Some blog posts are evergreen. They remain just as topical and poignant as when they were written. This is one. I learned a lot from researching to write this post. Reading The Supermodel and the Brillo Box and learning more about how the backstory sells art was revelatory and instructive. It was way more than I expected. It gave me valuable insights I’ve been sharing with artists ever since.

Back Stories Matter to All Artists

When it was first published in 2014, I read it with fascination: The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art. It is a 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.”

Thompson’s unique view of the contemporary art market after 2008 was interesting, frustrating, and eye-opening. Most artists don’t sell works for millions of dollars, but understanding how contemporary art is seen, valued, and sold can be helpful for artists of all levels because backstories are a subset of storytelling for artists, which is integral to marketing your artwork effectively.

The power of the back story.

Spot painting - Damien Hirst
Spot painting – Damien Hirst, courtesy

A perfect example is the book’s chapter titled “The Back Story.” All artists will benefit if their art has an intriguing back story. Thompson gives many examples of how a connection to a famous person or artist makes a work sell many more copies. For example, the work of British artist Damien Hirst is made by as many as 100 people who help him. Spot paintings are one of his series. 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 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 backstory that propels the value of the second painting to be 25 times greater than the first.

How to Find Art Collectors: A Trout Fishing Analogy
How to Find Art Collectors: A Trout Fishing Analogy



Read the Book to Learn the Full Story.

If you are interested in how the high-end contemporary art market works, 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.”

Backstories 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 how it gets its value is important. You may think contemporary art is crazily priced and complete bullshit. You would not be alone. On the other hand, those who buy and sell this type of art are unconcerned about your opinion or mine. Few would argue that virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell is anything less than 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. For example, the book mentions a test that 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 set up at the entrance to a Washington subway station. Dressed in jeans and a 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 its purest form. What we see is not what we see.

How to Find Art Collectors: A Trout Fishing Analogy
How to Find Art Collectors: A Trout Fishing Analogy



You may be wondering, and rightly so, how the example of artists like Damien Hirst and Joshua Bell relates to your business. Remember, we are talking about context or a backstory here. What is stopping you from creating context around your work? Nothing.

How would you add context to your work?

The answer must come from you or those who sell your work. Thompson is quick to point out that backstories 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 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. Instead, 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 creating the best description, you should consider getting help. For example, 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 benefits artists. The ways to build celebrity are as varied as how to make art. Just as a copywriter may help describe your work, a publicist can help you create a persona that gets you noticed in the media. It is quite possible that you could find one person or shop to handle both of these tasks for you.

Some of you are reading this and arguing that you cannot afford to hire professionals to help you manage your career. I would say that, in most cases, you cannot afford to pass on hiring such help. You only have 168 hours per week. Concentrating on the highest-value tasks possible and hiring others to do lesser-value work or work, not in your wheelhouse increases your odds of success.

Selling art with a backstory isn’t just for media celebrities. You can harness lessons from them to use in your art career. There is nothing wrong with thinking differently about making or marketing your art. If anything, breaking out of the mold and trying new things may be the most freeing and potentially profitable way to put your career on a new upward trajectory.

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art career, art marketing, art promotion, back story, Selling art

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  • Thanks for the post Barney. Always find this aspect of the business fascinating. I intend to download the book.

    • Barney,
      How about a unique collage medium, (Documentary),that has been part & parcel to Celebration Rituals,such as Weddings, National Holidays, Birthdays, Homecomings & Funerals, all around the Globe for 2 centuries! This presentation also embodies a method of juxtaposing wrappers & labels,never before seen!
      “The Grande Finale of the Art of Celebration”!
      A.K.A. “POP ART with a BANG”!

  • Back when I was actively selling art, there was a Palm Beach Artist who became a sensation by laying out a roll of canvas on the tarmac behind a Jet plane and the throwing cans of paint behind the engine. He then cut the spattered canvas into large “works of art” and successfully sold them for plenty. When asked how he could justify the hefty dollars he charged for each was he answered “Have you any idea what it costs to rent a jet plane.”

  • Interestingly coincidental! I say that because just last weekend I was looking through some blog posts on FAA (Fine Art America, which linked to your narrative) and noted that one photographer wrote a post about each of her works. I sent myself an email to remind me to begin writing a synopsis of each piece I upload. After reading your narrative I realize it can be quite important to do so… (See more of my thoughts on my blog at: ).

  • The words you use have value. There are “power” words that connote, as well as denote. For an example, years ago when I owned an ad agency, we were approached by a Savings and Loan Association about to run an ad campaign to celebrate their first year anniversary. The year before to attract people to their opening they ran a “sweepstake” giving away “one ounce of 99.99% pure gold” to bring anyone who visited to their opening. They had an ample budget, got what they thought was a “decent” number of entrants. They had decided to repeat the gold offer for their anniversary celebration, but had only half the ad budget of the opening campaign. We were asked to review their campaign to see if could be improved. After looking over where and how they were spending their ad dollars, we felt in was good – demographics and copy looked fine. Our only suggestion was that the prize should be a “one ounce gold nugget.” Result: half the money spent, double the number of people who signed up. And the price of gold had dropped – not gone up – in the year since they opened their doors.

  • I totally agree, Barney that being a bit of a celebrity – or a lot of one – will likely boost sales or sales prices. However in becoming famous – or notorious – it’s best to be know not just for one piece of art. The painting of the photograph of President Obama passed into common culture because it was hyped up to be an inappropriate copy. Yet few will remember either the painter or the photographer. Thanks for the book recommendation, I’m looking forward to reading it.

  • All of my pieces have back story. The point of this article is one of the reasons why I am starting classes at Harvard University next week. I’m going to get a degree from Harvard in Cambridge, MA. through their distance program.

    • Tina, Good on you for advancing your education. You are never too old to learn. The back story has to help sell your art.

  • Anyway you can change this site background which renders the article nearly unreadable?

    • Try using a different browser. For instance, if you are on Safari, try Chrome or Firefox. There have been 10s of thousands of views with that background for more than a year with no other complaints. You are experiencing a local issue. Thanks for your interest in my blog.

  • While I am yet to become a media sensation or earn 7 figures from my art, my weekly blog posts present a new artwork completed the prior week, weaving the technical process and the spiritual unfolding into a compelling story of growth. I get at least one new follower every week . I am patient…:)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lidia. Building a tribe of followers and an art career is like building a brick wall. One brick at a time. It’s slower at first while you gain mastery, but will pick up speed as you go. 🙂

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