The Coming Democratization of Contemporary Art

The food industry's success in bringing elite tastes to the mainstream should be an example for the Art Basel crowd.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

There were some significant purchases of contemporary art at Art Basel Miami Beach last week—$5.6 million for a Basquiat painting, $5 million for a John Chamberlain sculpture, $4.5 million for a Warhol portrait of Mao, more than $2 million for a Kazuo Shiraga and $1.8 million for a Mark Bradford—but the really big money wasn’t in town to pick up new wall decorations.

Indeed, rich art collectors had nothing on the global luxury lines in Miami to promote their fashion brands, perfume, cars and champagne. Nor could they compete with real estate developers attracting hot, mobile money from rich people around the world to art-themed and art-enhanced South Florida projects. Whatever one thinks of the merit of contemporary art, there’s no doubt that the contemporary art world—with its moveable feast of fairs migrating from global capitals like New York, London, and Hong Kong to outlying enclaves like Miami, Basel, Cologne, and Singapore—has become a gateway for marketers who want to reach the exceedingly affluent market.

But for art to have as much of an impact upon mass culture—and appeal to consumers—as those luxury brands have achieved, it will have to break out of its crystal bubble. It will have to follow the path that the food industry has for the last two decades or more, which has been the path of taking once abstruse and artisanal products and making them common fare.

Art Basel’s supporters like to remind people that ABMB produces more private-jet traffic to Opa-Locka airport—the regional center for the Gulfstream set—than the Superbowl. Even if they’re just dropping in for a day or two to tour the stands on the preview day, ABMB is a siren-like call for the very rich, those who want to sell to the very rich and those who want their products associated with the very rich. But Art Basel wants more than that. Art Basel wants to be at the center of a global economy that’s driven more by creativity than cupidity.

“Anyone who is a serious member of the creative class,” Art Basel director Marc Spiegler told Reuters last week, “is going to come into our fair. We’re getting a lot of requests from CEOs and CMOs who’ve never come to the fair.” In other words, there is a legitimate turn taking place as the idea of an immensely lucrative contemporary art market ceases to seem like a sign some market bubble is about to pop. With each passing year, contemporary art becomes a more plausible tentpole for the global creative economy.

Luxury brands latching onto contemporary art is hardly new. UBS has been a sponsor of the fair in Miami from the very beginning. In the past few years, art market stalwarts like Aby Rosen have begun to partner with champagne makers like Dom Perignon to sponsor a regular ABMB event. The money, after all, precedes the art.

Art’s recent market success has rode in on the coattails of the overall growth in global wealth. Over the last decade, there has a been an explosion of newly created rich people. In 2004, there were an estimated 77,500 individuals in the world with liquid assets of $30 million or more. This year, that same population was estimated to be 211,000.

Having said that, contemporary art is outpacing the growth of all other art. Over the last decade, the value of all the art sold in the world has doubled. Of all the many important subcategories of art—impressionist, old master, modern and contemporary—the greatest gain in auction volume has come from contemporary art. From 2004 to 2013, contemporary art auction volumes increased by fivefold.

The art boom may have been launched by the one percent but there’s every indication that interest runs deeper into the general culture. Whatever one thinks of artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, their name recognition among the general public is higher than any living artist since, well, Picasso or Warhol, though the latter was more famous for being famous, than for his art, until years after his death.

The immense popularity of both artists can be measured in the extraordinary attendance figures for each man’s recent museum retrospective. More than that, museum attendance has been soaring for the better part of a decade. The top 10 museums in the world saw nearly 55 million individuals cross their thresholds in 2013, the last year we have visitor figures for.

Museums are not the only way that art reaches the middle classes. For every buyer of a work of art at ABMB, there were surely 50-100 fairgoers seeing what was on offer. Many of the regular attendees are artists and less-pecunious collectors from around the country who come to get an overview of an echelon of art making and collecting. For the non-buyer, ABMB—or any of the dozen other top-flight art fairs—is a panopticon of contemporary art. That’s what attracts the broader creative class, the type of citizens that cities now covet the most for growth and prosperity.

“What Art Basel has done for Miami is to attract two different kinds of customer: the high-end customer who likes very expensive art and what we call the ‘creative class,’ mostly younger people who like to live in and visit cities that have everything,” Arun Sharma, a professor of marketing at the University of Miami told the New York Times. “The others come and go. The members of the creative class are the ones that come and stay.”

There are finally signs that this art boom is breaking out of the elite-cities-of-the-world bubble. Around the world public and private museums are under construction. Cities clearly see art as a civic boon. Since 2009, the not-for-profit Art Prize has offered $200,000 to the winner of its annual art competition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the first five years, attendance in Grand Rapids has doubled from 200,000 to 400,000 visitors. Now Art Prize is expanding to Dallas in 2016 because, as director Christian Gaines told the New York Times, several cities had approached Art Prize about hosting their own version of the event but Dallas “really followed through.”

What’s going here? It would be hard to separate the growth of interest in art from the increasingly visual culture created by the internet and mobile technology. In the age of Instagram, communicating through images has become a necessary part of contemporary life. No longer a luxury, finding meaning through images is becoming a Maslovian need.

You can think of this in terms of food. The U.S. is in the midst of yet another phase of transforming tastes in food. Not 30 years ago, processed foods were ascendant in American culture. Today, companies who ruled that era are facing a growing preference for fast-casual restaurants that serve food prepared with fresh, whole ingredients. McDonald’s and Twinkies are down; Chipotle and Whole Foods are up. The canary in the prep kitchen, the signal that preceded this massive shift, was a change in high-end restaurant culture.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a generation of college-educated chefs followed Alice Waters’s lead and built restaurants that were more inviting and inventive showcases of food than the stuffy old restaurants in a few global cities. Over the course of 30 years, diners became accustomed to learning the about the purveyors and sourcing of their meal’s ingredients. Leveraged by the growth of a television food network and reality shows about cooking and chefs, and aided and abetted by a growth of high-quality coffee outlets and an explosion of craft brewers and cult winemakers, the language and culture surrounding food in contemporary life is nothing less than a sea change from the last century.

Art has the same opportunity. It won’t follow the same path. But there is no reason to think that our society’s enduring fascination with homes and decoration as a form of self-expression will not evolve into the kind of collecting—of diverse cultural objects from a broad variety of sources—that adds order, depth, and meaning to ordinary people’s lives.