As the decade comes to a close, it’s an apt time to reflect on the most memorable moments that inspired, shaped, and shook the art world. These moments brought art to the forefront of global conversations and shed light on greater cultural trends affecting artists, artworks, or the art market. They started with artists, institutions, or forces beyond the art world, and either ignited enduring practices or movements, heightened conversations around race and representation in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, or forced museums to reckon with their ties to power and money. These moments illuminate collective values and concerns, unearthing complex notions with which we continue to grapple. Through and through, we see powerful cultural shifts centered in the art world that changed lives and influenced global economies.
The creation of Instagram and its impact on the art world
’s “Infinity Mirror Room” installation in 2013. Instagram feeds became saturated with the same scene: an endless galaxy of glittering lights converging on a solitary figure in a darkened room, a camera phone partially concealing their face. Though the installation has seen various iterations since 1965, Kusama’s concept exploded in popularity thanks to social media, with up to 2,500 people per day ushered into the David Zwirner room for 45 seconds each.
’s major Tate retrospective this year saw visitors wandering through the haze of a room for the work Your Blind Passenger (2010), phones raised. It raises the question: Are you really connecting with an artwork if you’re viewing it through a lens?
The detainment of Ai Weiwei
attempted to board a flight to Hong Kong when he was detained by police. For 81 days, the artist was held captive and interrogated by Chinese officials.
The discovery of Cornelius Gurlitt’s trove of suspected Nazi loot
, and others has been estimated at over $1 billion. Another 250 or so works were subsequently discovered in a house Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, bringing his collection’s total tally to about 1,600 objects.
The first edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong
The most expensive artwork by a female artist ever sold at auction
’s painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) became the most expensive artwork by a woman to ever be sold. Alice Walton—heiress to the Walmart fortune and founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—purchased the canvas at Sotheby’s for $44.4 million. Mindy Besaw, curator at Crystal Bridges, said the painting “represents an iconic subject by one of the most important and influential modern American artists.” The singular sale was the apotheosis of a trend now sweeping the art world: rising market interest in work by female artists.
doubled when her 1960 canvas The Eye Is the First Circle sold at Sotheby’s for $11.7 million in May 2019. Such potent market forces parallel a larger institutional attempt to finally give undersung female artists the critical attention they deserve.
The cultural appropriation controversy of Dana Schutz
displayed a painting titled Open Casket (2016). The work depicted the infamous 1955 image of the brutally murdered African American teen Emmett Till laying in his coffin, rendered in Schutz’s signature, painterly style.
The Artforum sexual assault lawsuit
, others reckoned with what to do with art by an alleged abuser: To contextualize or to cancel?
The unveiling of the Obama portraits
’s portrait of President Barack Obama and
’s accompanying portrait of First Lady Michelle went far beyond the norm for presidential portraiture; they created a new form of populist art and brought black portraiture to the forefront of a national conversation around race and representation.
have sold record-breaking works at auction, works by black artists still tend to be vastly undervalued on the market, showing how far the art world has to go to correct historical biases.
The first museum to turn down a donation from the Sacklers
The most expensive living artist is Jeff Koons (again)
reclaimed the title of most expensive living artist when his iconic sculpture Rabbit (1986) sold for $91 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.
, whose Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) had sold for $90.3 million a few months earlier. It also eclipsed Koons’s own auction record of $58.4 million, set in November 2013 by his towering stainless steel sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange) (1994–2000)—which had made him the most expensive living artist until Hockney’s poolside portrait came along.