I have been reading with fascination The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art, a new book by economist Don Thompson. As Georgia Adam quotes, “Don Thompson lays bare the world of high-octane auctions, canny collectors, culture-hungry new economies, and opaque million-dollar art deals.”
I find Thompson’s unique outlook on the post-2008 contemporary art market enlightening, infuriating, and eye opening. While multimillion-dollar sales are not the norm of most artists, the nuances relating to the perception of contemporary art, including its valuation, and how it gets sold provide useful takeaways for artists at every level.
The power of the back story.
A perfect example comes from the book’s chapter titled The Back Story. I believe all artists will benefit if their art has an intriguing back story. Thompson cites numerous examples of how having an association with a celebrity, or a well-known artist vastly increases the sale of the work. For example, British artist, Damien Hirst, has as many as 100 assistants producing work he conceives. One of his series is spot paintings. He has been making them since the 1980s and has produced more than 1,300 of them.
Supposedly, the paintings represent the decline of originality by taking something that looks machine produced, but is painted by hand, thus making what we see not what we see. Hirst freely admits he does not do well painting spots. Most of his work is created by his assistants. Rachel Howard was recognized as the best spot painter for Hirst.
Howard left Hirst to do her own work. One of her spot paintings sold at auction in 2008 for $90,000. A few months later another spot painting made by her sold for $2.25 million. The difference hinged on the second painting bearing Hirst’s (indistinct) signature. The signature creates a back-story that propels the value of the second painting to make it 25-x greater value than the first.
Back Stories Apply to More Than Contemporary Art.
Art is always going to be subjective in terms of value and quality. While certainly arguable, your opinions of contemporary art aren’t the point of this post. Learning from how it gets its value is. You may think contemporary art is crazily priced complete bull shit and you would not be alone. However, those who buy and sell art of this nature could not be concerned less about your opinion or mine. Nevertheless, few would argue that Joshua Bell playing the violin is anything but just short of ageless majesty.
Thompson says, and I concur, that there is the idea that there is a long history of art having an underlying reality that one cannot directly observe. There is the art itself, and then there is the context around it. As an example of this the book includes the mention of a test Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten made with concert violinist, Joshua Bell.
Concertgoers pay $225 to hear Bell play his $3.5 million, eighteenth century, Stradivarius. For this experiment, Bell setup at the entrance to a Washington subway station. Dressed in jeans and sweatshirt, he played the first 45 minutes of the same music he had performed in the concert hall just two weeks prior. With his violin case open and seeded with a few dollars and coins, he collected $32. That is art in context in its purest form. What we see is not what we see.
You may be thinking, and rightly so, how does the example of artists like Damien Hirst and Joshua Bell relate to your business. Remember, we are talking about context, or back story here. What is stopping you from creating context around your work? Nothing.
How would you add context to your work?
The answer has to come from you, or from those who sell your work. Thompson is quick to point out that back stories are often the creation of promotional efforts by auction houses and dealers. They are seeking any way possible to add value to the work. The most extreme example the book offers is how Sotheby’s created a video to describe an upcoming sale of Yves Klein’s RE 9-1 (1961), part of his Reliefs esponges series.
Since they could find little to say about work that was made up of compacted sponges glued on a pebbled surface and saturated with blue paint, they focused instead on the year the work was created. It was a momentous year. John F. Kennedy became president; the Berlin Wall went up; Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, and Adolph Eichmann went on trial in Jerusalem. None of these events had the slightest thing to do with the painting. It went for $5.9 million, well above the pre-sale estimate of $3.1 to $4.8 million.
Words are powerful.
Words help create perceptions. How we perceive nearly anything will influence our decision to purchase it. The words you use to describe your work can be enormously helpful in getting you the best price for it. If you have difficulty in creating the best description, you should consider getting help. A professional copywriter can add value and perspective that will elude you.
Actions and reputation are powerful.
I have frequently mentioned how becoming a slight celebrity provides all kinds of unique benefits to artists. The ways to build celebrity are as varied as the ways to make art. Just as a copywriter may help with describing your work, a publicist can help you create a persona that gets you notice in the media. It is quite possible you could find one person or shop to handle both of these tasks for you.
I can hear some of you reading this arguing that you cannot afford to hire professionals to help you manage your career. I would argue in most cases you cannot afford to pass on hiring such help. You only have 168 hours each week. By concentrating on the highest value tasks possible and hire others to do lesser value work, or work that is not in your wheelhouse, you increase your odds of success.
Selling art with a back story is not just for media superstar artists. You can harness lessons from them to use in your art career. There is nothing wrong with thinking differently about how you make your art or market your art. If anything, breaking out of the mold and trying new things may just be the most freeing and potentially profitable way to put your career on a new upward projection.
Read this book!
If you are remotely interested in how the high-end contemporary art market works, then you need to read this book. Thompson writes with a style that makes reading easy and with a dangling carrot to get to the end. I highly recommend The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art.
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