The Artist's Path: Understanding the Art World

Since first stepping into a fine art high school in Italy, I wondered why a selected number of contemporary artists were enormously famous while the majority remained completely unknown.

Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, 1932, Oil on metal, 12 1/2" x 13 3/4", Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Reyero. Source: http://www.pbs.org

Self-portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States, 1932, Oil on metal, 12 1/2" x 13 3/4", Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Manuel Reyero. Source: http://www.pbs.org

I realized that the craftsmanship of their art was not the reason why they had superstar careers, and I observed the trends of conceptual art and minimalist art, and the artists’ fervent goal of creating shock in the public. It felt like true appreciation for the skillfully created, beautiful works of art disappeared to give space to a different form of art, the entertaining spectacle. And that always hit a nerve. I thought “great, if that’s the direction the art world is taking, I guess I’ll never join that boat. I’ll study Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci instead, and learn a thing or two from them.” Yet, even though aware of the sad reality of the art world, after reading about Frida Kahlo’s life and work and graduating from high school in 2007, I left Italy with a big dream of becoming a well known fine artist and making it as a professional painter. Yes, I truly believed I could make it, but I just didn’t know how. I thought the next step was to study art in college so, in 2008, I enrolled in the Visual and Performing Arts department with a major in painting - how wrong I was! Picasso wrote: “Learn the rules like a pro and break them like an artist” and all I was pushed to do was to break the rules and experiment, experiment, and experiment without being taught the rules in the first place! ‘Asking professors how to get into a gallery was like pulling teeth. I should have taken the hint from them that, unless super famous, it’s too hard to make a living solely with your art.

Source: www.amazon.com

In 2009, I made the hard decision to put my education aside to raise my growing family. Then the universe gave me a sign. One day, I remember feeling particularly frustrated about my assumption that without a degree I could never make it into the art world. That day, an aunt of mine gave me a book that she found at a garage sale, and it changed my life. The title of this book How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling Your Soul by Caroll Michels. This successful sculptor committed herself in helping other artists by fighting the myth of the starving artist and by coaching them the foundations necessary to become creative business professionals. In her book, Michels nicely explains how galleries are not the only way into the art world and how nobody will discover you at your house and make you famous. Thus, step by step, she guides artists into effective way to promote their art. The book, for many years, was literally my bible; it was my go to for building up my portfolio, my promotional materials, my website, and to build-up my artist resume’. Becoming a professional artist is a commitment for life, and she warned in her book to find a day job, not necessarily art related, to feed into this difficult path.

Yet, the questions remain: why are a selected number of artists super famous while the rest of us are completely unknown? What does it take for a new comer to climb up into the art world?

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)

The original Fountain by Marcel Duchamp photographed by Alfred Stieglitz at the 291 (Art Gallery) after the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit. Stieglitz used a backdrop of The Warriors by Marsden Hartley to photograph the urinal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_(Duchamp)

To answer those questions, I think it’s important to first understand what the art world is, what the art market is, and why artists and art institutions have to become brands to become famous and successful. Senior lecturer and PhD, Anamaria Tomiuc explains in her journal article, Branding in the art world: the contemporary visual artist that the art world is a “socio-economic systemic network” that includes “critics, art curators, artists and collectors…within galleries and museums” (p.5). If you are like me and wonder why conceptual art is considered art, sociologist, Howard S. Becker lays down a deep truth. Becker writes that “the theory states that reputation is founded on the art works. But in reality, the reputation of artists and of their art works derives from the collective activity of the art worlds” (qtd in Tomiuc). This means that whatever the art world says is art, is art, not the hours you put into your work or the dedicated experience you have built throughout the years to excel in your craft. If the art world says that what you have created it’s not important art, then it is irrelevant, while a toilet titled Fountain by Duchamp is internationally celebrated. Because… Conceptual art! You are very welcome to throw a fit right now, I totally understand the frustration, but it gets worse!

If you are a newcomer artist, who wants to achieve success in the privileged art world, Tomiuc suggests that there is only one way to do so, which is by branding yourself. Yet, understanding the mechanics of the art market, the system of art collectors, art dealers and museums of art can be quite an eye opener (p. 6). Tomiuc identifies the art gallery as the most important institution of the art world because they have the highest control over the art made by the artists. Interestingly, for the past three decades, art galleries have used continuous curated art shows as a strategy to sell a large number of art works while quickly raising the value of the art pieces. Then we have the collector, who plays an extremely important role in building the credibility of the artist they choose to invest in, with the capability to launch their career to an international level. These collectors, with their large capital and their involvement as board of directors in art museums, play different roles in the art market: they buy art, sell art, they curate exhibitions, and sometimes they even open contemporary art museums (p. 6, 7). Whoa, right? Art history has and will be written around these eccentric millionaires’ taste.

The art market also includes the auctions houses and the art fairs, which are responsible for the rise in the price of the art and the quota of the artwork sold, and are the places where dealers search for new art trends and see what they like (p.7). Established artists whose art is sold in these markets, will witness an increase in the value of their work. Collectors buy art signed by what they think is an important artist as an investment for their social status; therefore, collectors, media coverage, fancy art events, and contemporary art museums, and galleries all build up the image of the artist as a superstar (p. 8). Therefore, Tomiuc advises that to become famous and being able to monopolize the art market, they have to brand themselves.

You might ask, how do you do so? How do I brand myself??

Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait, 1986 sold at Sotheby's in 2010 for $32.6 million. Source: http://www.sothebys.com/

Andy Warhol's Self-Portrait, 1986 sold at Sotheby's in 2010 for $32.6 million. Source: http://www.sothebys.com/

Tomiuc shares that Warhol branded himself by using self-promotion, and by creating an image that he kept consistent throughout the years (p. 10-12). Tomiuc shares this in her article:

As R. Moulin says, the strategy of the newcomers involves a collaboration with one (or more) leader gallery (brand gallery – Gagosian, Gladstone, Haunch of Venison, Yvon Lambert, etc.) which assures their launching and promotion on the market, the acquisition from a great collector (brand collector – Saatchi, Pinault, Arnauld, etc.) – which gives them an international passport – then, the diversification of the galleries, dealers and collectors they collaborate with. An important aspect in the building up of their celebrity persona and their brand is the use of advertising and marketing strategies and a lot of media exposure in articles and professional magazines (Art Press, Frieze, Flash Art, Artforum, New York Magazine, etc.), pages in catalogues (Art Now, 100 Contemporary Artists, etc.) and tabloids. The receiving of an important award (Turner Prize, Prix Marcel Duchamp), the participation in major branded cultural events (the Venice Biennial), the insertion of their works and important major exhibitions in brand museums (Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, MoMa, Guggenheim, etc.) follow. (qtd. In Tomiuc)

So that is the advice, if you want to become a zillionaire artist super star. Good luck in the process! I think I’ll go through a different direction; I am a creative entrepreneur who will keep building up her business along with a future career as a professor. I will keep creating art to show in galleries and shops, work on art commissions for clients, and I won’t be consumed by the scarce chance of making it into the art world. I am grateful that I can create art, sell art, and that I have a balanced work/life. In my next blog post I’ll talk about how to brand yourself as an artist not much to please your ego, but to fulfill your creative soul. Stay tuned.

Work Cited

Tomiuc, Anamaria. “Branding in the art world: the contemporary visual artist.” Journal of Media Research. 8.2. (2015): 3-13. Online Library OneSearch. Web. 18 Sept. 2016

Michels, Caroll. How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself without Selling your soul. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.