Last Tuesday, Robert Cendella, a painter known as “Art Bastard,” has brought a class action lawsuit against contemporary art museums in New York. He alleges in the complaint that these museums have illegally conspired with five major galleries in New York to raise the prices of the works by artists represented by those galleries. Cendella claims that a handful of galleries, private collectors, and auction houses play an influential role in determining what pieces museums exhibit. Museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) and Museum of Modern Art are dependent on private collectors and gallery owners for their exhibits, either through loans and donations, or lower purchase prices. Cendella alleges that private collectors donate 80–90% of the art displayed in museums in the United States.
When an artist exhibits at a high-profile museum, they raise their personal profile, which allows them to charge higher prices for their work. In the complaint, Cendella attributes Mark Grotjahn’s drastic increase in prices, from around $300,000 to $1.2 million per painting, to the exposure he received from exhibiting at defendant Museum of Modern Art. These artists are usually represented by one of five major galleries in New York, and Cendella argues that these galleries, working in tandem with museums, intentionally exclude artists that they do not represent in order to artificially inflate the prices for their own artists. The complaint points to an investigation done by The Art Newspaper that “almost one-third of solo museum exhibitions in the US are represented by one of five commercial galleries.” Between 2007 and 2013, 90% of the major solo exhibitions in the Guggenheim, a defendant in this case, featured artists represented by the five galleries. Cendella argues that “the closed system” of galleries, museums and auction houses has created an “anticompetitive ecosystem” that shuts out artists not represented by the major galleries.
Cendella argues that this behavior violates the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that the museums and their co-conspirators have engaged in an “unreasonable restraint of trade” through the suppression of price competition in the contemporary art market. Because of this, Cendella and the rest of the class, consisting of contemporary artists, were deprived of free and open competition. As such, Cendella is seeking $100 million in damages. Cendella, however, does not provide any direct evidence of collusion between the museums and the gallery owners. He only pointed to the overrepresentation of the galleries’ artists to back up his claims. It seems that Cendella’s ultimate goal is not to win the lawsuit, but rather to increase the dialogue on what he believes is a serious issue in the art world.
Adele Zhang is the Online Content Chair and an Entertainment Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2020).