Emerging Markets: Bogotá Colombia
Artists from a rich culture take center stage
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Last September the New York art world was intrigued when an untitled 2011 work on paper by Colombian-born Oscar Murillo fetched $391,475 at Christie’s London. The price was more than eight times its high estimate, and subsequent sales for the London-based artist’s text-and-graffiti-style works—which have been compared to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s—also achieved multiples of their high estimates. The 27-year-old, who has exhibited at South London Gallery and the Rubell Collection in Miami, completed the sale season with the announcement that he would join the David Zwirner Gallery.
Murillo’s performance is indicative of the potential of the Colombian market, which has become the darling of Latin American art aficionados. The scene appears poised for sustained development as long as the country’s economy and government remain stable. Even as poverty, education, and corruption remain pressing concerns, the long isolated country is refashioning itself as a rising democracy and tourist destination, and culture is bolstering those ambitions.
New Fairs and a Biennial
One measure of a market’s potential is the presence of a native art fair. In that respect, Bogotá’s ArtBO, held each October, bodes well. Sponsored by the city’s chamber of commerce, ArtBO has flourished under the direction of Maria Paz Gaviria, the U.S.-educated daughter of former Colombian president César Gaviria Trujillo. The ninth edition last fall had 26 new exhibitors for a total of 65 from 21 countries, showing steady expansion from the previous year. Exhibitors of note included Mexico’s Alfredo Ginocchio Galería and OMR, Brazil’s Galería Luisa Strina, and Colombia’s own Casas Riegner and La Central. Attendance leaped 25 percent to 25,000 and VIP participation tripled.
The founding director of ArtBO, Andrea Walker, launched Art Cartagena in January of this year. The boutique fair featured 14 exhibitors, 10 from overseas, and drew 10,000 visitors.On its heels comes the new privately sponsored International Contemporary Art Biennial of Cartagena de Indias. Under the artistic direction of Brazilian-born Berta Sichel, the inaugural edition (through April 7) distributes art from 45 countries throughout the Caribbean port city, with free performances and site-specific installations in virtually every major plaza. But the country’s major annual contemporary art survey remains the Ministry of Culture’s 74-year-old Salon Nacional, which has expanded to include international talent under the aegis of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín’s dynamic former director Juliana Restrepo.
Casas Riegner in Bogotá is Colombia’s most internationally connected gallery, participating in Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and Frieze London and New York. “My business comes mainly from the fairs,” says owner Catalina Casas, whose stable of older and emerging artists includes Mateo López, whose installation based on a Vespa trip along Colombia’s abandoned railways was acquired by MoMA; José Antonio Suárez Londoño, who creates drawings inspired by books; Johanna Calle, whose drawing practice embraces both figuration and abstraction; and conceptual and multimedia artist Miguel Ángel Rojas. Prices range from $2,000 to $15,000, says Casas, who sells mainly to collectors in Brazil, the US, Britain, and Europe where her artists are better known.
“You can find great things without spending tons of money,” says Carlos Hurtado, director of Nueveochenta, co-owned by former president CésarGaviria Trujillo, himself a collector of international photography and Latin American art. He says prices for Colombian artists typically range from $3,000 to $10,000 for some established figures. “The market is very dynamic below $20,000, but much less so at $50,000,” he says. “People are still offended by high prices,” says Bogotá-based dealer Beatriz Esguerra. “Our minimum wage is between $300 and $400 a month, so $100,000 is a lot of money. A million-dollar piece is just out of the question.” Her young-to-mid career artists sell in the $1,500 to $10,000 range, with a large painting by Pedro Ruiz, her most expensive artist, tripling in the last five years to $30,000.
A few dozen galleries in the capital may not seem like overkill for a city of more than seven million. But the scene has changed dramatically since the 1990s when Valenzuela & Klenner was one of the only dealers supporting new art. Galleries La Cometa, Alonso Garces and El Museo continue to deal in the secondary market, and galleries focusing on the new have arisen, including La Central, Rojo Galería, MU, El Garaje, Espacio, Argentine-owned Al Infinito Arte, and Odeón, which operates a satellite fair during ArtBO. Outside of Bogotá there are only a handful of galleries in Medellín, Cali, Cartagena, and Barranquilla. Colombian artists are better represented in New York by Henrique Faria, Nohra Haime, Johannes Vogt, who recently exhibited Juan Fernando Herrán, and Magnan Metz, which shows the promising young Miler Lagos.
Colombian Art at Auction
There is no major auction house in Colombia, so most of the action takes place in New York and London. Axel Stein, head of Latin American Art at Sotheby’s, says Colombian art sells mainly to Colombians, an exception being Fernando Botero, whose prices have reached $2 million and whose international market extends to America and Asia.
There is a steady market for sculptor Edgar Negret, one of whose 1950s constructions sold for $62,500 last November. Large quasi-abstract pieces by Alejandro Obregón are in demand from Colombian collectors, with a 1960s piece fetching $173,000 last November. Virgilio Garza, head of Latin American Art at Christie’s, says that Americans are the main buyers at his sales. One benefit to Colombian art having been overlooked by 20th-century art centers is that works produced in the 1960s and 1970s in dialogue with international art movements like 1960s abstraction and 1970s conceptualism remain relatively inexpensive. New York–based art adviser Ana Sokolov cites as an example Alvaro Barrios, recently featured in an exhibition at the Banco de la Republica and represented by Nohra Haime.
Private Collectors Open Doors
In part because the drug trade was known to have used artworks to launder money, collecting activity in Colombia is largely secretive, but during last year’s ArtBO several collectors revealed their private holdings. Textile producer Alberto Simhon and his wife Denise Camhi’s heavily secured hillside house offers an eclectic international collection that ranges from Botero to the Chapman brothers. León Amitai showed the Latin American collection that he houses at his textile company’s factory, and Celia Sredni de Birbragher, founder and publisher of ArtNexus magazine, mounted a show at the artist residency she runs in Bogotá. But the national pride and optimism is tempered by caution. Sergio Ferreira Nieto, head of security company SF International, presented young Colombian and Latin American artists, including Cubans Carlos Garaicoa and Alexandre Arrechea, but he expresses hesitation about the long-term prospects for the Colombian art scene. “The Latin American economies are very fragile. Hopefully I am wrong, but I am still very skeptical,” he says.
Culture as Infrastructure
Rising interest in art has spurred the country’s museums to expand physically and energize their contemporary programs, but the only Colombian institution actively buying contemporary art is Banco de la República. It may be that museums overseas are promoting Colombian art most actively: The Tate, which established a Latin American Acquisitions Committee in 2002, has acquired work by Beatriz Gonzalez, Doris Salcedo, Oscar Muñoz, Miguel Ángel Rojas, and Feliza Bursztyn. MoMA has acquired work by Johanna Calle, José Antonio Suarez, Bernardo Ortiz, and Mateo López, recently awarded the Rolex Mentorship with William Kentridge.
Conditions in Bogotá seem to favor private independent spaces, and many patrons are committed to investing in culture as a means of building social infrastructure. Architect and hotelier Alejandro Castaño converted a town house into a showcase for his Latin American collection, and restaurateur Leo Katz—whose advisor is Carlos Basualdo of the Philadelphia Art Museum—intends to open a similar space for his international art. José Roca, recently hired by Tate as adjunct curator of Latin American art, last year founded Flora in a townhouse in the low-rise San Felipe district. The alternative space focuses on the relationship of art and nature. Mauricio Gómez, a collector and lawyer, opened nearby Galería 12:00 which features Colombian artists. And Venezuelan-born collector Solita Mishaan, a member of the Tate’s Latin American Acquisitions Committee, announced that her Misol Foundation may open a space in the same northwest corner of the city. With an influx of collectors and real estate investors, the San Felipe neighborhood could become a flourishing new arts district.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
A version of this article appeared in Art + Auction, March 2014, pp. 96-97.