Characteristics of the Economy of Art in Venezuela

In light of the past 70 years of its history, Rodrigo Figueroa reviews the surprising capacity of Venezuelan art to survive internationally yet locally blossom despite the terrible socio-political crisis they face.

The economy of art is not dictated by dynamics and protocols that differ from those established by the economies of other fields. There is a relationship between the economy of the financial sector and the transactions of the cultural field that are based around immaterial, or rather cultural and social, symbols and that play a defining role in the allocation of value.
Venezuela’s current political-economic context is defined by the deterioration of the principal state-run institutions dedicated to arts and culture (through heritage and infrastructure) and their political instrumentalization in society from 1998 until today. We will review the independent economic activity that has occurred recently from the factors that keep alive the current artistic environment of Venezuela.

The period of the dictatorship headed by Marco Pérez Jiménez (1952–1958) saw the implementation of major infrastructure projects that looked to contemporary European and North American models as points of reference. This entailed the initiation of a program whose ultimate goal was modernization and the simultaneous establishment of foundations for the renovation and expansion of the nation’s cultural landscape. The project of modernization urgently needed to be attended to, on both a symbolic and material level. There was a longing to leave behind the outdated masonry of earlier times and to begin using reinforced concrete, to overcome the shadows of an autocratic government in favor of legitimate republican institutions, and to join the European cultural avant-garde with its aspirations to pure forms which was succeeding in freeing itself from the strictures of local tradition. In other words, to liberate universality.
An example of this surging enthusiasm for change can be found in the Ciudad Universitaria by Carlos Raúl Villanueva in Caracas, built in the period of the aforementioned dictatorship and which achieves the integration of art and architecture, gathering the works of many important international artists (Jean Arp, Fernand Léger, Antoine Pevsner, Victor Vasarely, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, among others) together with the work of a group of young and well-known Venezuelan artists (Mateo Manaure, Víctor Valera, Francisco Narváez, Alejandro Otero, Pedro León Zapata, Pascual Navarro, among others). This work reflected the enthusiasm in the second half of the twentieth century for placing the development of infrastructure in dialogue with contemporary aesthetic discourses as a way of fostering acceptance of the avant-garde in art.
The Venezuelan state directly sponsored art through grants, the commission of public works, the financing of artwork, and the subsequent integration of said artwork into collections abroad of a generation of artists who developed works around geometric abstraction, op art, and kinetic art, with Jesús Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Alejandro Otero as the most notable exponents, as well as Mateo Manaure, Víctor Valera, Mercedes Pardo, Oswaldo Subero, among others. Thus, an aesthetic paradigm was formed in art that enrolled the nation in the project of modernity and progress building.
In 1958, a democratic republican system began to install itself in Venezuela and at the same time, economic and cultural activity in the country began to experience an important surge that would last for four decades, one that consolidated cultural policies for the founding of museums with collections of modern and contemporary art, which in turn would play an important role in the years between the sixties and the beginning of the twenty-first century.[1] With its salons, exhibitions of the work of foreign artists, and new museum acquisitions, Caracas positioned itself as a dynamic hub on the international art scene.
The rise of Venezuelan democracy was accompanied by the rapid growth of petroleum production. After a hydrocarbons law that nationalized the oil companies, the Venezuelan state was placed in charge of the extraction, refinement, and distribution of oil. Huge revenues poured into the country and public financing became one of the principal backers of artistic and cultural production in Venezuela, boosting cultural activity throughout the country. This, reinforced the cultural institutionality, which, since 1966 allowed a new branch of the Ministry of Education, the Instituto Nacional de Cultura y Bellas Artes (INCIBA), which subsequently became the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura (CONAC)[2] in 1977, whose charge was then transferred to the Ministerio Popular para la Cultura in 2005.

The economic difficulties and the impossibility of accessing basic services in addition to the risk of political persecution have led millions of people, including many who work in the arts, to emigrate.

While for their part private initiatives played an important role in the Venezuelan economy, they did not possess incomes equivalent to those generated by state businesses (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., and other basic businesses). Nonetheless, they were allowed to exercise influence within the economic dynamics of the art world, often complementing the public sector. It was in this way that important economic—business and banking—entities (Banco Mercantil, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Sala Mendoza, among others) defined the processes of allocating value to material works of art which in turn consolidated a primary market.[3]
The Venezuelan state of that time thus managed immense income and controlled the most important cultural institutions in the country. However, when Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency in 1998, the autocratic profile of this government placed the state infrastructure at the service of the political and ideological project. These changes in cultural management began with the so-called “Cultural Revolution” carried out by the Vice Minister of Culture Manuel Espinoza (2000- 2002) which would then be deepened by the Minister of Culture Farruco Sesto and his successors. This precipitated the gradual abandonment of alliances with private industry and, as a result, acquisition programs dwindled. As the government radicalized its political position, the deterioration of museum institutions and their infrastructure became ever clearer. This breakdown took a toll on the art market and led to a reduction in the number of privately-run spaces that had previously breathed life into Venezuela.  
Some Characteristics of Contemporary Venezuela
Since the second half of the twentieth century, in Venezuela the art market was directly or indirectly related to state infrastructure. Therefore, the crisis of statist hypertrophy and its autocratic drift had repercussions on the entire cultural scene of the country. This led to the loss of administrative autonomy in certain kinds of museums, which in turn resulted in incomplete transfers from one museum to another and the arbitrary unification of certain collections; in the liquidation of the Fundaciones de Estados, grant-awarding entities funded by CONAC, and the creation of the Fundación de Museos Nacionales; in the rise of curatorial practices in the service of the state-sanctioned political program and the censoring of artists through the suppression of certain content[4]; the unification of the visual identities (logos) of all the state museums under that of the Ministry of Culture; the deterioration of museum facilities and the loss of a visiting public; and the almost complete debilitation of acquisition programs.
Through its entities, the state administration managed several aspects related to the visual arts: the training of personnel in the areas of curatorial research, museology, installation and preservation of works; access to economic resources for conducting exhibitions; legal permits for the transfer of artworks; and the optimal functioning of spaces for the storage of documentation necessary for research (libraries and documentation centers). The economic difficulties and the impossibility of accessing basic services in addition to the risk of political persecution have led millions of people, including many who work in the arts, to emigrate. One of the most obvious consequences Venezuela’s economic and political crisis has had on the current art economy has been the deterioration of the primary market the environment in which the most recent production is shown and marketed, which was articulated with national collecting and regular activity of several galleries. The decline in the investment capacity of both factors led to a large contraction of this market.
Despite the difficulties, commercial galleries such as Abra Caracas, Carmen Araujo, GBG Arts, Beatriz Gil Galería, Espacio Monitor, among others—keeping a calendar of exhibitions both individual and collective of young Venezuelan artists— have resorted to employing two exhibition formats that allow them to navigate the difficulties of the art market: inventory exhibitions and “split” exhibitions.
Inventory exhibitions are group exhibitions of previously-shown work that build off a unified line of curatorial research centered around a gallery’s available inventory of artwork.[5] The advantages of this format are, for example, that the works can be placed temporarily in the custody of the gallery, something that is especially convenient in a volatile context like Venezuela’s, in which artists cannot count on having studios where they can store their work. 
On the other hand, the high cost of installation has also led exhibitors to take maximum advantage of gallery exhibition spaces by simultaneously presenting two or more small-format individual exhibitions, each of which has its own distinct curatorial theme and discourse.[6] The result is a format similar to that of a split music album.[7] This type of exhibition also works as a window for emerging artists who present their works for the first time and do not require large exhibition spaces. A case to highlight is the exhibition Latente (Arte emergente venezolano)  in 2018 held jointly between ABRA Caracas, Carmen Araujo Arte, and La Hacienda La Trinidad Parque Cultural, bringing together works by young artists from different areas of the city.
Secondary Market, Economy in the Margins of Cultural Institutionality
The secondary market bases its exchange of goods on objects that have already been previously sold on the primary market—objects whose value is regulated through their purchase and sale via authorized spaces like auction houses, independent intermediaries (art dealers), galleries, and institutional collections, both public and private. The current political situation has meant that the secondary market has acquired the greater circulation of the two markets; its operational activity has not ceased although it generates less visibility than the primary market. The secondary market in Venezuela follows the example set by those individuals who played legitimizing roles in the Venezuelan art world in the decades preceding the economic boom: successful Venezuelan artists who achieved international recognition. These include, of course, those exemplars of Venezuelan kinetic art and neo-concrete abstraction—two of the important Venezuelan modernist movements. More than sixty years later, the value of these movements continues to be recognized in the work of Jesús Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, and Alejandro Otero. The continued appreciation for these works reveals the impact that the dissemination of modernist ideals—which came to be assimilated as models of instruction and construction—had on Venezuela in the second half of the twentieth century. In Venezuela, modern art has been embraced as part of the identity of the country to the point that it has garnered almost cult-like devotion.[8] Because of the enthusiasm for invoking modernity as a national identity, kinetic artworks continue to attract high prices on the art market, and artists who, like the nineteenth-century French pompiers painters who rehashed time and again the same style of academic paintings, repeat more or less explicitly modernist formulas have proliferated. Geometric abstraction and its more contemporary manifestations have not ceased to be market darlings and to satisfy the decorative appetite to which art also caters.
International Projection and Migration
Every domestic market has a relationship with an external sphere. Today, this relationship has accrued very particular nuances, since emigration following 2010 has resulted in the displacement of many artists, researchers, and investors. It remains to be seen what kinds of relationships this movement abroad will establish, but there is little doubt that they will demarcate new paths of circulation and systems of value. One of these paths is that which has been forged out of the displacement of Venezuelan researchers who were trained in the national museums and whose high-level jobs in Venezuela allowed them to secure management positions in institutions in other countries, as has been the case with Luis Pérez-Oramas, Carlos Palacios, Nydia Gutiérrez, Julieta González, Gabriela Rangel, José Luis Blondet, Felix Suazo, and Jesús Fuenmayor. Their presence abroad has helped to introduce Venezuelan art into international museums, collections, and important biennials. In this, institutional collections such as Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros[9] and Colección Mercantil[10] also participate in an important way.
Another path is that created by galleries that were founded in Venezuela and which began to establish themselves in other cities abroad, presenting the work of Venezuelan artists as well as foreigners as a means of remaining active outside the country. These include the spaces run by Henrique Faria: Henrique Faria Fine Art, located in New York since 2001; Faría + Fábregas, active in Caracas from 2007 to 2014; and Henrique Faria Buenos Aires, now Herlitzka + Faria. Others include Grupo Odalys, an auction house and gallery founded in Caracas in 1992, which currently has locations in both Miami and Madrid, and Galería Ascaso and GBG Arts, both of which have locations in Miami and Caracas.

This situation has led to the emergence of new management models that are more economically self-sustainable and with independent discursive lines, allowing such spaces to begin to expand outside the confines of Venezuela.

In previous decades the domestic market (of national supply and demand) was constituted by the commercial milieu that would be the first to determine the value of artworks. Museums provided the stimulus necessary for an artist and their work to receive a more favorable local appraisal, which in turn would open up pathways to the international market. Currently, however, Venezuelans can no longer depend on a dynamic local primary market and instead must look to external primary markets in order to legitimize the value of work produced within the country. Thus, investment value increases in relation to an artist’s ability to appeal to spaces participating in the international market. This is the case of artists such as Marisol Escobar, Meyer Vaisman, José Antonio Hernández-Diez, Magdalena Fernández, Gego, or Arturo Herrera who participate in important exhibitions and value their works in renowned auction houses.
In its prime, the Feria Iberoamericana de Arte (FIA), which opened in 1990 under the direction of Zoraida Febres de Irazábal, Nicomedes Febres and Ana Josefina Vicentini, current director of Galeria D’Museo, succeeded in creating a primary market in Venezuela, bringing together different international galleries and artists well known in the contemporary art world at the time. It remained in operation until 2014 when it closed after 24 years of uninterrupted activity in Caracas.
Today, international fairs have become popular marketplaces among contemporary art galleries from Venezuela[11]; through them they profile recurring themes of “Latin American Art” reduced to curatorial tropes like political art, modern utopias and dystopias, the universal versus the regional, among others. These fairs attract the attention of different hubs of regional investment as well as Venezuelan investors, reaffirming the notion that the domestic market responds to a demand that, though domestic, does not necessarily have to be geographically based in Venezuela in order to operate.

In Conclusion
The Venezuelan state’s decades-long management of the nation’s main cultural institutions resulted in a huge dependence on the state’s different supporting entities of the cultural scene. The consolidation of the autocratic, authoritarian state weakened the country’s general economic condition and that of the arts, which had relied on the general economy for its continued production and dissemination.
This situation has led to the emergence of new management models that are more economically self-sustainable and with independent discursive lines, allowing such spaces to begin to expand outside the confines of Venezuela. For its part, emigration has caused production within the country to suffer due to the lack of artists and people involved in artistic disciplines; however, it also constitutes a discreet means of mobilizing artistic production abroad that perhaps will generate relevant repercussions in the years to come.
It is important to highlight that the decline of state institutions has led to the creation of commercial spaces that are not linked to the State. Although they lack large administrative structures and on many occasions, they must optimize their resources to the maximum, they are free and independent enclosures, therefore, guarantors of the essential vitality for art in Venezuela.



  1. Caracas has six important museums, each one with a distinct identity: Galería de Arte Nacional (GAN), founded in 1974; Museo de Bellas Artes (MBA), founded in 1918; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Sofía Ímber, now called Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Armando Reverón (MAC), founded in 1973; Museo Alejandro Otero (MAO), founded in 1990; Museo de la Estampa y del Diseño Carlos Cruz-Diez, founded in 1997; and the Museo Jacobo Bórges (MUJABO), founded in 1995.

  2. The CONAC had five main objectives: 1) the creation of Human Resources, an agent of cultural development, 2) the conservation and reappraisal of cultural heritage, 3) the growth of the culture industry, 4) the growth and stimulus of creative production (through the National Prizes), and 5) cultural cooperation within the framework of regional integration.

  3. The primary market, or securities market, is a financial market which issues tradable securities that are being sold for the first time. Art galleries often work in the art world as a means of buying and selling on the primary market.

  4. An example of this is the Venezuelan government’s last-minute decision to bar Pedro Morales from exhibiting at the 2003 Venice Biennial.

  5. Examples of this kind of exhibition in 2019 include: Archivo Abierto: DESINENCIA-a (2019) and FORMA [APARIENCIA] (2018) at ABRA Caracas; 2014-2019 (2019) at Espacio Monitor; and Señales de erosión (2019) at Carmen Araujo Arte.

  6. Two thousand and nineteen examples include Vibraciones locales. De los límites blandos y la danza con Plutón at ABRA Caracas; Valentina Rodríguez’s Naturalización and Paula Mercado’ Caos Primitivo (Homenaje a la Melancolía) at Rodrigo Urbina; Habián Solvmar’s Kozmogónia and Javier Lein’s CCS at Espacio Monitor; and Costanza de Rogatis’s Aquí (Despliegue), Pepe López’s Carta de Colores, and Raquel Soffer’s Caracas Ciudad Amalgama at Beatriz Gil Galería.

  7. Musical albums in which producers take advantage of a print run and includes small albums by two or more artists or groups on the same disc.

  8. For example, the many pilgrimages to Jesús Soto’s Esfera de Caracas, a large public kinetic sculpture or the constant photoshoots in front of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s mural Cromointerferencia de color aditivo in the Maiquetía International Airport attest to this phenomenon.

  9. Outside Venezuela it has developed scholarship programs, exhibitions and donations of works by Venezuelan and Latin American artists to important museums such as MoMA (USA), Museo Nacional Reina Sofía (ES), Blanton Museum (USA), among others.

  10. Among their recent exhibition projects in international museums we can find Consenting Modernity: Informalism in Venezuela 1955–1975 exhibited in 2018 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

  11. Among the participation of independent Venezuelan galleries in international art fairs, exhibiting works by contemporary Venezuelan artists are the cases of: Carmen Araujo Arte: Pinta NY (2013), ARCOmadrid (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), ARTBO (2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019), PARC (2016), Art Lima (2018-2019), Ch.ACO (2017-2018), arteBA (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019), Arts Libris (2016); ABRA Caracas: Art Toronto (2016), ARTBO (2017, 2018, 2019), Artissima (2019), Pinta Miami (2018), PARC (2018); Beatriz Gil Galería: Pinta NY (2010), Pinta Miami (2018-2019), Ch.ACO (2018); and El Anexo Arte Contemporáneo: Pinta Miami (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018).


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