Top art stories from a memorable 2016

What's next for culture after a seismic year?


The year began with Iran and the West tentatively resuming cultural relations after the nuclear deal brokered by US President Barack Obama; the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye was quick to make a splash in Tehran with a solo show. It ended with an exhibition in Berlin of works of Modern art from Tehran being postponed until the New Year. The possibility that the works by Pollock, Rothko and Bacon, among others, bought before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, would one day come to Washington, DC, receded with the election of Donald Trump. He promised voters he would tear up Obama’s deal. 

High-profile cultural diplomacy saw works from another great Modern art collection bought before a revolution returning to Paris. Sergei Shchukin’s Picasso, Manet and Matisse from the Hermitage and Pushkin museums are now on show at Bertrand Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton. If—and it is a big if—fellow billionaire and US President-Elect Trump breaks the deadlock between Russia and the US, cultural exchanges could resume. The Russian president Vladimir Putin and his admiring US opposite number seem keen to do business next year. 

Here are some of the events, anniversaries, artists and institutions that also made headlines in 2016, which will also be remembered as the year the ranks of star architects was reduced by the sudden death of Zaha Hadid, aged 65.

Month by month: the highlights of 2016January

Holocaust survivor’s art last seen in Cuba In 1954, Olga Lengyel (1908-2001), an Auschwitz survivor, shipped her art collection to Havana from Paris. Within five years, she was forced to flee the country when Fidel Castro seized power, leaving works of art by Degas, Van Dyck and others behind to be seized by Castro’s government. Their whereabouts are now unknown, but amid thawing US relations with Cuba, a US foundation is trying to recover the collection.


Auction houses target middle market

Amid global economic uncertainty and a growing confidence in online auctions, Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen told us that the middle market was his priority. The auction house was aiming to attract “the broadest level of interest” and its strategy was to target sales in its “core market”—works priced between $100,000 and $2m—rather than the mega-sales that had prompted recent headlines over the world. 

March  National Gallery begins to look beyond 1900 

It is an understanding that has been in place for 20 years, but the National Gallery and the Tate’s agreed collection cut-off dates for international art—pre-1900 at the National, post-1900 at the Tate—is under review, the National’s director Gabriele Finaldi told us. The year 1900 “seems increasingly remote”, he said, and the gallery should show Picasso, he argued.  


US museums’ $5bn building boom 

Our research revealed that US museums spent close to $5bn on construction between 2007 and 2014, amid a major recession. It was easier to raise funds for buildings rather than art, museum directors said, and new buildings were needed to house growing collections. Without creating additional and attractive new spaces, Neal Benezra, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s director, said, “you are hamstrung” when you try to convince donors that your museum is right for their works. 


Gender equality remains a distant dream  Our study of exhibitions at major institutions and found that only 27% of the 590 major solo shows organised by nearly 70 institutions between 2007 and 2013 were devoted to women. And although initiatives in the UK and US are aiming to level the playing field, the artist Deborah Kass argued that the situation had “got worse since art became an asset class. Board members and trustees should invest in women’s work. Promote it, trade it, manipulate it if you must, in the exact way it is done for men.”

June   The man at the centre of the Cranach mystery

We had an exclusive meeting with the man who had once owned a number of works at the centre of a growing scandal about alleged forgeries, beginning with a work attributed to Cranach and later involving works attributed to Frans Hals and Parmigianino. Giuliano Ruffini insisted that he had never presented a single painting as an Old Master. “I am a collector, not an expert,” he told us.


The art world reels after Brexit 

Amid the turmoil after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, we spoke to a shocked British art world. Matthew Slotover, the co-founder of Frieze, echoed many views when he said he was “sad, angry and ashamed” and that the Leave campaign “preyed on fear, ignorance and prejudice”. But many spoke of a renewed determination to serve international audiences and look outwards.


Viola and the Old Masters in Florence In the year in which he completed his commission for St Paul’s Cathedral, the video artist Bill Viola revealed grand ambitions for Florence. In 2017, he will take over the whole of the Palazzo Strozzi for a major exhibition, and was negotiating with churches and museums to turn a “wish list” of Renaissance paintings, including frescoes by Uccello and Masolino, into loans for the show.


Looters’ field day in Libya Devastating stories regarding Middle Eastern heritage were all too common in 2016. We reflected archaeologists’ concerns that illicit antiquities were “gushing out” of Libya amid the political chaos engulfing the country. The senior Libyan archaeologist Ramadan Shebani told The Art Newspaper that he and other archaeologists were powerless to stop the looting and that “random digging” was going unchecked.


Artists are Trumped The millions raised by artists for Hillary Clinton’s campaign were to no avail—her Republican adversary Donald Trump’s victory stunned the world and dismayed artists. Cornelia Parker summed up the feelings of many when she described herself as being “catatonic with shock”, while Grayson Perry spoke of the “out-of-control, backward-looking masculinity” that had propelled Trump to victory.


Monuments Men return We learned that the British Army could recruit modern-day Monuments Men next year. If the UK finally ratifies the 1954 Hague Convention protecting cultural property during war, its armed forces will need specialists who “secure respect” for heritage. The unit could include around 15 to 20 people, including archaeologists.