The Market Will Never Catch Up
by Tiana Reid
“The market” is a term that takes on a brutal life of its own: grotesque, ghostly, ghastly. “The market” names an invisible force for which no one seems to bear responsibility, for which no one seems to be accountable. “The market” seems to suggest a process that happens “out there,” a thing that no one can touch, a kind of accidental power that exists on an otherworldly terrain. (The scare quotes perhaps always seem necessary.)
When we say it—the art market—we pretend we know what we are talking about, or at least we assume that we are all talking about the same thing. I am mostly not sure. The market can refer to the economic processes of supply and demand, encompassing sales, fairs, auctions, private collections, public museums, small galleries, established galleries—the list goes on. Perhaps all contemporary neo-liberal markets abandon the human by abandoning the haptic, preferring instead the shiny fetish over the social relation. But the art market is both particularly opaque because private sales data is not publicly available and particularly important because the relationship between auctioneers, dealers and collectors contributes to what gets sanctioned as worth collecting—and therefore what gets remembered in normative art history. One thing I do know for sure: markets are fucked. They often get brought up as a justification for why things—racism, sexism, poverty—stay the same.
“An artist with a market has little need for community,” M. NourbeSe Philip said almost 30 years ago in an essay called “Who’s Listening? Artists, Audiences, and Language,” published in her 1992 book Frontiers: Essays and Writings on Racism and Culture. “The reverse, however, is not as assured—the artist with both community and audience but no market will, undoubtedly, starve, unless someone supports her.” Following the Tobago-born and Toronto-based writer Philip, then, community, audience and market index something of a holy trinity for an artist, providing her material sustenance, professional opportunity and emotional care. Even years ago, in 1992, Philip gendered the artist through the pronoun “she,” staggering the masculine subject that (still) tends to define most art markets. In the time since, the options ought to have become more multifarious, and yet, to either get rich or die trying seem to still be the predominant two.
Yes, an artist’s relationship to the market can mean the difference between eating and not eating, but if you’re already hot, the difference might be a few million dollars. In May of last year, for instance, music mogul Sean Combs bought Past Times (1997) by Alabama-born artist Kerry James Marshall for US$21.1 million, which broke the record for the highest price of work sold by a living Black American artist. This is, mind you, a mere fraction of what is considered the highest price ever paid for a living artist: Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) sold for $91.1 million in May of this year. The auction block is not a metaphor. Along with big names like Kehin de Wiley and Mickalene Thomas, Marshall is among a number of Black artists drawing high sale prices. This heat wave is occurring in conjunction with a watershed of institutional supports. You might cite the popular Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which travelled to New York City, Los Angeles and London and will be on view in San Francisco in November. Another example might be Mark Bradford representing the United States
at the 2017 Venice Biennale. When in 2017 Barack Obama commissioned Wiley and Michelle Obama commissioned Amy Sherald to paint their portraits for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, it was one of those obnoxiously remarkable “firsts.” This year, that same Sherald painting appeared along side works by Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Titus Kaphar, Juliana Huxtable and others in Spike Lee’s horrendous television series She’s Gotta Have It.
The industry is at a tipping point, at least on the surface, at least in the starry smog of representational politics where only a select few receive institutional and financial support. The desire for positive racial representation, so present in the ’80s culture war, has spilled over into the 21st century, and even as the limits of representation have made themselves clear, especially after the Obama presidency, we can’t seem to let go. All of these confluent market forces signal visibility, recognition and ultimately, possibly, inclusion. But is that all we want? Who are we, anyway?
In Canada, there is something of a trickle-down in this increased attraction to Black artists. Yet, the Canadian art market clearly lags behind, especially in terms of ascribing monetary value to artists’ work on the global art market. Pamela Edmonds, recently appointed senior curator of the McMaster Museum of Art, mentioned the recent Toronto exhibitions by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Theaster Gates and Thomas at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), and Glenn Ligon at the Power Plant. “The work of ‘international’ Black artists continues to take precedence over those living and working within this country, particularly evidenced by the lack of solo exhibitions by Canadian artists,” she told me over email.
Because the market fetishizes visibility, recognition and inclusion, it also ostensibly erases the class, gender and geographical differences among Black artists. Until Sandra Brewster’s summer
2019 exhibition Blur, Thomas was only the second Black woman artist, after Wangechi Mutu, to have a solo exhibition at the AGO, as noted in Connor Garel’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great
Black Canadian Women Artists?” Both are not Canadian and both are highly successful internationally recognized artists already. Only well-established, popular artists have a fighting chance at institutional recognition. You have to make it before you make it.
The history of Canada’s discourse of multiculturalism often means that cultural institutions are talking the talk only to appear inclusive and diverse—without investing significant resources to enable Black artists to survive. “It seems that Black Canadian artists are engaged more for supplementary programming—talks, panels, etc.—but not in presenting their work outside of group shows,” Edmonds said. Canada has long relied on its nationalist pomp and circumstance, its reputation of being liberal and diverse for a kind of discursive leg up in situations that merit or require financial contribution. This might partially explain why representation for Black Canadian artists seems to be increasing in certain spaces (public programming, education, outreach, media discussions, non-collecting institutions) but not necessarily in others (permanent collections, grants, funding, senior institutional positions). The language of diversity falls flat on its face.
“The market for and the knowledge about Black Canadian art is just really not there, and it’s funny because everything is just so blackity-black all of a sudden on the art market,” Dr. Kenneth Montague, dentist and founder of the non-profit organization Wedge Curatorial Projects, a platform that promotes emerging Black Canadian artists, told me. “It’s very strange to be waving the flag for something for so long and then finally seeing the market coming around—and I’m talking generally about interest in Black artists.”
What both Edmonds and Montague are getting after is the mere lip service that is paid to Black Canadian artists. Montague is one of the country’s most prominent collectors of Black art and Black Canadian art. He’s been collecting for over 20 years, but save for an experience as a member of the Tate Modern’s Africa acquisitions committee where he met other Black collectors from other parts of the world, he has felt like an island. Of course, there are other Canadian collectors who are interested in Black art, though mainly Black American art, and none of the major collectors besides Montague are
Black themselves. As a Black collector in a very white art world, he is often described in Canadian media as being in a league of his own, but he would love nothing else than to see more Black collectors. “I’m trying to encourage and nurture collectors coming out of the Black community,” he told me over the phone. “I feel like there are, particularly in the metropolitan areas of Canada like Toronto, enough Black folks that have the income and now the interest in collecting art.”
It feels strange, then, that the holy trinity that Philip described—community, market, audience—seems to exist, and yet, frankly, we are going in circles. It is in this sense that this essay attempts to capture a kind of loss.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done around education, spreading knowledge, museum shows and more scholarship so that people recognize the importance of the work of Black artists in Canada and then the art market will follow,” Montague said. But when? And at what cost? And what exactly are we waiting for? Another record-breaking sale?
Philip is instructive here. “The market, with its forces, can be a positive factor provided it underpins the forces created by audience and community,” she writes in Frontiers. “The market becomes a negative force when it replaces or obliterates audience and community or, even more dangerously, determines ‘our way of seeing things’ and replaces the ‘process of community: the sharing of common meanings, and thence common activities and purposes’ with the process of commodification.” The
market risks giving way to this negative force, which names a kind of anti-social energy that is tied to the unequivocal fact that art is a commodity.
The art market thrives on newness, so Montague thinks it may only be a matter of time before Black Canadian art catches fire. But will it burn? “As a collector, I’m thrilled that other people are seeing the beauty, the value, the importance of [Black] Canadian art but I am ultimately concerned that it’s not just an art-market moment,” he told me. “I’m much more interested in the long view, which for me is getting those artists into institutions, into public and major private collections, into the story, the fabric of contemporary art.”
Not keen to wait for recognition from mainstream and predominantly white institutions, many artists are approaching these issues through establishing and sustaining a collective model. Collectives have been cropping up in recent years in what could be seen as an effort not only to evade the market
as an imperative, but also to challenge ownership itself, a concept shaped by the intersections of settler colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade and capitalism, which gave us modernity. These processes, often reduced to “-isms,” are the conditions under which we live. These are the market forces. But they are also, importantly, the forces that brought us the very idea of art as we know it: art sanctioned by the institution, by the museum, by grants, by the government.
Some try to get around it, or at least say “fuck it.” In Toronto, the Black Artists Union (BAU) is a collective that focuses on developing, connecting and representing artists of the African diaspora. Members include Oreka James, Curtia Wright, Esmaa Mohamoud, Timothy Yanick Hunter, Destiny Grimm, Aaron Jones and others. Working to dismantle the hegemony of the solo artist, collectives destabilize the distinction between auteur and audience, showing work where their friends can come and hang. If they don’t get the support within the white walls of the white gallery, they go and make the support themselves. It’s labour.
At the end of 2018, BAU’s group exhibition Burnt Umber, at the Margin of Eras Gallery in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood (with work by Wright, Grimm, Ekow Stone, Jemini Baptiste, James, Phillip Saunders, Hunter and Sylvia Limbana), directly attempted to address the exclusionary practices and individuating dogmas of the Canadian art scene. One of the featured artists, Wright, told me that she is “constantly questioning where [her] work fits within the Canadian art market” but that with BAU, she found support, group critique and a larger audience.
Collectives bubble up through intimate relationships and conjure deep forms of affiliation. As art historian Kellie Jones writes in the introduction to her book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art, “art is not only part of history—even a living history—it is part of and makes community, it is part of and makes family.” These groups, and groups like it, including the now defunct General Idea and the queer Caribbean diasporic collective RAGGA, who did a group show at Mercer Union in Summer 2018, experiment with making art and making art together. They eschew the demand to perform for white enjoyment. They refuse the strictures of a certain type of visibility. They make plans. They do their thing. They find refuge. They imagine another world. In other words, collectives expose the gap between art and labour, bringing “the market” as thick and elastic phraseology back to the ground. Something we can touch. Something historicized and politicized. Something local.
Black American artists—visual artists as well as musicians and performers—know how the incorporation (or assimilation) of Black art into the mainstream market produces a kind of irony: cultural objects being applauded while violent social and economic inequalities persist. Is that something that Black Canadian artists want to replicate or refuse? It is clear that the United States is often an implicit or explicit backdrop to a Canadian artist’s viability and security, indexing cultural and economic authority. Wright put her experience this way: “In Canada we have a tendency to focus our attention on what is happening elsewhere, which stifles creativity in our own backyard and creates pressure on artists, specifically Black artists, to become the best new Black artist on the scene. It pushes a very individualistic ideology instead of creating room for artists to work collectively.”
The market, its home in corporate financing, has its own desires that can co-opt our own, can prevent us from imagining a thousand new ensembles, ways of archiving, showing and making art. And yet even communal practice is not stable. It is a horizon. It is here and yet it might always escape us. If we are lucky, the market will never catch up.