The art industry generates around $50 billion annually. A global enterprise that spans auctions, fairs, and galleries, it’s conducted worldwide through closed-door transactions, highly controlled limited access, speculative buying, and ill-tracked flipping. Despite the whole trade being predicated on an artist’s ability to produce new work, the artist is often the most vulnerable, underpaid player.
With inequity in the art world under scrutiny like never before, the market faces rising pressure to make some gesture of accountability. A few years ago, collector and ethics specialist Piergiorgio Pepe decided a more formal code of ethics was a good place to start. He’s the expert, after all: in 2018, he founded Quantum Ethics, a Paris-based consultancy firm, and he teaches a course on Ethics in the Art Market at Sciences Po university.
“Compliance and ethics rules are ubiquitous in most fields, but for some reason there is not the same language available in the art world,” Pepe told ARTnews. “In a way this is an experiment to see if I can translate that language into art, to move past institutional critique with substantive means of change.”
In 2020, Pepe gathered a group of like-minded collectors from around the world—Pedro Barbosa, Iordanis Kerenidis, Andre Zivanari, Sandra Terdjman, Haro Cumbusyan, and Jessica and Evrim Oralkan—to form a think tank dedicated to tackling the problem. The collective, working with an advisory team of 15 curators and artists, spent over a year drafting a set of principles and standards using “the language of professionals,” or what other industries use as a means of heading off power imbalances, according to Pepe. The draft is a living document, continually open to edits and additions as deeper dimensions of the issue reveal themselves.
Last week, the collective released the text of their efforts at the ARCO Madrid art fair. Titled Code of Conduct for Contemporary Art Collectors, the 11-page manual provides a template for collectors of all levels for ethically acquiring, exhibiting, and donating art, which was also reviewed by the group’s advisory team.
The code includes how to interact with dealers responsibly and transparently, how to support institutions and serve on their governing boards, and how to build and maintain collections. Each bullet point is broken down into several subcategories—the section on dealing with dealers, for example, covers “holding dealers accountable to pay artist[s] promptly,” and “not requesting artworks below fair market price,” such as asking for a discount.
Evrim Oralkan, one of the collectors involved in creating the code, said that it “breaks down the very definition of patronage—patriarchy, one person who decides for the whole family. There’s a reason a lot of people don’t like to be called a collector. [The code] is an important step in changing that definition.”
Much space is dedicated to interacting with artists “with integrity” and prioritizing the sustainability of an artist’s career. Collectors are encouraged to always offer to compensate artists for any working time or services they request and reimburse them for expenses based on commensurate industry standards. They are also warned against soliciting gifts from artists, including donations, free artworks, or “any other benefits.”
That section adds, “Collectors [should] never use their power and influence to force such interactions to their advantage. Sexual harassment is strictly prohibited.”
This isn’t the first of ethical guideline introduced for the art world, though it is the most comprehensive. Previous attempts include the Basel Art Trade Guidelines, published by the Basel Institute on Governance, and the American Alliance of Museums’s Code of Ethics for Museums, but enforcement of either is uneven and the scope of their concerns is significantly narrower.
In recent years auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s have introduced formal ethics guidelines for employees when interacting with collectors. Speaking to the Art Newspaper in 2019, a spokesperson for Christies said “all employees are contractually obliged to adhere to a comprehensive code of conduct”; the company also provides trainings programs to combat on subjects such as unconscious bias. In the wake of the protests in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, museums worldwide drafted statements of solidarity which included equity goals.
Pepe and his team acknowledge that no one is under obligation to adhere to the Code of Conduct for Contemporary Art Collectors. They simply don’t have the power to enforce any of its recommendations. But so far, the response has been positive, and their website includes a growing list of galleries and curators, who have endorsed the code; the lengthy list of artists includes Maria Thereza Alves, Ahmet Öğüt, and Walid Raad.
The group plans to update the code yearly, adding new concerns as they arise and other recommendations crowdsourced from a survey on the website. Oralkan added, “It’s a good thing—living documents shouldn’t have an end.”