Interview with Bruna Fetter – “Amongst the 300 artists most often searched on the main online sales platform, only around 40 are women. Just over 10%.”

“The interview with curator and researcher Bruna Fetter brings us updated data – from her own doctoral research – on the art market and the women’s situation in that context. We also tackle the mechanisms of value determination for symbolic possessions in the visual arts system, the relationship between public and private collections and the mise-en-scène of the circuit. It’s important to highlight the comparisons between the national and international circuits, as they show significant differences when it comes to the participation of women in them. The researcher also discusses her own professional experiences when it comes to work relations at cultural institutions and the hardships women face while trying to build their careers.” – Lilian Maus

ISABEL WAQUIL – How do you see the relationship between your background and the art scene‘s dynamics since you have been connected to very important institutions, such as the Mercosul Biennial Foundation, Ministry of Culture and Studio Clio, among others?

BRUNA FETTER – I think my background is actually a reflection of all the strategies needed to live off of art and culture in Brazil. You need a wide range of abilities and you need to take advantage of all opportunities and try to conquer space, because people rarely have a steady job and a salary that actually pays the bills. We survive on projects, some bigger, some smaller. Some take more time, others take less. And our lives end up like a quilt, a “projects quilt”. Of course, for that quilt to become big enough, you need to multiply your connections, institutional or not. So it just happened that I ended up working with many institutions. At one point I opened up my own company to stay legal in this field, getting a work permit to provide services. Also having this  connection to the Ministry of Culture for a few years writing reports was very interesting to understand the other side of this matter, the reasoning behind the creation of the rules we are subjected to. So I believe my background reflects the need for all professionals in this area to stay open if you want to live off  of art.

For almost a decade you have been taking part in the institutional dynamics. What would you say has changed in the last ten years?

People are more professional. I have been teaching cultural management, production and marketing for about four years. I have been fighting to show people that being professional is very important nowadays, that it makes a big difference. The market is expanding for professionals. The Rouanet Law is twenty years old and it changed the global reality of the artistic fields. However, this is a very competitive field and to stand out and make your projects happen you have dedicate yourself, study, fight for things and understand this landscape, seeing all the possibilities to “get in”. The more knowledgeable you are, the more chances you have to get in. And that doesn’t apply only to art, but because in this field you live off of projects, with few long term perspectives, we end up feeling the need to be more professional in a very intense manner.

When did you begin to be interested in the art market?

My research projects alway began with questions that came from my contact with practice. My questions come from my own inquiring, my conflicts, my daily battles with things I try to accomplish. My interest for the art market began in the same manner. I was production coordinator at the Sixth Mercosul Biennial, a production environment whose size allows you to observe certain things. When I say “size” that encompasses the volume of work as well as the complexity of relationships. You have to borrow works from renowned international museums, you have to deal with collectors of all kinds, another language, another perception of how relationships are established. So questions started to arise. I became very interested in the process of determining values in contemporary art. What makes a collector tell his insurance a certain piece is worth a certain amount but when you research it, the market value is different from that?  And why are those pieces insured at that value despite of this?

What are the dynamics involved in these values?

There’s a mise-en-scène around this issue, and that started to catch my attention. To be part of a Biennial adds value to an artist, his relationship to the gallery, the relationship with collectors. Perhaps because art is not my original field of work and at first I didn’t understand these relationships,  this issue was always in the back of my head. I started to think about it, read about it, and when I began to visit a couple fairs I was sucked into it. First of all, it is very tiring. Fairs are always very intense visually, there’s this accumulation, this buildup of information. Secondly, I detected this phenomenon – I saw there were relevant things happening there which influence the production and reflect on other areas which are not present per se in this market. That’s when I got involved with market research and nowadays I am completely immersed in it.

Do you think there’s really a “fear of talking about the market”, like you mentioned in your master’s essay?

We have to be very careful when we talk about certain things because everything happens so quickly, we have to be careful or it becomes outdated. That essay was a research I began in 2006, presenting the thesis in 2008. It is now 2014 and I think a lot has changed in this last six years. The market has been changing at a significant pace  – perhaps a scary pace in some cases. When I mentioned that in my thesis, the market was not the focus of my research, and the knowledge I had about it came from my readings at the time, like Bourdieu for example. I still believe in many ideas presented by Bourdieu, many of which are still valid and we cannot disregard them. At the same time it is important to keep in mind that he was talking about a different system, a different context, the modern art world with its own dynamics, different from the dynamics we see today.

That being said, yes – there are a series of social protocols in the artistic universe, a universe where things are built in a very symbolic manner. Those protocols and social interactions develop and reinforce what happens in the symbolic realm. Bourdieu said specifically that in the art world it is forbidden to talk about money. It’s as if the artists themselves, when showing that they want to make money with their work, were belittling their own work. They would not be working for the love of art, but because they see it as a way to make a living. In other words, they would become commercial – and that, it seems to me, is the worst thing you could call an artist. It is not what most artists would want to hear about their work. I believe nowadays the theoretical and academic fields still attempt to distance themselves from the market. I can see that in my doctorate classes – whenever I say something about the market, reasoning, presenting its existence as something inevitable, my colleagues generally look at me with such passion in their eyes, some of them are so angry about what I’m saying. I think that’s silly and unfortunate because I am willing to analyse this phenomenon and not defend it, or much less deny its existence.

Isn’t that a matter of context?

In Porto Alegre this is ever more present because there’s no actual market, no commercial market. We have a few galleries and an institutional market, because the market unfolds in various different types and the commercial aspect is only one of the possibilities. But it seems to me that today – especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo – when it comes to a new generation entering the market, be it commercially or institutionally, this is being seen less and less as a taboo. This new generation understands the need to have a portfolio and how the relationship with the galleries work. They understand that the galleries are doing a kind of institutional work for them, showcasing their work, making it available for curators and institutions. Here, in our local reality, without a strong market that contributes to the distribution of the artists’ work, I think people end up safeguarding themselves as well as having a certain prejudice against market. But I don’t see it that way.

There’s a funny passage in your dissertation where you recall being at a Art Critics Convention and a man from the Netherlands says that art history is built by the market, and not historians.  How did that sound to you?

Yes, that was Maarten Bertheux, at the International Art Critics Association convention at the Federal University of São Paulo in 2007. At the time, I wasn’t researching market, but I think what he said was one of the main seeds that made me start paying attention to it. Olav Vethuis and Maria Lind published a book in 2012 called “Contemporary Art and its Commercial Markets”. In that book they introduce the idea that, during Modernism, we were interacting in a system called “critic-dealer-system”. That means your reputation, your career and value of your work were determined by the dynamics between critics, producers and gallery owners. The critics would give it their seal of approval, validating a certain artist, a certain production. The price of the artist’s work would rise and the gallery would benefit from that. Nowadays what we see with contemporary art is a significant change in this system of value assessment. We now see a collector-dealer-system. What does this change mean? It means the role of the critic is losing space  and the role of the collector is gaining importance when it comes to establishing the value of an artist or a piece.

That’s the kind of thing I bring up during class in a very natural way because I have been reading about it so much and then people get angry, but it’s all very simple. You just have to look around you and you will see that most institutions buying large collections are private institutions, acquiring private collections. The most iconic example in Brazil right now is Inhotim. Any artist that has their work in an exhibit at Inhotim gains national and international visibility just for being there. The public museums in Brazil are not doing that, they are not taking up that role. In general, public museums build their collections off of the artists’ lesser works because those are donated to them or bought for very little money. In 30, 40 or 50 years, when those artists are no longer alive and people want to research their work, where will they go? To private institutions, because the collections at public institutions are, unfortunately, irrelevant. That means what stays in terms of art history as the most significant works of our times are the works found in private collections.

I think Maarten Bertheux was right when he said we need to be aware of that – not that we need to simply accept the situation and be content with how precarious the public museums are because we have the private ones. Quite the opposite. We must fight for the public museums to have meaningful collections, to become a reference in terms of collections and for research as well. However, the most important thing he says is, in my opinion, that we should stop pretending that money is not an issue. I prefer for the artists to sell their work and support themselves with that than to see them having to work odd jobs, not having enough time for their artistic work.

Could we complement his idea that “art history is made by the market” by adding that this market is predominantly masculine?

Yes, but I see changes in that. Changes that are slow, but irreversible. When you look at the ten artists that sold the most this year, or the 300 most valuable works in the world, you see a couple things: the modern artists, who are still the most expensive ones – beating records at auctions – are essentially all men. In the top ten most expensive ones in 2013 there’s no women, globally speaking. There’s no women in any top ten. What I notice is that when you look at the most recent works, in a generation where men and women are supposedly more equal in terms of opportunities to study, you see that gap is becoming smaller. One example is photography. It is a recent media if you compare it to painting. When you look at the top ten photographers you have perhaps four women. It’s a new media, from when women were already occupying a different role in society. Because of that you see Cindy Sherman, amongst others, at the top of those lists. Still, of the ten most expensive works auctioned in 2013, not one was from a female artist. Amongst the 300 artists most often searched on the main online sales platform, only around 40 are women. Just over 10%.

In Brazil things are going better, it seems. A poll by Itaú Cultural from a year ago shows Waltércio Caldas is the most popular Brazilian artist. That came from data from exhibits, books, events, essays on the artist’s work and his inclusion in private and public collections. On this list you have the 75 Brazilian artists who, according to that criteria, are the most popular ones. Of those 75, 25 are women. That’s one-third of the list. Regina Silveira is second on this list that also includes Rosângela Rennó, Tommie Othake, Mira Shendel, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, among others. In that sense it seems to me we are doing slightly better than the rest of the world.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because of the generation gap. We began having an art circuit in Brazil around 1950. Until then there was no proper infrastructure. When you start being relevant and having more visibility in a broader circuit, you realize what we had that is interesting abroad is what was made in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when women already had more opportunities. It’s not the stuff from centuries ago. Obviously to fully realize the differences we will still require years to fulfill the deficit. In that same poll by Itaú, they name the curators that organized the most exhibits. Amongst the ten curators listed, three are women. What is interesting is that it is not a matter of quantity but quality as well, in the sense that the female curators end up being less renowned than the males on the list. Between the males and the females on the list there’s a large gap in terms of visibility and publicity for their projects. How many of the women on the list were curators at the Biennial, for example? What about the men? I understand people are skeptical of analyzing numbers but I think it’s important to make an analysis in terms of quality as well. Nowadays we have more women occupying those positions but things are still not even. Of course, value in art is a very subjective thing, we can’t compare things like you would compare the salary of a man and the salary of a woman who work for a specific company. What I say is an irreversible tendency is the significant difference in terms of generations, in the sense that we have more women working in important positions than we used to have in the past. And once again, that is the result of professionalizing the art circuit, as we see women have been dedicating themselves to studying in this field.

Another example is the Latitude project, a partnership between ABACT (The Brazilian Association for Contemporary Art) and APEX (The Brazilian Agency for Investment and Exporting) which consists in a wide research on the Brazilian art market. There’s not a lot on gender issues in this research, but when they map the structure of the galleries – how many people they employ, average salary and so on, they say 70% of those employed in galleries are women. Employed, so not necessarily the owners. That shows where power lies and the relations established.

When it comes to women’s participation in the market – not necessarily just when it comes to breaking records – do you feel there’s a balance between men and women?

No, in terms of institutional occupation and visibility, men are way ahead of us. Today in Porto Alegre all directors at the major institutions are men. Even though most of the staff is made up by women, the directors are all men. 2013 was the first year we had a woman as president of the Mercosul Biennial Foundation, after almost 20 years of Biennials! Although we are very close to making things happen in the artistic production and cultural management fields, at the end of the day the positions of power are not occupied by us. But I think we’ll get there!

What other analysis of quality can you make of the data based on quantity?

One interesting things is that if you look at the list with the ten most important collections in the world, half of them are couples, signed by two people. That means we can see women appearing where decisions are made a little bit more, which was not always the case. Of course, when it comes to couples you can’t really tell who’s making the decisions, but there’s a chance that, since they are signing the collection together, the women are actively making decisions. That’s why it worries me that we still have so few renowned female curators and even less women as head of institutions. Those are the taboos we need to break.

While researching for this book at the beginning of 2014, by sheer coincidence, a friend shared an article from England’s Independent where Georg Baselitz says women can’t paint – that it is a matter of lacking the ability to do it, although it seems he is just trying to be controversial. He says the market is proof of that, as there’s no big names out there who are women so women can’t paint. He finishes saying “As always, the market is right“.

Then Brazil is the exception in this reasoning! Here amongst the most prominent artists on the market we have to women from the 80’s generation. If market calls all the shots, like he says, than the market is contradicting itself. Baselitz is a great painter, but this is a matter of point of view. He’s from a generation where women barely had access to studying art, nobody would teach a woman how to paint. It is possible that the female painters he knew actually had a lower quality work, but not for a lack of ability as much as for a lack of technique, lack of a chance to be included in the circuits where things were being discussed and showing their work! To this day we see the consequences of that – there’s still people that think like him. 

What do you see in terms of internationalizing Brazilian art, which is the theme of your research? Are you still studying that?

Yes, the focus of my research is internationalizing Brazilian art through fairs and how fairs have been used as an active instrument to take art to other places, giving it visibility, building possibilities and relationships with collectors. There are three fairs I have been studying: SPArte, ArteBA (Buenos Aires) and ArtBasel Miami. Each reveals a different circuit: SPArte is Brazilian, ArteBA is the oldest in Latin America and ArtBasel Miami is one of the biggest ones in the world and one of the main points of entry for Latin American art into the United States and Europe. They have very different dynamics, very diverse structures. After the first round of visits and interviews in 2013 a lot has come to mind already. I improved the methodology a lot – which I will apply on the next round of interviews –, and a few things already became very clear. First of all, people say there’s a tendency for Brazilian art to become more international; it is not a tendency, it is a fact. It’s real. The fairs are a big part of that. I have been seeing new galleries, that have been open for only two years, holding four fairs a year. In the Latitude study I mentioned before, galleries say that 59% of their sales happen at the gallery, 29% at national fairs and 9% at international fairs. If you add the last two, that’s 40% of the galleries’ sales! It’s almost half of it just at those events. It is happening and it is inevitable. How this is being used is a different subject. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement. The Latitude project itself is a big step towards collecting and compiling information about the art market, including the fairs.

Do you feel there’s something specific being sought after in the Brazilian artistic output? Are there certain stereotypes feeding these dynamics?

I think there used to be more of that. Nowadays I believe collectors are seeking Brazilian art because of its increased value. I also think that people used to be less knowledgeable and are more informed now. There’s also many different profiles when it comes to collectors and other professionals. Even though I hate those labels, it seems Brazilian art is usually seen as very creative and of very high quality. It’s something different from what people usually see, and in that sense there’s a certain curiosity. But let’s not fool ourselves: Brazilian art caught the world’s attention because Brazilian collectors are now wealthier and decided to invest in art. That drives the prices up nationally, and reflects on the international prices. People look at Brazil knowing that. One things feeds the other.

Although it is impossible to be completely conclusive, what would you highlight as key points in the dynamics of the art market system?

It all depends on what you are looking at. Are you looking at the primary market, the work that just left the artist’s studio and goes to the gallery? Are you looking at the secondary market, retail? There are many internal dynamics and each presents its own specific ways to establish value, prices, influence. Those dynamics often change and there’s an example that illustrates that well – I used to talk a lot about the crisis of the critic, how the critic did not have the same influence it used to have. In 2008, when the real estate market crashed – we also heard a lot about the art market crashing – two things happened that went against everything that was happening at the time. The first thing was the return of the great masters. For a while the focus of auctions had been on post-war art, but at a time of crisis, what happened? People turned their investments to what was safer. Contemporary art had been on the rise, but then it stopped and started to collapse. The second thing was that the critic regained its relevance. And why is that? At a time of crisis, there’s less speculation. Collectors stop investing and buying like crazy, so when things slowed down what the critics were saying about the artists became relevant again. That’s what German researcher Isabelle Graw says. They are waves, it’s dynamic.

It sounds like very economic centered dynamics, because, for example, at a time of crisis in the stock market a savings account becomes the best and safest option, like what you said about the classics.

Yes, but there’s a very interesting thing about a time of crisis. People forget art itself is a form of currency. For example, if a piece is worth ten million dollars and the dollar drops, the value of the piece doesn’t necessarily drop with it. If you use all your money to buy currency and the currency drops, your money drops. It’s not the same with art. Of course a piece can lose value, as well as the artist, but at a time of crisis it works as an independent currency that’s not necessarily connected to the banks.

There’s also an interesting detail about determining an artist’s value which is that people say it should work like a turnstile, going only in one direction. That means it would only go up. If the price starts to drop, it will lock up. The gallery owner will do everything to keep the price stable, even if it has to take the artists off the shelves, even the artist has to come back with different, cheaper pieces in another gallery and so on. To lower the price of an artists work is the worst thing you can do, so raising the prices is something that must be studied carefully.

It is a heavy and complex economic game.

Indeed. It follows certain rules, but at the same time not all rules are set and not all rules apply all the time. So you have to analyse everything on a case-by-case basis.

What do you think about his notion that some artists become conditioned by the market when they start selling more?

I think there’s a lot more involved in that. Some artists will focus on certain series that did well commercially and start making more and more of that particular series – more than they should. I think there are different moments in the career of an artist and some are more interesting for the market while others are more interesting conceptually speaking. Some artists end up benefiting from more commercially intense moments, but the art system (not just the market, because the market is only a part of the system) will self-regulate those issues. When an artist becomes too commercial, the system will decrease its conceptual value. How the artist is perceived is a combination of many aspects, and the financial aspect is only one of those aspects. There’s also the historical aspect, the aesthetic aspect, the experimental aspect, the social aspect and so on. When the artist starts selling too much, that might be seen with kind eyes commercially speaking, but the artist will be frowned upon by their peers. Their value decreases on another scale. And after a while that will make up the outline of a career.

There’s an essay by Ana Barbosa where she says many women don’t want to be labeled as feminists, they don’t want to be connected to that discourse. Do you think there’s a market effect for the artist to be connected to a cause like that?

I think that is a characteristic of the contemporary society, where identity is very fluid and therefore people don’t want to be connected to causes anymore. In the old days, the matter of being Brazilian, dealing with our national identity was something that had a lot of weight. Nowadays nobody wants to be a “Brazilian artist”, unless there’s a very specific context connected to that. People want their artistic work to be of interest no matter what country they are from, what gender they are, what tribe they identify with. I think that, in a way, the same happens to gender issues. Women are occupying many spaces and perhaps there’s no longer a need for affirmative measures. Generally speaking, I see that tendency. I was just writing about a friend who does performances and the feminine is an essential part of her work, but she doesn’t think about feminism specifically. It is part of her work because it is a part of her as an individual, it’s inside her and it’s reflected on her work.


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