Affluent Baby Boomers Create a New Era of Contemporary Art Collecting - Fast Becoming The Status Symbol Du Jour

What do billionaires Eli Broad, Steven Cohen, Irwin Jacobs and David Geffen have in common? Other than a vast amount of disposable income, a craving for the luxurious, and the ability to turn lead into gold, that is?   They are all part of a growing movement toward what’s becoming one of the hottest commodity games on the international market today -- the buying and selling of contemporary art.  

With recent contemporary art sales hitting a record $871 million in New York with 60% of the lots being sold for more than their highest estimate, there’s no denying it – it’s a new era for new art.

Untitled, c.1960-1961;Robert Irwin:Primaries and Secondaries;Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Gift of Ruth and Murray A. Gribin. Copyright Robert Irwin 1960-1961/Artists Rights Society, New York

But what’s driving art sales?   The rich keeps getting richer and there’s a lot of new money on the scene.   Last year, there was a reported 371 billionaires worldwide; today that number has grown nearly threefold to 946 with 178 newcomers from Russia, India and China.   Operating as a local gateway to the international art market, Christies recently opened offices in Dubai and Bombay to tap Middle East and Indian buyers.  Reported first year sales reached 8.5 million for contemporary Indian and Middle Eastern art.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) Green Car Crash(Green Burning Car I) © Christie’s Images Ltd 2008

These new billionaire collectors are setting their sites on contemporary art, paying hundreds of millions of dollars for contemporary pieces.   At major auction houses in New York this spring, a Rothko abstraction sold for $73 million to a Middle Eastern buyer and Warhol’s Green Car Crash sold for a record high price of $72 million to a buyer speaking Chinese.   While these new buyers from emerging markets are creating quite a stir in auction houses globally, traditional buyers in the US and Europe, namely the affluent baby boomers age 35-50 who amassed huge amounts of money in the financial services industry are still key players.   Hedge fund king and known art collector, Steven Cohen’s taste for the ultra contemporary was typified by his purchase of Damien Hirst’s ‘ Shark Art’ The Physical Impossibility Of Death In the Mind Of Someone Living for $8 million.   David Geffen, Broadway theatre producer, philanthropist and founder of DreamWorks SKG, has been collecting contemporary art for years with a mint collection that includes Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. In late 2006, Geffen sold two paintings from his collection for a combined sum of $143.5 million and sold Pollock’s painting No. 5, 1948 for $140 million.  

With novice collectors rubbing shoulders with top billionaire art collectors, contemporary art as an investment is becoming the status symbol du jour.

Why the affair with contemporary art?   According to art experts, there’s attractiveness to art that expresses, examines and challenges the world we live in today.   Contemporary art appeals because of its connection to our daily life.   And there’s been a reshuffling of wealth away from traditional businesses toward a more global financial system, so buying contemporary art on the international market is seen as trendy and informed.

Untitled, 2007; Ryan McGinness. Quint Contemporary Art. Photography by Roy Porello

“There’s ‘hipness’ to knowing about a genre of art other people don’t know about,” said Mark Quint, gallery owner of Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla. Experienced in the business of art for 25 years, Quint has watched interest in contemporary art swell over the past five years and credits a few factors.   He sites a lack of knowledge among the vast majority which feeds the interests of the wealthy.   “There’s a whole population out there uninformed about contemporary art – so it’s hot among the affluent that want the latest and greatest and can afford it,” said Quint.

Another factor, according to Quint, has been the Internet.   “It’s changed the art market over the years.   Auctions used to be where dealers got a good portion of their inventory. They would attend auctions and it was difficult to determine what they paid for a piece of art.   The Internet opened the auction market with the purchase price for artwork being available on the Auction houses’ website.   If you’re a collector, you’re going to find out what people have paid,” said Quint.  Christies Live website allows anyone to log on at home, watch an auction and place a bid.  

And lastly, as it pertains to the international market, Quint says Russian, Indian, and Chinese investors have been rediscovering artists of the last 20 years in an effort to grasp the importance of this time.  These collectors are paying record breaking prices for art produced inside their country as well as out.

While spectators discern whether the superheated art market is a bubble or real, these investments are turning a pleasant profit both socially and culturally.   Historically many great collections were later created into museums or museum wings benefiting society for generations.   The Hearst Castle , The Frick Collection , and The J. Paul Getty Museum are known contributions to society, created posthumously.   Today, you’re seeing big money contributions to art houses and museums by collectors/investors who are still alive and want to find a home for their art for the public to enjoy.  KB Homes and SunAmerica tycoon Eli Broad formed the Broad Art Foundation in Santa Monica after several decades of personal collecting.

The Foundation's collection has appeared in exhibitions at over 400 museums, universities, and other public venues, and has been viewed by approximately a million people each year. Overseas, French retail magnate, Francois Pinault, owner of Christie’s Auction House and Gucci, transformed the historic Palazzo Grassi in Venice to display his vast contemporary art collection – one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world.  

Robert Irwin Light and Space (installation view), 2007 115 fluorescent lights one wall Photography by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

On the Southern California art scene, two San Diego billionaires made substantial contributions to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) expansion project in downtown San Diego. Irwin Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm, donated $5 million to the renovation of the former baggage building of the Santa Fe Depot Train Station.   Renamed the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Building, the space boasts high ceilings and great lighting giving artists a chance to create large scale, site specific installations.   Chairman, CEO and president of The Copley Press and publisher of The San Diego Union Tribune, David C. Copley’s $3 million contribution afforded the new wing of the MCASD aptly named The David C. Copley Building.   The three story wing includes a 130 seat lecture hall and education spaces for public programs, lectures and educational activities.   Both the Jacobses and Copley are major collectors of contemporary art.

“[MCASD] visitors are drawn to the art of our time from 1950 to today,” said Claire Caraska, communications coordinator at MCASD.   “We’re known for showcasing young, emerging artists as well as established artists. There are pieces on view for the first time and created specifically for the museum.   This is a source of pride for San Diegans and a lure for tourists,” said Caraska.    

Richard Wright No Title, 2006 gold leaf on glass Photograph by Pablo Mason

“We really strive to be a kind of working laboratory for artists.   For example Scottish artist Richard Wright, who specializes in site specific wall drawings, came to San Diego for two months and produced works specifically for our museum.   Wright’s painted gold leaf window is now a part of the museum’s permanent collection,” said Caraska.

In keeping with the philosophy of providing an artist in residency program, the museum is premiering Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries, which opened October 21 at the MCASD downtown.   The exhibit by Irwin, one of the founders of the West Coast Light and Space Movement of the 1960’s, is a survey spanning over 50 years and will mark the largest exhibition of Irwin’s work since 1993.  

Robert Irwin at work in the Robert Caplan Artist-in Residence Studio, Jacobs Building at MCASD Downtown Robert Irwin photography by Stephanie Diani

“Robert Irwin is currently the first resident in our Artist in Residency studio.   He has his own separate entrance.  We’re very excited to present five new major installation works, four which have never been seen before,” said Caraska.  Irwin has used the studio to work on the fluorescent light works.   The fifth installation, Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue 3 is a slightly larger version of the three room piece that appeared at Pace Wildenstein in New York.  

“It is an extraordinary honor to present such a range of Irwin’s work to the public.   We believe that the artist’s transformative use of space in MCASD’s Jacobs Building and 1001 Kettner will be revelatory for our visitors, as will their chance to see works from all periods of Robert Irwin’s long and distinguished career,” said Hugh M. Davies, the exhibition curator and The David C. Copley museum director.   This will be the first time an exhibition takes up two entire downtown locations.

Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue3 2006;Robert Irwin Photography by Genevieve Hanson, Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York


“At my gallery, I’ve noticed that the ones buying contemporary art are affluent baby boomers and they’re buying emerging as well as mid career artists,” said Quint .   His advice for discovering the unknowns – join the museum, meet the curators, and ask a lot of questions.  Quint also spends time with other artists.   “They tell me what they like and what they’ve seen.  Case in point, I was introduced to the unknown artist Adam Belt by artist Roman de Salvo.   In turn, Roman was introduced to me by artist/UCSD professor Louis Hoch who said ‘check out this student of mine’.  Sure enough the MCASD bought Adam’s work and commissioned Roman de Salvo to create a large scale sculpture for The David C. Copley Building.”  

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue³(installation view), 2006–07 Photography by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

“We have many accomplished artists that visitors know and love and want to see in a Contemporary Art Museum, but we also have a lot of emerging artists that visitors may not be familiar with.  But who knows in 50 years they could be the Andy Warhol of today,” said Caraska.  

It’s hard to predict who the next Warhol will be, but without question that the contemporary art world is becoming an ever more global one.   Non American artists like Damien Hirst ( Britain), Takashi Murakami ( Japan), Zhang Xiaogang ( China) and Miguel Angel Rios ( Argentina) are making a huge imprint in their respective countries and throughout the world.   So whether a viewer or buyer, there is a world of contemporary mastery to behold, art created by post war visionaries who gave us images that commented on the culture of yesterday and art by emerging and mid-career artists who express the way we think and feel today.   And for those with seven figures to knock about, it might be worth joining the party while the party’s still hot.

Article courtesy of Luxveria Luxurious Living Magazine

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