Under the global neo-liberal regime, the investment of financial resources into the field of contemporary art has been avidly scrutinized.[1] The exasperated criticism of market dominance over the production and distribution of art, the invention of alternative economies[2] did nothing to alter the fact that the financial realities shape to a large degree the fate and physiognomy of contemporary art. Hito Steyerl is one of the foremost analysts of the imbrication of art, technology, and the global economy. In one of her latest essays she claims that contemporary art

“is defined by a proliferation of locations, and a lack of accountability. It works by way of major real estate operations transforming cities worldwide as they reorganize urban space. It is even a space of civil wars that trigger art market booms a decade or so later through the redistribution of wealth by warfare. It takes place on servers and by means of fiber optic infrastructure, and whenever public debt miraculously transforms into private wealth. Contemporary art happens when taxpayers are deluded into believing they are bailing out other sovereign states when in fact they are subsidizing international banks that thus get compensated for pushing high-risk debt onto vulnerable nations.” [3]

It has been frequently observed[4]that for more than ten years international art fairs have striven to act not only as place where art is transacted, but also as nodes of communication and meeting places for the majority of the agents that make up the arts system. Institutions, curators, critics, artists, editors, and publishers meet at such events, whose showbiz glitz and chiefly commercial profile are given a “serious” veneer by means of initiatives such as panel discussions, curatorial contributions on the part of non-profit organizations, events with pretensions to dissect the most relevant aspects of the evolution of contemporary art and the discourse about art at the global level. If the globalization of art is to a large extent a consequence (as well as a cause) of the proliferation of art fairs and biennales worldwide, no less true is the fact that non-profit arts institutions (museums, centers for contemporary art, and other organizations that operate outside the commercial sector) have been experiencing an increasing pressure to recalibrate their goals and obtain the funds needed to fulfill them. The apparent harmony and proximity of the agents that cohabit within the space of the art fairs nonetheless does not conceal the tensionsthat pervade the arts system when the problem arises of supporting arts practices that are not subordinate to market forces, practices that manifest themselves in various forms of socio-political interventionism or which make critical gestures aimed at the instrumentalization of education, knowledge, and art in contemporary society.[5]

Public institutions in many parts of the world are characterized nowadays by a drive to question their mission and goals,[6] to reaffirm their relevance in the contexts in which they function, struggling to cope with economic pressures and with the urgency to adapt to an increasingly globalized artistic system.[7] The need to delimitate between private and public is still being fought for in such instances where public museum and state-subsidized organizations of contemporary do not wish to succumb to the overbearing forces of global capitalism.[8] Yet, the perpetuation of a sclerotic status-quo finds itself in perfect alignment with a global trend which seeks to subordinate the artistic production to the dynamics of the market. In the context of Romania, no matter how weak or provincial the market might be, it is quite perplexing to notice that art fairs and auction houses become powerful and to some extent dominant players in the visual arts field, while the education system and the institutions stagnate in their endeavor to fulfill their respective public missions. This forms an intriguing interplay between the local and the global. For although in a country like Romania flows of money, private or public, do not go in supporting contemporary art initiatives (as is the case with the funding of biennials or blockbuster exhibitions in the major centers of global capitalism), the financial aspirations play a crucial part in the orientation of artistic production and institutional policies. Due in part to the mainstream media which propagates a commercially-driven appreciation of the artistic production, students or young artists dream of successfully selling their works on the market, a market which, in reality, is a fetishized and phantasmatic construction.  

The contemporary art-money imbroglio is also undoubtedly linked to the public perception of contemporary art. In Romania, a significant part of society has come to perceive visual art (if it perceives it at all) solely as a market product. The media outlets usually report on topics of contemporary art only when announcing record prices obtained at auction by art-market stars. Institutions that play a major cultural and educational role—such as The Ministry of Culture and The National University of Art—lend their support to local art fairs where dissonant promotion, jumbled registers, the validation of false reference points, and the instrumentalization of art for commercial ends is unequivocally asserted. For its first edition in 2014, Art Safari, the newly established Bucharest art fair, aggressively and amateurishly promoted its agenda in the public space, claiming to be a strong promoter of Romanian modern and contemporary art, both nationally and internationally. At the same time, an internationally recognized biennial like the Periferic Biennial in Iași (which ended in 2008) has never benefitted from this kind of recognition from the central authorities, while the Romanian Cultural Institute (ICR), an institution which did a great deal to promote Romanian contemporary art abroad, was promptly reformed in 2012 to adjust to a more nationalist agenda. Although there are differences among the ICR offies opened in various capitals across the world, they concentrate nowadays on promoting “national values” and a provincial, if not outright reactionary, type of culture. Under such circumstances, contemporary art that wagers on critical reflection, which claims an educational dimension for itself, which prefers to question and to doubt, is forced to carve out a marginal place for itself, constructing for itself an identity separate from the non-productive and troublesome rhetoric that monopolizes the public space, a rhetoric which assimilates art with its investment value and with a pleasant addition to a “creative” lifestyle. Unfortunately, in the past ten years, even in the niche of contemporary art, represented by biennials or public institutions the discourse has more often than been simplistic and focused on the spectacular, as institutional performance is today evaluated in terms of the number of visitors, or else it is opportunistic and calculated, wagering on the institution’s international image, all of which is to the detriment of the production of content and the establishment of a real relationship with the public and the local artistic scene.

In the circumstances which are most familiar to me, for the curators/initiators of non-profit spaces and other types of programs led by curators, a fundamental goal is to provide a much needed incipient infrastructure designed to help local artists bring to fruition their ideas and projects.[9] This type of initiatives are important not only in the sense of irrigating the local art scenes with indispensable albeit modest production funds but also in fostering a sense of community which is sorely lacking in a fractured artistic contexts. Up until a few years ago the independent scene in Bucharest was dominated by conflicts that did not help coagulate the artistic community. In the meantime, the situation has improved but the funding problems and the lack of sustainable support from the state persists. In any problematic environment where the support for contemporary art is never a given, the small-scale institutions are deeply aware of their fragile position and are continuously compelled to act in order to consolidate their institutional stability. In this category are included artist-run spaces and other types of institutional nuclei—non-profits, usually run by collectives, affiliated or not to larger organizations, local and international. Without such affiliation—which ensures constant financial and/or logistical support—and by relying only on private sponsoring or applications for external funding, the chances of perishing are extremely high.[10]

The state budget allocation for small-scale entities that operate in the field of contemporary art is extremely limited. Public funds are predominantly channeled to institutional mammoths that have little room for maneuver and are often forced to comply to systemic pressures (all the while struggling to cover huge maintenance costs). In Romania there exists a stark disequilibrium in terms of resource allocation between museums or theaters which are subsidized by the government and the discontinuous and always insufficient funding directed to the independent sector; a stark disequilibrium, content-wise, between a “facade culture” promoted by the big institutions and the engaged, urgent, substantial initiatives and forms of manifestation emerging from the latter. When it comes to investing money in art for the sake of national representation or for state propaganda purposes, contemporary art is not the vehicle of choice. In such cases, cultural funding policies are more inclined to favor the commissioning of public monuments[11] or to stage large-scale events that can easily meet the much-desired quantitative quotas. The marriage of ultraconservatism with non-transparent funding schemes and non-democratic decision-making is a familiar trope in governance, whose counterpart is represented by the disappearance or the precarization of progressive cultural institutions which do not cater to the taste and interests of bureaucrats and politicians. The recent erection of expensive monuments (like the one in front of the National Theater or in the Revolution Square) in spite of protests and debates questioning their relevance goes hand in hand with the deprivation of space and funds in the case of an important but less officially embalmed institution like the National Dance Center. In the end, the lack of money might not be as much the problem as the waste of money.

Magda Radu


References and Further Readings

Sven Beckstette, Beatrice von Bismarck and Isabelle Graw eds.
2011 Texte zur Kunst No. 83, “THE COLLECTORS”

Caroline Busta, Isabelle Graw, Hannes Loichinger, Hanna Magauer eds.
2014 Texte zur Kunst No. 96, “THE GALLERISTS”

Isabelle Graw
2010 High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture. Berlin: Sternberg Press

Hito Steyerl
2015 "Duty-Free Art." E-flux Journal 3/2015. Web Nov 12, 2015.

Maria Lind, Raimund Minichbauer eds
2005 European Cultural Policies 2015. Stockholm, London, Vienna: Iaspis and eipcp—European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies

Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis eds.
2012 Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets: A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios. Berlin: Sternberg Press

Maria Lind, What, How & for Whom/WHW eds.
2014 Art and the F Word—Reflections on the Browning of Europe. Berlin: Sternberg Press

Suzana Milevska
2014 "Ágalma: The 'Objet Petit a,' Alexander the Great, and Other Excesses of Skopje 2014," E-flux Journal 9/2014. Web. 13. Nov. 2015.

Olav Velthuis
2005 Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Olav Velthuis
2012 “The Contemporary Art Market Between Stasis and Flux.” Flanders Arts Institute, Web. 13 Nov. 2015: 4.


[1]See the prescient anthology European Cultural Policies 2015, edited by Maria Lind, Raimund Minichbauer, Stockholm, London, Vienna: Iaspis and eipcp—European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 2005; or the more recent volume edited by Maria Lind and Olav Velthuis, Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets: A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios. Berlin: Sternberg Press. 2012.

[2]Regarding the invention of alternative economies see, for example, the project proposed by the e-flux collective, Time/Bank. See:

[3]Hito Steyerl, Duty-Free Art, E-flux Journal 3/2015. Web Nov 12.2015.

[4]Ibid., especially Lind, “Introduction.” 4-7. A poignant analysis of the art market can be found in Isabelle Graw's book, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010. On the more technical aspects of the art market see Olav Velthuis. Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[5]A recent example of the duality and hypocrisy often encountered at art fairs is the discussion organized at Frieze Talks in October 2015, bearing the title “Off-Center: Can Artists Still Afford to Live in London?” Addressing the difficult living condition of artists in the global economy does not make art fairs less complicit in the same economy that leads to the increasing precarization of cultural workers.

[6]See the CIMAM Annual Congress in 2014 (November 9-11, Doha, Qatar) which addressed the theme “Museums in Progress: Public Interest, Private Resources?” I hereby quote from the statement put forward by the organizers: “[P]ublic museums are coerced by public powers to prove efficiency and achieve measurable impact, inducing corporation-like behavior. Despite this, private initiatives would not assimilate the function of the museum to gain credibility and gravitas if its attributes were not still valid. [...] And yet museums are actively modifying their traditional practices and opting for alternative public outreach strategies. Is this reactionary or is it prescient? Is there an unprecedented focus on traditionally market-resistant media such as performance and film or is this a default reaction because museums are being sidetracked by the flux in contemporary art interests? Are the museums actually contributing to the bifurcation of the 99% – 1% by relinquishing their mission to the commercial and private spheres?” See the congress booklet, CIMAM, Web, 13 Nov. 2015: 14-15.

[7]Olav Velthuis. “The Contemporary Art Market Between Stasis and Flux.” Flanders Arts Institute, Web. 13 Nov. 2015: 4.

[8]Manuel Borja Villel, the director of MNCA Reina Sofía in Madrid, making the case for the relevance of museums and other public institutions and the need to counteract the prominence of the market:  “A fair is the antithesis of the discourse: in fact, there is no discourse at a fair, there's only accumulation which is not the same. This does not mean that a fair is not useful in itself. The problem appears when the fair replaces the discourse or the rest of the artistic institutions of a country due to their own weaknesses (say a University, Academy, schools, museums). When this happens, we obviously have a problem because this exchange then takes the place of relationship and knowledge. This is a problem in Spain and in many other countries, but I believe it should somehow begin to fade little by little.” [...] “A fair is not history. A fair is not discourse. A fair is not really knowledge. A fair is just that: a fair. So, when a fair is the only contact for so many people to 20th century art, an ahistorical vision of the art is generated: an acritical and adiscursive vision, related almost exclusively to the markets.” Web, 12 Dec. 2015.

[9]In the past few years, in Romania this type of support was provided by Salonul de proiecte (a program which functioned from 2011 until 2015 under the umbrella of The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest MNAC) and the centers in Bucharest, Cluj, and Iași. Salonul de proiecte is currently backed by the homonymous NGO association, Salonul de proiecte Association (Team members: Magda Radu, Alexandra Croitoru, Ștefan Sava, Alina Bucur)

[10]This happened with CIV (The Center of Visual Introspection) in Bucharest, Paradis Garage in Bucharest, HT003 in Bucharest, Studio Protokoll in Cluj and the already mentioned Periferic Biennial in Iași.

[11]Suzana Milevska analyzed the overproduction of public monuments in Macedonia. Her observations can easily be extrapolated to other contexts in Eastern Europe. In Suzana Milevska,"Ágalma: The "Objet Petit a," Alexander the Great, and Other Excesses of Skopje 2014," E-flux Journal 9/2014. Web. 13. Nov. 2015.