2021 in review: The new art world order

2021 in review: The new art world order


This time last year, collectors were breathing a sigh of relief that 2020 was finally over. The pandemic had sprung economic and logistical challenges upon the art world that created uncertainty and made many uneasy about the market's structure and outlook.

Fast forward to December 2021: in just a two-week span at the November auctions, $2.3 billion dollars of art sold,1 up 173.9% from the previous year.2 Art Basel Miami Beach ended the year with a bang, marked by lavish parties and performances by Cardi B, Alicia Keys, and Lizzo, even amid global concerns about Covid-19’s recently identified Omicron variant. Approximately $10.7 billion dollars of art minted as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) had sold as of the third quarter of 2021.3 Dealers are now reporting a new energy in the overall art market, with a resurgence of in-person events and venues.

Meanwhile, a new comfort level of buying art online and sight-unseen is evident. Artists, museums, and dealers quickly adapted to a more digital world and managed to survive – and many even thrived – in these unprecedented times. Here are some of the biggest trends we have seen this year.

New collectors

A wider range of people now have access to the world of art than ever before. Indeed, anyone with a smartphone or computer can buy art online. As such, we have seen a rapid increase in buying from a more global collecting base, with younger collectors making their presence felt.

A recent Artsy survey found 83% of the respondents said they had purchased art online. That share was even greater among "Next-Gen collectors" a subset of buyers who had started collecting in the last four years and had spent at least $10,000 on art in a given year, 91% of whom said they have bought art online.4

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Kwesi Botchway, Green Sofa, 2020 Acrylic on canvas 60 1/4 x 55 in. (153 x 139.7 cm) Sold at Phillips 20th Century and Contemporary Evening Art, November 17, 2021 for $214,200 with premium. Image: courtesy of the artist

Changing tastes

As audiences become more diverse, so too does the art that speaks to them. Museums, particularly in North America and Europe, have facilitated this by focusing on historically underrepresented and marginalized artists and movements. This reshaping of the art historical canon, which is now drawing long overdue attention to women, artists of color, and other demographics, has also reshaped the market.

The increasing diversity of figurative painting is a case in point. Over recent years, market successes such as Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley and David Hammons have paved the way for the markets of other artists to grow and flourish. Among them are Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Amy Sherald, Jordan Casteel, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, Calida Rawles and Toyin Ojih Odutola.

Level playing field

The rarefied and academic art market has traditionally been an insiders’ club that rejected more commercial and less esoteric works. However, that has now changed. Galvanized in part by the Asian contemporary market, along with the emergence of newer, younger collectors globally, there has been a significant shift in collecting tastes. Newer collectors do not always have the preconceived notions that fine art should be important or serious. Instead, a broad base of collectors and even museums have embraced a more open way of thinking about what constitutes fine art.

Digital art, cartoons, youth culture imagery, graphic design and toys are now much more in vogue. Earlier this year many – including me – were wondering "what is an NFT?" Yet the market adapted rapidly, and art works minted as NFTs now feature regularly in auction sales, and galleries are participating as well. A new digital medium has captivated the art world, with galleries, museums and collectors wanting in on the action.

Still image from Beeple’s open-source short film FITC TORONTO FILES Image: https://www.beeple-crap.com/resources

Amid this democratization of the art world, there is widespread celebration of artists who work outside of the mainstream. One example is the street artist known as Banksy. His "Love Is in the Bin" sold this year at Sotheby’s London for £18.6 million ($25.4 million). This work famously sold three years prior at Sotheby’s for £1 million ($1.4 million). As the gavel struck, surprised auction-goers watched as the work shredded itself. This stunt in the end created a new, "damaged" work that later resulted in yet another record price for the artist.

No auction slowdown for Impressionist and Contemporary classics

Not everyone is buying Banksy and NFTs, however. There is still a strong market for quality Impressionist and Modern works, as evidenced by the Cox Collection sale at Christie’s in November 2021. A single-collection sale belonging to the late oil tycoon Edwin Lochridge Cox achieved a stunning $332 million dollars, including fees.

Vincent van Gogh, Jeune homme au bleuet, 1890 Oil on canvas 16 x 12-5/8 in. (40.5 x 32 cm) Sold at Christie’s The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism sale, November 10, 2021 for $46,732,500. Image: CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2022

The Linda and Harry Macklowe collection of mostly 20th century masterworks by blue-chip artists including Robert Ryman, Willem de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and many others, achieved a jaw-dropping $676 million dollars in a single evening’s guaranteed sale.

In the same auction cycle, Christie’s 20th Century sale achieved $420 million in a single evening. Andy Warhol’s portrait of Basquiat sold for over $40 million with fees, doubling its on request presale estimate of $20 million.

Phillips’ November 2021 20th Century & Contemporary Art evening and day sales totaled $172.5 million, a record for the company.

Sotheby’s reported a total of $7.3 billion in art sales in 2021. Its private sale volumes were up by one-third over 2020’s levels, with the auction house citing an influx of younger buyers and their allowing payment with cryptocurrency for certain lots.5

What’s next?

If 2022 is anything like 2021, we can expect the art market to grow and change further. New participants will continue entering, and different perspectives and narratives will critically influence both art-historical and art-market conversations.

In the forthcoming Citi GPS report, we will explore how new synergies are forming between galleries and auction houses, artists, and collectors and even among competing galleries. Dealers and auction houses report that the growth of private sales remains on its upward trajectory. New ways to buy art keep emerging, as the old ways persist yet adapt to a changing collector base. As the art market expands exponentially, regulation is tightening in Europe and the US. Digitalization and globalization have accelerated the pace of change, and we can anticipate further evolution of this fast-moving and dynamic art market.