neil cummings


26 Oct 2009


A Joy ForeverAt the Wysing Arts Centre just outside Cambridge, I took part in an all-day workshop for artists and students from the Curatorial Course at the Royal College of Art.


It was organized by Kit Hammonds and included Sarah Thornton, and Francis Outred from Christies.

"The Economics of the Art System will take an in depth look at the art market, exploring the financial and cultural economies that drive the industry. From commercial galleries, collectors and art fairs, to the influence of auction houses this retreat will question the value of art as commodity and the commercial influences on artists' practices, as well as considering survival tactics for artists, curators and gallerists."

In the morning Francis and Sarah talked about the market for contemporary art, especially the role played by auction houses. And in the afternoon we extended the discussion to think about the limits of markets.

My presentation began by building a simple model of the art market, based on the short essay circulation

Primary Market


The circulation of contemporary artworks is structured by two competitive markets – and prices in one, are routinely half that of the other. The primary market is convened by Gallerists who organise and manage ‘commercial’ galleries. Whether as small single person enterprises or vast corporate machines, what Gallerists share is the desire to work directly with artists, promote their work through exhibitions, and sell their artworks to potential collectors.


To become a Gallerist is easy, the start-up costs are extremely small – some enthusiasm, contacts, a small exhibition and office space, and an advertising budget. There are no formal qualifications necessary; no indemnity required, no trade association to join, and no regulatory bodies. [....]

Gallerists do everything possible to delay an artworks spiral into the secondary economy.

Secondary Market


The secondary market for contemporary art is structured through auction houses. Auctions are relational competitive markets, and breathtaking theatre. The twin poles of drama - the flicker between despair and euphoria is endlessly produced, because buyers compete to establish an appropriate evaluation – when the hammer falls. The price is extruded as the auction is conducted, by the last person standing in the tournament of value.  Of course there are precedents to refer to, and there are reserves, published estimates, and guarantees offered, and yet none of these can be taken as true. An auction has to be convened and set in motion to perform the social production of evaluation, live and in real-time. [...]


and then, using Michael Sandel thought about some limits to markets

Market limits

Markets are not neutral technologies, markets change the objects suspended within them. Changes them through a cool calculation of risk and profit. Generally markets commodify the goods circulating within them - thats why we consider trading people, or organs, or embryo, as unacceptable. In a memorable phrase, Sandel suggests that "markets mark the goods they trade" By paying children to read, children might think that reading is a way of earning money. Any inherent good of reading, is overwritten by the market evaluation. To profit financially. [...]

Markets matter – and yet we must take care that market evaluations don't overwrite other moral, aesthetic, intellectual, ethical, or civic evaluations. Sandel never once refers to the role of art and its instiutions, as elements of a public discourse where values could be contested.

If art is a vital component of public culture, then it should be part of a network of space where values are brought to be collectively evaluated. Public goods are of necessity disagreeable, contentious, messy, inefficient, live, improvisery and provisional. They are processses not commodities.

Public, common or shared resources are like muscles, they become stronger with exercise.

There was a really lively and fruitful discussion!!


Over time, my presentation mutated into a published version and A Joy Forever




52.183585, -0.067801

Wysing Arts Centre
Fox Road
Bourne nr Cambridge
United Kingdom

Submitted by neil on 30 October, 2009 - 17:18