A few days ago, I witnessed the Jeff Koons exhibition setting up at Palazzo Strozzi, open to the public since last Saturday. In addition to the unique beauty of the works, what is striking is the economic dimension of an exhibition as necessary. Because Koons, for his extraordinary stature, for his disruptive provocations, allows us to intuit reflections concerning a world of art, museums, collectors, art dealers, radically changed compared to only 20 years ago, enlarged to the point to become the object of attention of investment banks, such as UBS, to name one. I followed the installation because for some years now, in the American tradition of giving back, I have been helping the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation in New York. So I saw the organizational efforts: moving the spectacular 5-ton Blue Monkey in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi with a crane or the two-tone red “balloon” dog, full of colors and optimism: an important exhibition also for the positive message that derives from it.
The economic setup in an average year is simple. It relies on public support for 22% of the total with a contribution of 1.7 million euros. The private sector contributes 2.9 million euros, and another 2.9 million euros come from ticket sales, for a total of 7.5 million euros. In addition to this public-private approach, the first to be adopted in Italy, impact the territory. Independent studies cited by president Giuseppe Morbidelli and director Arturo Galansino have shown that every euro invested in an exhibition brings 7 euros to the region in terms of tourist expenses by visitors who will happen in the case of Koons, will go to Florence only to visit the exhibition.
But let’s go back to another of the reflections that can be deduced from the view of this exhibition. A global artist like Koons also deserves to be seen because he has symbolically been a detonator for the combustion between the extraordinary wealth growth of the last 20 years and art galleries that have become increasingly global, the Zwirners, the Pace, the Gagosian’s. to name a few. These galleries often set up their exhibitions at costs that are off-limits to a museum. And they have contributed to market growth in parts of the world where little was sold up to 15 years old.
The market in the year of the virus
Thanks to these dynamics, the official art market in 2020, the year of the virus, had a turnover of 50.1 billion dollars a year, a spectacular figure, even if 20% lower than the year earlier, $ 64.1 billion in 2019. With Covid, auction sales or through dealers suffered greatly, 61% of 365 global art fairs in 2020 were canceled, and 37% tried to reorganize with auction sales or online. The result? As for any sector, digital sales have not only increased, but in the case of the art market, they have even doubled compared to 2019 with a volume of 12.4 billion dollars, going from 9% of total sales to 25% of the market in 2020.
In addition to the artist and the art dealer, the third element of the equation fits into this growth dynamic of the art market: the collector, capable of altering the equilibrium on which the Western cultural model has always rested. Collectors have acquired such a vastness of works in their deposits that, at a certain point, they decide to build their exhibition center instead of giving the collection to a museum, as was a tradition in the past. Cases abound in both Europe and America: Eli Broad, one of the most prominent American collectors, had pledged – as a tradition – his 2,000 works as a donation to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, his city. He even contributed to building a wing in his name in the museum. Then he suddenly changed his mind, and in 2015 at the cost of 140 million dollars, he inaugurated The Broad, a new museum of contemporary art right in front of the Moca. In 2008 he also financed the “Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum” in East Lansing, at the University of Michigan, where he graduated in the early 1950s.
Ronald and Leonard Lauder made different decisions: Leonard, following tradition, donated his Cubist collection worth 1.7 billion dollars to the Metropolitan Museum, while his brother Ronald built the Neue Gallery several years ago. In New York, to which he conferred his Klimt collection. Francois Pinault did the same in Paris after taking over Palazzo Grassi in Venice years ago; twenty years after the announcement, he inaugurated the Bourse de Commerce in Paris to exhibit his ten thousand works. To keep critical private collections together and make them available to the public or bring one of the most important collections in the world closer to the students of the public university of Michigan is admirable. But as a whole, the phenomenon risks weakening museums and institutions, which have to renounce significant donations just as extensive private art galleries are getting stronger. The consequence is simple but very risky: weaker museums could succumb to the persuasive power of a gallery’s funding of an exhibition.
What to expect from 2021
But let’s go back to the prospects for 2021. An encouraging sign came from the sale of “The Journey of Humanities” by Sacha Jafri, the most significant work globally, capable of covering four basketball courts, sold at an auction in Dubai for 62 Million dollars. You may also have heard of the sale of “Everyday: the First 5000 Days”, a digital painting that collects 5,000 digital photographs, a unique piece sold for 69.3 million dollars, the most expensive digital work ever sold so far. Previous record sales were David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist,” sold to a private individual for 90.3 million dollars, immediately beaten by Koons’ “Hare,” sold for 91 million dollars. It is not as significant as other Koons sculptures but is considered an iconic and symbolic piece of his, the first of the famous inflatable steel balloons. Koons is thus the world record holder for the most expensive sale by a living artist. One more reason to see his work at Palazzo Strozzi. One of them is the beautiful record hare, exhibited in this stimulating and enveloping exhibition on many different levels.