The 2018 UM Star Lectures: Rachel Pownall on appreciating art in the global economy

The art market, worth about $45 billion globally, is booming. Rachel Pownall, who holds the TEFAF Chair in Art Markets at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, is investigating how shifts in the trade and global economic developments can have an impact on the value of art. Her research is the subject of her 2018 UM Star Lecture.

“One of the biggest concerns in the art market is: What is the truth?,” says Pownall. “What’s the provenance of a particular piece of art, where did it come from, who owned it, and was it really painted by the actual artist?”

Pownall has always been interested in what she calls “alternative assets”, as well as people’s reasons for investing in them. Although the financial return is an important part of the investment process, she believes that investment goes beyond thinking about the bottom line. “I always think you should be considerate of what you are investing in,” she says. “We think about investing in people, in companies and in other types of assets, so it’s more than just the financial gain that you are going to make.”

A question of values

A key shift in how people approach investing, Pownall says, lies in investors’ increased interest in knowing what exactly their money is doing, and what it is contributing to. “People are more concerned with putting their money into causes they believe in,” she notes. “They align their interests, their own values, with investment values or investment strategies.”

As a focus of study, says Pownall, “the art world is always interesting, because there’s an emotional attachment when you invest in a piece of art, which some would consider as worth more than the resale value”.

“There is quite a diverse range of reasons why people buy art and other types of collectibles. I’ve conducted research with art, and other types of collectible goods such as violins, and it’s the non-pecuniary returns people are interested in. You can use these types of asset and consider the financial investment to be able to elicit what the emotional returns – or ‘psychic returns’ – are, from investing in and holding these types of goods.”

TEFAF, Maastricht and UM

Pownall works closely with TEFAF, the European Fine Art Fair, held annually in Maastricht. It commissioned her to write an annual report covering the global art market, which was the focus of significant media attention worldwide upon its publication in 2017. This spring, in conjunction with a different partner, she will publish a report focusing on artists.

“TEFAF have signed a 10-year contract with the city to work together,” she notes, adding that the organisation is also “keen on developing TEFAF education with Maastricht University; we have a good relationship with them”. Pownall is SBE’s delegate to the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH), through which she hopes work with TEFAF will flow.

As far as “what is the truth” in the art market, Pownall says that technological developments such as blockchain can help to improve transparency. “Blockchain is effectively a decentralised digital database, and allows information about works of art to be stored in a secure way,” she explains. “That’s only going to be beneficial to the artists themselves. Contemporary artists know that in the future, their work will be known to be authentic. It’s good for the market, and also good for the artists.”

Family ties: the alumni connection

Events such as the UM Star Lectures, Pownall observes, are invaluable in maintaining strong ties between alumni and the university. “It’s a privilege and an honour to be invited to speak. It’s important that we keep good contact with alumni. I think it’s a great initiative.”

She also takes other opportunities to stay connected with former students. “Some students you naturally stay in contact with; if they end up working in an environment close to what you’re doing research on, then there’s a natural bond there,” she says. “I also teach at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences [FASoS] at UM and some of those students have gone on to interesting places as well. I’d say alumni engagement is something we perhaps don’t make use of enough. This lecture series is an important part of the process to build better relationships with them.”

Whereas she believes keeping in touch with alumni who pursue scholarly careers comes more easily, maintaining relationships with practitioners is also important.

“There’s a natural tendency to keep in contact with the alumni who want to stay in academia; it’s like an extended family,” Pownall observes. “But for those who go into practice, I think we need to encourage the relationship to be stronger. Especially with the way SBE is moving, with bachelor’s and master’s programmes having more project-based and applied research, it’s important to keep up those ties so that we can have more projects for our students and make use of those great links that we have.”

Text by Tracy Brown Hamilton

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