The mystery of waiting lists in times when access is everything

Translation of the article by Marta Gnyp for Financieel Dagblad, 22 December 2020

It’s Christmas time, so we’ll talk about presents and wishes come true. In the art world, coveted works are often accompanied by waiting lists: an innocent but charged term that often causes confusion. Let’s analyze it with an example. The young Afro-British artist Jadé Fadojutimi (27 years old) paints colorful abstract paintings that many collectors find beautiful, innovative and interesting. The two galleries representing her, Pippy Houldsworth in London and Gisela Capitain in Cologne, are overloaded with requests. In a short time, a list of people who insist on buying Jade’s work is created, and this is called the waiting list. You call the gallery and say that you think Jadé is fantastic and that you would like to buy one of her works. The gallery kindly tells you that nothing is available at the moment, but that it can put you on the waiting list and keep you informed. You think it will be okay, because you are there early. However, it is an illusion to think that you would move up every time Jadé makes a new work available. The works go to institutions and persons who can mean the most for the artist or the gallery.

The first to be offered works for sale are museums. Especially for young artists, the museum recognition is of great value, because it scores very high on the scale of artistic standing. A museum purchase is used by the gallery as an argument for and confirmation of the artist’s art-historical quality, helping to distinguish her from hundreds of thousands of other young artists who have not received such museum attention. The fact that museums look at artists like Jadé has to some extent been stimulated by the urgency to close gaps in collections concerning artists of color (see FD June 9). Museums are considered the ideal destination for any work of art because normally the purchased works would never return to the art market; so commercially they have been declared dead. I stress ‘normally’, because COVID has changed the situation and museums have regularly offered works from their collections for sale this year.

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Jadé Fadojutimi, MOSAICKED UTTERANCE, 2020

Secondly, it is the turn of customers who regularly buy from the gallery, or, in the art world language, “who support the gallery program”. In short, you get a hip and in-demand work if you have already bought several works from less hip artists. Give a little, take a little. Some galleries even offer a broadly desired work alone in combination with a work that is difficult to sell. There are collectors who think this is ridiculous – why be forced to buy something that is not your first choice? However, others consider this a fair transaction, as access to a coveted work is the perfect reward.
Furthermore, priority is given to collectors with high visibility or prestige in the institutional world. Should a client own a private museum, be a museum trustee (who might want to donate the work to the museum at some point) or have a renowned collection, all waiting will be skipped in his / her favor. Today, public visibility has become one of the essential factors determining the position of the artist. An art-historical contextualization with famous artists also lends meaning: when Jadé’s work is hung next to a painting by Willem de Kooning, the mastery of the post-war hero also radiates a bit on her.

Some galleries also give preferential treatment to celebrities. Imagine that Beyoncé wants a work by Jadé: she is most likely served sooner than many who have been waiting longer. Celebrity interest adds to the artist’s reputation and fame for coolness – not unimportant in the social media dominated cultural landscape.
Hence, for many people waiting, the moment will never come; they would never receive a work from the gallery, no matter how early they asked. This somewhat explains why the prices at auctions reach such heights: you know you can’t expect anything from the gallery, you want the work, and you have the money. In the primary market, a large work by Jadé costs between £ 30,000 and £ 45,000; but recently her 2017 painting Lotus Land sold for USD 378,000 at an auction at Phillips in NY. Apparently the buyer was not interested in waiting lists.
Finally, in the current period of amazingly fast successive trends, it may happen that you get the work, but the artist is no longer hip. Current interest in African American artists has been stimulated in part by the Blacklivesmatter movement, Trump’s response to it and the realization that the official art system, however progressive, has systematically ignored these artists. Should the injustice be corrected and the subject as a result appear less urgent, the demand for these artists will probably decline. Imagine that Elon Musk will soon successfully fly to Mars and we start to believe en masse in new technical possibilities that will make abstract painting seem boring and old fashioned: then you will get the once coveted work – which no one is waiting for anymore. Be careful what you wish for.