Privilege in the Art World—and Two Ways to Circumvent it

“The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market.” (Credit: pxfuel.com)

Art is an industry unlike any other. It operates in strange, funny ways. It is an unregulated market wherein there are no ultimate definite criteria as to the worth of works. The value of a painting and sculpture depends, at the end of the day, not so much on talent (which is a notoriously slippery subjective term) but on the PR machinery of the artist or dealer. Talent—to the extent it can be universally identified—certainly has its role, yes, but prices are determined more by which dealer randomly discovers which artist and which collector randomly discovers which dealer, and how much he/she is willing to pay for what. Whichever individual or platform somehow ends up attracting money can invest further and capture space in the media to reach aspiring collectors, and consequently, keep generating more sales.

Works such as these by superstar artists like Takashi Murakami (back) and Kaws (front) appeal to wealthy individuals just starting off their collecting journey sometimes simply because they have been bought by other wealthy people before. (Source: ToyQube)

The current situation is that, globally, the art world is run by a handful of megagalleries (Gagosian, Perrotin, Hauser & Wirth, Lehmann Maupin, Pace, a few more) and auction houses (mostly Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips) that regularly find themselves witnessing record-breaking numbers. They decide what will be displayed in important museums. A few artists (dead and alive) hover at the top—e.g., Jeff Koons, Kaws, Andy Warhol, Basquiat—and we find their names repeated countless times to the point of tedium.

But the fact is where value—material (of money) and intangible (of status)—has been once accumulated, there it remains. I see new rich millennials on Instagram who are keen on collecting art. They too simply go for somebody like Kaws or Takashi Murakami, whatever is readily available and already famous in affluent circles—having no great awareness or knowledge of the variety of art that is being produced worldwide. They do not have the time or motivation to search for some pioneering First Nations Canadian painter or a thought-provoking Cambodian sculptor or an important Ethiopian photographer.

The system is rigid and hostile to new entrants who may not have the privilege of personally knowing an established player in the market. Those emerging artists who do gain quick access to big galleries are very often relatives or acquaintances of seasoned art collectors themselves and come from backgrounds that can allow them the financial means to overnight promote content on social media and acquire a hundred thousand followers. If the work is mediocre, it doesn’t matter; it may still end up selling. Social clout—gathered on the basis of birth—rapidly turns into commercial clout.

That is the story at the top of the pyramid. At the bottom are thousands upon thousands of galleries that produce too much art, may represent enormous amounts of talent and hard work, but are barely able to gain visibility and buyers and build value for their artists—for lack of resources that can fuel the required level of PR. Rich people who can buy art prefer to approach the big, well-known names for advice and direction. As a result, at the bottom, there’s too much supply but little demand. Lower- and mid-level galleries that cannot guarantee sales, find it difficult to survive and have small rosters of represented artists are themselves regularly flooded with pitches.

This can sound very depressing and frustrating to gifted, diligent artists who have no prior connections in the industry and inherited wealth (for advertising). How can they make their work stand out and catch attention? It is not easy to break into the system, even at the very bottom. And what if you do not even have a good BFA or MFA from a reputed college?

I think those who exist outside the domain of privilege may start by opening profiles on various online art selling platforms (e.g., Saatchi Art, Artmajeur) and, of course, post regular content on social media (even if you can’t pay for followers, you never know who might someday find you). But beyond these, two strategies could be helpful, to an extent, in circumventing the unyielding and non-inclusive structure of the art world.

1. Expand your Network (but without Hard-Selling)

It is very important that artists take networking seriously. The more the number of people who are aware of your existence, the greater the chance that you will be able to sell more art. But one must be careful with communication. As I wrote in my article on COVID-19, you can introduce yourself to people without asking them to “buy” your work (or to represent you). Power dynamics in human relationships are extremely sensitive. If you are the unsolicited one and want to approach an influential individual (a dealer, collector, curator, publisher or a well-off businessman who is also an art enthusiast), direct and loud language will normally not serve your purpose. Hard-selling can be a huge put-off in an overcrowded world. A better way to make yourself known is to pursue another course of action/thought first and slowly reveal your creative identity. Dealers who are too loaded with pitches will give you more respect and attention if, instead of directly messaging them, you somehow befriend somebody close to them (who then shows your work to them). If there’s a businessman or cultural influencer you want to approach, find an article or video of theirs—then email them saying you enjoyed it and why the subject interests you. Leave your website and social media profiles in the signature. Chances of receiving a reply go up with soft-selling.

It is said that your network is your net worth—artists ought to take this seriously. (Credit: pixabay.com)

2. Merge your Art with a Functional Object or Experience

If wealthy potential art buyers and successful gallerists are not in your sphere, there are other avenues through which artistic careers could be built and advanced. These are certainly not easy, may require research, careful negotiation and some investment—but they can allow your skills to be presented before a good number of people.

If you find that people are unwilling to buy art because they do not want to put money in items they cannot use in a tangible manner—impress your art upon functional objects. Who doesn’t need mugs, suitcases, dresses, furniture? It may be a little difficult to find the right partners or platforms that allow this but I know artists who have build great businesses over time with such an approach. There are websites that turn art into fabric, either on-demand or with built-in marketplaces (e.g.digitalfabrics.com.au and shopvida.com, respectively). Finally, I feel that artistic knowledge could also be merged with “experiences”, not only objects. An experience that an artist may sell could be an evening for a group that includes a painting class and drinking of wine. Artists may also collaborate with professionals in tourism to act as cultural guides and with mental health professionals who administer art therapy.

There are many routes that one can adopt if one has an entrepreneurial spirit and is open enough to not be dictated by fixed notions of how an artist must use their talent and make money. If admission into the hallowed echelons of an art world run by a small elite is blocked for an artist, rather than being discouraged, they can consider themselves free to innovate. Far from taking one away from the desired goal of having artworks sold, these activities will increase its odds as they will bring exposure to the artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

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