Sometimes it feels like the art world exists in a bubble, where the wider public do not get to hear much about the ups and downs and goings-on of artists, curators and dealers. There are times, however, when incidents become big news. Over the past decade, the industry has been confronted with a number of questions about the ethics of funding, underlying power structures and the value of art, proving that the art business is still tied to larger trends and movements affecting the world.
Here are some of the sector's defining moments that not only ignited debate, but put into motion new movements and ideas on where the art world is going.
The arrest of Ai Weiwei (2011)
One of China’s most established artists, Ai Weiwei, is also one of the state’s biggest critics. His arrest in 2011, which was followed by a raid of his studio, sparked outrage in the art world and the international community for what was seen as a crackdown on the freedom of expression.
Ai spent years under house arrest, yet still managed to organise exhibitions around the world. In 2015, his passport was returned to him by China's authorities, after which he left the country to live in self-imposed exile in Germany. Today, Ai continues to make work, addressing issues such as the global refugee crisis and climate change.
Tate says goodbye to BP funding (2016)
For 26 years, Tate in London reaped the benefits of sponsorship from British Petroleum. This ended in 2016, after climate change activists called for the museum to sever ties with the oil company. In 2010, a BP project led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest marine oil spill in history.
On average, BP had been providing Tate with £224,000 (Dh1 million) per year. The protests were primarily staged by art collective Liberate Tate, which put together a 25-hour performance in 2015 that involved protesters writing warnings about the climate crisis on the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.
Though BP did not acknowledge the role of these activists in terminating the partnership, decisions by other institutions imply that the protests have sparked discussions about the ethics of arts funding. This year, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK also concluded its sponsorship deal with BP.
#MeToo takes on the art world (2017)
The art world was not immune to one of the most powerful movements of the decade: #MeToo. The call for the exposure of sexual harassment and assault across various industries took root in October 2017, when allegations of sexual abuse against film producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced. Women in education, sport, finance, politics and music also spoke up. Figures in the art world, such as Artforum co-founder Knight Landesman, dealer Anthony D'Offay, and artists Chuck Close and Subodh Gupta, were named in allegations of sexual harassment.
In January this year, the case against Landesman was dismissed in court, but the lawsuit and other revelations of misconduct exposed underlying problems also present in cultural institutions.
‘Salvator Mundi’ breaks records (2017)
Stories around Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi – its provenance, its current condition – have been conflicting. One thing is for sure, though. It remains the most expensive painting in the world, shattering auction records in November 2017 after it was bought for $450.3m (Dh1.6 billion) at Christie's. Compare that figure to the work in second place – Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger ("Version O"), which sold at auction for $179.4m in 2015. Even Willem de Kooning's Interchange, which holds the title for highest price paid in a private sale at $300m, is still more than a $100m short.
In the video of the Salvator Mundi's sale in New York, you can see the auctioneer's reaction and hear the incredulous gasps by bidders as the price keeps rising – it's as tense and gripping as any drama.
A call for repatriation of African objects (2018)
"I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France," said French president Emmanuel Macron in a 2017 speech in Burkina Faso. He then commissioned a report that recommended the return of looted artworks, on display in French museums, to the continent.
The authors of the report, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, argued that artefacts and objects with no proof of legitimate acquisition must be repatriated to Africa permanently. Artworks may have been looted in several ways, including theft, pillaging and the undervaluing of works in certain transactions.
The call for the works' return is not singular to French museums. It is a longstanding debate in the art world as to whether western institutions established by colonial powers should return artefacts and objects taken or acquired from colonised peoples.
Fire engulfs the 200-year-old National Museum in Brazil (2018)
About 20 million items were lost for ever when a fire broke out in the centuries-old Rio de Janeiro's National Museum. Founded in 1818, it was the largest museum in Latin America, housing Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts, as well the first fossils discovered in Brazil. Other losses included a 12,000-year-old skeleton, "Luiza", considered the oldest in the Americas.
A report revealed the cause of the fire to be an overheated air conditioning unit, a problem that was not helped by the fact the museum's smoke detector control system was not working and fire safety measures were not properly put in place. The fire raised criticism about the use of funds towards the maintenance of cultural institutions.
The Sackler family’s fall from grace (2018-2019)
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Sackler name has had strong links to art institutions worldwide. Those links have slowly been broken since the family's company, Purdue Pharma, was hit with a string of lawsuits alleging that it and the Sacklers hugely contributed to the US opioid epidemic by downplaying the risks of their prescription drug OxyContin, while continuing to push it on to the market.
In March 2018, photographer Nan Goldin and activist group Pain – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now – staged a protest in the Sackler Wing of the Met, demanding that Purdue take steps to stop the crisis and that the museum severs its ties with the family. These types of demonstrations continued at the Guggenheim and Tate, until mounting pressure caused many institutions to stop accepting donations from the Sacklers.
The self-shredding Banksy (2018)
Just as the auctioneer's gavel came down to confirm the sale of Banksy's Girl With Balloon for $1.4m, a shredding device built inside the work's frame started to churn. The room was in shock, and the anonymous artist later revealed that he was behind the stunt all along. In a video released by Banksy, a hooded figure sets up the mechanism before it arrives at Sotheby's for auction.
The winning bidder decided to proceed with the sale anyway, and in a bizarre twist, the destruction actually led to the artwork increasing in value. Consequently, demand for Banksy's work started to climb in the art market. In October, his large painting Devolved Parliament, which replaces members of UK Parliament with chimpanzees, sold for £9.8 million, setting a new record in the artist's auction price. Ever a critic of the art market, Banksy shared a post on Instagram noting the fact that he didn't own the work and implied that he would not be receiving any money from the sale.
The banana at Art Basel Miami (2019)
It's the artwork that launched a hundred memes. Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a banana to the wall of Perrotin Gallery's booth at Art Basel Miami this year and called the work Comedian. It sold for $120,000. A second version sold for the same price, and a third for $150,000. The artist claimed the work had been a year in the making.
Reactions from the art world and the public ranged from amusement, confusion and anger. On social media, people wondered how collectors could be willing to pay so much for what seemed to be an ordinary object. Pictures of fruits and other objects taped to the wall made the rounds online, with people joking about creating their own versions of the artwork.
During the fair, David Datuna took the banana off the wall and ate it, claiming the act to be performance art. But the banana itself is not worth much. What makes the work valuable is the artist’s certificate of authenticity.
While Cattelan is known for a being a kind of prankster, the work stirred serious questions about the value of art and the ways of the art market. For a fruit taped to a wall, that's a pretty impressive consequence.