Abstract: Enterprise and Enterprising Artists: Towards a Business History of Art in Britain, 1850-1990

Richard Coopey


This paper aims to connect business history to the history of art—between which a surprisingly large gulf seems to exist. While there is a superabundance of history of art—some theoretically anchored, more often adrift empirically—very little connects the creative with the economic. Art, in many forms, enters a variety of markets, and throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these markets have become increasingly important and international. A wide range of enterprises have emerged historically to take advantage of these trends, from individual producers and retailers to multinational, multidivisional corporations. This paper will concentrate on what might be termed fine art, predominantly in its British context. It will highlight the range of business activity involved, including the relationship between innovation and the market, the structure and nature of arts enterprises, the role of technology in production and consumption, the development of mass markets, and the role of national and international networks. In part the paper will be built around case studies of leading artists from key phases in the history of British art, notably Benjamin Williams Leader, Philip Wilson Steer, Henry Moore, and Damien Hirst. It will look at their own economic activity, their agents, and their markets as representatives of paradigmatic stages in the British art business.