Is art the ultimate luxury good?

One of my favourite quotes is that you’ll never have a good art career unless your work fits into the elevator of a New York apartment block,” states Grayson Perry in Playing To The Gallery, the book based on his popular series of Reith Lectures from 2013, where he takes readers on a journey through the contemporary art world, exposing some of its mysteries.

Perry makes the point that collectors and the market are a crucial prop to the art world, and as an area for luxury investment, contemporary art is booming. Art sales are now higher than the pre-crisis peak of 2008, and, according to a March 2015 Financial Times article, are “delivering a better return for the well-heeled collector than fine wine, jewellery, coins or antique furniture”.

It’s easy to see the appeal of art as a luxury purchase. In a market where luxury brands have been diluted by the inclusivity of the internet, the art world remains exclusive and the objects it offers are usually unique (or in very limited editions). And with art comes status – as Perry puts it: “Collectors can also buy respectability with their art. Their wealth may come from dodgy sources, but buy blue-chip or difficult, culturally high-status art and their image is polished just like the patrons of the past burnished their image paying for chapels in the grand cathedrals.” Access isn’t only about money – “a good dealer will discreetly vet collectors and refuse to sell to those who are tacky,” continues Perry – but this only adds kudos to those who are accepted.

The strength of the market has its downsides, however. With public funding for galleries and art projects drying up during the recession, audiences who want to just look at art, rather than buy it, may have noticed a conservatism creeping into exhibition spaces, as sales become more important than experimentation. So out with the vast installations, and in with those aforementioned elevator-sized sculptures.