SP-Arte Sales Show Buoyant Art Market Despite Brazil’s Economic Slump
“The fact we’re here means there’s smoke, and now we’re trying to find the fire raging,” says Mera Rubell, sitting next to her husband, Donald Rubell, in one of the lounges at SP-Arte. But the couple of übercollectors from Miami may have had a hard time trying to spot that flame this time around. The months leading up to the event’s opening have seen the biggest collapse in the Brazilian economy since the 1990s, with the local currency losing a third of its value against the dollar and a recession drawing near.
In the days leading up to the fair, gallerists were uneasy. Even at parties surrounding the event, the atmosphere seemed somewhat charged, and some dealers were just short of heralding a market apocalypse before setting foot in Oscar Niemeyer’s Bienal pavilion, SP-Arte’s home in the heart of São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park. Soon, however, the dark clouds began to dissipate—though not to reveal clear skies just yet. There is doubt on the horizon, and sales were slower in the first days of the fair in comparison to previous years. But it’s also not all that bad, thus confirming a truism in the art world: gallerists are known for complaining just as much as they are for embellishing a sales figure or two amidst the fair bustle.
Take it with a grain of salt, but dealers like Ricardo Trevisan, of São Paulo’s Casa Triângulo, and local gallerists Nara Roesler and André Millan reported above-average sales during the first hours of the fair. Berlin’s neugerriemschneider sold a piece by Renata Lucas and was in the final stages of negotiating the sale of a major Ai Weiwei installation, while London’s Blain | Southern had sold two editions of Bill Viola’s videos, and Lisson closed on a large Daniel Buren installation, a big hit at this year’s fair.
Official figures from local tax authorities, however, give a slightly different tally from these dealers’ narratives, stating that in total, just short of $400,000 in imported works were sold during the first day of the fair, in addition to just over $1 million in pieces sourced from within Brazil. The official figures do not account for all sales. While the Brazilian government offers temporary reprieve from the country’s notoriously high taxes on art imports during SP-Arte, not every gallery or work qualifies for the tax breaks. However, on a marginal basis, the figures remain a reliable way of measuring levels of activity against previous years.
“Two decades ago, São Paulo was a different city,” says Donald Rubell. “Now there seems to be more pride in it. Brazil made a quantum jump over the last years. The economy is lousy, but people still believe in their city.” Such is the case with the art market as well. But dealers are not overly concerned. “It has been harder to sell. But millionaires are still millionaires and spend money. It’s more a spiritual crisis than an economic one,” says Lucas Cimino, a director at São Paulo’s Zipper Galeria, whose stand had a huge photograph by Adriana Duque, the Colombian artist now famous for accusing Dolce & Gabbana of plagiarizing the headphones covered in pearls she makes for her portraits.
While the works at the fair are of exceptionally high quality—some galleries, like New York’s David Zwirner, put forth their best stands to date in São Paulo—the selection of pieces in many booths errs on the safer side. Wow factor is in short supply outside of the fair’s curated section on the third floor, which features some large-scale works. There, pieces by artists like Daniel Buren, Julio Le Parc, Fernando Ortega, Mona Hatoum, André Komatsu, and Neïl Beloufa, which have been commissioned by their galleries, occupy the usually-empty part of the pavilion, away from the crowds and from most of the action at the fair. Their installations seem a bit dislocated from the rest, but it’s a chance to see works without imagining a price tag—even though they are all for sale—next to them. Ortega’s delicate installations, one of them featuring a sheet of glass balanced on the tip of a bullet, are the standout in this section, presenting a sharp contrast to the rest of the pieces, all gigantic in size.
Many of the fair’s most interesting surprises are to be found in the very small stands close to the exit of the show. Jaqueline Martins, an emerging gallery from São Paulo, has been stepping up its game by rescuing now-marginal artists from the 1970s and ’80s, especially those working with video and performance. Martins’s show features nearly all women and centers around pioneering Brazilian video artist Letícia Parente. Also included are works by Lais Myrrha, one of the strongest artists in the local scene, known for her sharp reflection on the failure of the country’s modernist utopias. New York’s Broadway 1602 hosts a solo show of Rosemarie Castoro’s works, a minimalist who had pieces on view in Rio last year as part of the critically acclaimed “artevida” show. It’s a sign that everything minimal is as in as ever in Brazil.
The biggest stands, like those of Gagosian, David Zwirner, and Luisa Strina, all seem to have reduced the scale of the pieces on display, despite their expansive fair territory. The best works at David Zwirner are small, all-white wall sculptures by Jan Schoonhoven, a name recently being discovered in Brazil after a big Zero Group retrospective that toured the country with a stop at São Paulo’s Pinacoteca. Luisa Strina, who defies Brazilian taste by not showing “anything colourful or shiny,” in her words, also has a selection of very small and delicate works by neo-minimalist Fernanda Gomes, and Gagosian has a rather small “Achrome” by Piero Manzoni.
Waiting for a glass of champagne at one of the lounges, I overheard a curator saying that, indeed, it seemed like Brazil was ready for small-scale works. Someone else shot back that, no, collectors here are just ready to spend less money. This is definitely true. While previous editions of the fair had works high above the $10 million mark, this year’s most expensive work was a 1968 Picasso painting, going for a modest $5 million. Some works by Lygia Clark and Lucio Fontana topped out at $2.8 million, what seemed like a fair ask considering the rarity and sheer beauty of these pieces.
It was also a near consensus that other market giants like White Cube and Marian Goodman decided to bring a sophisticated selection of pieces, not just second-rate works or pieces that failed to sell elsewhere, as is usually the complaint amongst collectors here. According to one prominent São Paulo dealer, this reflects the fact that while the American market may have recovered, the rest of the world is still catching up, and the fact that good pieces by de Kooning, Basquiat, and Manzoni (just to name the ones at Gagosian) are available here has to do with how difficult they are to place in other markets at this point in time.
Silas Martí is a journalist and art critic based in São Paulo, where he is the staff visual arts writer at Folha de S.Paulo newspaper. He is also a contributing-editor at Frieze magazine.