Analysis. Positive picture: Romanian art scene grows, but keeps emerging status

Newsroom | 06/05/2018 | 15:00

Still young and emerging, the Romanian art market, valued at USD 14.6 million in 2016, has been growing over the past few decades. Sharing a common trajectory with most other markets in Central and Eastern Europe, its success and that of local artists is strongly anchored in the well established and mature Western European market. Still, further growth, local actors argue, must come the way of well-educated art collectors.

By Georgeta Gheorghe

In 2017, Constantin Brancusi, one of the fathers of modern sculpture, topped the list of the best-selling Romanian artists internationally. That was no tall order, given that he came fourth in a ranking of the best-selling modern artists in the world, behind Van Gogh, Leger and Klimt. His bronze sculpture La muse endormie, the sleeping head of a woman distilled into a perfect oval face with subtle physical features, was sold by Christie’s New York for a record-breaking USD 57.3 million.

In May, his polished brass sculpture La jeune fille sophistiquee (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) will go under the hammer at the same auction house and will likely topple that record. Bought in 1955 by a US collector for USD 5,000 from the artist himself, it is now valued at USD 70 million and projected to bring its owners a fabulous return of 1.4 million percent.

The fact that the top-selling Romanian artist is breaking records in New York rather than Bucharest is hardly a surprise, given Brancusi’s exceptional artistic pedigree. But the case of Adrian Ghenie, for instance, one of Romania’s most successful contemporary artists, may be indicative of the complex dynamics shaping the Romanian market as well as local artists’ path to success.

It was not until 2007 that the Baia Mare-born, Cluj-educated artist became known to major art galleries and collectors, via his participation in New York’s Armory Show. Almost ten years later, in October 2016, Ghenie’s Nickelodeon (2008) sold for a record USD 9 million, four times its highest estimate, at Christie’s London. The same year, Ghenie broke into the ranking of Romania’s best selling artists in fifth spot, by selling two paintings.

He was also the fifth most successful artist financially in 2017. Last year, Ghenie sold six paintings in Bucharest, totalling around USD 365,000, with Enigma fetching most, around USD 97,000. His most remunerative canvas remains Christ, sold by Artmark in 2016 for over USD 150,000. (The local artist who has sold the most in Romania, remained, in both 2016 and 2017, Nicolae Grigorescu, one of the founders of modern Romanian painting.)

Meanwhile, Ghenie’s Plan B Gallery, one of just two galleries in Eastern Europe to have taken part in both Frieze and Art Basel, (the other being Gregor Podnar in Ljubljana), managed the feat only after opening a chapter in Berlin. This goes to show that in an ocean of possibility, in order to attain success, Romanian artists and galleries must venture far from the safe shores of home and learn how to navigate currents which already have a well established and interconnected pattern.

In terms of turnover, more than any other art marketplaces, New York has attracted the world’s biggest art sales for decades. Together with London and Hong Kong, it represents the  international exchange hub most able to attract both the world’s best supply of artworks and the most demand from buyers.

According to Artprice’s Art Market Report 2017, the recent rise in sales of contemporary art, for instance, is driven by just four global cities, namely New York, London, Hong Kong and Beijing, accounting for 83 percent of the global contemporary art auction turnover. This means that all the other art marketplaces – estimated by Artprice at 540 cities that organized fine art auctions in 2016/2017 – share the remaining 17 percent of the turnover from 80 percent of the contemporary art lots sold.

Zooming in on Europe, the Global Art Market Outlook 2018, by art market analysis firm ArtTactic, set the value of the UK’s London-driven art market at USD 771 million in 2017. In continental Europe, last year Paris was elevated to the status of main art hub. The French capital increased its market share in 2017 to account for 68.3 percent of the continental European market, valued at USD 184 million, shooting ahead of major hubs Milan and Amsterdam. Post-war and contemporary art auctions in Paris totalled USD 125.3 million, the highest recorded figure for its auctions. The remaining USD 58.7 million came from other European capitals and cities that host art auctions.

Eastern Europe via Bucharest

Where does Bucharest stand in the well-established global art ecosystem? According to independent curator and 2018 Art Safari director Ioana Ciocan, the value of the Romanian art market stood at over USD 14.6 million in 2016, and the growth perspectives are positive. As for Romanian contemporary art, it has registered significant growth in recent years, she says.

In 2016, auction house Artmark, which has an 80 percent market share, posted Romanian contemporary art sales of over USD 1 million, representing “spectacular growth, compared with the regional art market,” notes Ciocan. That is why, over the past two decades, she argues, the local art market has been healthier than it has ever been before, and the increasing number of national and international art transactions is reflected by overall figures. Currently, there are six auction houses on the local art market, and around 120 galleries, out of which nine are also active internationally.

While this may sound like a bold statement, it alludes to a long period of transition and reflects a trajectory shared by nearly all art markets in the region. All relative latecomers to the table, they too had to find a way to fit into a mature global art market that plays according to its own rules. That is because, bluntly put, after 1989, for Romania and other Eastern European art markets, the only way was up. “Given the historical and political circumstances, the evolution of the Eastern European art market has been a slow, complicated process. I don’t think we can even speak of an Eastern European art market before 1989,” says Roxana Gamart, co-founder of the Bucharest-based Mobius Gallery, which specializes in promoting contemporary art in Eastern Europe.

That is why, when we speak about the art market in Eastern Europe, she argues, we need to keep in mind that we are still talking about a newly-born market, which is not even a unit. “In fact, we are talking about a lot of small local markets that can play only one winning hand – that of becoming a context: merging all these small markets into one could potentially catch the attention of the bigger players on the global art scene,” Gamart says.

This also rings true when it comes to the sale of Eastern European art on the world’s global markets. The latest auction dedicated to Central and Eastern European art took place two years ago in London. Held in June 2016 at Sotheby’s London, Contemporary East, which featured work by Romanian names Romul Nutiu, Geta Bratescu Alexandru Chira and Marilena Preda Sanc, raised USD 1.8 million. Surprisingly, perhaps, this was also the first ever such auction held by a major platform anywhere in the world, the auction house confirmed to BR.

Framing progress

According to Gamart, although the start has been slow, and Romania’s art scene still lacks the coherence of well-established markets, today “we have the artist, we have the potential collector and, finally, we have a playground for them to meet and let the magic happen.”

“In Romania, collectors are emerging as well as the art scene,” co-founder and curator of the Bucharest International Biennial for Contemporary Art Razvan Ion agrees. “Collectors are a vital component of the art market,” he argues, “and the demographics of art collectors have shifted from the leisure class to the ‘working rich.’ If the collectors are well educated, work with art advisors and have knowledge of the art scene, the market will grow.”

As far as trends go, Gamart says, Romanian collectors tend to be more interested in established artists, while foreign collectors give more credit to emerging ones. One in three art buyers at Mobius Gallery, she tells BR, are foreigners. Ana Maria Sileanu, of Witte gallery, agrees. While “the large majority of traditional collectors still prefer Romanian modern art, with a big interest in traditional paintings, the interest of foreigners on the local art market is centred on contemporary, internationally established artists and emerging ones.” Apart from individuals, says Ion, who has advised a major foreign bank on its Romanian art purchases, companies are an important category of collectors. “Most international firms, especially banks, have great collections. Romanian artists are appealing to them, of course. They mostly look for contemporary art,” he says.

However, starting a collection need not involve a large investment. The Romanian art market is still very young, he notes. “What we need is education. Collectors need to learn more about the international scene so they get the artworks that can become a future investment or a possible donation in their name to a museum. Also, I believe start-up collectors should learn that money is not an issue. You can start with any amount of money if you know what to buy.”

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