Benedicta M. Badia analyzes and questions, from her role and position as an art collector, how the art market works and survives within an inefficient state and an economy in perpetual crisis like that of Argentina.
I am from Argentina, but I have lived outside my country for a long time. The state of exile and the privilege comes with traveling have allowed me to observe the Argentinian art market from an international perspective. I am what one could call an art collector (even though I am not comfortable with that label). A while ago, I was asked how I feel about having the privilege of being able to buy art. I responded automatically: “I feel that my practice has to do with social responsibility and being an agent in an ecosystem by fulfilling a specific role.” Alright cutie, get off your high horse. My response was arrogant and makes me feel ashamed, but it remains a premise that we should apply in order to understand how the art community works within a context of economic crisis like that of Argentina.
This question was the kick in the butt that motivated me to analyze the roles, responsibilities, and health of Argentina’s art ecosystem: How does this ecosystem survive in a highly precarious economy in a constant state of crisis? I also questioned if I was truly honoring the role which I had been so boastful of. My conclusion: the local Argentinian art market will not stop falling apart. What can we do? What concrete actions will actually help? Specifically, how can collecting help? Or, better said, does it have to help?
Argentina is one of the most literate countries and probably one of the most progressive in the region. In its heyday, its people enjoyed great social mobility. But there have been many years and many different cycles of financial crisis, yet despite that, the “dream” of a thriving egalitarian country persists latently. We Argentinians know that we have rights and that there exists something better than what has been imposed upon us, and we make it known with great pomp and shouting in the streets.
We have been subjected to years of uncertainty and to a constant stream of emergencies. As a result, makeshift and rushed solutions, la ventajita, and risky financial shortcuts have become normalized in everyday life. The system has not been able to meet society’s most pressing needs. Argentina is a wealthy country that has been broken by high levels of corruption and a society that is divided and grieving. Past governments have dallied between fires, placating whoever complains the loudest or manages to occupy the most plazas. Civic responsibility—the hallmark of a mature country—has fallen by the wayside, leaving in its place nostalgia as the only remnant of that nation of an educated and progressive middle class.
Immersed in this reality, cultural production in Argentina emulates a European model in which the state is in charge of its management in the name of citizens—a state which is lamentably inefficient. The lack of long-term cultural public policies on a federal, provincial, or municipal level speaks to this inefficiency; ideally, the accounts would close and the state would be the overseer and administrator of our cultural patrimony and production using funds generated through taxes.
The reality? The proprietor of one of the most complex and sophisticated discourses in Latin America and plagued by neuroses, art production in Argentina has sustained itself through the efforts of individuals. Factors like institutional patronage, long-term cultural policies, subsidies, and philanthropy have not been holistically coordinated and are commonly used as propaganda for political parties, leaving to common sense the welfare of future public policies that are in turn dependent on funding from the ruling party or generate an institutional vacuum that demands the perilous, and sometimes unscrupulous, participation of private management and investment.
How can we establish a price policy commensurate with the international market when prices are based on space’s annual operating budget?
In light of the lack of a competent and financially-solvent state that is able to resolve the current social emergency in the short and long term, as well as the painful path the nation must tread to recover democracy and human rights, Argentinian art has become a voice. Political activism is a constant presence in the art world as a resource and response. Protest has become a way of life—social inequality has been embraced and precarity has been mobilized as a system of validation. It is normal for quality to emerge from a series of conventions and values that have been agreed upon in the militant artistic heart, where profit is desirable but necessarily uncomfortable.
Art is a business. All of us actors in this ecosystem can only comfort ourselves with the idea that the current art market was born alongside the neoliberal concept of the individual. Can art challenge the socialization and industrialization brought about by the mass-production of the market economy? Let’s give up this farce. Although great historical battles have been fought over this topic, the art object is by definition one-of-a-kind; it continues to be a unique, non-fungible good made for the consumption of a few privileged people. The art market has caught us Argentinians in a conflict between personal survival in a country in crisis and the fundamental beliefs that have defined us as a nation, those that champion the ideals of egalitarianism, progressivism, and strength.
We must allow ourselves to recognize and think—genuinely and without cynicism—about the art world as a market of commercial transactions that demands the professionalization and training of the agents working within it. Abandoning the informal economy that has so far governed certain aspects of management would mean, for example, that work would be well paid, legal, and with benefits and that there would be efficient legislation, fiscal responsibility, and the creation of long-term investments and policies. Questioning current administrative models in order to strengthen the flow of the local art market’s ecosystem is the foundation that will allow us to protect ourselves internationally. In order to begin to mend and make up for the breakages that have occurred in the current ecosystem, every agent who is involved in it—those who produce, those who manage, those who buy, those who show, those who house, those who transport, those who direct, everyone—must assume their individual responsibility and, at the same time, experiment with other ways of collaborating as allies.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. How can we ask that an artist or a gallery think in the long term when they don’t even know if they will be able to pay their electricity bill tomorrow? How can we establish a price policy commensurate with the international market when prices are based on space’s annual operating budget? How can we establish a united front if nobody trusts anyone? How can we continue to sustain an art fair that operates in a zone of international prices totally out of reach of local people? Who in their right mind would invest capital with little to no potential for liquidity in a country where the financial crisis is business as usual and where there is no respect for institutions or prior contracts? Why invest in a country that suffers from poor administration, inefficiency, corruption, and a reputation for fiscal irresponsibility? Who, in this scenario, would buy Argentinian art?
Internationally, investment in art or culture grows out of surplus capital. Institutional spending and philanthropy are factored into the annual tax projection. But these are distant realities for Argentina’s economy with its inflationary processes that are traditionally generated through limitless public spending and currency issue. This state of economic instability forces Argentinian citizens (or those who can) to take refuge in the US dollar and/or in ladrillos. Ideally, art could also function as a financial security as it circulates in mature markets, but this won’t be a viable possibility until we have a solid local and international secondary market that allows for almost immediate liquidity. We need buyers in order for the art object to be transformed into a commodity. But the low buying power of 94.8 percent of Argentinians disqualifies them from participating in this economy. We must depend on the meager 5.2 percent of the population with sufficient capital to buy art. And even they are hesitant to invest in art without any guarantee of returns or liquidity.
Preestablished, clear, and fair rules for everybody conserve good relationships.
This buyer or collector is one more cog in a complex system of nuts and bolts. With a patronage law that is severely lacking, the role of collectors extends far beyond the acquisition of art objects—and especially in Argentina, where the emergency and precarity of the state and the market demand immediate and urgent solutions—for example, providing funding for an artist who has received a grant to study abroad, but who needs support because they can’t even pay for food; for a curator’s plane ticket; for the shipping of artworks to biennials, etc. Look! Giving up this farce also implies clarifying that no collector is exempt from contributing to this kind of support, and some less than others (there are very few of us and we all know each other well). However, we must also recognize that the Argentinian collector does not have any fiscal incentive to support cultural production, as collectors do in other countries. But if we have already established that the equilibrium we need to establish in order to survive can be found by looking for new models of sustainable management, better training, and the formalization of certain aspects of the art world, perhaps we should think about what would happen if those of us who support and buy organized ourselves in order to collaborate. Coordinating efficiently to maximize the impact of the resources that we individually allocate to support artists and the art world. Artus, a residency program managed by Peruvian patrons, is a clear example of collaboration among benefactors. My only objection—and serious concern—is that the majority of philanthropic resources are directed to those who make art (what I call the “sexy part of art”) at the expense of those sectors that manage it, show it, etc. When resources are very limited, we must support the whole field in its entirety, for if one sector crumbles, everything crumbles.
Artists, their work, and those who acquire it are not isolated, but find themselves surrounded by a system of art workers and cultural operators. First and foremost, it is important to come together to understand who are the most vulnerable agents in the system, and who, in turn, are essential for the health of the system. Likewise, it is necessary to identify excesses and monopolies that hamper other agents. Today, many people conditioned by their instinct for individual survival have to subsist and develop their work without an accompanying economy or infrastructure. We need a new approach that is grounded in the reality of the country’s situation. Any proposal—be it a fair, a gallery, an institution, a foundation, a residency, or a publication—has to build off the premise that Argentina is a country in an economic crisis. Today more than ever, management has to adapt to a situation that demands frugality. All expenditures or investments should be measured according to their ability to impact a decent livelihood, and all stipends should be justified. The project must be viable, and in order to be so, rigor and the professionalization of the field are key.
To responsible individual management, we must add the question of group behavior. In a community, transparency and collaboration carry with them three fundamental elements that enable primary and secondary markets to develop healthily—trust, predictability, and certainty—which help to ensure that the community’s representatives will adhere to a system when planning a future together.
The price of not having either the aforementioned elements or a solid secondary market is high. Let us analyze what happened recently at a local auction of works belonging to a private Argentinian collection of contemporary art (a collection which included the work of several living artists). The auction was a success; it was conducted rigorously and it respected the prices set by the market. Yet, it generated a lot of discord and several conflicts that instigated a conversation that needed to be had about resale royalties. It is true that Argentinian legislation does not recognize droit de suite, but if we are paying royalties to Justin Bieber every time we listen to his songs, I don’t see a single problem with honoring or paying an artist future fees on their work. In order for that to happen, it is necessary to recognize definitively that the work of art is a transactional good circulating in a profit-seeking market. If we recognize this—and unless the law says otherwise—it is entirely within the rights of a collector to sell the acquired good. It would also be within their rights to “flip” the work (although, in my opinion, the collection in question was not flipping). Moreover, not even the polite (though valiant) attempt galleries make to have “first choice” in the case that a collector wishes to sell a work, is legally binding. The reality is that this idea of “first choice” is an act of good faith that helps to protect a piece’s market value and to avoid a situation in which resale produces a vertiginous price drop. This is a desirable method that benefits artists. But in order for it to be effective, the gallery should have enough liquidity to cover the cost of the piece, essentially impossible in Argentina. In summary: said auction was a good sign for the contemporary art secondary market; it demonstrated a legal and liable option for generating liquidity that motivates those of us who buy art to invest with greater confidence. However, the complaint of artists who feel unprotected and ripped off is real and sheds light on a reality: as far as patrimony and patronage, the current cultural legislation does not actually protect artists in Argentina. It is this legal informality that I wish to address when I talk about the need for professionalizing of the market: there are no successful markets that operate without widespread compliance with proper legislation. Preestablished, clear, and fair rules for everybody conserve good relationships.
Over the past few years, new generations of leadership in the Argentinian art community have begun to catch sight of the fact that in order to be competitive they will have to make changes, and they have begun to organize. There is no longer room for airtight compartments and anachronistic definitions among those responsible for the market. The lack of resources, the ever-accelerating pace of daily life, and commercial competition demand that the protagonists of the art world interact and do business with great care, financial efficiency, and reasonable objectives. There already exist concrete solutions that have advanced the ecosystem: Meridiano, a foundation run by the Cámara Argentina de Galerías [Argentinian Chamber of Galleries], has been a clear step in this direction. Art galleries have understood that if they want to survive in the present circumstances, they can no longer be passive agents. They questioned their roles and defining characteristics, placing them in conversation with new modes of management and definition. For example, is it necessary for a gallery to have its space open to the public every day in order to exist, given the high cost of doing so? When galleries begin to evaluate concrete necessities in relation to the present context, are they able to separate the desirable from the essential? The physical from the virtual? How has collecting adapted to the new dynamics of buying and selling? What would happen if we could strengthen the collaboration between everyone who works in and around art? They are finally looking to make changes.
Argentina’s geographic isolation is another factor that must be taken into account. In some ways, this isolation has protected it from global cynicism and this has been one of the country’s greatest strengths. Its art world has maintained an authenticity that is very attractive and whose complexity generates curiosity and astonishment. Against all logic, Argentina produces art that is risky, intelligent, contradictory, raw, and incisive—art that disrupts its viewer. However, it is this very isolation that is responsible for the art scene’s greatest weakness and is one of the reasons why the undeniable Argentinian artistic talent does not pull its corresponding weight in the international art scene. Even though the thought makes our stomachs turn, Argentina must understand that geographically it is not in Europe. In order to be internationally competitive, it must develop another class of means very different from the European logic that it has so far espoused. Guys! Argentina is very far away! The better we understand this, the better we can prepare ourselves. In this sense, the ArteBa fair has already begun adapting. Reading the market with greater understanding, it has begun the process of reformulating its committee and international program of collectors, establishing new alliances as much with institutions as with individuals. The international arena is a foundational space in which all Argentinians are ambassadors and spokespeople for our country. But the responsibility of an Argentinian collector abroad is even greater, for it is they who can access audiences in order to capitalize socially, transforming themselves into the ones who contextualize Argentinian art, decode our culture, and promote the coming together of disparate scenes in order to strengthen bonds. In addition to all that, their role also involves acting as hosts in our country. These are coordinated efforts that agents who wish to be part of the solution must take upon themselves. This has been what constitutes the great difference between the position of Argentinian art and, for example, Brazilian art in the world today. In contrast to Brazil, Argentinians have always been good players, though almost never a good team. It is time to stop the ball.
Institutions are finally beginning to understand that they have to reevaluate their management models. It is evident that we need to reformulate legislation and formalize aspects of the artwork market, seek out efficiency, coordinate and unite efforts, and promote the professionalization that will allow us to be more competitive and to speak the international language of art. We are obligated to reeducate our behavioral history, to reroute a path which we have followed a long time: we must undo years of our indolence in the face of a paternalistic state, our quixotic narratives, and our romantic illusions. If we succeed in making our system healthy and in strengthening our local scene, it is much more likely that international success will follow. If we hope to project Argentinian art into an international context forcefully, we must come out axes in our hands and machetes in our mouths, because the international market is a cruel place of business, one that is competitive and governed by the free market.
As Palito Ortega said: “I have faith,” and I have my shoulders to push, too.