The market for contemporary art globally is growing. The traditional strength of the art market in South Africa has been in historic and modern painting and sculpture, roughly from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century.
Established markets for collectors have grown up around artists like Irma Stern, Maggie Laubser and J.H. Pierneef, whose works trade reliably on both the local auction market and internationally.
But these established cornerstones of the collectable art market are often out of reach for newer and younger collectors. In addition, the amount of works by these high-end artists that are available in today’s auction market is becoming less and less.
In the global market too this phenomenon can be seen in the increasing paucity of Old Masters available at auction – symbolised by the sale to a private collector last year of the so-called ‘Last Leonardo’ for over $450 million. Perhaps in response to these market constraints for collectors, interest in the contemporary art market is growing.
The ArtPrice Index for contemporary art reports that the market grew 14% globally through the first half of 2017, relative to the previous year. This represents a growth in global auction turnover for the year to June 2017 to $1.6 billion, equating to an increase in the average price per work to $27 500.
In terms of the market share of the segment, in the year 2000, contemporary art accounted for 3% of global Fine Art auction turnover; 18 years later it now generates 15%. But despite the gains in collecting importance that contemporary art is making, it remains a somewhat skewed and concentrated market. Just three countries – the USA, China and the UK – have 89.4% of the market.
By contrast, SA has only 0.3% market share, but many of the top-selling contemporary artists from Africa are South African. In fact, the local market is demonstrating the same appetite for growth as the global one, if recent results on contemporary auctions are any guide. Aspire’s recent sales have seen world record and South African record prices fetched for work by artists as diverse as Louis Maqhubela, Dumile Feni, William Kentridge, Angus Taylor and Willem Boshoff. A newer market is also opening up for cutting edge contemporary work by younger artists such as Athi-Patra Ruga and Mohau Modisakeng. Their presence and performance on Aspire’s recent Cape Town sale bears out the perception of a bullish market for contemporary work.
While the contemporary sphere continues to expand globally, the expansion of a collector base also requires infrastructural support from other areas than just the primary and secondary art markets themselves. Two of the most important factors in opening up new audiences to a passion for collecting art are education and exposure. While younger and newer collectors know what they like, the relative lack of reviews and analysis of trends and individual artists and exhibitions in the South African market makes things more difficult for artist and collector alike.
Art criticism in the mainstream was usually conducted by the established press, but with the gradual whittling away of this forum from daily and weekend newspapers, exposure to opinions and research about art has become more and more specialised and rarefied. Other institutions have stepped into the breach. Most of South Africa’s larger public and private art institutions run media, publicity and outreach programmes designed to educate and expose their collections to the public. The primary and secondary markets, in the form of art galleries, dealers and auction houses, have also expanded their educational and information marketing services to fill the gap. This includes in depth marketing catalogues of work – for which Aspire has become justly respected – and information-rich advertising and marketing campaigns. While much contemporary art continues to be neglected by mainstream cultural outlets, it is still finding a way to thrive in a constrained climate, and to grow its investment and collector base.