​ Drawing… a separate market in its own right

[11 Jul 2017]

Long considered the preparatory, preliminary or initial stages of research for a creation in some other medium (usually painting or sculpture), drawing has been viewed as a secondary art category for centuries… except among a relatively small community of specialists for whom it represents not just the roots of creativity, but also a distinct and autonomous art form. However, over time, the traditional hierarchy of genres and mediums has eroded in favour of a reconsideration of the drawing medium and a more open-minded and less prejudiced attitude has emerged. As a result, nowadays it is not uncommon to find drawings occupying key positions in private collections, museums and specialised art fairs. No longer considered a minor genre compared with painting, drawing is today a highly dynamic and exceptionally prosperous segment of the overall art market.

The increased acceptance of drawing is particularly visible on the auction market where the recent concentration of demand onto the market’s sure-value signatures has boosted demand for works on paper by these same signatures. Over the last year, major collectors have focused on acquiring the best drawings by the market’s top signatures, while smaller, but nonetheless bulimic, collectors have satisfied their acquisitive urges in the drawing segment out of passion… and good sense: the fact that small-format drawings occupy little storage space is a major advantage for collectors who buy hundreds or even thousands of artworks. Drawings are also popular among novice collectors who tend to start collecting in this medium before moving on to others. Generally cheaper and more modest than other segments like painting, sculpture or installations, drawing represents a sort of low-risk learning arena for beginners.

By capturing the interest of new and old collectors alike, this specific segment of the art market has become increasingly dynamic in the auction sphere. In terms of global market share, it accounts for almost a quarter of global Fine Art auction turnover, a share that has doubled in 10 years. Demand from amateur collectors has increased so much that the medium has posted constant price rises over the last 10 years, with Old Master drawings adding an average of 60% and Contemporary drawing adding an average of 25%.

American, British and French collectors have been particularly active in the segment; however the growth of this market cannot be understood without appreciating China’s key role. China’s artistic traditions are firmly rooted in the mastery of ink, a technique that illustrates the essence of China’s fundamental aesthetic and philosophical tenets. The explosion of the Chinese art market – centered around 2010 – corresponded perfectly to a major boom in its drawing segment. So the world’s most expensive drawings are naturally by Chinese artists, including Contemporary works, in a market largely driven by strong domestic demand. Although the world’s most expensive drawing at auction is a version of Edvard Munch’s iconic The Scream ($107 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2012), the Chinese have pushed their Old Masters to very high price levels: the Modern artist QI Baishi’s Eagle Standing on Pine Tree generated more than $65 million at China Guardian in 2011) and the Contemporary artist CUI Ruzhuo, one of the world’s most expensive living artists, creates drawing that regularly fetch prices higher than Picasso’s.

Compared with the obvious importance of drawing in Chinese culture, Western recognition of the autonomous nature of the drawing segment has taken much longer to develop and is largely the fruit of substantial work over a number of years by a number of key art critics, market players and cultural institutions. In the 1990s, museums were still reluctant to exhibit drawings on their own, and art schools began to drop drawing from their programs in favour of conceptual articulation or familiarization with new computer software. However, artists never seem to have abandoned drawing and it is primarily due to recognition that a number of them received during the 1990s that drawing has recovered a key position in the Western art world. The charcoal drawings by the American artist Robert LONGO and the baroque, dramatic and ephemeral works by the French artist Ernest PIGNON-ERNEST on the walls of major cities have greatly rehabilitated the practice of drawing. In fact, drawing has gradually liberated itself from a corset that was restricting its evolution and its audience. Twenty years ago, few galleries were willing to put drawings in their windows. Its emergence from the shadows has been driven by specialized art fairs and a concerted effort from major museums both in Europe and the United States. From the Drawing Center on the Lower East Side of New York to the recently opened Paris Drawing Lab, exhibitions have focused on demonstrating that drawing is no longer limited to one technique, but actually covers a whole multitude of techniques. A “field of diversity”, it is continually pushing out its limits with contemporary discoveries and is continually conquering areas other than the white sheet of paper, stepping outside its margins, adopting all kinds of media, opening new areas for exploration. In sum, drawing remains a resolutely Contemporary genre subject to the same mutational forces as many other artistic media.