After that whirlwind year, 2021 brought with it dramatic shifts of its own. Some of the most significant ones were felt in institutions. Some museums in the U.S. and Europe weathered controversies that heralded permanent changes in the way they function; others diversified their leadership and made steps forward. Meanwhile, after Covid-related long delays, long-awaited museums in Europe and Asia finally arrived, and established themselves as major institutions on the international playing field.
Artists were key in pushing various discourses forward, shaping the way certain pressing issues are discussed around the world and even paving the way for the rise of a new medium. Meanwhile, within the market, prominent figures helped bring back events like fairs, auctions, and more, which had been sorely missed by some last year.
Below, a look back at the defining art events of 2021.
The art market returns to in-person events
After a nearly two-year hiatus as a result of the pandemic, international art fairs and top auction houses resumed hosting in-person events. For the fairs, doing so was not one without road bumps. This fall, the world’s largest fair, Art Basel, returned to the Swiss city, as did the Armory Show in New York. With timed entries for crowd control and coronavirus-related restrictions still in place, the mood at the fairs was more subdued than in years past. The big three auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips—were more successful, however, luring audiences back to salesrooms across New York, Europe, and Hong Kong headquarters. Bringing a jolt back to the auction sector was the return of blockbuster single-owner sales, such as one of the collection of Linda and Harry Macklowe at Sotheby’s, which was watched by hundreds and generated a staggering $676 million. Not since the start of the pandemic had such spirited bidding and such grand prices been seen.
An NFT boom takes the art world by storm
In the last months of 2020, as people sheltered in place, the world watched as the crypto bull run saw Bitcoin and Ethereum jump in value. By the first months of 2021, a then-little-known phrase had started entering the mainstream lexicon: “non-fungible token.” Though NFTs have been around since the 2010s, only blockchain enthusiasts really knew what they were until recently. After cryptocurrencies jumped in price, however, people quickly noticed just how much money could be made selling digital artwork to people newly flush in Ethereum. It wasn’t until Beeple sold Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) for $69 million at Christie’s that the art world—and the rest of the world—really took NFTs seriously. For digital artists, this revolution was a dream come true.
The Louvre gets its first-ever female director
It’s a well-known fact that most of the world’s top museums are led by white men, and always have been. Signs of progress were afoot when the Louvre named Laurence des Cars as its next head, marking the first time in the Paris museum’s 228-year history that a woman was going to take the helm. Des Cars’s appointment was roundly praised, given the reputation she’d accrued at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, which she had led since 2017 and 2014, respectively.
Hong Kong's long-awaited M+ museum opens
More than a decade in the making, Hong Kong’s M+ museum arrived at long last in November. With 700,000 square feet of space and an array of major donations from collectors, including a world-class one of more than 1,400 works from Uli Sigg, the museum is almost as big as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, both in size and ambition. Set in a building shaped like an inverted T that was designed by Herzog & de Meuron, M+ promises to be a major arrival on the international playing field and a potential destination for art lovers.
A Jasper Johns quantum-survey opens in two cities
Taking “Mind/Mirror” as both a title and a prompt, a momentous and highly ambitious two-part survey of work by Jasper Johns opened simultaneously at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The probing and prismatic exhibition (which continues into February) features galleries in different locations that sometimes echo one another and other times take up different aspects of a common theme.
Lee Kun-hee's rich collection heads to South Korea's museums
In a year that was tough for museums around the world, it was nice to see some institutions triumph. In April, what might have been the auction of the century instead became, in the words of the director of the National Museum of Korea and National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, “the donation of the century.” The MMCA is just one of several Korean museums to be named that month as recipients of 23,000 artworks from the collection of Samsung’s late chairman, Lee Kun-hee, whose family was facing an inheritance tax bill of over 12 trillion won ($10.4 billion) after his death in 2020.
Black women take the lead at U.S. museum boards
In April, Denise Gardner made headlines—and history—when she was elected to be the next chair of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has long been a trustee. When she took office in November, she became the first woman and the first African American to ever lead the institution. Her appointment was soon followed by a wave of news about museum boards, which have often been particularly slow to change. In September, Seena Hodges became president of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Suzanne McFayden became chair of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, and Constance Rice became chair of the Seattle Art Museum. The election of these four Black women hopefully signals that other major museums in this country will soon follow suit.