The 10 Moments That Defined Art in the 2010s

Artsy Editorial
Dec 16, 2019 2:27PM

As the decade comes to a close, it’s an apt time to reflect on the most memorable moments that inspired, shaped, and shook the art world. These moments brought art to the forefront of global conversations and shed light on greater cultural trends affecting artists, artworks, or the art market. They started with artists, institutions, or forces beyond the art world, and either ignited enduring practices or movements, heightened conversations around race and representation in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, or forced museums to reckon with their ties to power and money. These moments illuminate collective values and concerns, unearthing complex notions with which we continue to grapple. Through and through, we see powerful cultural shifts centered in the art world that changed lives and influenced global economies.

The creation of Instagram and its impact on the art world

October 2010

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013. © Yayoi Kusama. Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London/Venice; KUSAMA Enterprise.


When Instagram launched in 2010, it gave artists a powerful new marketing tool. But it also had an unexpected effect on the art world: Curators began contending with how Instagrammable a show was.

The notion took root following Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirror Room” installation in 2013. Instagram feeds became saturated with the same scene: an endless galaxy of glittering lights converging on a solitary figure in a darkened room, a camera phone partially concealing their face. Though the installation has seen various iterations since 1965, Kusama’s concept exploded in popularity thanks to social media, with up to 2,500 people per day ushered into the David Zwirner room for 45 seconds each.

Instagrammable art hotspots began cropping up in dizzying numbers—Color Factory, 29Rooms, teamLab’s Digital Art Museum—all promising the perfect backdrop for the ’gram. In art institutions, Instagram changed the act of engaging with art, too. Olafur Eliasson’s major Tate retrospective this year saw visitors wandering through the haze of a room for the work Your Blind Passenger (2010), phones raised. It raises the question: Are you really connecting with an artwork if you’re viewing it through a lens?

The detainment of Ai Weiwei

April 2011

Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images.

In April 2011, Ai Weiwei attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong when he was detained by police. For 81 days, the artist was held captive and interrogated by Chinese officials.

Ai had expressed outrage over the Chinese Communist Party’s behavior through poignant artworks, Twitter, and his blog. His most famous critique concerned the mishandling of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which led to the deaths of over 5,000 schoolchildren. But not until 2011 did he face such radical measures for his actions. The most outspoken artist of our time had been silenced.

When Ai re-emerged, the ordeal only fueled his productivity. Though his passport was revoked, he mounted dozens of shows around the world. Guggenheim senior curator Alexandra Munroe noted that this moment “re-cast the stakes and scale of what impact an artist dissident could wield.” She added: “We have seen a huge proliferation since of artist activism, some wise, some shallow. But most troubling, we have seen the same worlds of art, journalism, and state diplomacy in the West show complete disregard for the millions of protesters in Hong Kong. Ai was right to warn us then, and is right to shame us now.”

The discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt’s trove of suspected Nazi loot

February 2012

Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1897. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum Bern.


In 2012, German authorities discovered a trove of more than 1,300 works of modern art in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the elderly and reclusive son of Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. The news of the collection sent shockwaves through the art world and beyond.

This mysterious and hugely valuable trove of works by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Paul Cézanne, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edvard Munch, Paul Signac, and others has been estimated at over $1 billion. Another 250 or so works were subsequently discovered in a house Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, bringing his collection’s total tally to about 1,600 objects.

The case quickly proved to be as complex as it was shocking, especially after Gurlitt died in May 2014, leaving his collection and all its fraught provenance issues to Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland. Since then, a few of the artworks have been returned to the heirs of their rightful owners. Many more have gone on public display in exhibitions in Bern and Bonn, Germany, or have been posted online in an effort to retrace their origins—a process that is sure to take years, if not decades.

The first edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong

May 2013

Photo by Jessica Hromas via Getty Images

Hong Kong has been a global trading hub for over a century, but its status as the most prominent art market in Asia was not fully sealed until 2013, when Art Basel was inaugurated in the former British colony.

Amid China’s economic boom in the 2000s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s consolidated their Asian art sales in Hong Kong. Riding on this promising trend, Asian Art Fairs launched ArtHK in 2008. The fair became the first launchpad of international galleries in Asia, with participating galleries such as Gagosian and White Cube. In 2011, MCH Group, the owner of Art Basel, acquired 60 percent of Asian Art Fairs, transforming ArtHK into an Asian addition to the world’s leading contemporary art fair.

Art Basel enhanced Hong Kong’s status as a global art market, acting as a vote of confidence for Western galleries such as David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, both of which opened outposts in the city in 2018. It has also helped introduce Hong Kong and Asian artists to the global art world—an opportunity that might have taken a winding path to build without the presence of Art Basel in Hong Kong.

The most expensive artwork by a female artist ever sold at auction

November 2014

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1930. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/ White Flower No. 1, 1932. Photo by Edward C. Robison III. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

In November 2014, Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) became the most expensive artwork by a woman to ever be sold. Alice Walton—heiress to the Walmart fortune and founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—purchased the canvas at Sotheby’s for $44.4 million. Mindy Besaw, curator at Crystal Bridges, said the painting “represents an iconic subject by one of the most important and influential modern American artists.” The singular sale was the apotheosis of a trend now sweeping the art world: rising market interest in work by female artists.

Sotheby’s published a report noting that between 2012 and 2018, artworks by women have increased in auction values by 72.9 percent. As if to confirm this trend, the auction record for AbEx superstar Lee Krasner doubled when her 1960 canvas The Eye Is the First Circle sold at Sotheby’s for $11.7 million in May 2019. Such potent market forces parallel a larger institutional attempt to finally give undersung female artists the critical attention they deserve.

The cultural appropriation controversy of Dana Schutz

March 2017

Photo by Michael Bilsborough. Courtesy of Parker Bright.

At the Whitney’s 2017 biennial, the painter Dana Schutz displayed a painting titled Open Casket (2016). The work depicted the infamous 1955 image of the brutally murdered African American teen Emmett Till laying in his coffin, rendered in Schutz’s signature, painterly style.

An uproar ensued with cries that Schutz, who is white, should not paint and profit from such a subject. The artist Parker Bright referred to the artwork as “an injustice to the black community” and famously protested in front of the painting, standing before it in a shirt that read “BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE.” There were calls to have the work removed and even destroyed. The painting remained on view, though the museum eventually added a placard beside it with a note from the curator, as well as a response from Schutz: “I don’t know what it is like to be Black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she wrote. Schutz closed her response with the following statement: “This painting was never for sale and never will be.”

The work sparked a dialogue about appropriation of experience and image; it happened at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement and was seen as aestheticizing a group’s lethal trauma.

The Artforum sexual assault lawsuit

October 2017

Betty Tompkins, Apologia (Artemisia Gentileschi #3), 2018. Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and P·P·O·W, New York.

In October 2017, curator Amanda Schmitt filed a lawsuit accusing then–Artforum co-publisher Knight Landesman of sexual harassment. The allegation against one of the industry’s most powerful figures was an early case of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement reaching the art world. It created a seismic shift in awareness of the deep-rooted systems that enable—and shield—abusive behavior.

Two years on, countless others have shared their long-buried experiences of sexual harassment in both private and work environments, including museums, galleries, and schools. As survivors named high-profile men such as Chuck Close and Subodh Gupta, others reckoned with what to do with art by an alleged abuser: To contextualize or to cancel?

Schmitt’s lawsuit was dismissed by a New York State court in January—but elsewhere, changes are on the horizon. Institutions, pressured to acknowledge power structures that can breed misconduct, are wrestling with ways to protect cultural workers. For most, this requires not only creating safe workplaces, but also correcting the gender and racial imbalance of staff. Such protocols are steps towards sustaining the movement. For now, the message remains clear: Predatory behavior long dismissed as cultural norm will no longer be tolerated.

The unveiling of the Obama portraits

February 2018

Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s accompanying portrait of First Lady Michelle went far beyond the norm for presidential portraiture; they created a new form of populist art and brought black portraiture to the forefront of a national conversation around race and representation.

The paintings were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in February 2018 to great fanfare: It was not only the first time a portrait of an African American president had been unveiled, but the first time a black artist was selected to paint a presidential portrait.

The portraits became a cultural phenomenon, but their influence extended into the art world, as well; they signaled a renewed cultural interest in black artists, which has manifested itself in more solo museum and gallery shows for black artists. Although artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tschabalala Self have sold record-breaking works at auction, works by black artists still tend to be vastly undervalued on the market, showing how far the art world has to go to correct historical biases.

The first museum to turn down a donation from the Sacklers

March 2019

The National Portrait Gallery, London. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) became the first major art institution to refuse funding from the Sackler family in March 2019, the decision incited a domino effect around the world. The Tate, Guggenheim, and Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit, and the Sackler family’s notoriety for profiteering off the opioid epidemic eclipsed their long-standing reputation as cultural benefactors.

The NPG’s decision sparked an ongoing international debate. Museumgoers, staff, artists, and curators alike turned to venerated institutions with heightened scrutiny, calling into question the ethical implications of the wealth fueling the art world. In July 2019, the criticism reached a breaking point when Whitney Museum vice chairman Warren Kanders resigned under intense pressure after revelations that his company, Safariland, manufactured tear gas used against migrants at the U.S.–Mexico border. But the aftershock is far from over.

As the art world grapples with institutions built on “toxic philanthropy,” an alternative funding model remains unseen. Time will tell how far and how deep the reckoning will go, but it could upend the art world as we know it.

The most expensive living artist is Jeff Koons (again)

May 2019

Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images.

In May of this year, Jeff Koons reclaimed the title of most expensive living artist when his iconic sculpture Rabbit (1986) sold for $91 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.

That result put him just ahead of David Hockney, whose Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) had sold for $90.3 million a few months earlier. It also eclipsed Koons’s own auction record of $58.4 million, set in November 2013 by his towering stainless steel sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000)—which had made him the most expensive living artist until Hockney’s poolside portrait came along.

The result confirmed collectors’ enduring hunger for Koons’s work, but it also showed that, amid fears of an oncoming economic recession, buyers will show up and bid big on artworks widely considered to be masterpieces. “You can think of Koons whatever you like,” Christie’s powerbroker Alex Rotter said after the historic sale. “This was his best work.”

Artsy Editorial

Header image: Photo of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) protest at the Louvre on July 1, 2019 by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images. All other photos credited in article body.