You would have thought a celebrity had just come in the room the way Dr. Patricia Hills' students clamored for photographs and autographs at the contemporary art fair Art Chicago last year. But no, the fervor was directed at American street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey, who became famous for his iconic Barack Obama "Hope" poster during the 2008 presidential election.
"It seems very accessible and that's why I think they are drawn to it," says Hills, about the "Hope" poster. Hills, a Boston University professor of art history who specializes in African-American art, among other subjects, has been teaching art history for more than two decades. She adds: "I think young people got really interested in contemporary art with Andy Warhol."
During the multiculturalist wave that started in the 1950s, traditional ethnic art flowed in from across the globe. Today, that wave has receded as contemporary art has gained momentum. About 80 percent of applicants to art history programs are choosing contemporary art as their major, according to a recent New York Times report. Meanwhile, it has been decades since the number of new graduate students in non-Western art fields has grown significantly. According to Hills, a dissertation on contemporary art would have been inconceivable 30 or 40 years ago. Now, such dissertations are commonplace.
"Undoubtedly, a higher number of applicants are going to modern, contemporary [art]," agrees Dr. Andrea Giunta, a professor of art history at the University of Texas who has worked on the admissions team for three years. "It's the most represented area."
Reframing the Past
Giunta says the trend toward contemporary art became more palpable in the 1990s. Baby Boomers had been exposed to ethnic art through programs like the Peace Corps. However, as interest in such programs has waned, later generations of art students have become less likely to interact with ethnic art and, consequently, more likely to gravitate toward contemporary studies.
In 2007, contemporary art reached a turning point, surpassing Impressionist and modern art in total sales at New York's premier auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's. Specifically, Sotheby's tallied up $344.6 million for contemporary works, exceeding the $337.2 million mark for Impressionist and modern works the week before. Christie's raked in $477.8 million, establishing a new auction record. An Andy Warhol piece, "Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I)," sold for a whopping $71.7 million, according to a report in the New Yorker magazine.
At the Met, recent exhibitions of Chinese art have only been possible by way of life-saving loans coming in at the last hour. With prices soaring for objects from Africa, and new protectionist policies being set in place by India, China and other countries, it's getting harder for museums to pull anything together.
"It's too expensive, too difficult. …