Brazilians put a brake on art buying at SP Arte

Local collectors were scarce as the country heads into a deep recession

The moderate sales seen at this year’s São Paulo art fair SP Arte do not bode well for the country’s art market, as it heads into a deep recession that shows no sign of ending soon. More has been written about the Brazilian political crisis than has been written about its economic sitatution, but the country’s GDP shrank 3.8% in 2015, its worst drop in 25 years. The effects of this have yet to be seen but at the end of February, Moody’s cut the country’s sovereign rating to junk level, in line with the Standard & Poor’s and Fitch ratings.

“Brazilians aren’t buying,” said a prominent São Paulo art dealer, during a night of gallery openings tied to the fair’s vernissage on 5 April. Some local galleries have relied on foreign purchases since the crisis began last year, which is around when White Cube closed its São Paulo space after three years.

The fair itself is aimed at Brazilians, with just 5% of visitors coming from outside the country, according to its director Fernanda Feitosa. The government also drops the value-added tax for the week of the fair, the country’s largest and one of the more significant for the region. Normally, it costs Brazilians around 50% VAT to buy foreign art; last week, that was reduced to 15%.

Results at the fair were mixed, however. Daniel Roesler of Nara Roesler said he sold out all five editions of a pendulum sculpture by the São Paulo artist Artur Lescher during opening night, which, though packed with a Brazilian party vibe, he said seemed thinner than usual. (This year’s edition featured 87 galleries in the general section, down from 112 in 2015.)

“We were expecting nothing,” the São Paulo galleriest Luisa Strina said the next day, adding that any sales outside of art fairs had been sluggish lately. “But it’s been good.”

Other galleries said they saw lagging Brazilian interest. Mira Bernabeu of Valencia’s Espaivisor Gallery had hoped to sell his Latin American-related works by Hamish Fulton to Brazilian collectors but by the second day half the booth had gone to Americans and Europeans. “We’d hoped to sell at least one or two pieces to Brazilians,” Bernabeu said. “It’d be nice to leave them down here.”

“We’re in a recession,” said Ulisses Cohn of Dan Galeria, of its own tepid Brazilian interest. “The art market is very sensitive to economic variations, it’s not a first necessity.”

In an interview, Feitosa said the recession had not changed much for the fair. “We have works above $3m, $4m, which was the case before,” she said, adding that any slump was probably attributable to a slowdown in the global art market. “The whole world is so down,” she said. “If you look at the auctions, the art fairs in the US, they’re all slowing down a little bit.”