Walk through contemporary art Walk through contemporary art

Familiar with the opaque world of galleries, Alain Quemin reveals its diffuse norms and tacit codes, but remains elliptical regarding the constitution of artistic values ​​on the art market.

The art market arouses a lot of fantasies and the record prices that certain works reach at auction are among the rare situations where contemporary art is discussed beyond the restricted circles of amateurs and professionals, rarely to its advantage. These large public sales are, however, not very representative of the contemporary art market, which makes detailed surveys like the one proposed by Alain Quemin all the more useful. Numerous publications have taken an interest in the art market in recent years, whether from a socio-economic angle (such as the work of Olav Velthuis on the setting of the price of works of art) or a historical one (for example Julie Verlaine's research on art galleries). Parisians). The pioneer of the sociology of the art market in France was Raymonde Moulin, under whose direction Quemin carried out his doctoral thesis and whose influence he claims from the first lines of his new work.

The instructive investigation of a participant observer

While his previous publications relied mainly on important statistical data which do not completely disappear here, as we will see, Quemin has chosen to favor in this book a ethnographic field observation (p. 21). For this he can rely on his long association with the world of galleries, as a contributor to the Arts Journal for more than ten years in particular. This familiarity with the world of art, quite rare among academics, is welcome as contemporary art is an exclusive cultural field, requiring mastery of diffuse norms and tacit codes to be understood (by the public as well as by the researcher). It is particularly useful for analyzing the life of galleries: their operation is in fact surrounded by great opacity, both because they tend to deny their commercial character, in order to preserve the image of a disinterested commitment to art, and because their economy, based on transactions with large fortunes (sometimes for unspeakable motives), require extreme discretion.

Based on fluid writing, which avoids excessive jargon, this approach gives the work a very lively, sometimes amusing character, thanks to the numerous quotes that the author collected during informal interviews with gallery owners, collectors, art advisors, etc. These give a good overview of the concerns and the language in force in this social microcosm. They also provide access to otherwise unobtainable information on the sales techniques of gallery owners, the discounts they are willing to grant, the uncertain profits they make from international fairs, their support on external patrons (external sponsors). backers which we usually prefer to keep hidden), etc. so much instructive information on an economic activity about which it is very difficult to establish even the slightest reliable figure.

The first of three parts of the proposed work a spatial approach to contemporary art galleriesdeclines on three scales: that of the physical space of the gallery, firstly, called into question in recent years due to the economic difficulties encountered by intermediate galleries; that of the urban space then, with a long presentation of the districts where the galleries are located in Paris, New York, London and Berlin; that of the international gallery field, finally, which is structured around contemporary art fairs, of growing number and importance.

The second part addresses the job of gallery owner by highlighting the diversity and richness of the social operations surrounding a sale. Far from being a pure monetary transaction, it involves long-term relationships, the changing balance of power, between gallery owners, artists and collectors. The latter are linked to the galleries by financial advantages, promotional operations, but also by the strength offriendship nourished by numerous social and festive meetings where alcohol often acts as a facilitator of relationships and sales. Quemin refers here to the famous analyzes of Marcel Mauss on the gift and counter-gift, but also to more recent work in the sociology of emotions. A chapter is then devoted to the inexorable rise of mga-galleries (Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth or David Zwirner). These concentrate the most renowned artists and financial flows, relying on vast networks of galleries around the world, each of which radiates from a flagship with almost musical dimensions, located in the Chelsea New York district.

A socio-economic analysis with little distance

The qualities of Quemin's book are also its limitations. The long transcriptions of his exchanges with various actors in the art world sometimes give it a fairly anecdotal character and bring it closer to a journalistic investigation. This is primarily due to his position, that of an observer admitted to the art world as a journalist. Many pages are thus devoted to current events (such opening, such moving, such closing of a gallery) whose interest, already limited today for those who are not of this world, will diminish with time.

Above all, this approach sometimes prevents critical distancing, undoubtedly made difficult by the proximity to the investigators. The chapter on the role of friendship in sales of works, for example, takes the promotional speeches and self-enhancing self-representations of dealers and collectors a little too literally. This lack of distance perhaps also explains certain inadequacies in the economic analysis of the art market. The study of the motivations of collectors thus completely eliminates the logic of speculation and/or financial investment, the search for tax optimization and the facts of money laundering, on which a large part of the gallery economy is based. Certainly, the figures on these phenomena are almost non-existent and it is difficult to get art market players to speak on these subjects. But it is strange to emphasize so much (and rightly so) the opacity of the gallery world, without mentioning these factors which largely explain it.

We can also regret that the work, focused mainly on the activity of gallery owners, leaves little room for studying the profile of collectors. This would undoubtedly have allowed a better socio-economic contextualization of the development of the art market and in particular of these mega-galleries placed at the heart of the work. Their remarkable rise, which has transformed the art world over the last three or four decades, is hardly explained. To do this, it would have been necessary to place it in the (well-documented) context of a strong increase in inequalities and therefore of the very high fortunes from which the great collectors of contemporary art are recruited and of a neoliberal globalization which facilitates the circulation of this capital and encourages their investment in assets that are poorly taxed and poorly controlled, such as works of art.

The prize list, an ill-suited instrument for a sociology of artistic values

The return of statistical tools in the last part of the work, to constitute a list of best international (then French) galleries, encountered new problems. The scientific interest of such a ranking seems at first poorly established. By extending his criticism of the methodology (or lack of methodology) of other contemporary art awards (such as the Power 100 dArt Review), the author could have questioned the very relevance of such classifications, which the specialist press is fond of, but for which it is difficult to see what knowledge they produce. In any case, they cannot deliver what the subtitle of the work promises, namely an analysis of the market structure. Frequent repetition of vocabulary structural typical of Bourdieu is not in fact accompanied by the associated statistical methodology (the geometric analysis of data), which would nevertheless have offered a more complex and nuanced image of the international field of contemporary art galleries.

A typology would have already made it possible, compared to a prize list, to diversify the classification and differentiation criteria. Because the data retained, the calculation methods and perhaps also the author's frequentation habits lead him to concentrate on mega-galleries and high of the art market, neglecting the role of small and medium-sized galleries. However, he rightly emphasizes that this market takes the form of a fringe oligopoly, a characteristic structure of the economy of cultural goods, in which a handful of large companies concentrate the majority of revenues, while a myriad of small players gravitate around and often assume, with significant financial risks, the role of talent discoverers. We therefore regret the absence of a detailed analysis of the relationships between these different types of galleries and the complex distribution of the power to prescribe artistic values ​​within them.

On the other hand, the prize list proposed by the author is based on the average of the ranking by Artfacts, a vast and sometimes questionable online database of the ten best artists (living or dead) represented by each gallery. This results in an overvaluation of the position of galleries well endowed with historical artists, recognized for a long time, and an underestimation of galleries more oriented towards current artistic events. The surprisingly high position of the Konrad Fischer gallery, for example, can be explained by the fact that it has been linked since its creation to the German artistic scene of the 1960s and 1970s, from which some of the most valued artists today come. On the other hand, it had only a weak influence on subsequent artistic production. It would have been useful, to limit this defect, to at least break down this list of prizes by generation of artists. Such a bias, hampering a ranking of art galleries contemporaryclearly indicates the need to control and correct statistical methods through qualitative analyses, a fortiori in artistic fields where value, very singular, subject to contrary evaluations and criteria, is difficult to measure and compare.

In general, we can regret that the work does not push further the investigation into the constitution of artistic values ​​on the art market, into the specific and variable role of galleries in the formation of artists' careers or even into the articulation of the prescriptive power of galleries with that of museums and public exhibition spaces. The influence of the latter, in particular, is little discussed, even though the author indicates several times, in the wake of Moulin, that they remain a point of reference in artistic promotion operations, including for mega-galleries. The prize list, again, seems an ill-suited method to demonstrate that the value of art is built through the articulation of the market and the museum (p. 410). The ethnographic approach presented at the beginning of the book could have made it possible, in the absence of satisfactory quantitative data, to analyze the way in which the discourses and actions of commercial and institutional actors contribute to constructing the value of works and artists.

Despite these limitations, partly linked to the very real difficulties obtaining valid empirical data on a very secret economy, Alain Quemin's work presents an instructive overview of gallery life, based on first-hand knowledge of this world and its actors. If it undoubtedly offers less than what it promises, it nevertheless constitutes a useful introduction to the contemporary art market, with the merit, in particular, of giving numerous details on the concrete activities of which it is composed.