Excerpt from The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London 1850-1939: Introduction

Introduction The state of the field

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich

This book argues for the central importance of London as the site for the development of the modern retail market in fine art. It was in London that the structures and mechanisms that have come to characterize the commercial art system, including the paradigms of the commercial art gallery, the professional dealer, the exhibition cycle and its accompanying publicity, and a global network for the circulation and exchange of goods, first emerged and developed into their recognizably modern forms. This new commercial system involved a transformation of the experience of viewing art; of the relationships between artists, dealers, art objects, and audiences; and of the very definition of aesthetic value itself. Its history is thus a vital – and too long neglected – part of the history of modern art.

London was a crucial point of intersection in the networks of circulation and exchange making up the international, cosmopolitan art market. This book begins in the 1850s, when the London market became a pronounced presence on the world stage; tracks the consolidation of the gallery system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the London market was the strongest in the world; and concludes with the inter-war period when changing economic and political dynamics reconfigured the London art market. Taken together, the essays in this book map out the larger patterns of these structures and practices; individually they offer nuanced readings of the complex interactions between them, and the ways individual actors negotiated these new cultural forms.

Such a study is demanded not only by the complexities of the market today, which require a fuller understanding of their historic roots, but also by the practice of art history itself. With the rise of social art history in recent decades, the field has focused increasing attention on contextualization and such social- historical issues as class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Left relatively unexamined are economic factors, including the processes through which value is assigned to  art in both the primary and secondary markets – that is, which artists and art works emerge as significant and worthy of acquisition, study, and preservation. This omission is particularly striking with respect to the modern era given the saturating presence of capitalism and the commodity markets, a history to which modern art is often seen as setting itself in opposition. A history of the institutions and practices of the art market relocates modern art within its commercial contexts, and allows for a more historically grounded discussion of the tensions between art and commerce, one which sees the opposition as a variable and intentional product of human action and reaction, rather than an unfortunate but inescapable condition of modern life.

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