What’s Missing from the Art World? Giving Back

High-profile art dealers have spent decades encouraging a generation of wealthy individuals to spend as much as possible on works of art. What if some of that time and energy had been spent encouraging arts philanthropy?

Profiles of celebrity art dealers present an insider’s view of the very highest echelons of the global art market, and a glitzy world in which a small number of successful mega-dealers thrive alongside their multi-millionaire clients. It’s fascinating to see behind the curtain, but also fraught, as these profiles often paint a picture of an art world oriented toward visible consumption to enhance status—the primary obligation, or so it would seem, of the wealthy art collector.

A visitor looks at ‘Nancy Greene’ (1965) by Alice Neel during Art Basel . Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

High-profile dealers wield increasing influence over those collectors’ lives, and several mega galleries provide a suite of ‘cultural’ services beyond buying and selling. Gagosian gallery’s stable of experts can curate your home library to project intellectual flair, and rival gallery Hauser & Wirth is becoming a key player in the hospitality sector, offering luxury accommodations, clubs and dining in a variety of European and North American destinations. And the major auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips—will bend over backward to secure consignments, providing complementary valuations and financing services.

Yet these influential powerhouses sadly lack any inclination to guide collectors toward being more philanthropic. This shows an absence of serious responsibility toward the artistic community that enables them to rake in millions in profits.

Of course, if one were to ask any of the mega art dealers what they do to support the ecosystem they benefit from, they could probably point to the occasional charity auction or instances of corporate patronage and exhibition sponsorship. But imagine if they elevated their support to a whole new level by systematically allocating a fraction of their profits to fund scholarships, studios, art programs and grants for young artists and struggling institutions or collaborated to enhance their clients’ philanthropic efforts.

What if they could say to that high-net-worth tech entrepreneur expressing interest in a particular artist: “If you like this work, there’s a museum exhibition coming next year that might need support,” rather than just, “You want it? It’s yours for $500,000”?

Some might argue that this is not their job, but as philanthropy advocates, few aspects of the art world concern us more than witnessing collectors who are both impervious to the concerns of those who create the art they buy and oblivious to the difference they could make. In a recent interaction, we asked a couple that has been collecting for many years, and regularly spends six or even seven-figure sums on works from the likes of Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and White Cube, if they supported any museums or non-profit cultural institutions. Their reply was sadly a common one in today’s art world: “No, we get all the access that we need from the galleries.”

This lack of responsibility for the arts among collectors is a growing issue. In a recent interview with The Sunday Times, Lord Jacob Rothschild spoke about his fears regarding the decline in art philanthropy, stating that “in terms of priorities, art has become a lesser good cause than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

However, it is in the interest of everyone, including the art market power players, to have a healthy non-profit sector. This is especially true in contemporary art (by far the most lucrative sector) where the artists that dealers are hoping to profit from are there only thanks to the art schools that teach, the residency spaces that mentor and the museums that exhibit and validate—all of which struggle to survive in an ecosystem increasingly driven by a mentality that prioritizes returns over impact.

The risk is that if art continues to be treated as nothing more than an asset for amassing wealth, or the art world as a playground for the rich, we will be sleepwalking into a future where the art itself becomes shallow, the sellers and validators are one and the same and collectors continue ‘flipping’ artworks for a quick profit rather than acting as guardians of culture for future generations.

The art world should strive to create an ecosystem in which commerce and giving back coexist and support each other, and where collectors, by default, set aside a percentage of their collecting budgets to give back to institutions, large and small.

Those with influence in the art market must play a part in shifting the focus in the art world away from “me, me, me” and toward “we, we, we.” This would show collectors that by philanthropically supporting the arts, they can truly cement their legacies as stewards of culture and creativity. But if the old guard isn’t willing, there’s hopefully a new generation waiting in the wings, one interested in projecting confidence in their tastes and aware of the philanthropic potential of art collecting to benefit communities, institutions, academic research and art for posterity.

These future donors might not yet have deep pockets, but they will not look favorably on those businesses and collectors who have done little to benefit communities, nonprofits and education, and instead have focused on projecting wealth and power by snapping up immediately recognizable work by brand-name artists. Research suggests that next-gen donors are three times more likely to advocate on an organization’s behalf when contrasted with traditional donors, and they may be more forthright about calling out bad behavior.

The shift is underway, and we’re looking at a future in which opting out of meaningful engagement in art with arts philanthropy will be seen as akin to undiversified boards or toxic work environments. And the celebrity art dealers of this world, and the collectors that they serve, should see this coming transformation as an opportunity to embrace change and play a part in the seismic shift that the art world beckons for.

What’s Missing from the Art World? Giving Back