images showing different pieces of art on a pink background illustrating the evolution of the art market

The Evolution of the Art Market

Art has long had a place in society, but it has gone through many changes throughout the centuries. We know about movements like the Renaissance, Abstract Expressionism, and more, but what about the art market itself? Art markets have been around since Classical antiquity, and with each movement there have also been shifts in the art business.

In fact, the art market today looks vastly different from the art market pre-1900 and has greatly expanded since the 19th century. And now, with the rise of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), it is still evolving in unexpected and unprecedented ways.

An interesting point is that as new mediums are introduced, it takes some time for them to be fully accepted as fine art. For example, the invention of photography provoked a decades-long conversation about the place of photography in fine art. Is it fine art? Is it as valuable as painting and drawing? Is a photographer an artist? Now, it’s commonly accepted that photographs are worth collecting, but this hasn’t always been the case.

Other mediums that had to assert themselves as art are various forms of printmaking. Screen printing, for example, wasn’t seen as fine art until artists like Andy Warhol and others adopted it as their primary form of art making.

Going Way, Way Back

In the Renaissance, patrons supported artists for the most part. Artists such as Michelangelo and da Vinci had to compete in competitions to earn certain commissions. They were often at the mercy of patrons, like the powerful Medici family or the Catholic church, who made their art career and livelihoods possible. At this time, art was most commonly religious art, and therefore they had to follow certain criteria while painting.

Additionally, the expansion of global trade and colonialism caused more imports of antiquities from the Middle East and porcelain from China and Japan.

Modern Times

There’s been a blurring of categories in modern times as artists get more inventive and use non-conventional materials, like rags, soil, and other impermanent media. Many people project that the blurring of boundaries will continue in many ways—artists as curators, commercial, design with painting, digital painting with traditional painting, and more.

Art fairs are very common nowadays ; this is primarily a modern phenomenon. Art Basel, for one, has fairs all over the world. So, now collectors around the globe can collect art in person as opposed to just being restricted to New York or Paris as it was for most of history.

In the 1990s, art marketers and galleries became savvier. High-profile shows became the norm, and marketers like Charles Saatchi were behind them. When Tate Modern in London opened up, this ushered in a more widespread interest in contemporary art and post-war art. In these years, even though the broader market was struggling, the art market continued to grow and set records for sales in these categories.

Online Opportunities 

As we all know, the emergence of the internet has completely revolutionized countless industries. Fine art is included in that—one example is that online sales have become increasingly more common. Additionally, the different types of collectors is a much broader category than ever before due to increased access and broader price range. 

For example, the “prints and multiples” market has burgeoned into a popular type of art to collect. These tend to be somewhat less expensive than buying a painting, for example, but are still unique works of art in their own right. Additionally, many artists have prints and multiples as part of their studio practice, making them very common to see them on the auction website.

Now, as endless innovations with cryptocurrency and digital art are happening, Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, are making headlines. Artists are beginning to sell one-of-a-kind art digitally, and it has almost crept up on the art market unnoticed. It’ll certainly be something to watch in the next few years as artists find more and more ways to make work and get paid. 

With all that said, contemporary art markets are incredibly connected across the globe, driven by technology and endless innovation. The art market has a huge turnover of 60 billion dollars per year and employs huge amounts of people and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon.