Olav Velthuis is one of the more interesting writers about the art market. That’s because he doesn’t get caught up in the moralizing about art and money. He’d rather ask how art functions in a society, especially a newly wealthy society. Here’s how he explained it to Art Media Agency:
How do you approach your research?
I am a sociologist, though in my methods you might also call me an anthropologist. What I’m interested in, broadly, is how markets function. And for me, a market is not just about supply and demand, or investment and return. It’s a social and cultural phenomenon. I’m interested in the market almost as a culture: as a set of rituals or values that people share.
In emerging countries, I’m basically interested in where markets come from. There are countries – especially China and Russia – where, until the late 80s, commercial art traffic was either completely prohibited, or was a grey area. There were no markets there until the late 80s.
Something which I find fascinating is the progression of these markets – especially in China, where there’s this market which, whilst not always flourishing, is huge, in terms of the people involved and the revenue being generated. How – in 25 years – did we get to this when, 25 years ago, there was nothing? How did they build this market? What kind of infrastructure did they develop? Did they invent this themselves or did they mostly borrow market models from Europe and the United States? These are my questions.
In your research have you found that this market growth has come from a social or cultural desire to have art, or does it represent art as something which has been totally commodified?
I don’t think its entirely commodified. I think, for instance, when you look at Chinese art, what people in Europe and the US have for a long time been focusing on is a select group of artists from China who have made a lot of money, or whose works have been sold at auction. They’ll appear in lists of the world’s best selling contemporary artists published by sites like Artprice.
Beyond that, however, there’s actually a very rich scene with a lot of different things going on. And there’s a very strong critical, conceptual and intellectual scene as well. There’s so much going on in China that we hear much less about in Europe and the US. It’s definitely not just a commodified scene.
What is the relationship between a region’s art market and its economy more broadly?
For an art market to develop, you need wealth. One of the main reasons that markets have been booming in some of these countries – particularly in China – is because, economically, they have been very strong.
At the same time, however – and this is what I think is really interesting about this group – is that it immediately shows the limits of that sort of thinking – that the art market is just determined by economic developments, or by the number of millionaires or billionaires in the country. In Russia, for example, the contemporary art market is not flourishing at all, despite the fact that Moscow has some of the highest number of billionaires in the world.
You need other things. And one of the things I talk about is what I call “identity politics”: how do people construct an identity for themselves, and what kind of art do they need for that? In Russia, they’re definitely not interested in the critical, politically engaged art that a lot of Russian contemporary artists are making; they’re much keener on cultivating a more cosmopolitan identity. Many of them live in London anyway – they’ve got children there, and their social life is there. They mostly buy things from the European and American modern and contemporary art scenes.
In India, however, the interest in foreign artists is so far extremely limited. When they buy, they almost always start with Indian modern artists; they might go on to develop different tastes, but they start with their own country. Their identity constructions are very different, and that is an important factor in how these markets develop – it’s one of the reasons, I think, why Russia doesn’t have a flourishing market at all.
Constructing an art market: Interview with Olav Velthuis (Art Media Agency)