Spain's art world
was whiplashed by the country's bubbly rise and quick collapse. Signs of the
trauma linger at this year's ARCOmadrid art fair.
FORTUNE -- At this
year's 33rd edition of Spain's ARCOmadrid contemporary art fair, it was pretty
easy to tell where you stood in the art world hierarchy.
If you visited over
the weekend, you were one of a diminished group of 100,000 or so civilians who
forked out between 20 and 40 euros ($27.50 and $55) to bask in art that ran
from canonized names like photorealist painter Richard Estes to up-and-comers
like Mexican installation artist Héctor Zamora. But if you attended on
Wednesday or Thursday, you were likely one of the 400 or so rich folks and art
institution bigwigs who'd been invited to Spain, your trip paid in full, in the
hopes that you might drop some serious dough on art.
All major art fairs
have VIP programs designed to attract big spenders. But ARCO's dedication of
20% of its 4.5 million euro budget to inviting buyers and promoting the fair
overseas shows how Spain's economic crisis -- now more than five years old --
has forced the fair to turn its attention from national museums and modest local
buyers to big international collectors.
"In the years
before the crisis, there were a lot of sales to domestic institutions. This has
disappeared, and now there are more sales to foreign collectors," said
Carlos Urroz, ARCO's director since 2010.
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Spain's art world
was whiplashed by the country's bubbly rise and quick collapse. The Spanish art
market grew 200% between 2002 and 2007, from 160 million to 480 million euros,
only to crash to 271 million euros in 2009, according to a study led by Clare
McAndrew, founder of research firm Arts Economics, for Barcelona's Arte y
Mecenazgo foundation. The market has recovered only slightly since, hurt in
part by the government's increase of its VAT (sales tax) on art works from 18%
to 21% in 2012 (up from 16% in 2010).
very badly compared to pre-crisis," said Idoia Fernández, sitting in the
white ARCO cube of Madrid's Galería Nieves Fernández, where she is the
director. "Last year, if it weren't for foreigners, ARCO would have been a
disaster. We sold only one piece to a Spanish collector last year at ARCO, for
It's hard to know
how a fair is doing, as many are loath to divulge overall sales numbers. Urroz
couches his response in gallery "satisfaction."
"We don't have
sales figures," he said. "We know the level of satisfaction of the
galleries, and we are confident this year will be better."
What numbers are
available aren't good. In 2003 and 2004, ARCO's visitor numbers hit a high of
200,000 people annually, but this number fell to 127,500 in 2012 and an
estimated 100,000 this year. And big Spanish institutional buyers -- especially
ones dependent on government support -- have cut their spending. Take the Museo
Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which trimmed its ARCO budget from 927,762
euros in 2010 to 700,000 euros in 2012, 318,999 euros in 2013, and 204,625
euros this year.
Which brings us back
to the international collectors. With local money scarce, ARCO has flown in
international collectors and added foreign galleries from Latin America to show
those collectors pieces they wouldn't see elsewhere.
When I walked
through ARCO a few hours after it opened on Wednesday, the first collector and
industry day, the fair's redefinition appeared to be working. The VAT had been
dropped to about 15.5%, and the halls were full of elder gentlemen in expensive
casual wear, women of a certain age who'd undergone extreme plastic surgery,
and young guys with tight pants and waxed moustaches.
has run the fair, it's made an enormous step forward. It has become so
international. Not just European collectors, but ones from Latin America and
the U.S.," said Thomas Krinzinger of Austria's Galerie Krinzinger, who
noted that he'd already sold two pieces for between 30,000 and 50,000 euros.
And it seemed that
even some wealthy Spanish buyers had returned.
Marcia Gail Levine,
special projects director at New York's Marlborough Gallery, said that the
gallery had already sold four pieces by Juan Genovés for around 100,000 euros
and two by Manolo Valdés for some 200,000 euros to Spanish and American
collectors. "Even though there was a crisis, there are certain artists we
have that people in Spain were buying. We weren't hit that bad," she said.
To drive home Marlborough's immunity to Spanish flu, gallery president Pierre
Levai added that ARCO's generally bad 2012 was an "exceptionally
good" year for Marlborough.
To be sure, the
international rich have only grown richer in the post-crisis years, and
Marlborough is a high-end giant that "virtually invented the modern art
market," according to The Observer. The story is not the same for the
middle class of the art world, which, just like the middle class elsewhere, has
professionals and the rich come the first days to make big buys. If you have 50
million euros and it goes to 40 million, it doesn't change anything. But on the
weekend, the people pay 4,000 to 5,000 euros to buy something. That wave is
more affected by the crisis," said Juan Ignacio García Velilla, director
of the Altxerri gallery in San Sebastián, Spain.
Idoia Fernández of
Galería Nieves Fernández, for one, was saddened by the disappearance of the
middle-class buyers who used to buy art at the fair on weekends.
"The market of
younger professionals who would buy art instead of a 800 euro TV has
disappeared," said Fernández, who had sold three pieces valued between
2,000 and 14,000 euros when we talked the first day. "We'd extended the
market to them in Spain, but it's disappeared. Which is a shame. We had made
buying art much more normal."
Still, things seemed
a little brighter, she said. "This year, we've already sold two pieces to
Spanish collectors," she said with a laugh. "So we've doubled our Spanish