The Year in Art 2016

Artsy Editorial
Dec 13, 2016 1:15PM

2016 was a memorable year for the world, and art along with it. Informed by data from Artsy and over 150,000 articles from UBS’s art news app Planet Art, we bring you the 10 biggest moments in art this year and its most influential players.

Art Begs for Action

Photo by Rohit Chawla for INDIA Today.


In 2016, artists produced work that not only forced us to face painful current events head-on but also pushed us to actively bring about a better future. Ai Weiwei delivered the most prominent—and controversial—example of the year. The Chinese artist and activist made the ongoing refugee crisis the focus of his artistic output this year, even setting up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, where many come ashore seeking refuge. Ai provoked criticism when he posed in a black-and-white image that showed the artist prostrate on a Turkish beach, reenacting a viral photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi. Ai’s rendition drew detractors and champions, and for a brief moment, the struggle faced by migrants once again made headlines.

Photo: Guillaume Pinon/NurPhoto/Getty Images.

Ai rounded out the year by bringing the crisis to the United States with “Laundromat,” an installation at New York’s Deitch Projects where thousands of garments collected from an abandoned refugee camp now hang on racks. The thesis is simple: If we look, we will act.

A New Artistic Medium Is Born

Installation view of L’Avalée des avalés (The Swallower Swallowed) Rhino/Bear, 2016, View of Pariser Platz, 2016, and L’Avalée des avalés (The Swallower Swallowed) Iguana/Sloth, 2016. Courtesy of Jon Rafman and Future Gallery, Berlin. Photo: Timo Ohler.


The much-anticipated release of Oculus Rift this March brought virtual reality (VR) technology to the mass market—and into an increasing number of artists’ studios. Artists have been tooling with prototypes of the VR headset since 2013. But VR’s introduction into commercial circulation has allowed it to proliferate as a powerful new artistic medium. At the Berlin Biennale, Jon Rafman took viewers on a three-minute sequence in which destruction blew through Pariser Platz like the coming apocalypse before the balcony they were standing on collapsed, plunging them into the depths of the ocean; at Pioneer Works, Dustin Yellin became the poster child for the launch of Google’s Tilt Brush, allowing artists to paint in three dimensions; and at Eyebeam, Niko Koppel unveiled an immersive experience of a police shooting’s aftermath, seen through the eyes of the survivor. With virtual reality offering the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, artists will increasingly harness this technology to foster empathy and wonder.

Museums Grow in Size and Scope

Exterior view of the Tate Modern Project, London, UK, Herzog & de Meuron © Iwan Baan. Photo courtesy of Herzog & de Meuron.

This year, museums across the globe increased their capacity to bring more art to more people. The Tate Modern’s £260 million, Herzog & de Meuron-designed expansion provided the London institution with a 60% increase in exhibition space. In June, it received its first visitors: children from across the country who were invited to explore the new space. In the United States, the David Adjaye-designed $540 million National Museum of African American History and Culture broke new ground, literally and symbolically, becoming the first national museum dedicated to telling the story of black Americans in the country. And The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York affirmed its growing commitment to contemporary art when it opened the Met Breuer.

Schoolchildren preview Tate Modern, 2016. © Tate Photography. Photo courtesy of Tate.

Amidst this growth, many in the art world continue to ask crucial questions about the emphasis on—and greater available funding for—major museums expanding in metropoles already with extensive access to culture, rather than expanding that access to less privileged locations around the globe. As art museums continue to grow, their role in crafting a more inclusive narrative around our history and our contemporary society will only become more important.

Art Lets Millions Walk on Water

Christo, The Floating Piers (Project for Lake Iseo, Italy). Photo: André Grossmann © 2014 Christo. Courtesy of the artist.

This summer, the artist Christo mountedThe Floating Piers, his first monumental outdoor project since the death of his longtime collaborator and wife, Jean-Claude. A nearly two-mile walkway floating atop the scenic Lake Iseo in Northern Italy, the work was comprised of some 220,000 polyethylene cubes covered in shimmering golden-orange fabric. Jeanne-Claude and Christo, who together revolutionized the scale of public art, conceived of the piece together over 45 years ago. But Christo financed and shepherded the $17 million installation to completion himself.

The piece was expected to draw 500,000 people over its 16-day run, which began in late June. But a shocking 1.2 million eager visitors ended up making the pilgrimage. Those who traversed the walkway experienced the power that art has to viscerally reshape our relationship to the world we live in—a power that Christo, Jeanne-Claude, and other artists have reminded us of time and time again.

Brexit Brings Market Uncertainty

Michael Bowles/Getty Images.

Taking stock of 2016 means coming to terms with a series of geopolitical events few saw coming, including “Brexit.” Artists and art professionals, from Damien Hirst to Anish Kapoor, almost universally advocated for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, many signing petitions and open letters ahead of the referendum. Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans mounted a particularly stirring poster campaign for the Remain camp. But their efforts fell on deaf ears. Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23rd, accentuating the uncertainty that gripped the art market in 2016.

Wolfgang Tillmans, EU Campaign–Between Bridges. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner.

The first test of the post-referendum market came during October’s Frieze Week sales, where London auction houses managed strong results and sell-through rates. The tumbling value of the pound has since resulted in fewer British buyers overseas—but piqued interest from those abroad. What impact will Brexit’s rebuke of London and its cosmopolitan elite have on the art created by those who tend to be a part of that group? It is difficult to say. Though the results of the referendum were clear, the ultimate outcome for the arts and for the nation is anything but.

A Flag Ignites a Firestorm

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday, NAACP HQ, 1938. MPI/Getty Images.

In July, the self-described revolutionary artist Dread Scott raised a flag that read “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” outside Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. The sharp white text was an update of words emblazoned on a flag that flew outside the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1920 to 1938. Both unabashedly declared the dangers faced by African Americans.

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Scott’s flag went up in July, as protests gripped the country following the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. But it speaks to the numerous and continued slayings of unarmed black and Latino men throughout history. Though many supported the piece, a critical Fox News article prompted death threats against Scott and the gallery’s landlord—and forced the work to be taken inside days later. Since then, the flag has flown elsewhere, from a non-profit in Cleveland to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

Destroying History Is a War Crime

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images.

In late August, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi—a member of a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda—stood before the Hague’s International Criminal Court and pled guilty to charges that he organized and oversaw the destruction of holy sites in Timbuktu. The confession marked a successful culmination to the first-ever case in which such destruction was prosecuted as a war crime at the ICC, and al-Mahdi received a sentence of nine years in prison. Several months earlier, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad re-took the ancient city of Palmyra from the control of ISIS militants, though not before the terrorist group made rubble of many of the city’s cherished historical ruins.

STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Recognizing that so long as there is armed conflict in Syria and across the globe our shared heritage is at risk—ISIS’s recapture of Palmyra this month being only the latest reminder—several countries redoubled their commitment to protecting it this year and beyond. One example: The U.K. announced plans to establish a band of uniformed modern-day “monuments men” to safeguard humanity’s communal history from the dangers of war.

Guerrilla Girls Keep Fighting

Photo by George Lange, courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls.

A wave of all-women exhibitions at major galleries and institutions prompted some to champion 2016 as the year of the female artist. But to see both breakthrough and challenge, one need only look to the Guerrilla Girls exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in October. The show marked the first dedicated U.K. exhibition for the anonymous feminist artist collective, which has been agitating for greater diversity in the art world since 1985. The group riffed on their 1986 poster It’s Even Worse in Europe, sending out a diversity questionnaire to nearly 400 of the continent’s museums—only a quarter replied.

The Guerrilla Girls in front of Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire, courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery.

The results reveal, perhaps unsurprisingly, that European museum collections and exhibitions are primarily comprised of works by white men from Europe and the U.S. Others have pointed out that the problem runs deeper, with major museums primarily helmed by men, too. But across the art world efforts to bring about greater inclusivity are being met with increasing success. And the Guerrilla Girls don’t look to be stopping anytime soon, even as they continue to gain an institutional presence.

Confronting a New President

Art by Barbara Kruger, courtesy of New York Magazine.

Zoe Leonard, I want a president, 1992. ©Zoe Leonard. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, New York.

The United States presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump consumed most news cycles this year—and artists made the pitched political battle their subject. “For Freedoms,” the first-ever Super PAC run by artists, created and erected campaign ads across the country. Artist Marilyn Minter, meanwhile, created work with musician Miley Cyrus to support Planned Parenthood as the election cycle ramped up rhetoric against the woman’s health organization. And just a week before election day, Barbara Kruger superimposed the word “loser” over a photograph of Donald Trump for the cover of New York magazine. But on November 8th, Trump pulled out a victory that stunned the country, not to mention an artistic community broadly opposed to his campaign’s racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Blind Idealism Is...), 2016. A High Line Commission, New York. Photo: Timothy Schenck. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.

The market proved to be less outraged, the art world’s fear and anger contrasting with a rising stock market and solid results during the November auctions and at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Amid this turbulent climate, political art has already gained reinvigorated attention. And in the coming years art and creativity will play a crucial role in continuing to provoke the independent thought necessary for a healthy democracy.

Artists Forge the Future

Installation view of “Olafur Eliasson” at Château de Versailles, Versailles, 2016. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. Courtesy of the artist; neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. © 2016 Olafur Eliasson.

In 2016, art proved itself ever more integral as a conduit for pioneering new thought in ways big and small, social and economic. At the end of November, Design Miami/ announced a collaboration with the United Nations to bring together thought leaders from across the design and architectural worlds in order to promote sustainable solutions to urban development. At theChâteau de Versaillesthis summer,Olafur Eliassonaddressed climate change through a trio of site-specific works, including an awe-inspiring waterfall meant to increase our consciousness about the ecological and built environment. Over five days in Detroit this May, theNew Museum’s Ideas Citybrought together a diverse cross-section of artists, designers, writers, and thinkers(a third locals themselves) to fracture and reshape the flawed narratives around the city. And in March, Art Basel announce a new initiative, Art Basel Cities,which will use cultural programming to help spur urban and economic growthin metropolitan areas worldwide. We don’t know what challenges and opportunities 2017 will bring, but we do know that art is better positioned than ever to help generate dialogue and solutions.

Artsy Editorial

Video footage by Alex John Beck for Artsy with additional footage of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, “The Floating Piers, Lake Iseo, Italy,” 2014–16, © 2016 Christo.