer is looking for.


While the figure of the art dealer was well established, the 20th century saw the rise of emblematic art galleries in Paris, London and New York, many of which are still open these days.  We can name, for instance, Julien Levy Gallery, founded in 1931, noted for introducing the Surrealists to America and hosting the first cocktail party opening, something that is now a staple of every exhibition opening. As years went by, dealers such as Leo Castelli became superstars that were tied to the rise of emblematic pop artists like Andy Warhol. Likewise, who bought an artwork became more important than its price guven landing on a reputed art collection could change the course of the career of both artists and art dealers. 


Now, since the late 1990s and during the first decade of the 2000s, contemporary art has emerged as the favorite market. This resulted at first from an economic boom and the Asian interest in it, and then replicated to art collectors of all kinds around the globe. Quickly contemporary art was also linked to the marketing, luxury, celebrity, and fashion industries. Designers sought contemporary artists for collaborations; galleries such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, or Pace, became multinational ventures; auction sales made headlines and put together lavish events; and contemporary art collectors opened their private museums. At the same time, art fairs and biennials multiplied across the globe increasingly offering VIP-only events and parties turning into the place to be seen for art lovers, celebrities and party goers. Likewise, Hong Kong has surpassed New York, London, and Paris and is now one of the most important art epicenters where the most important galleries have settled.  


During the last few years, and especially since the COVID pandemic, the digital realm has also taken a center stage in the art market and the nomadic contemporary art world momentarily came to a halt. However, as some countries and cities are opening up, gallery openings and art fairs are emerging once more at a smaller scale proving that people love to experience art and more so if it’s a VIP experience.

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