September 2023's Art Business Conference was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with art world friends and colleagues following the summer break.  It always provides interesting insights into how the art world is feeling ahead of the tsunami of autumn events in October that include the LAPADA Berkeley Square Fair, PAD and Frieze, writes Charlotte Heath-Bullock.

Some opening statistics presented by SLAD (the Society of London Art Dealers) cited that over half (53%) of delegates believed that the UK would remain a global hub for the art market despite the red tape inflicted by Brexit and AML, so it was good to learn there was plenty of optimism in the room -although a significant 29% thought to the contrary with a further 18% unsure.  

There were also murmurings of shock when Melanie Clore of Clore Wyndham shared a stat that UK art market sales topped £9 billion in 2022 compared to that of the Premier League turnover of a mere £5.5 billion.

The two key challenges seem to be the ongoing perception of elitism in the art world among our political decision makers who are obsessively focused on levelling up the country.  Whilst President Macron was snapped perusing the aisles of the inaugural Paris+ par Art Basel, nobody held high hopes for Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer to grace the Frieze tents next month.  Yet back in the late 1990s when the YBAs (Young British Artists) successfully merged art, music and fashion, Cool Britannia was the very essence of a democratic art world.

The other challenge is to understand where the art market fits within our political structure.  Does it sit with the Department for Culture, Media & Sport or within the Department for Business & Trade?  Nobody seemed to know.  Consistency and clarity would help with the lobbying effort.  As would a stronger voice amongst our dealers and galleries.  To cite one example, I'm sure I am not alone in thinking how much more effective LAPADA and BADA would be at government level if they united as one.

The pandemic has certainly shifted the public’s tastes in art.  Pre-Covid, it was Tate Modern and the British Museum which vied for the highest visitor numbers.  Today it’s the Natural History Museum by a mile.  This is explained in part by the ongoing lack of visitors from the US and China.  Britain is unique to offer free access to museums, but that rarely includes the blockbuster exhibitions and, without a generous underwriter, it is a costly day out for a family to buy tickets at £24 a pop (the cost of a ticket to the newly opened Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto at the V&A).

One answer to this could be a greater focus on philanthropy and incentives for high earners to engage and support the arts.  It used to be that the UK didn’t “get” philanthropy in the same way as our friends in the US did, but this is no longer the case.  That said, our giving culture is a shadow of that in America and is unlikely to change without significant incentives and tax breaks.

The discussion concluded with four calls to action: donor incentives to boost philanthropy; securing the ear of government; a stronger customs union; and lastly, better PR.  

The UK art market continues to suffer from a perception of elitism and we need a sustained and collaborative communications effort to rebuke this and to demonstrate the vital role of art and culture for both society and for Britain plc.

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