Ai Weiwei Is Not The Most Powerful Person in the Art World

Ai on Film

Ai topped ArtReview’s most recent Power 100, but his track record for 2011 was mediocre. Artprice’s annual Art Market Trends Report, published yesterday, didn’t mention Ai in the entire document. Ai didn’t deserve the throne for 2011, but in 2012 he’s well on his way to total art world domination: this year, Ai Weiwei has at least 12 solo exhibitions planned at a range of museums, galleries, and public spaces. Every day of 2012, Ai Weiwei’s artworks will be on display somewhere in the world; while Damien Hirst may have Gagosian, Ai has the entire world.

Hirst may have come under scrutiny for the simultaneous exhibitions of his dots at every Gagosian Gallery location worldwide, but Ai is giving Hirst a run for his money in what could be deemed 2012’s most ludicrous display of exhibition extravagance; and Ai’s global infiltration of the exhibition circuit–with exhibitions at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Hirshhorn, and the Victoria & Albert Museum—has a wider scope than Hirst’s exhibitions at a single chain of galleries. That’s 2012, but 2011 wasn’t a good year for Ai’s art world influence. His auction results, number of solo exhibitions, and quantity of works in museum collections were merely middling.

Ai Weiwei’s works first went to auction in 2006 and the highest hammer price on record occurred in 2007. In 2011, confidence in Ai’s work at auction was restored; a leap in value occurred this past year, showing that Ai’s works were beginning to generate more interest at auction than in the three years prior. His auction values, while on the up-and-up in 2011, didn’t shatter any records.


One striking anomaly in Ai’s career is the lack of museums that own his works. Currently, ten museums worldwide keep Ai’s works in their permanent collection, with just four in the United States—MoMA, LACMA, LaMoCA, and the Rubell Family Collection (Miami). Compared, again, to Hirst, a former claimaint to the top spot on the Power 100 but whose ranking has fallen in recent years—he only placed 64th in 2011—Hirst can count works in more than thirty permanent collections. Hirst’s career has been longer than Ai’s, but only four museum collections in the States is equivalent to, well, nobody at the top of the Power 100. Even the art collective Claire Fontaine, formed in just 2004 and a group never featured on the Power 100 list, is included in the permanent collections of 18 museums. And to get a sense of “who’s who” at the highest echelon of museum collections, works by Andy Warhol, not surprisingly, are owned by almost every modern and contemporary museum in the United States.Regardless of the paltry number of museums that currently own Ai’s work, in 2011, opportunistic curators jumped at the chance to begin showing Ai’s works en masse. Tessa Praun, curator at Magasin 3 in Stockholm, has publicly discussed meeting with the artist while he was still under house arrest for his prison sentence:
When I met Ai Weiwei in his studio he had just been held under house arrest for a few days. He was calm but keenly aware that he was already in a very uncertain and tenuous situation. After the events of the past year I think that it is ever more important for elements of his political work to be present in the exhibition.

2011 was the year for plotting Ai’s rise, rather than the actual event; like Praun, ArtReview jumped the gun at assessing his status as the world’s top mover. He was definitely not 2011’s most powerful, but there were rumblings under the surface, leading to Ai as an exhibition heavy artist of 2012.

The main thing to keep an eye out for in 2012, based on Ai’s exhibition omnipresence, will be the announcement of museums purchasing his work. The more museums that host Ai’s work, the more they’ll acquire for their collections. An added value to purchasing Ai’s work in 2012 is the pricepoint: although Ai is known for his large-scale works, a hard sell for cash-strapped museums, Ai began showing smaller work, like his New York Photographs, just last year. Small things, quite simply, are easier and cheaper for more institutions to acquire than, say, a huge stack of ceramic sunflower seeds. If I’m correct in my predictions, then more than likely, Ai will top the Power 100 list for a second year in a row; this time, he just might deserve it.

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