the highs and the lows of the art world in 2021

Good year for…


NFTs hit $3.5bn in sales this year (according to the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2021), and the boom seems to be lasting for the moment: Beeple’s HUMAN ONE, a physical/NFT hybrid sold for $28,985,000 at Christie’s in November. Whether NFTs are good for the art world is another matter: women only accounted for 16% of that $3.5bn, the technology is environmentally ruinous and as art they are generally, well, lacking.

Arc de Triomphe

The Paris landmark got to don a glam silvery-blue get-up and be transformed into a new kind of must-see sight for tourists and Parisians alike for a fortnight in September and October, courtesy (posthumously) of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Six million people saw the L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, the last ever fabric work by the duo.

Jasper Johns

The nonagenarian artist opened a career-crowning retrospective, unprecedentedly at not one but two museums at once—the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art—to mostly rapturous acclaim (though our critic thought it was a bit of a bore).


He divides critical opinion but the French optical illusion artist has been in high demand, with site-specific works at the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Frick Madison in New York (for the Met Gala) and two in Italy, plus a big show at Saatchi Gallery in London. He’s vying with Yayoi Kusama for the title of world’s most Instagrammable artist.


The South Korean capital is becoming the international art world’s favourite destination in East Asia. Frieze has announced a new fair and numerous galleries, like König Galerie, Thaddaeus Ropac and Gladstone Gallery, are opening and expanding there. But how good is it for Seoul’s homegrown fair, KIAF Art Seoul?


Painting boomed this year both in museum shows, like the Hayward Gallery’s Mixing It Up: Painting Today, and in the fairs and salerooms, as always. Figurative painters, especially British-based artists, are particularly drawing attention, and at last a market trend seems to have gone beyond white men: Flora Yukhnovich, Issy Wood and Jadé Fadojutimi are among the many painters whose auction results surged far beyond their gallery prices.


After the Design Museum in London’s big summer show and steadily rising auction prices, trainers hit eye-watering new levels of desirability in 2021, with Sotheby’s sale in October of a pair of Michael Jordan’s Nike Air Ships for a record $1.5m in Las Vegas.

Bad year for…

Young art fraudsters

Angela Gulbenkian and Andy Valmorbida pleaded guilty to fraud in trials in London and Jersey while, Inigo Philbrick pleaded guilty to fraud after being indicted in 2020.


Remember the new “phygital” post-pandemic reality of the art market? Online viewing rooms (OVRs) were the new digital frontier before everyone realised how boring they were and navigated back to the physical and on to new ventures.

Hong Kong

A new crackdown on artists, film-makers and creatives prompted more worries about the art world’s co-existence with ongoing human rights abuses in Hong Kong and China. It was telling to see the director of the M+ museum being forced to walk back comments about the institution’s “artistic freedom” as the museum removed works by Ai Weiwei from its website in advance of its grand opening.

British Museum

The museum’s defence of its possession of the Parthenon marbles grew weaker as it was unable to show them for a full year because of leaky roofs. As other nations, and even a Cambridge college, finally took action to return looted Benin Bronzes, the British Museum looked out of touch. The appointment of George Osborne, the former UK chancellor, as chair of its trustees was greeted with widespread dismay.


Things are going from bad to worse for Cuban cultural figures, with artists and writers being locked up for months. The artist and activist Tania Bruguera called on the art world to boycott November’s 14th Havana Biennial: it is “immoral”, she argued, to travel to Cuba for “parties and mojitos in a fun bubble” amid the rights abuses.

British soft power

Flying in the face of notions of a post-Brexit “global Britain”, the British Council was forced to significantly reduce operations in 20 countries in a cost-cutting exercise. The artist Jeremy Deller—paraphrasing Tony Blair, the former prime minister, talking about crime—commented that Boris Johnson’s government is “tough on art, tough on the causes of art”.

Steel monoliths

In late 2020, shiny sculptures evoking the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey were cropping up all over the world, prompting giddy, pandemic-charged theories of lost masterworks by the Minimalist John McCracken and even alien invasions. Dozens appeared in December 2020, but Wikipedia suggests only a smattering have appeared this year, the last in Kentucky in May. If aliens were leaving us a message, it didn’t get through.

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