Why is the art market like a carousel?

Academic Olav Velthuis says growing a scene is “hard and tedious; but once it gets going it gets easier”


Olav Velthuis, the art market author and academic, has found a nifty metaphor to accompany his latest research into how emerging art markets appear: a fairground carousel. Presenting his findings at the three-day Art Market from a Global Perspective conference that he organised in Amsterdam last week (28-30 January), Velthuis explained that, like the carousel, getting a market going is “a hard and tedious process that needs a lot of energy; but once it gets going it gets easier.”

Looking in general at the markets for art in Brazil, Russia, India and China, Velthuis identified four “rounds” of the carousel that create a market. “Some people may exit after a couple of rounds, others then jump back on, some are attached and committed throughout.”

The first round, he says, starts with the artists who form tightly-knit groups with their own “circuit of commerce”, often including the exchange of their works. These artists manage to make ends meet, without negotiating in formal trade. Velthuis cited examples ranging from the Bombay Art Society that was founded in 1888 and the Stars group that started out in Beijing in 1979.

He described the second round as a “bridging capital” phase—at this point the artists begin to get wider attention through the local connections they began to make in the first round. This is the point at which country-themed exhibitions emerge, introducing the artists to a wider public. Examples here included the curator Jean-Hubert Martin, who organised the first exhibition of the Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, having been introduced to the scene by a friend who was a diplomat in Moscow. At this stage, there is still little formal commerce, though Velthuis identifies “a sense of loss from the first round to the second”.

Come the third round, the local scene has fully emerged and the value of the art begins to be managed and stabilised. Dealers and other intermediaries step in more formally and create a structure around the artists that validates them within an international context. This is, Velthuis says, “a highly isomorphic scene”, meaning that everything begins to look the same, such as the whitewashed galleries showing art that is identifiably “international”. This is “part coerced” by the demands of the art circuit, such as art fairs that require their participants to have a certain type of gallery structure with an approved programme. This is the point at which meaningful sales are made in the primary art market.

It isn’t until the fourth stage, Velthuis says, that collectors play a significant part—until this point it is the artists and the intermediaries that have worked to create their demand. Sometimes, this can mean too many people on the carousel—such as during the contemporary Indian art market boom between 2004 and 2007—meaning some have to drop off.

Velthuis believes however that while there may be outside threats to emerging markets, including the economic challenges faced in Brazil and more recently China, “the carousel takes decades of work to start, it won’t just stop.”

Other speakers and delegates at the conference specialised in fields including cultural economics, cultural sociology and even cultural geography, all of whom zoned in on different aspects of the emerging market carousel. Guest practitioners who spoke included Touria El-Glaoui, the founder of the 1:54 African art fair and the renowned Swiss collector of contemporary Chinese Art, Uli Sigg.