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The business of art

Every month, the MD of Aspire Art Auctions, Ruarc Peffers, contributes a column on the business of collecting and investing in art. In this inaugural column, he focuses on the realities of art as a global business, and how it can make a difference to a country’s self-image and economic well-being.

Art is often romanticised as a pursuit for dreamers and bohemians far removed from the socio-economic realities of everyday life. Yet art is a booming global business, offering employment to many in different parts of the industry.

business of art aspire
Children under Apartheid, Dumile Feni, 1987

Like any other business, the art industry is affected by the macroeconomic environment; subject to inflation, price levels, rates of growth, national income, GDP etc. Trade in art itself is very much fueled by the global socio-political and economic environment, but has traditionally been viewed, at least from a public sector point of view, as a non-essential investment, and therefore more dispensable in tougher times from an investment point of view.
     However, savvy art collectors don’t think this way – and they are proven right when the global art trade has been outperforming many more conventional asset classes. From a national perspective, investment in art is also about heritage and cultural value – if we understand that our national artistic or cultural identity is a crucial national resource.
     With the global art sector currently worth around $50bn, and earning well over R1bn per annum in South Africa alone, there are real financial stakes in understanding what to invest in and how to collect art that will appreciate in value over time.
     More than this, art also serves aspirational and higher social goals. This is reflected in the values currently attracted by individual works, and how, for example, the collectability of works by previously under-represented black artists, can be a very important element of the self-image of a country.
     Aspire has recently sold two standout works in this regard: Dumile Feni’s Children Under Apartheid (1987), a work repatriated from New York City, sold in South Africa for over R1m. And Sydney Kumalo’s Mythological Rider (1970), sold for almost R2m, and significantly, was bought by a black collector. These results are indicative of significant monetary, but also symbolic value – helping address the problems of social cohesion and identity from which South Africa suffers.

business of art aspire
Mythological Rider, Sydney Kumalo, 1970

     Further down the art business value chain, the field offers an exemplary SME model for growth and entrepreneurship, incorporating traditional crafts, heritage, art studios, foundries and the other industries enabled by the art business (such as the Workhorse Bronze Foundry, Artist Proof Studios, Assemblage, curating, design, printing and publishing studios, as well as many art and craft collectives). The art business consequently helps solve the challenge of access to the economy, in the process addressing employment, nation-building and entrepreneurship. For example, there are various lower- to middle-income households that make some form of living from art, and regenerate different areas of the city in the process, in places like Ellis House, August House and Victoria Yards.
     From Aspire’s business point of view, a key challenge is sustainability in the industry. Our Artist’s Resale Rights royalty programme helps the artist’s community sustain itself, while foregrounding the role that previously under-represented artists have played in the country’s cultural economy.
     Big business can thus appreciate that art investment is not a luxury add-on, but a valid asset class. The Artprice Global Index has tracked the auction industry for 20 years as a financial instrument, and it has over that time outperformed both the FTSE and CAC, and is comparable to returns from many other traditional financial instruments and indices.
     Government also needs to understand this investment value in order to deal with the art business not as an optional investment area for ‘handout’ type programmes, but as a key economic field for investment and return – think of the value the Venice Biennale adds to Venetian GDP, Art Basel for Switzerland, or Documenta for Kassel, Germany.
     There are many areas of the art industry in which young business professionals can invest and become involved, especially in areas like arts administration, dealing or investing in art funds or indices. The art business is readily internationalised, with an extensive global network, and has many related satellite fields – cultural agencies, heritage resources, galleries, dealers, and museums, either privately or publicly owned. This asset class is not as susceptible to the vicissitudes of politics, social conditions and financial environments as other economic and investment areas, but has been on an upward trajectory for some years. It’s an area that rewards investigation and involvement.

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