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.