State of the Market: Looking Ahead in the Aftermath of the U.S. Elections

Liz Catalano
Published on

As the heat of the U.S. elections begins to dissipate, the art market is turning toward the future. Issues relating to wealth inequality, art funding, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect artists, galleries, and auction houses. Some are looking to 2021 as America edges away from the ballot box.

For now, many artists and creators are still processing the election frenzy. Some are responding by repurposing the last traces of the election. One Indianapolis-based artist group is collecting political yard signs to both memorialize 2020 and to create new works on ready-made canvases. “This way, we can make something beautiful out of what’s essentially trash now,” says the project organizer, Paige Wind

Other artists have created specialized works to get out the vote and encourage political participation. A temporary unity in the art world allowed fundraising events such as Artists for Biden, an auction run by David Zwirner Gallery, to bring together the likes of Ed Ruscha, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Rashid Johnson. There remains a sense of exhaustion, however, as seen in many of Ruscha’s recent “skid mark” works. “His bleary phrases mime the dizziness that information overload can induce, and so too its consequences, ones acutely felt over the past six months,” Lisa Turvey wrote about the series for Gagosian Gallery in September. The coming days will prove whether this uptick of politically-engaged art is a lasting trend.

Ed Ruscha, We (#1), 2020. Image from The Guardian.
Ed Ruscha, We (#1), 2020. Image from The Guardian.

The continued tumult in the political environment has placed general stress on the art market. Despite high hopes for a boosted economy under President Donald Trump’s administration, the art industry has weathered several disappointing policies in recent years. In 2019, a profitable tax benefit was removed from art deals. The change was poorly received by wealthy collectors and has possibly affected investment strategies. Moves to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in previous federal budgets have also caused concern. Both of those agencies play critical roles in supporting artists and providing relief in times of economic crisis.

Market reporter Eileen Kinsella reflected on these past changes after the 2020 election concluded: “If there was a [financial] bump, it certainly wasn’t because of any targeted or supportive policies, whether to artists or to collectors specifically.”

Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker during a livestreamed sale. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s auctioneer Oliver Barker during a livestreamed sale. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The art market can only speculate about what the next four years will hold, but critics have started pointing out a few key policy areas to watch. Several market consultants spoke with The Art Newspaper about declining federal interest rates and a shift toward art investment. Many collectors are doing this through private sales and guaranteed bids that will help diversify their assets. While private auctions are not uncommon, they do call the fairness and value of the market into question.

“As more sales move online it’s important that… we don’t lose individual prices. It’s really critical for establishing value,” said art economist Clare McAndrew about the trend. Increasing transparency in the auction industry will help with that, but so will federal support for middle class artists and collectors.

Effectively addressing the COVID-19 pandemic will also aid the art world. 2020 has seen the cancellation of major art fairs and auctions, the collapse of gallery sales, and faltering financial support for living artists. “The focus on restoring activity in those impaired parts of the economy is exactly when the next upswing in the art market is going to take place,” JP Morgan Chase’s Ben Mandel told Artnet News. “Normalization of the economy and the broader art market are going to be very much part and parcel.”

The next several months will likely shed light on these trends. Many critics do not expect radical changes favoring the art market while the shadow of the pandemic still looms. However, the results of the 2020 elections could signal a change in the federal government’s support for the arts. A cautious optimism is growing, one that may yet signal recovery for the art market.

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