Market Forces

Where is Brazil's economy going?, from the September 2013 issue

By Vincent Bevins

Museu de Arte do Rio. Photo: Andrés Otero. Courtesy MAR.

Almost two decades of governments have managed to stabilise the Brazilian financial system and create a credit-led boom in domestic consumption, while surging Chinese demand for commodities has provided markets for Brazil’s vast natural resources. Powering forward economically and socially, the country has slashed poverty and created new wealth, and now has about the same amount of buying power as the biggest Western European countries (in nominal currency terms Brazil is roughly on par with the UK, for example). While this boom has begun to slow, the sheer size of the domestic market has largely staved off the crisis spreading through the West.

In the last couple of years, the domestic art market has grown too (on an international level, for example, Beatriz Milhazes’s hypertropical My Lemon (2000) set a new auction record for Brazilian art, selling last year for $2.1 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York). Much more quickly, in fact, than the economy in general – which is good news for Brazilian artists and gallerists who believe that the levelling out of the GDP doesn’t have to mean a reversal of fortunes in the artworld.

Scenes of tear gas, barricades and over a million people on the street after police violence exploded and set off a wave of protests in June were only one particularly dramatic reminder that Brazil is not yet entirely a new country

But scenes of tear gas, barricades and over a million people on the street after police violence exploded and set off a wave of protests in June were only one particularly dramatic reminder that Brazil is not yet entirely a new country. This is something that’s clear for most working within or without the world of art. Despite the language and the lily-white skin of most involved in the arts scene, this isn’t Europe: things are done differently here, and there’s plenty of room for the art market to mature. Depending on one’s mood, this can mean intractable historical dilemmas, or opportunities to implement obvious solutions – that is, low-hanging fruit.

One of the things that is most obvious to any foreigner in Brazil is the still-shocking level of inequality. In the art market, something that may be related, perhaps indirectly, is the dominance here of privately owned galleries compared to the relatively less influential public and nonprofit sectors. Museums and institutions play a big role in putting on exhibitions (foreign and Brazilian) but do comparatively little to collect or directly promote contemporary art. Most of their money comes from the government, which tends to bankroll projects with a broad educational focus rather than – so far – put measures in place to really get a mature market going. Rich Brazilians who want to get involved in the arts don’t tend to make a donation – they’re inclined to open up a commercial gallery to promote the artists lucky enough to be cared for by their patron.

“This is without a doubt a difference when compared to Europe,” says Ana Letícia Fialho, the head researcher for the Brazilian Contemporary Art Association’s (ABACT) annual report on the contemporary art market, referring to the dominance of private galleries. “But the galleries here end up playing a role that’s cultural as well as commercial. The [private] market has really strong teams that produce, travel and support, and show off Brazilian artists as well.”

The art market in its current configuration is doing just fine. The total amount of exports from Brazil jumped from $10 billion in 2010 to $18.6b in 2011. Nearly all of these sales come from São Paulo.

The art market in its current configuration is doing just fine. The total amount of exports from Brazil jumped from $10 billion in 2010 to $18.6b in 2011

And though the 2012 report is, at the time of writing, yet to be published, Fialho says that over 80 percent of the galleries surveyed saw gains in sales. But the vast majority of these (around 70 percent, in 2011) are driven not by exports but by private Brazilian collectors – the superrich bankers and professionals who in São Paulo are sometimes stereotypically, but not wholly irrelevantly, represented in the global imagination by a sky full of helicopters ferrying people too rich and too busy to set foot on the ground below. And it makes sense that private concerns dominate art so far in São Paulo, a city in which everything is in for-profit hands – most public spaces, for example, have long since been sold off as sites for the city’s many skyscrapers.

The government does put a lot of money into arts funding, but the majority of that funding is naturally aimed at a very broad section of society – Brazil is still a country with significant rates of illiteracy – rather than developing a commercial market. The Ministry of Culture says that, directly and indirectly, the government puts almost R$2b a year into supporting the arts, but adds that, while market stimulation is a concern, its primary endeavour is to ‘offer to all Brazilians the possibility of consuming and producing culture’.

One ambitious and populist project being implemented at present is to give every worker in the country a R$50 stipend ($25, or about 7 percent of the monthly minimum wage) towards something as simple as seeing a film or dance performance for the first time. The money spent on visual art often goes to phenomenally successful blockbuster exhibitions of famous foreign works that generate hours-long lines of Brazilians dying to see Impressionists or Caravaggio. But for promotion of local contemporaries, the private galleries pick up the slack.

“It’s not bad for the artists that have representation. The galleries work hard to nurture and protect the artists’ careers, and fund exhibitions and prioritise sales to museums and institutions,” says Marina Romiszowska, an art adviser who will be putting on a Basquiat exhibition at the publicly funded Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil in Rio next year with head curator Dieter Buchhart. “But [those lucky enough to be represented by galleries] are an exclusive minority, and that’s a reflection of our social dynamics. Artists without funding have few options.”

Romiszowska also says the big museums need more independence for their shows, rather than having to rely on the current system of corporate sponsorships whereby big companies get tax breaks to fund cultural events. But it may not require Brazilians to get big overnight on private patronage (in general, philanthropy isn’t so big here – most of the rich want to get richer) or for the government to pour tons of cash into new projects to quickly improve the market. It could just be a question of smarter policies and a few adjustments here and there, one of the things ABACT would like to see.

Philanthropy isn’t so big here – most of the rich want to get richer

“It’s essential to note that in Brazil there’s no tax exemption for purchasing works of art, either for private or public collections,” says Eliana Finkelstein, ABACT president and director at one of Brazil’s most widely respected galleries, Galeria Vermelho. There is also no special tax code defining what kind of goods works of fine art are, says Fialho, something that could easily be altered. But culture is slowly changing.

“I believe private collections are committed to collecting works to be able to later donate them to public collections. The recently opened MAR [Rio Museum of Art] is a good example of this,” says Finkelstein. Another example, she says, is a group of collectors assembled to provide patronage to the Pinacoteca do Estado museum in São Paulo, probably Brazil’s best museum.

But the main driver behind Brazil’s art boom has been the newly rich or the newly interested in collecting art. And globally, the country’s new moment on the world stage has led to new interest – driven no doubt by the commercial artworld seeking new markets – in Brazilian art, which has long been of a high quality. While people here are in the habit of saying that one thing that hasn’t changed is that Brazil has a lot of artistic talent and creativity – something that stretches back to its earlytwentieth- century avant-garde – will the market keep expanding as the economy takes a big hit and protests unleash unpredictable (and perhaps large-scale) political change?

For better or worse, the growth depends on people who are extremely likely to stay rich. Historical trends show that once the rich move into more ‘sophisticated’ consumption patterns – art collecting, for example – they don’t usually go back. So the Brazilian art market is likely here to stay, and whether the majority of money comes from the private sector, the government helps the industry on its way with a change to art’s tax code or the situation continues as it is, the current upward trajectory seems likely. We can avoid the tear gas, explosions and fires in the street this summer – except, of course, as an obvious source of inspiration for future works. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue