We meet Gareth Fletcher, consultant lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. Gareth tell us his experience working as lecturer of Art and its Markets course and little bit more about his idea of how the art market works today,what are the concerns and the challenges for the future of the sector.
Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman: You are currently teaching Art and its Markets at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you started your collaboration with Sotheby’s?
Gareth Flecther: Prior to 2011, I had spent time working in various public and private sector positions within London’s cultural sector, however, in 2011 I decided to study the MA Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. After this degree, I worked for a commercial dealer and was asked to contribute as a consultant lecturer on the MA Art Business programme in 2014. This role then evolved to incorporate Art and its Markets Summer Study.
FMH: Almost everywhere in the world, people are worried about the future of the economy and the possibility of a super-recession. But money is pouring into the art business as though there is too much cash in the world. What do you think about this phenomenon?
GF: I think it is fair to say that global economic conditions have become increasingly untenable, as evidenced by the steady depopulation of many of London’s creative communities. This decentralisation will strengthen regional initiatives and hopefully begin to recalibrate the critical discourses surrounding the entrenchment of quality hierarchies. The media proactively recycles art market press releases championing the influx of wealth into the sector, but perhaps it is more instructive to contextualise the size and nature of these investments. Although these are eye-watering sums, the average daily trading value of the NYSE is more than twice the annual sales value of art and antiquities combined, and the figures are opaque.
FMH: What in your view is the social use of art, if any?
GF: Art is an apparatus through which we can hope to interpret, critically engage with the people, places and sensations that demand our attention throughout our lives. It is a departure point and a frame of reference; a sophisticated end unto itself.
FMH: Art has become dramatically more expensive. Is it also more valuable than ever before?
GF: This is an important question and it depends upon your definition of art. Blue-chip modern and contemporary art tirelessly clambers towards an upward price trajectory; however, this also functions as a self-reinforcing marketing mechanism. Auction results rarely face meaningful interrogation by the press; instead, brand-name artists often augment their market position through disproportionate media attention. Stray from the beaten track for a few moments, or auctions, and you will find a surfeit of “undervalued” sectors begging for a couple of minutes to explain. You can still purchase an over-varnished 19th Century pastoral landscape for the price of a weekly Zone 1-6. The concept of value is, again, quite a sticky one, because the term is subjectively administered through social inflections of economics, culture, geography etc.
FMH: There has always been a ‘market’ for art but how has the dynamic of the art market changed? In your opinion when was the turning point?
GF: It seems to me that the Internet has profoundly impact upon the texture and evolution of the art market in a number of ways. I don’t precisely know when the Internet began, however, from a financial perspective I would say that its provision of relatively accessible market information and function as an increasingly reliable transaction conduit, has certainly shaped consumer behaviour.
FMH: Often when people speak of art from the past they do so with rose tinted glasses. In what ways has the art market stayed the same?
GF: I would suggest that it continues to remain, in a very general sense, relatively unregulated; participants continue to extol the virtues of working with unique and tangible objects; specialist advice is highly sought after and the preserve of a select few and, if nothing else, the art market continues to function as a particularly social matrix
FMH: Bids are increasingly coming from all corners of the world. What can you say about that trend? How has globalisation affected the arts in this sense?
GF: It is clear that geographical proximity to the physical auction is becoming less important to the bidding process. Internet bidding is a very practical ‘anonymising’ tool, which affords greater confidence to participants; however, it also appears to have its limitations with regard to the value threshold of bids conducted through online intermediaries. In a general sense, higher value lots tend to attract bids through the phone or from the room, which often achieve priority over those placed online. There are many auction houses that do not accept online bidding, however, but this number is declining, and I think smaller businesses are identifying the clear impact that this distribution channel is having on their sales results. Although condition reports provide important information to potential international bidders, I still believe experiencing an object in the sale room is the best way to mitigate the potential risks associated with purchase.
FMH: How have speculative art investments altered the value and movement of art works?
GF: Perhaps the only way to be certain that a purchaser is speculating on the investment potential of an object, is to gauge the acquisition and sale price differentiation and length of time held in their possession. Even then, though, this term is problematic and subjective, because it implies the purchaser clinically acquired the work with a future distribution channel in mind. One of the key inefficiencies within the art market is liquidity, and in some sense if the purchaser has pre-emptively identified a way to overcome this uncertainty then good luck to them. Sophisticated participants tend to utilise their networks and experience to exploit the asymmetry of market information, and perhaps this lends weight to the assumption that they are in a position to exploit the investment potential of works of art. But the art market is inherently whimsical and particularly sensitive to self-articulated trends, so the creator of the work best remain flavour of the week, otherwise a painful lesson may be learned.
FMH: And how do you see the future direction of art itself?
GF: I hope that creative production will continue to interrogate, challenge, and provide rewarding experiences to those who honestly engage with its diverse output. Some work finds its way into the market apparatus and other work does not; I think it is important for artists to recognise the function of the market and continue to explore ideas and discourses that expand their own personal trajectory.
FMH: Do you have a favourite story about an artwork that has shaped the way you view the art world?
GF: I think the circumstances surrounding the creation, possession, transportation and transaction of Banksy’s Slave Labour piece betrays certain opportunistic tendencies of some art world participants. But, as commonly recounted by those in the trade, “no conflict, no interest!”
Francesca Marcaccio Hitzeman
This post is also available in: Italian