Art Market

A Brief History of the Spanish Art Market, through 35 Years at ARCOmadrid

Rob Sharp
Feb 16, 2016 10:31PM

Spanish art fair ARCOmadrid will celebrate its 35th edition when it opens next week. Since its beginnings in 1982, the Spanish economy—along with the global art market—has seen its share of peaks and troughs. Overall, though, Madrid’s contemporary art scene has blossomed. In celebration of its 35th year, the fair has selected more than 35 galleries to each present two artists to reflect on their experience at ARCOmadrid, and to “envisage their future.” With the Spanish art market’s history in mind, we spoke to some of the participating galleries—including those from the commemorative program—to look back, and forwards, to their life at the fair.


Two years into the new decade, Spanish gallerist Juana de Aizpuru founded ARCOmadrid to introduce Spain to the international art world. It began slowly. “I started the very first year,” said Madrid gallerist Heinrich Ehrhardt. “Commercially it was too early. There was a lot of interest, visitors from all over the country, but there was a very small amount of contemporary art happening at that time.”

This was a period of rapid modernization in Spain, which was transforming into a democracy after General Francisco Franco’s death in 1975. Though Ehrhardt said international galleries were gradually attracted, “people had been really separated,” he added. “It was the first time there was the exchange of artistic information, with foreign critics invited to Madrid.” (The plethora of worldwide art fairs seen today was not yet in evidence.) “Towards the end of the 1980s it got better and better,” said Ehrhardt of the increasing number of participants.



According to Elba Benítez, another Madrid gallerist, a United States recession in the early 1990s caused tremors in the art market, felt on both sides of the Atlantic. The first Gulf War coincided with the 1991 edition of ARCOmadrid, but following the war the fair enjoyed a steady stream of growth. “During that period there were many new collections being formed in Spain, either by a new generation of collectors, or by the new art institutions that had been created in the years since the country’s transition to regionalism and democracy,” said Benítez. “Many of these collections were very ambitious but had little or no background in collecting, so they often collected just a few works by many different artists.” 

The gallerist added that during this time, she noticed photography taking a more central place, and the first signs of Latin America’s strong presence in Madrid—a trend that continues today. The Spanish government could afford to support culture, and this spilled over into the private sector, where the benefits mirrored a surge in real estate. Beginning in 1997 there was also the “Bilbao effect” reinvigorating the north coast, thanks to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened that year and attracted a fresh wave of international visitors.


The fair reached a zenith toward the end of the decade, ahead of economically straitened times in the global economy and in Spain, particularly. An even greater breadth of international collectors and artists emerged alongside the growth of the Spanish property bubble, which saw astronomical hikes in prices at the turn of the millennium.

“The economic situation in Spain evolved very positively, but it was also a kind of artificial development with a lot of speculation,” said François Dournes, a director at Paris’s Galerie Lelong. “Between 2000 and 2007 the sales were very good.” He also observed a healthy presence of medium-sized galleries, like his, at this time.

However, when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2008, the global economy hit the buffers, and sales slowed. “But in 2009 there were still Spanish clients,” added Dournes. “And ARCOmadrid had an international spectrum of collectors, meaning we still sold artworks. We have never missed any year of the fair.”


The new decade saw Carlos Urroz, a former deputy director of the fair, appointed to director in 2010. As Berlin gallerist Esther Schipper acknowledged, “Spain went through a very difficult period” at the start of the decade. She said: “This El Dorado of institutions with considerable acquisition budgets was shrinking more and more.”

This initially made Spain less attractive for galleries from other parts of Europe, she noted. However, more recently Schipper has praised ARCOmadrid’s “strong curatorial support.” She added: “With their visitor and talk program it’s one of these European fairs that have a tradition not only of being about the market, but also a more intellectual market. It’s a fair where people go where it’s less about being seen, more about an intellectual collecting tradition. That’s one of my main reasons for doing ARCOmadrid.”

Rob Sharp

Explore ARCOmadrid on Artsy.

Archival photos of ARCOmadrid courtesy of the fair.