A new study in Science, “Quantifying reputation and success in art,” documents that in the contemporary art world, it’s less a matter of what you know than whom you know.
Art economist Magnus Resch writes in Art News this week of what he has learned from his database of prices paid for roughly 10 million works of art by half a million artists at more than 20,000 museums and galleries around the world.
Having your works displayed at most of these institutions is more or less a career dead end, while there are only a few royal roads to success.
The most lucrative network of all consists of six New York institutions—the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Gagosian and Pace galleries, the Met, and the Whitney—and one Chicago museum, the Art Institute. If you can make it there, you’ve made it everywhere:
An exhibition at one of these is a guaranteed ascent to fame and headline prices. It is the definition of artistic validation.
Once you’ve made it in one of the Big Seven, you have a strong shot at getting in several of the others.
But if you don’t get into this golden circle early in your career, you are likely doomed to perpetual obscurity. Resch writes in “Moneyball for the Art World”:
It was devastating to unfold this map. Ninety-nine percent of all institutions scored low and there was only one route to success. If an artist was not part of the central hub, he or she was stuck in an island network, where only limited success is achievable and probability is low to ever cross the bridge to the mainland. No more than 240 artists who began exhibiting in an island were able to enter the central hub. That’s 240 of 500,000.
Conversely, artists who start out in the big time tend to stay there:
Of the 4058 high–initial reputation artists, 58.6% remain in high-prestige territory until the end of their recorded career, and only 0.2% had the average prestige of their five most recent exhibits in the bottom 40%.
In other words, artists need to move to New York, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his 1975 book The Painted Word. While painters are supposed to shock the bourgeoisie, they also need to stay conveniently close to the richest of the robber barons. Wolfe observed:
…you can get all the tubes of Winsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same.
In Resch’s new database, the Museum of Modern Art, which was founded in John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s living room, remains almost as dominant as it was during Wolfe’s young manhood:
During the 1960s this entire process by which le monde, the culturati, scout bohemia and tap the young artist for Success was acted out in the most graphic way. Early each spring, two emissaries from the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr and Dorothy Miller, would head downtown…. [From] the moment the two of them stepped out on Fifty Third Street to grab a cab, some sort of boho radar began to record their sortie…. They’re coming!… And rolling across Lower Manhattan, like the Cosmic Pulse of the theosophists, would be a unitary heartbeat: Pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me pick me…. O damnable Uptown!
In a new book with the ambitious title The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success, Resch’s collaborator, Northeastern U. physicist Albert-László Barabási, writes of a natural experiment in the value of artistic self-promotion: In the 1970s, two teenage New York graffiti artists formed a collective they called SAMO (for “same old”). Their work was largely indistinguishable, but their financial fates after they parted in 1980 were not.
Today, Al Diaz is still scratching out a living, while Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose thirty years ago. But one of Basquiat’s paintings sold last year for $110.5 million, the highest price in Resch’s database.
Personally, Basquiat’s paintings remind me of the grotesque drawings of Ralph Steadman, who famously illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Steadman is no doubt a wealthy man, but his works don’t sell for nine figures.
So how do we explain Diaz’s and Basquiat’s divergent trajectories? They differed in one essential aspect: Diaz was a loner. Basquiat, on the other hand, was an unapologetic networker.
Basquiat was a bisexual people person who dated artist Keith Haring and an unknown dancer named Madonna.
But what’s surprising is how little his success has to do with the excellence of his art…. Instead, we have to look at the invisible network of curators, art historians, gallery owners, dealers, agents, auction houses, and collectors that determines what gets into the museums and the price we’re willing to pay for them.
Resch and Barabási suggest some reforms to make success in art less of a who-you-know process, such as a blind selection process in which museums aren’t told the names of the artists who created the works they are considering. Or why not a lottery system in which a few nobodies get their paintings randomly displayed in the top galleries along with the golden boys?
But the researchers don’t have much hope that anybody will take such ideas seriously. As Resch notes:
Success in the art world is a feedback loop, and those on the inside do not gain from disrupting the status quo. If a collector pays a million dollars for a piece of art, it’s in everyone’s interest—collector, artist, gallery—for the work to at least hold its value.
Is there much hope for artists who didn’t get a Gagosian Gallery showing early in their careers?
One of the most popular legends about art is that great artists often go overlooked, only to be discovered centuries later by posterity. Van Gogh, for instance, sold only one painting in his lifetime.
But, of course, Van Gogh died in 1890 at age 37. If he had simply retired at age 37 and lived out his biblical three score and ten, he would have been rich and famous by the time of his death in 1923.
Generally speaking, the vast majority of cultural figures who are celebrated today were celebrities in their own lifetimes, or would have been if they’d lived to 70.
There are exceptions. The great 17th-century Dutch painter Vermeer died at 43, having completed only a few dozen canvases, before his fame had spread beyond his hometown of Delft. He was never completely forgotten, but his reputation over the next two centuries endured among only a handful of connoisseurs. Finally, in the later 19th century, Vermeer became world-famous.
Vermeer’s long obscurity has contributed to his current popularity by making plausible creative speculations about his work.
Most notoriously, Dutch painter Han van Meegeren began forging Vermeers that fulfilled the theory of leading Vermeer scholars of the 1930s that the painter must have journeyed to Italy and been influenced by Caravaggio. When the forger obligingly produced canvases that seemingly proved the pedants’ guesses, the experts enthusiastically declared them genuine.
Van Meegeren’s forgeries never looked much like genuine Vermeers, resembling poorly done publicity posters for Greta Garbo movies. But at the time they convinced enough people that during the Nazi occupation, Hermann Göring traded 137 paintings for one of van Meegeren’s brand-new Old Masters.
After the war, van Meegeren was put on trial for his life in a Dutch court for collaborating with the enemy by peddling this summit of the Netherlands’ artistic patrimony to the German invader. Van Meegeren explained to the stunned court that he had forged all the Vermeers; after painting another one in his jail cell, he was acquitted of collaboration.
This story, which was made into the recent Dutch film A Real Vermeer, remains a popular conundrum, combining as it does the longest-overlooked of the unquestionably great artists with a farcical forger. How did the world overlook Vermeer and fall for van Meegeren?
Economist Tyler Cowen, however, takes a more optimistic view of art prices:
If you love prediction markets you should love the art world. Think of art markets, and art collecting, as an ongoing debate over what is beautiful and also what is culturally important. But unlike most debates, you have a very direct chance to “put your money where your mouth is,” namely by buying art…
The “white male nerd types” who are enamored of prediction markets tend to be especially skeptical of the market judgments of particular art works, most of all for conceptual and contemporary art.
Or perhaps they just don’t like the kind of people who have the most influence over the price of art.
Collectors, for example, such as Göring, are often unappealing individuals. Here in Los Angeles, the guys who have art museums named after them, such as Huntington and Getty, tend to have been ruthless bastards. Armand Hammer, founder of his eponymous museum in Westwood, was even worse: an abortionist turned fence for Stalin whose greatest disappointment in a long life was finishing second to the Dalai Lama in the voting for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2013, for example, Basquiat’s Dustheads sold at auction for $48 million to Jho Low, a chubby con man who embezzled several billion dollars from the Malaysian national sovereign wealth fund. Jho Low is the classic dorky Asian Guy Who Likes Rap, so of course he loved Basquiat, the first famous black painter, as a cool way to launder his ill-gotten gains.
Hence, some disdain for the art market might be warranted.
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