For artists, success really does depend on who, not what, you know


Research finds that early access to prestige galleries turbocharges later success. Samantha Page reports.


For emerging artists, the prestige of their first exhibition spaces is critical to future prospects.

For emerging artists, the prestige of their first exhibition spaces is critical to future prospects.

JGI/Tom Gril/Getty Images

As it turns out, the prestigious art world might not be entirely fair.

At least, that’s what a group of researchers, led by Samuel Fraiberger of Northeastern University in Boston, US, find out by studying the network of prestigious – or less prestigious – exhibition spaces, such as galleries, museums, and auction houses.

In a new study published in the journal Science, Fraiberger and colleagues find that early exposure in posh places pays off.

“Early access to prestigious central institutions offered life-long access to high-prestige venues and reduced dropout rate,” they write.

To conduct the analysis, art institutions were ranked by prestige, based on longevity, artists exhibited, art fair participation, and other qualities.

Within these, the researchers identified a network of cross-exhibiting artists’ work. High-prestige institutions were strongly linked. For instance, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Guggenheim were linked 33 times more strongly than expected if artists moved randomly between institutions.

Fraiberger and colleagues find that artists who exhibit at high-prestige institutions for their first five exhibits were more likely to be at those institutions a decade later. They were also more likely to find long-term success in the art world, with 39% continuing to exhibit versus only 14% for artists whose first exhibitions had been at lower-prestige places.

The researchers then looked retrospectively at the careers of 31,794 artists, born between 1950 and 1990, each of whom had at least 10 exhibitions. They find similar results.

“As a group, high–initial reputation artists had continuous access to high-prestige institutions during their entire career,” they write. On the other hand, artists that did not have initial access to prestigious institutions advanced only slowly throughout their careers – assuming their careers continued.

The researchers also find that country of origin is related to initial reception, while talent should not be.

Fraiberger and his colleagues conclude that the prestige of an artist’s initial exhibition space has a lasting effect on his or her career – and that it may not be related to the “quality” of the art. Because the value of art is subjective, “reputation and networks of influence play a key role” in an artist’s success, the researchers argue.

“Quality in art is elusive,” they write. “Art appeals to individual senses, pleasures, feelings, and emotions. Recognition depends on variables external to the work itself, like its attribution, the artist’s body of work, the display venue, and the work’s relationship to art history as a whole.

“Recognition and value are shaped by a network of experts, curators, collectors, and art historians whose judgments act as gatekeepers for museums, galleries, and auction houses.”

They suggest that the so-called gatekeepers of the art world should seek to make it more inclusive.

“For example, the art world could benefit from the implementation of lottery systems that offer some underrepresented artists access to high-prestige venues, or blind selection procedures, successfully implemented in classical music, enhancing the inclusion of neglected works and artists,” they write.

  1. http://science.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.aau7224
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