A Brief Comparison of the UK and Canadian Art Markets

Lawren Harris,  Mountains East of Maligne Lake  (1925) [Heffel Fine Auction House]

Lawren Harris, Mountains East of Maligne Lake (1925) [Heffel Fine Auction House]

For the past dew decades, the art market has become increasingly popular with a boom in sales revenue on a global scale. Not just art lovers, but the general public have started to participate and pay attention to the art world more interactively and frequently. Art institutions have gained more admissions, museum visits have surged globally and the overall interest in the art world — a broader term than the ‘art world’ — and its key players has drastically augmented.

While the art world refers to as Arthur Danto would describe, “the theories of art which all members [of the art world] tacitly assume in order for these to be objects considered as art”, both the art world — in this case the structure — and, the art market — referring to the performance — are concordant. The art world has spread vastly both globally and in clusters in art capitals such as New York, London, Los Angeles, Berlin as well as in emerging markets such as Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai and now Abu Dhabi, with the opening of the Louvre in November 2017 (The Artworld Journal of Philosophy, 1964). It is this cultural spread that both enables and encourages the art market to take place, referring to the people who participate in the art business transactions that is artists, first and second market dealers, curators, collectors and auction house experts. It is therefore important to credit the not only the monetary values but also the cultural progressions as the art world key players contribute to the overall structure and performances of any given art market.  

Throughout the last year especially, fear and uncertainty have been instilled in the current art market due to a number of macro, geopolitical factors such as: conflicts in the Middle East, fear of terrorism (and consequently, multiple attacks), political instability in the UK and US, conflict on the Korean peninsula and debt problems in China (ArtTactic, 2017). Like any market, these factors influence and affect the art market since overall, auction sales in particular declined in the US and UK amid the increasingly political landscape, while the Asian market remained stable and the European market grew (TEFAF, 2017). However still, the UK and the US continue to maintain the top market shares at 24% and 29.5% (China at 18%).

What factors affect the structure and performance of the UK and Canadian art markets? It could be considered that the Canadian market reflects the cultural zeitgeist, or the fact that the impeding Brexit may affect the overall state of the UK and consequently the global art market?

While the Canadian market has not seen such high statistics that the UK market typically sees, this is because it is a comparatively smaller and still-developing one. Within recent years, many of the retail sectors in the UK, such as galleries and art dealers, have had a significant impact, in fact blurring the market for top end works which would typically be seen at auction. In comparison, the Canadian market relies on its regional auction houses for a significant chunk of their annual turnover, which is not on an international scale.

In many ways, the structure of any given market will have both direct and indirect correlations with regards to the performance. When one considers the vast history of the UK art market and its relation to some European countries, such as Paris and most notably New York, its international expanse has been and is still significant. There is certainly historic merit in the UK within the art market regarding the expansive clusters of galleries — both national and multinational, — museums and secondary art market players, which are often located in both the major cities of London and New York.  These museums include multinational locations such as David Zwirner, Gagosian and Pace Gallery which have a double presence, something that Canada does not have at all on an international scale. Furthermore, while Canada has regional auction houses, it does not quite compete in the same calibre that the UK does fetching some the global records at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

The internationalism and globalisation that occurred throughout Europe as well as the US in the 19th and 20th Centuries is pivotal regarding the cultural and symbolic merit of the UK art market. The themes related to the avant garde spread mainly from Paris to London to New York with key 20th Century art players that helped facilitate these movements. Not only were avant garde artists important, but so were the innovative and pioneering art dealers, collectors and critics; people such as Peggy Guggenheim, Ambroise Vallard, Nicholas Serrota and Charles Saatchi who widely circulated in the same circles around Europe and New York. Canada did not have any involvement within this international historical context making it difficult to identify the Canadian art market with these international, core movements from the 19th and 20th Centuries, impacting its success as a market.

Structurally, the UK and Canadian art market hugely differ. Primarily, the UK art market has a strong international undertone with links across other global art hubs where secondary markets have expanded and franchised. The Canadian art market in comparison tends to focus more on its Canadian contemporary and heritage artists. The UK, especially in London, has a sizeable art and antique dealership structure, which is accountable for a significantly larger proportion of sales revenue than the auction market. At the end of 2016, the fraction of the dealer market in comparison to the auction market was estimated at over 70%. In Canada however, the retail sector is still very embryonic and the regional auction houses such as Heffel and Waddington’s are the primary vehicle for the Canadian art market turnover.

Where the UK has strong art world players such as Nicolas Serrota and the Tate, Jay Joplin and the White Cube who validated blue chip artists such as Damien Hirst, the Canadian market simply does not have this same caliber of cultural and symbolic endorsement. Canada does have a small physical presence in London, notably the occasional exhibitions which are held at Canada House in Trafalgar Square. In South London, the Dulwich Picture Gallery has had numerous exhibitions dedicated to Canadian art, in particular the Group of Seven and Emily Carr make regular appearances. This structure reflects the notion that the demand for Canadian art is steadily growing and also becoming integral to the international market. Exposure for many of Canada’s most beloved artistic figures, such as the Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Jean Paul Riopelle, Peter Doig — who is Scottish-born but executed many works in the Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto — is arguably at an all-time high (Heffel, 2017). In turn, interest from Canadian collectors has grown considerably for works by international artists. 

Peter Doig,  The Architect’s Home in the Ravine , 1991, sold for GBP 11,282,500 at Christie’s London in 2016

Peter Doig, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, 1991, sold for GBP 11,282,500 at Christie’s London in 2016

Since there is a large focus on regional artists in Canada, this affects its development as an art market in comparison to others such as the UK, US and China. In particular, the continuous landscape subject matter and naturalistic topographies that are depicted in many Canadian artworks differ on an international level. While there has been an attempt in recent years to sell more varied art, the great works by Milnes, Harris and Thomson are for the most part, a safe choice as they have been endorsed and validated by the public and private museums and galleries across the country.

Since major art world players such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s do not have a significant presence in Canada, perhaps this also alludes to the absence of notable international interest. As major auction houses cater to masses of departments — with Post-War & Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art currently and usually dominating — this is attractive to global collectors and consumers who have varied tastes and preferences. Also popular annual art fairs such as Masterpiece, Frieze and Frieze Masters as well as PAD attract international buyers and art world players, which directs focus to other aspects of the London art market such as auction previews and local galleries. Canada’s main art attraction would be of a similar standard is Toronto’s Nuit Blanche — which is based around Paris’ October festival — enabling more than 110 contemporary art projects to be exhibited throughout the night. While the Canadian art scene is developing and there are numerous initiatives to expand, a main comparison between the Canadian and the UK art market is that the Canadian market could be regarded as ‘immature’ against a rather established and globally recognised UK market.

Canada mainly focuses on the representation of Canadian artists, in particular for example Inuit contemporary art, which accurately reflects the country and its values. While Heffel’s Toronto based auction house is not even close to fetching the billions brought in annually from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York and London, “the strength of the Canadian market has unearthed important works of art from collections around the world” (David Heffel, 2017). Structurally, Toronto is easily accessible from New York and London whereas on the West Coast, Vancouver is closer to China, enabling the possibility for the Canadian art market to develop into a more global market. A city such as Toronto, where Heffel is located and has TIFF, the second-largest film festival in the world, an extensive theatre scene, which is the third-biggest in the world, and is one of the major stock exchanges has huge future potential. This allows for plenty of room for growth for Canada as an emerging market as it has potential for strong international links.

Prior to the Brexit vote, the free movement of people within Europe would have enabled many artists, dealers, collectors and art market players to navigate, purchase and sell without complications or taxes. The UK market will hopefully continue to thrive, however exactly how Brexit will affect the longterm UK art market is yet to be determined as employment, tax brackets and imports will all need to be considered. More importantly, the art world is a small sphere where the cultures and art works themselves play the most fundamental roles as culture and symbolic factors, while wealth and powers have a crucial and direct influence on the market as tastemakers and trend-setters.