A new study of the art world finds it parochial; KAWS-mania gets started a little early; Hauser + Wirth makes some sales in Shanghai.
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Does the Art World Protect Its Own?
The Wall Street Journal ran an article today on a study that purports to reveal bias in the art market. Using data from Magnus Resch, who has a fixation on democratizing the art market, Albert-László Barabási, a data scientist, and Samuel Fraiberger wrote a book on “the universal laws of success.” The art market seems to be one of the chapters:
- “Dr. Barabási and his team spent the past three years reconstructing the exhibition histories of nearly 500,000 artists, whose work was shown in about 16,000 galleries and 7,500 museums between 1980 and 2016. He and his team also scoured sales held in 1,239 global auction houses from the same 36-year time period.”
Their conclusion? Only about 400 of these venues actually matter.
- “If one of your first five shows as an artist is held at a gallery in the heart of this network, the chances of your ending your career on the fringes is 0.2%,” Dr. Barabási said. “The network itself will protect you because people talk to each other and trade each other’s shows.”
That seems terrible and very exclusionary. But it’s hard to tell from the evidence presented in the WSJ whether the authors are presuming cause and effect. Because later in the story we’re told this:
- Dr. Barabási said it mattered more for an artist to get a show at a major, encyclopedic museum like the Art Institute of Chicago than a buzzy, contemporary art museum.
That would suggest the system is actually working, that the artists who are recognized by major museums are the ones that also develop secondary markets. What the authors see as the network protecting the artists it has chosen could also be the vetting system functioning. Five shows is a fair amount of exposure considering many artists don’t get a solo show of their work for quite some time. Also, the way the story is written, we can’t be sure if those five shows are gallery shows or museum shows or something else.
More to the point, the Journal says the “findings undermine a popular art-world notion that a prodigy could create in obscurity and get discovered years later.” But does anyone actually hold that notion? Most artists get degrees from graduate programs these days and have done for some time. Even before grad school became de rigueur, artists studied with teachers and applied for grants and positions at artist’s colonies which provided vetting of their work before getting a gallery show. That meant a lot of well trained eyes looked over their work before they ever got a show.
Let’s remember, too, that galleries don’t give artists shows out the goodness of their hearts. Art dealers want to sell art. They’re actively looking for more art to sell to their collectors and that will attract more collectors. Good artists are a renewable resource. A dealer has a lot of incentive to look for new artists. Do we really assume there are gallerists turning away perfectly good artists whose work would sell out of snobbery? If good artists are not finding representation because they’re languishing outside of the network, is that why galleries are closing? Because they won’t give these artists shows?
Finally, there’s a whole category of art—Outsider Art—devoted to the very notion that artists of great talent exist and even thrive outside of the system. Could the failure of Barabasi to find these artists simply be because he wasn’t looking in the right place? Or, to put it another way, is this simply a case of survivorship bias where the data collected is about the artists who are produced by the system. Barabasi doesn’t see other artists because he’s not looking outside of the system.
KAWS Toy Collection Makes $603k at Heritage Auction
The top lot of the Roni Pirovino sale of KAWS toys held at Heritage on Wednesday was this $62,500 Companion Karimoku Version. The entire sale found bidders to make $603,144. Heritage has previously achieved prices around $52,000 for similar works by the artist. With each house selling a KAWS piece next week, it will be interesting to see the overlap between the KAWS fine art market and the KAWS collectible market.
Hauser + Wirth Shanghai Art Fair Sales
- Louise Bourgeois suite of works on paper
- Zhang Enli 2017 painting to a museum in China for USD 385,000
- Four works by Rashid Johnson, for USD 175,000 – USD 245,000 each
- Two Takesada Matsutani works for USD 150,000 each
- A Martin Creed neon for USD 125,000 to a private collection in China
- Matthew Day Jackson Babel 2013 USD 325,000 to a private collection in China
- Matthew Day Jackson Flowers in a Vase with Jewels, Coins, and Shells (Milan) 2018 USD 150,000 to a private museum in China
- Matthew Day Jackson Little Bouquet in a Clay Jar 2018 USD 135,000 to a private collection in Thailand
- Matthew Day Jackson Flowers in a Marbled Vase 2018 USD 125,000 to a private collection in China