How to make it big in the world of art? It’s not just hard work, but also the right connections

By Faye Flam

With its $2 million urinals and other puzzling valuations, the pricing of fine art might seem too arbitrary, too opaque, too wildly jostled by randomness to submit to scientific investigation. Yet a paper in the journal Science this month promised to explain why some talented artists become rich and famous, and others can’t quit their day jobs.

The answer, which was derived by a collaboration of physicists, social scientists, data experts and an art historian, is a scientific formulation of the old adage that it’s not what you know, but who you know, but also who the people you know, know, and who those people know. The findings, while not counter-intuitive, run counter to that secular American gospel of hard work as the one true road to success.

I soon discovered that one of the paper’s authors, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, has just published a popular book on success more broadly: “The Formula: The Universal Law of Success.” He told me that people think the Science paper is about art, but it’s really about the way networks separate the stars from the also-rans in many areas. As a physicist, he’d been interested in the science of networks in nature, and eventually became fascinated by human networks and their patterns of well-connected nodes. How, he wondered, do these influence the trajectories of our lives?

Scribbles, Scratches And Other Abstract Pieces Of Art That Made Millions

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World Of Abstracts

10 Aug, 2018

Who says a scribble or a scratch is worthless? Check out these abstracts which sold for a fortune thanks to their minimalistic allure.

Untitled (1970) by Cy Twombly

10 Aug, 2018

Cost: $70.5 million What seems like chalk scribbles on a slate is actually an oil-based house paint and crayon artwork on canvas by Edwin Parker ‘Cy’ Twombly Jr, which fetched a record price for the artist in Christie’s 2014 sale. Part of Twombly’s ‘blackboard’ paintings, the 1970 artwork is inspired by his stint in Pentagon as a cryptologist. What’s interesting is the way he produced this artwork. He sat on the shoulders of a friend, who kept on walking along the length of the canvas, enabling Twombly to create fluid lines. The painting’s then owner, Audrey Irmas, a philanthropist, parted with the painting to raise funds for her foundation for social justice. Interestingly, Irmas bought the painting for $3.85 million in 1990. (Image: www.christies.com)

Green White by Ellsworth Kelly

10 Aug, 2018

Cost: $1.65 million Once part of the Robert and Jean Shoenberg collection, this 1961 artwork came into the market at Christie’s 2008 sale. Kelly was a camouflage artist during his stint in the army in the 1940s. He was a part of the unit known as ‘the Ghost army’ comprising artists and designers who painted objects that would misdirect enemy soldiers. (Image: www.christies.com)

‘Orange, Red, Yellow’ by Mark Rothko

10 Aug, 2018

Cost: $86.88 million (including buyer’s premium) The vibrant orange, red and yellow coloured rectangles was part of art collector David Pincus’s estate and was brought to the market by Christie’s in 2012 where its sale set the record for post war/ contemporary art at the time. Rothko’s 1961 work was in Pincus’s possession for four-and-a-half decades. The final bid was double the highest estimate of the artwork. (Image: www.markrothko.org)

‘Concetto Spaziale, Attese’ by Lucio Fontana

10 Aug, 2018

Cost: $16.2 million The 24 sharp vertical tears on a crimson, water-painted seven- foot wide canvas was contested for about a minute and 30 seconds during Sotheby’s 2015 auction. Yet, the painting was sold below the low presale estimate of $15 million. Turns out, Fontana was inspired to paint this artwork watching Red Desert, a 1964 movie created by Michelangelo Antonioni, which won the Golden Lion in that year’s Venice Film Festival. In fact, the inscription on the back of the painting, in Italian, reads, “I returned yesterday from Venice, I saw Antonioni’s film!!!” (Image: www.sothebys.com)

What he found was that the less accurately the quality of a person’s performance can be measured, the more position in the network shapes the course of a career. At one end of the spectrum are individual sports, where performance is the key to success (you can’t be a tennis star unless you know how to win matches, no matter how connected you are).

Fine art is at the other end of this spectrum, he said. In the book, he uses the example of the urinal that Marcel Duchamp purchased from a plumbing store, then labeled “Fountain” and sent to an art show. A replica of the work sold for $1.7 million in 1999.

In other endeavors, from pop music to science, quality plays some role in success, but it often follows an asymptotic curve: Some people are much more skilled than others, but at the top, the curve levels off. Experts can tell good wine from bad, he said, but there’s no consensus on ranking within the top tier. Likewise, the differences among highly skilled practitioners in many fields is often infinitesimal, but stars get paid orders of magnitude more money.

Success depends to various degrees on performance and network positioning. The surprise is that the networking part is the more predictable, at least once you have enough data. Barabasi said the art investigation started when one of his colleagues discovered a data set that contained information on exhibits and sales for 500,000 artists, spanning a 35-year stretch. The researchers were able to use something like a Google page-ranking system to see how the different galleries and museums in that data set were connected to one another.

The network effect was so strong that the researchers found they could predict success decades in advance from nothing more than the names of the first five galleries where an artist displayed. The crucial factor of success was for an artist to get connected to one of the central nodes in the network – the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art, among a few other highly selective venues. If you can get into any of these, you can get into the others, and command vast sums for your art. But how to get there?

Monumental Losses: When Fire, Seflies And Untied Shoelaces Ruined Famous Artefacts

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Slice Of History

26 Sep, 2018

A fire at Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum destroyed artefacts worth over $20 million. Here are other tragedies that wiped out pieces of history: (Text: Aarti Bhanushali) (Image: AP)

Trial By Fire

26 Sep, 2018

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York In 1958, an accident involving a group of electricians working at MoMA led to a massive fire, which ended in tragedy. Reports claimed a spark from one of the workmen’s cigarettes landed on some sawdust, which quickly went up in flames, thus igniting a massive fire. Apart from the human toll, the blaze also damaged works of art including an 18.5-foot Monet titled ‘Water Lilies’, were charred. (Image: www.moma.org)

Spilling Over

26 Sep, 2018

Louvre Museum, Paris The home to the emblematic portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’ was threatened by nature’s wrath when rising waters from the Seine River and heavy storms caused the authorities to shut the museum in 2017. Torrential rain caused water to leak into the Louvre’s Islamic Art and Eastern Mediterranean galleries. According to the museum, two of Poussin’s 17th century Four Seasons painting series, ‘Spring and Autumn’ (top pic, left & right), and De Troy’s 1736 ‘Triumph of Mordecai’ (bottom pic), were damaged and had to be removed from the galleries. (Image: www.metmuseum.org & www.louvre.fr)

Ground Shattering

26 Sep, 2018

Norcia, Italy Around the town of Norica, Italy, a 6.6-magnitude earthquake hit the area in 2016. The painting, ‘The Forgiveness of Assisi,’ by French artist Jean L’ Homme, painted in 1631, was kept in Santo Stefano church. Due to the church’s proximity to the earthquake, the church was destroyed. Thieves who stole the painting ignored the risk of the church collapsing on them when they cut the painting from its frame. (Image: AP)

Selfie Destruction

26 Sep, 2018

Milan Art Museum Things quickly went south for an Italian student looking for a photo-op. The enthusiastic lad broke an early 19th-century statue by hopping in its lap to snap some selfies. Titled ‘The Drunken Satyr’, the work fortunately was a copy of an ancient Greek sculpture. (Image: Glyptothek, Munich & Nicola Vaglia/Corriere della Sera)

One way was to start near the top by showing at galleries that had a direct connection to the big ones. Prospects were dimmer for those forced to start at the bottom, but some still attained stardom by displaying at less prestigious galleries that exchanged art with other galleries, that, ultimately, exchanged with the coveted hubs.

The trouble is, nobody knows which lesser galleries have the best path to those hubs, Barabasi said. Many artists will sweat and toil to exhibit their art, but they go around in circles because they don’t realize they are, in network terms, stuck on an island. Those who got off the islands did what Barabasi called “a relentless random search.” That is, they got lucky but they increased their chances by getting their work placed in diverse galleries.

Quality does matter in art, of course, but since it can’t be measured, Barabasi said curators rarely make independent choices, but instead depend on validation from others. That’s why a painting called the “Man in the Golden Helmet” was the most popular work in the Bode Museum in Berlin when people thought it was painted by Rembrandt, but art professionals and museum-goers lost interest when they realized the painting was, in fact, the work a lesser artist.

With the science of networks, the values assigned to art become a lot less mysterious. For those who have the right connections, almost anything is possible, including the transformation of an ordinary urinal into a $2 million artwork.

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