The distinctive character of the Spanish art market has its roots in the autonomías, the regional governments that exist because the Iberian peninsula was originally home to a number of independent kingdoms with different languages and cultures, the most powerful and wealthy of them being País Vasco, the northern Basque Country, and Catalonia, the rich heartland and industrial center, whose capital is Barcelona. Each autonomía supports its local artists by funding museums, exhibitions, purchases, and public art commissions, with party officials taking part in all decisions. Currently, the autonomía that has succeeded in exporting artists abroad is the Islas Baleares, or Balearic Islands, off the coast of Barcelona, which include Majorca and Ibiza; the government helps native artists, such as Bernardí Roig, Jaume Plensa, and Miquel Barceló, by supporting their exhibitions at home and abroad.
As is often the case in Latin countries, politics decides everything. And this is especially true of the Spanish art market. Patronage is liberally dispensed to political allies, and personal relationships determine whose work is promoted abroad and purchased at home. Private collections are rare because art sales are highly taxed (now around 10 percent but at one point, as high as 21 percent) whenever the government becomes desperate. Moreover, only a handful of Spaniards—chiefly heirs to great wealth or corporate leaders—can afford to buy art. This is ironic, because the Spanish public is especially appreciative of the visual arts, considering great artists on a par with matadors and sports and rock stars. It is incongruous too that the nation has so few important collections of modern art because Spanish artists—Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí—founded modern art, but they worked mostly in Paris since Spain was inhospitable to modernism.
For a brief moment, it appeared that Spain might emerge as a major art center. The government spent millions trying to stimulate the creation and collecting of art during the halcyon years of la movida, the cultural boom of the ’80s that followed years of dictatorial repression under Francisco Franco (who died in 1975), when the economy greatly expanded with funds from the European Community and property values and construction soared. In 1982, ARCO, the annual art fair intended to rival the FIAC in Paris, was founded in Madrid and paid for by the government. Collectors, curators, and critics were flown in at great expense to see the exciting new art being exhibited in Spanish galleries alongside the stands of the most prestigious international dealers.
I remember the excitement of the first ARCO fair, at which I was struck by the originality of a large painting on brown paper by an artist I’d never heard of named Barceló. The price was $600, which I didn’t have, so I encouraged my dealer friends Lucio Amelio and Fernando Vijande to buy it. They ended up fighting over the work, but Lucio, being from Naples, was faster with his wallet than Fernando, who was a Spanish caballero. Vijande, who was half Belgian and half Catalan, had just opened his gallery in a renovated garage in the heart of Madrid. He began his career in 1970 when he organized an exhibition there with the title “Eros and the Current Art in Spain.” More than a hundred artists attended. Franco’s police closed the show and Vijande was arrested. Many intellectuals and artists participated in his trial, and the judgment, unheard-of at the time, established a difference between eroticism and pornography. In 1971 he showed video artist Antoni Muntadas. The gallery launched other leading artists, among them Zush, Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Jordi Teixidor, Luis Gordillo, Miguel Ángel Campano, Chema Cobo, José María Sicilia, Juan Muñoz and his wife, Cristina Iglesias, Miquel Navarro, Susana Solano, Juan Bordes, and Dario Villalba. Vijande’s artists became internationally known and stars of the Spanish art scene. The dealer died in 1986, and the gallery, which was a hangout for the emerging avant-garde, subsequently went bankrupt.
After owners of the older established galleries such as Juana Mordo and Gamarra y Garrigues that catered to the wealthy establishment retired or died, young people with money preferred to purchase abroad. Buyers for new art were the foundations established by banks, pension funds, and insurance companies like La Caixa, Telefonica, and Banco Santander, which have their own collections. Museums, funded by the autonomías or, in the case of the national museum, Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, have puny acquisition funds. In the last few years, leading galleries like those of Soledad Lorenzo and Salvador Díaz closed their doors. This year, Lorenzo, in an extraordinary act of generosity, donated her personal collection to the Reina Sofía, greatly enhancing its holdings with works by historic Spanish artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Pablo Palazuelo; among her gifts were pieces by the highly esteemed Spanish painter Juan Uslé, whom she had introduced. At this time, Uslé has no Spanish representation; he has lived primarily in New York with his wife, painter Victoria Civera, for decades. Outside of Barceló and Plensa, who shows in New York with Galerie Lelong and in Chicago with Richard Gray, Uslé is the one Spanish artist who has emerged as an important figure on the international scene, represented in the United States by Cheim and Read gallery. His works are collected by Spanish foundations, especially the new Centro Botín of the Banco Santander, which is headquartered in his native Santander.
Gallerist Helga de Alvear started buying important Spanish artists early on and today owns more than 2,500 pieces by Spanish and international artists, mainly avant-garde works by German, Italian, American, and English figures who show at international art fairs. Her collection also includes works by Spaniards Campano, Daniel Canogar, Joan Fontcuberta, Ferran García Sevilla, Eva Lootz, Solano, and Dario Urzay, among many others. The de Alvear collection is a private foundation that will probably stay in Spain.
In the end, art collecting has devolved into the hands of a few wealthy collectors and Spanish corporations, which are legally obligated to spend a percentage of their funds on “social projects,” including art collections and exhibitions. The same artists’ names are found over and over in these collections. The Catalan savings bank La Caixa, which has outstanding corporate holdings, recently agreed to show its extensive La Caixa Banking Foundation collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona.
So why is this? Why are there so few collectors in Spain, especially of Spanish art, given that the country has produced numerous international art stars? For one thing, major money goes to buildings, not their contents: buildings are big, public, and showy. Impressed by the success of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, other museums have hired starchitects, whose astronomical fees and costs leave nothing for acquiring artworks to exhibit. A flurry of regional museums produced gleaming newly built structures, like the “city of culture” complex on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia designed by a group of architects led by Peter Eisenman; the project gobbled up all available government euros and opened in 2011 still only half-built. But the scandal of government money disappearing into building contracts is easily matched by the decades of inflated prices paid for public sculpture, presumably symbolizing local modernity and culture.
The banks do better with their building projects than do the municipal and state museums. The Caixa Forum on the Paseo del Prado in Madrid, completed in 2007, is a beautiful example of museum architecture by the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuron. And this past June, the long-awaited Centro Botín, designed by Renzo Piano, opened in Santander on the coastal city’s waterfront, framing spectacular views of the bay and including 27,000 square feet of exhibition space. Curiously, the opening exhibition focuses not on a contemporary Spanish artist, but on the German Carsten Höller, a darling of the international art fair crowd, and the second show will be devoted to New York–based, African-born artist Julie Mehretu.
It almost seems that the way to be a successful artist in Spain is to leave. Today, many leading Spanish artists live not in Madrid or Barcelona but in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and New York. There are many reasons Spain is a backwater for collecting contemporary art. Major Spanish fortunes tend to come from inheritance, often from banking and business families that flourished under Franco. Professionals are not paid well enough to collect historically important Spanish art. A Spanish property bubble commencing in 1983 created some speculation, but it crashed in 2008 and the market fizzled. The black money that had fueled the international contemporary-art market fled Spain during the governmental and administrative housecleaning that jailed numerous Spanish politicians following the real estate crisis.
Meanwhile, museums and exhibition centers encourage politically correct conceptual art, new media, and performance, which are inexpensive to produce but not long-lasting. In its great leap forward, the Spanish art world—museums, institutions, galleries, and artists—hoped to get ahead of everyone else by rejecting painting and sculpture as conventional and old-fashioned. The result of trying to leapfrog yesterday’s avant-garde has caused artists to make what is essentially uncollectible—performance, video, and installations—the dernier cri of the ever-elusive cutting edge. And they are sustained in their uncollectible activities by grants and prizes, with the result that they do not need to sell to survive.
To stimulate private collecting, a program designed to exhibit leading collections was recently initiated in Madrid at the Centro Palacio de Cibeles, the old post office, in the heart of the city. Thus far, the holdings of Alicia Koplowitz, Plácido Arango, and Juan Abelló have given the public an idea of what Spanish collectors buy. These investors are extremely private, socializing primarily among themselves. You do not see them bidding at auction houses, and they tend to acquire blue-chip classics, which does not stimulate the market for contemporary Spanish art.
Could things be different? Yes, but that would require the political will to change them. There are no artists’ districts in Spanish cities, but it would not be difficult to create low-rent zones where artists could work and live, even if later they become more lucrative real estate ventures. For 30 years the cheap rents in SoHo enabled the New York avant-garde to thrive. And Berlin, for its part, has been inviting foreign artists to live and work there through a system of fellowships that bring talent to encourage local arts and markets. The most important stimulus to collecting, however, is the so-called ley del mecenazgo, the law permitting private patrons to deduct contributions to museums from their taxes, which no Spanish government has been courageous enough to pass. Until the nation straightens out its political system and takes power from politicians who know little or nothing about art, there is not much to hope for in terms of expanding Spanish art collecting.
Barbara Rose is an art historian, critic, and curator who lives in Rhinebeck, New York, and Madrid.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 34 under the title “The Pain in Spain.”