What new digital practices in the art market have to do with price transparency? Art critic Carolina Carrion debates
23 Oct 2019, 12:16 pm
by Caroline Carrion
The contemporary art world is a codified world. Several are the authors to approach the theme, but even without any contact with such bibliography (or mainly so), anyone who is not a habitué will come to the same conclusion when attending an art fair or exhibition, even if intuitively or in a non-discursive way. In-between curiosity and disdain (discernible in comments such as “my son could have made this”), usually the visitor – who, collectively, assumes the form of the “general audience” – feels distanced from the cultural production of their own time. Therefore, the artistic-cultural realm, which should be one of the elements of agglutination of the society, sees itself as restricted to initiates, at least in visual arts.
It was perhaps a philosopher, French Anne Cauquelin, the one who most clearly presented the current situation of the art system: “(…) it is still the container that prevails over the content; it is the ‘exhibition’ that bears the signification that ‘this is art’, and not the artworks themselves. It is the network that exposes its own message: such is the world of contemporary art.” Cauquelin distinguishes modern and contemporary art using criteria that encompass the way art is valued and circulates. According to her, the passage between these two systems is equivalent to the transition from the consumption society to that of communication. Much of what has been elaborated in this brief work of 1992 still applies to the current reality of the art system, however, one can observe in it a perception often disconnected from the reality of what constitutes a society of communication, maybe because it is dictated by everything that such society was promising, and not by what it actually became.
It is in the realm of transparency that this issue becomes more evident. It is true that the author does not dedicate herself extensively to this subject, but the succinct descriptions she offers seem to be quite distant from our hyper-connected reality: “for the watchword of communication is transparency; information is not furtively omitted, no producer is able to work on the sly.”  In theory, this logic might seem reasonable, but some 27 years after the publication, transparency is precisely one of the major debates in the art world – specially when it comes to the prices of artworks.
Behind the concept of transparency lies the idea of information equality; nevertheless, in the way it is presently constituted, the art market nourishes itself with the asymmetry of access to it. PDFs with prices are an uncommon commodity, of which art collectors can be proud. In most galleries of the Western world, when someone asks for the price of an artwork, it is not unusual to receive an evasive or oblique answer – unless, of course, you are an insider. Even with the proliferation of digital platforms promoting collectionism, where it is reasonable to expect a more widespread culture of transparency, galleries still hesitate to make the prices of their artworks public.
At this point we could ask ourselves about the reasons for such culture, yet, more than this, we might recede even further and question: to whom it serves? When we take into account multimillionaire artworks, it is easy to understand the interests behind data privacy (something that covers issues as diverse as estate security, tax concerns, or litigious divorces). When you can nearly count on your fingers the people who are able to buy certain works, it makes sense to protect their interests. Still, this is not the reality for most galleries. According to the research Art Basel and UBS Global 2019 Art Market Report, conducted by the economist Clare McAndrew, for the second consecutive year, the major concern of gallery owners has been how to find new collectors.
Despite the global growth of 6% in 2018, according to the same report, 57% of gallery owners observed a decline in their sales during the same year. This confirms the trend of concentration of income observed in the market over the past decade, during which total sales increased 9%, while the number of artworks sold decreased in the same rate of 9% (in 2018, less than 5% of gallery owners were responsible for 50% of sales in the sector). Simultaneously, the Online Art Trade Report, annually published by the insurance company Hiscox and focused on the online art market, indicates that digital platforms are serving as an entryway for new collectors – 23% of collectors of the millennial generation state to have purchased their first artwork online (an increase of 5% in relation to the previous analyzed period).
What does this have to do with transparency? In an article of August 2019, it is proved that messages sent to galleries by users of the Artsy platform regarding works that have their prices available are four to nine times more likely to turn into actual sales than those whose prices are not shown. Moreover, works with prices available receive only 1/6 of messages when compared to unpriced ones, which represents also a considerable economy of work time for galleries.
Such data prove economic theories that affirm the existence of a proportional relation between access to information and the likelihood of closing a sale. According to a study by George A. Akerlof presented by Artsy strategist Alexander Forbes in the aforementioned article, in markets of less transparency, at best, buyers limit themselves to brands they already know, and at worst, they simply do not buy – which is more harmful for small and medium galleries than for the blue-chip ones that dominate the top of the international market.
Since the philosophical modernity, art is associated to an ethical aspect, mainly due to its vocation to promote human emancipation, which saw itself by and large in contradiction with the actual conditions of circulation of artworks (there is no need to reach too far, it suffices to recall the relation between art and market manipulation, currency evasion, and money laundering brought out by analyses of the Panama Papers). The current configuration of society shows that, probably for the first time, transparency regarding prices of artworks might be beneficial for the most part of the market by not only attracting new collectors, but also by raising the feeling of trust in relation to it – and, who knows, maybe reducing the distance felt by the “general audience” from the culture of their time and contributing for a larger integration of its symbolic aspect in our lives.