The Art Market takes over the Biennials



This year, among the 59 artists in the official selection, 37 have already seen at least one of their works offered at auction. This marks a profound change with earlier editions. In the early 1990s, less than 5% of the selected artists had auction exposure! The increase reflects a new global reality: cultural events and the art market are becoming less independent of one another.

As one would expect from a biennial, the list of artists invited to the 2015 Biennale de Lyon – themed around “La vie moderne” this year – does not reflect the major trends on the secondary market for Contemporary art: none of the invited artists are present in the top 50 of Artprice’s global ranking of Contemporary artists by annual auction revenue.

However, the selection does not reflect any fundamental discord with the market either. For example, we intuit the influence of the major galleries in the Biennale’s choice of curator, Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, generally considered a very influential figure in Contemporary art (ArtReview). The majority of the artists in the 2015 Biennale are backed by big names, mostly French, English and American: White Cube, Gladstone, Petzel, Lisson, Kamel Mennour, Perrotin … The selected artists have already enjoyed big-league exhibitions; some have received major prizes and others have already generated remarkable auction results. So, in general, their work has already been substantially approved by the market and its creators!

Is it the fear of making a mistake, or is it the convenience factor that prompts a Contemporary art biennial to rely so heavily on artists already recruited by powerful galleries? Does the appointment of Ralph Rugoff as curator of this 13th edition stem from the same process of conciliation? Admittedly, this approach has the benefit of ensuring the quality of the works and of the overall event; but by avoiding any real risk, the event loses its excitement and even its strength. This phenomenon is particularly visible in the lack of interaction between the works, despite a very careful attention to presentation.

The Biennale de Lyon has an admirable selection of effectual works; nothing really easy or obvious… but nothing particularly new either, like the musical installation by Céleste BOURSIER-MOUGENOT (who is representing France at the Venice Biennale this year) or the drawings by Tatiana TROUVÉ (the young French-Swiss artist, supported by Emmanuel Perrotin and the Gagosian). There are few paintings… but lots of videos, sculptures and installations. On the whole, not a very collectable selection. However, aside from the works presented, most of the artists also produce much more ‘consumable’ works. The majority have had some sort of auction exposure, and some have already established reference prices on the secondary market.

So… the Biennale de Lyon offers the public a very good overview of what is happening in New York, London and Paris: the art shown in the most prestigious galleries and increasingly present in auction rooms. In short… nothing more, and nothing less.