Thursday 20 August 2020

'Information Wants to Be Free. Information Also Wants to Be Expensive.'

The Netherlands is a country based on trade. For trade markets to function well, information must flow freely through them. Being a trade country, I believe the art market in the Netherlands has prioritised monetary value over any kind of intrinsic value the work might have to a potential buyer. By doing so the market has also organised itself to attempt to provide reliable information about the artworks for sale. While the intrinsic value of artworks may be difficult to judge and vary from person to person, monetary values of artworks can be estimated fairly easy by reading an artist's cv. The most patent way for an artist to signal their economic value is by having a clear list of all the other reputable endeavors they have been included in, such as education, prizes and exhibitions.

The physically small art landscape of the Netherlands is populated with an extremely large degree of institutions that can provide such a signalling function.
The Netherlands has many notable post-academic institutions. One can obtain an additional two year degree at institutes such as the Sandberg Instituut, Piet Zwart Instituut, Post-st.Joost and the Dutch Art Institute, while there are also the unaccredited two year long residencies of the Rijksakademie, De Ateliers and the Jan van Eyck Academie, along with smaller institutions such as Sundaymorning@ekcw and the BAK. Elsewhere in the world the presence of such recognised institutions is relatively rare.

The Netherlands also hands out many 'encouragement prizes' of notable size, such as the Koninklijke Prijs voor Schilderkunst, Prix de Rome, Prijs voor Jonge Kunstkritiek, Dr. A.H. Heineken Prijs voor de Kunst, Volkskrant Beeldende Kunst Prijs, Prins Claus Prijs, Dolf Henkes Prijs, De Scheffer, ABN AMRO Kunstprijs, Buning Brongers Prijs and so on.
For recent graduates there are also plenty of opportunities to be singled out as a good future investment. Commercial gallery Ron Mandos houses a 'Best of Graduates' show every year, which is considered a genuine gauge for talent. Exhibition venue Marres in Maastricht organises the exhibition Currents every year with recent graduates from the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Germany. Kunstpodium T frequently hosts the Master-Apprentice program wherein a 'master' makes an exhibition with a handful of 'apprentices' they select. Even the Mondriaan Fonds, the countries' national fund for art, stages a large exhibition every year at Art Rotterdam, the countries largest contemporary art fair, to show off all the younger artists who received a grant from them in the previous year.

It could thus be said that there are many ways in the Netherlands to measure the potential value of artworks. Conventional economic wisdom tells us that the countries' market thus ought to be stable, secure and blooming. However, anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Many Dutch artists, including the moderately successful ones, rely heavily on government funding and commercial galleries generally report relatively low sales numbers, despite high levels of wealth in the country and the presence of some extremely prolific collectors such as Joop van Caldenborgh.

This is in stark contrast to neighbouring Belgium, where the Belgian Art Prize is the only art prize of genuine note and the only post-academic institution is the HISK, that only found its current form in 1997. For recent graduates there are also few competition-driven exhibitions, with Coming People at the SMAK being the only to come to mind.
Yet despite this complete lack of 'objective' signalling opportunities for artists, there is a very active circuit of galleries and collectors that functions in all (price) categories of works. Galleries generally present their own mixture of younger and more established artists, while collectors commonly don't shy away from buying directly from lesser-known artists. Belgium also has a number of galleries with a strong international reputation, such as Zeno-X and Xavier Hufkes. The same can be said of Germany, France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, but not the Netherlands.
Another salient fact is that Belgium in recent years has invested heavily in PhD programmes for the arts, with multiple institutions offering such an advanced degree. At the same time, the single available programme in the Netherlands is fledgling. Which perhaps can be explained by the simple fact that a PhD in art-making at the present time only has benefits in academic circles. The effect on the artist's commercial possibilities are negligible or even negative in the short term due to the large amount of time and resources devoted to the academic research.

While it must be said that although hard data about these matters is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to scrutinise, it seems that the manifold opportunities that exist in the Netherlands to create credible signals for artists have had somewhat of an adverse effect. The simplest explanation for this is an inflation of the value of those signals, so that winning a prize or attending a prestigious institution is no longer a signal of merit over others, but rather a basic condition of being an artist at all. Therefore these previous indicators of value are reduced to a simple requirement to participate in the market at its base level. This is something that simultaneously increases the costs for both galleries and buyers to enter into the market, further exacerbating the need for reliable information in the form of credible signals to justify those increased costs and we have thus arrived at a negative feedback loop.
The market in the Netherlands has created a number of expensive barriers to a market that is perfectly able to function without those barriers, as can be seen in Belgium and other markets. This largely hinders free trade and the availability of credible information that facilitates it, ultimately undermining its own ability to function fluently.