Prices aren't the only thing different about the art on offer here at Art Basel Miami Beach this year: tough economic conditions have also influenced what many dealers have brought and what many collectors are buying. Eventually, the times may also affect what art is made.
In a word—or a few—big, glitzy, high-cost art is out, replaced by smaller, less showy works that don't require artists or dealers to take out a mortgage to produce, or collectors to build showcase museums to display their treasures.
"The art here is more conservative, more accessible and more residential-compatible," says Ann Richards Nitze, who both collects and guides other collectors. Advisor Todd Levin agrees: "That whole big 'I'm going to build a museum, here's the huge coffee-table book' thing has gone 'poof!' So all those huge installations have disappeared from the fair. Now people are returning to cocooning, so they want domestic-size art that they can live with." Diamond-dusted works seem to be gone, too, also a casualty of the times. The tone is simply different this year.
Some long-time collectors welcome the trend as good not only for their budgets but also for artists, especially those who've struggled to get noticed in the money-driven market of the past several years. Now people may look for these kinds of artists—the young or overlooked. "I've heard collectors saying: 'I'm going back to my roots of collecting younger artists'," says Andrea Rosen (C15).
In fact, this is the kind of market that collectors such as Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, says she likes. "The froth is gone. There'll be less blingy art," she says. "The market is better for selling less-well-known but important artists like Lynda Benglis. She's finally coming into her own.
"I've sold a lot of Lynda Benglis works from the 1970s to significant collections and institutions, and she's not the only one in this category," Ms Rosen adds.
Something similar happened the last time the art market plunged. After the 1991 decline, according to Charles Moffatt, a senior vice president at Sotheby's, "people looked seriously at art that they weren't looking at seriously before, because suddenly things that were purchased casually became serious purchases." This, he continues, "created a more pluralistic market, stylistically. There was more word-based art, figurative art, photography and so on. Everyone's vision broadened because of the lower price points." Moffatt says that artists like Cindy Sherman benefited—her work grew in prestige and her prices began to rise steadily.
Examples at ABMB could include Isca Greenfield-Sanders, a 30-year-old painter represented by Berggruen Gallery (J4), who makes somewhat representational works from vintage photographs she buys at garage sales. "We've had two exhibitions for her, and we sell every work we get," says Gretchen Berggruen. Lighthouse, 2008 (shown above), sold for around $50,000 in the first hour of the fair. Berggruen puts Christopher Brown, who also paints in an "abstracted representational and figurative" style, in the same category, and bets that his piece Windward, 2008, priced at $80,000, will also sell.
"We work with people who are looking for artists that were never part of the super-inflated market, where there's a good record of exhibitions," says Berggruen. "There are more people like that now."
It's not just taste that is changing what's available. In part, the big installations have declined in number, and are likely to drop further, because they require financing, often from the artist's dealer. "It's not financially prudent to fund something for millions of dollars," says Tim Poe, of Blum & Poe (C17). Some dealers—like James Cohan (C8)—say they'll continue to try to help their artists. "When given the opportunity to fund an important work, it's impossible to say no," Cohan says. But overall, says Barbara Gladstone (E11): "There won't be as many things that cost a ton of money to make."
Gladstone says that the economy alone won't change the art of the times, but she adds that the recent US election may be an influence. "I'd look for something more political and soulful from young artists," she says. "It's also about objects and change and belief again, instead of cynicism."
So while it may be just spin, maybe the drop in prices will be a tonic for art, if not for galleries. The worst of times could bring the best of times.