They said it couldn’t be done: Museums dive into contemporary art

Mark Bradford’s “Building ‘The Big White Whale'”
Mark Bradford’s “Building ‘The Big White Whale'”
Image: Phillips/Mark Bradford
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This work by artist Mark Bradford sold for $3.5 million at auction on May 8, among more than a billion dollars worth of contemporary art sold by major auction houses Phillips, Sotheby’s and Christie’s during New York City’s spring sales week—and so far, this is a bad year.

Constructed using string and found paper, the enormous canvas suggests a city map. It is breathtaking. But will the 2012 work stand the test of time? Museums around the world are increasingly looking at contemporary art like this and saying, “yes.”

While galleries and auction houses have always trafficked in the latest art, large public museums have typically held back. That trend is changing as more large museums purchase and display contemporary art. But is this a reaction to a bubbling art market, a chance to educate the masses about billionaire-level aesthetic views, or a risky gamble on fickle tastes?

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In this episode, we visit the the auction house Phillips for a sale of contemporary and modern art, and speak with Phillips deputy chairman Matt Carey-Williams about the ins and outs of the art market. Then, we traipse through a display of the finest contemporary art with Wall Street Journal art reporter Kelly Crow.

After you listen to this episode, give us some clues for what you want to see in future episodes. Who else is doing the impossible? Tell us on twitter, or e-mail us.

Actuality is a joint production of Quartz and Marketplace. Every two weeks, we’ll explore the inner workings of the new global economy, combining the best of our economic smarts.