Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How aware should an artist be of their own market?

In the chapter of my book that I assume most people skip over fairly quickly, especially those not planning to actually open a gallery, like, say, artists looking for insights into how best to navigate the gallery system, I make a big point about thoroughly understanding both your market and who your competitors are. That chapter, on "Writing a Business Plan," details a document so daunting to create that I am willing to bet more than 70% of galleries under 3 years old in New York have never written one.

I know we opened Plus Ultra back in the day without one, and that it wasn't until I approached a bank for capital to move into Chelsea that I ever considered taking the time to do so. Beyond potential investors, though, the most important reader of your business plan is you. This should be a document you refer to like you would a road map, to guide you on what your focus should be as the ride gets bumpy or more complicated.

The part of writing a Business Plan that isn't about your own vision for the business and thus is the one that takes the most time (or did for me) is the subsection generally called "Description of the Industry," in which you not only familiarize your reader (a potential investor or perhaps a new employee in your gallery) with how the industry you're going to be working in operates, but more importantly you demonstrate to them that you're a safe investment (or how you wish them to think as your employee) because you actually know that industry well. As I note in my book, you do this:
[B]y offering your readers a detailed description of the art gallery business, including how it operates, how well it is doing at the moment, and how well it is likely to be doing in the foreseeable future. It is important that you cite reliable sources for your conclusions here and not simply offer your own opinions or conjecture.
Another part of your Description of the Industry in your plan should be a description of your specific niche in The Market. Here again, it's important to convince your readers that you understand this well enough that they can trust their money in your hands or know how best to work with you to help you meet your goals:
In The Market section you should describe the specifics of how you’re positioning yourself within the overall market you’ll be competing in. As is true throughout your business plan, your goal in this section remains to provide yourself a roadmap, as well as to convince your readers you have a firm grasp of this topic. To do this, describe the following: who your customers will be, what their needs are, and how you plan to meet those needs; go into detail about the size of the market and how recent market trends will impact that size; provide a matter-of-fact evaluation of your competition, including a list of who they are and what their strengths and weakness are; describe how you plan to position yourself within the market; discuss how your pricing strategy will work to help you meet your goals; and describe how you arrived at your sales estimates based on these combined factors.
Of course whether or not a dealer will engage in the painstaking research and reflection required to do all this probably depends on how competitive they wish to be in the market. Believe me, your competitors are doing all this and more. We've all heard the stories of the lengths powerful dealers have gone to to be competitive (one reportedly memorized all the contemporary auction results from the time he was a child, another visits collectors in their home and then, when the collector leaves a room, snaps photos of all the art they have on the walls for future reference), and indeed there's every reason to believe the most competitive forces in the business are gearing up in earnest for a battle for global domination like none ever quite seen before. To fight on this scale, though, you need real power and in the art market, like most other markets, information is power (hence the seemingly mindless memorization and secretive categorization efforts).

Yes, yes, yes, you're probably saying by now...that's interesting and all, Ed, but what's that got to do with artists? Your post has "artist" in the title. Art isn't about knowing your competition inside out, art is about something higher.

I'd agree that Art is about something higher, but an art career is exactly about knowing your market and knowing your competition. Just look at many of the giants of the last century. These included artists who wrote manifestos, most of which usually began with a devastating take down of their competition (including their predecessors, probably each artist's fiercest competition). These manifestos were not easy to write. They required a great deal of research and reflection. They required truly understanding what the competition was doing and what their strengths or weaknesses were. (Sound familiar yet?)

Today few artists are invested or even interested in the polemics of the manifesto career model, but the most financially successful among today's contemporary artists (like Hirst, or Koons, or Murakami) are certainly intimately aware of the market and what their competitors are doing.

OK, so several of the artists I know reading this are probably ready to head back and take another shower by now. Let me switch this around to make it a bit less about money and (hopefully) demonstrate why what I'm saying is important even if you're queasy about "the market." Let's change the question in the title to "How aware should an artist be of their competition?" Assuming that you're not only competing as an artist for collectors' money but also for critics, curators, and historians' attention, do you need to know what other artists are doing or can you simply burrow away in your studio and focus on your own work?

That probably depends mostly on what your own work is, but even more on what your career goals are. But stick with me here a moment. Let's take the high ground...let's say the career you're most interested in is one outside the gallery system...one in dialog with serious curators and other connoisseurs you personally invite to your studio.

Few things are more frustrating for an artist during a studio visit, I'm sure, than to have their work compared to that of so-and-so (especially compared as lacking in some way), but how can you possibly respond to such comparisons, pointing out the important differences, if you're unfamiliar with so-and-so's work? By not being able to respond, your work is perhaps left looking derivative to that curator. Of course, if the curator takes the time and is observant enough, they will eventually see the differences for themselves, but many of them are extremely busy, it took you months to get them over to your studio, and you can see them already checking their watch while you struggle to respond to the comparison. To me, this is a clear cut case in which being well aware of your competition is important.

Mind you, I fully understand that you can't know every artist out there, and that curators will compare work with some obscure artist they did a studio visit with while traveling through Central Asia or wherever, but should they compare your work with someone who's had a recent museum exhibition or highly acclaimed gallery show, you're left looking "out of the loop" if you can't at least comment on that other artist's work. Which is only to say that if you're a painter focused on geometric abstractions, you might want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with other well-received artists focused on geometric abstractions, and not to say you need to be an expert on the latest thinking in political performance-based work or whatever.

But that's another way of saying, know your niche. Or, know your market. There's a market for buying art, and another market for simply discussing and exhibiting art, but whichever is important to you, you'll do much better reaching your goals the more you understand that market.

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19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are spot on. Most of the artists I meet have no idea about the work of others, nor do they have a clue about gallery programs. I do a lot of research, and although mostly useless information outside my niche profession, I have a tremendous number of galleries and artists memorized. Who they are, where they exhibit their work and which cities the interesting galleries are located in. For me, it is about projection, where would I like to find my work in dialogue with whom? The gallery, city, artists exhibited etc will determine this. It is not careerism, simply just information. Knowledge reigns supreme, as KRS1 would say.

12/15/2010 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger StephenTruax said...

A big part of art school critique, especially in BFA programs, is tapping your professors' wealth of memorized knowledge of contemporary artists, gallery programs, recent museum exhibitions for the very reason of avoiding repeat work or derivative projects. Since there is no useful image/photo search currently available, young artists are faced with trial-by-error search methods when they first hit the market. Pivotal moment is when artists realize how what they make can effect or contribute to the contemporary critical context (e.g., locate their niche market.)

12/15/2010 10:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

By way of counterpoint, yesterday Robin Black wrote a post for Beyond The Margins entitled When Marketing Can Be Too Much:

It only gets harder as you go on. That’s what I have learned this past year, since publishing a book. Harder and harder to focus on the work, to remember that this should always remain more art than marketing task. Those early worries one has about getting an agent, getting published, they don’t disappear without a trace when those things come about. They morph and multiply in shocking ways.

Again, counterpoint, not contradiction. The whole problem of creating a satisfying life as an artist is a complex one.

12/15/2010 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Indeed, getting it right is a matter of persistent trial and error, I think.

12/15/2010 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Ed, You're describing a decade's worth of artists' learning. Art school students now are getting a jump on this in courses that help them understand the nature of the artist-dealer relationship, of Art market 101, and of the need to understand where their niche is--or to create a niche for themselves. (Though it's always shocking when I hear "Who's Chuck Close?" or "Julie Mere-who?")

Unfortunately I have made the gallery rounds with many midcareer artists who, seeing a gorgeous new space, want to show THERE. Never mind the gallery program, the personality of the dealer, the position of the artist in relation to the dealer or vice versa. It's all about the space, the light. Ageism is bad enough, but to have to face it without understanding the basics is to hit the road with an empty tank.

You really should be a visiting professor somewhere. (As if you don't have enough to do.)

12/15/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Diedra Krieger said...

Speaking of niche, for me it's about finding my voice and deciding on its position in relation to the trajectory of cultural production, and whether inside or outside the formal gallery system, or determining if there is possibly some integration of engagement in these seemingly different spaces. I keep seeing suggestions about creating a plan and perhaps that will be my next step. I dreamt way too big last year during my Costa Rica residency and have yet to make a plan to see it through. Apparently I keep reading that if you dream it the possibility of it coming true is real but you need this so called plan to make it happen. Thank you! PS i feel awful about the idea of competition amongst artists. i want to be surrounded by like minded agents of change and aesthetics and make stuff happen. PPS #rank was just one of many steps in that direction thank you!!!

12/15/2010 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

You are a thorough and concise writer Edward. I enjoyed reading this, even though I did find the top-end a little heavy on "market=$", when (and as you hinted at) it can feel "dirty' to an artist.
Knowing what else is out there is extremely important and finding a balance between looking and studio time can be difficult sometimes.

It's good advice. I personally feel their is still a ghost-in-the-machine or hidden factor that can't be accounted for in terms of an artist in their work, perhaps a mystical element that can be defined only so far. The current show you have up: Christopher K. Ho's, "Regional Painting," to me alludes to this mystical element, but still this is good guidance.

12/15/2010 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Kirstin said...

I find that sometimes like-minded artists find each other through facebook, hanging shows, publications, just writing to one another. It is kind of delightful actually. I love finding new work to expose students to in slide lectures (when I'm lucky enough to have students). I find it a gift when someone tells me my work looks like X, as then I run to go look at the work, so I can see what I have been missing. Also it is instructive to see what is different about the work, where it shifts and why. Also, I want to make friends - always, though I may not be gifted at doing so. This is less about knowing your market than finding your people and possibly new mentors and heros.

12/15/2010 12:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In both undergraduate and graduate art school, my studio professors/advisors were constantly relating our work to other artists, both from art history and contemporary. Although this was usually done by the instructors to help the students to see how other artists have solved similar problems that we were facing in our work, the usual take-away from the students was that what they were doing had been done before. Given that, there was a lot of resistance from the students to looking at art. Most of the students wanted to create work that was free of any influences; work that was totally their own unique vision. Then, it would not have been done before and it would move the line of art history forward and they would be immortal. (The "been done before" message was also reinforced in art history classes, because only the artists with the great ideas that have moved art history "forward" are studied in art history survey courses).

Now as a curator, I still see this resistance among young and old artists alike. So many do not go to museums or galleries because that do not want their work to be influenced or derivative. And it doesn't help an artist when they finally get an interview or studio visit with a dealer and the dealer says that they already have an artist who does work like yours, so why should I take you on? Even so, so much of the work I've seen is still derivative. Even my MFA advisor was trying to create a "school" around him to secure his place in art history books.

Personally, I find it useful and important to know my art history and understand what is happening in the contemporary art world. Not only is is vital to my job, but having the reference points helps me to look at new work by seeing how that work fits into the dialog. And I encourage all artists to look at as much art as they can, because knowledge is good.

12/15/2010 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

I really love a good manifesto, it's too bad they have gone out of favor.

I'm only partially kidding with that remark-- although they can be somewhat overbearing, manifestos definitely cause the artist to take a very clear and definite stand on what they are all about, and then gather strength in numbers as a movement begins to form around their ideas. In contrast, many artist statements you read today seem kind of... well, lame, really.

If you read the Harvard Business review (as I have been doing lately-- tagging along to a colleague's MBA Studies...), business strategy 101 emphasizes the importance of creating a unique and valuable position for yourself in the market. Having a good strategy requires you to make trade off on what NOT to do, and make a fit amongst all your activities to reach your strategic goals.
That is definitely true and good practice for artists as well as business people, and definitely requires good knowledge of your market.
In my mind, creating a unique an valuable position for yourself as an artist is another argument for diversity in location of artists, diversity of life experience, diversity in artistic practice, diversity in art venues and exhibition styles, and diversity definitions of success.

But it's definitely important for artists to think deeply about all these things and come up with some ideas about where they are going, and how they want to get there, and then hold on to that along the way, refining as we go along. (as Franklin alluded to in his lovely post). A life's work, I think.

12/15/2010 04:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the artist has real talent and he or she persists with their vision, eventually such an artist will replace their predecessors, and the public will accept the lingering influences as traits of the new artist. Or the public will just accept (and perhaps enjoy) seeing the influences alongside the new, unique aspects in the artist's work. It's like a family tree: each new generation has resemblances to previous ones. One can easily see Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Cezanne, and even El Greco in Picasso's early work. And we can easily see Picasso in the work of many twentieth-century artists (Gorky, de Kooning, early Rothko, Pollock, Bacon, etc.). For that matter, we still see Picasso's influence in artists working today -- like Jasper Johns, David Hockney, and more recently, Dana Schutz. And what of Braque, Gris, Leger, Marc, Delanuay, and the other "titans" from the early twentieth-century. Were they all just followers? Where should the line be drawn. In today's art world, it's a very rare thing to come across an artist with an inner spark, an urgency.

You mentioned Hirst, Koons, and Murakami. I agree that they're most certainly aware of their markets, but I'd bet that they have little knowledge of art history. The evidence is in their work. A great work will challenge the past, take it and wield it; it'll trounce the work of contemporaries ("the competition"), even if it's in a similar vein, by being better.

12/15/2010 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Dalloway said...

Long Live the Manifesto!

http://missusdalloway.blogspot.com/search/label/manifestos

Ed, however I have a question, what do you mean by "polemics of the manifesto career model" tx!

12/15/2010 07:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In certain locales it seems that the permanent, long-term artist community is itself pretty small. In my area, artists see one another at opening receptions, museum shows, artistic fundraising events, et al. In some instances we went to art school together. So understanding, and having a viewpoint on your competitors work doesn't require a huge effort. And the community is largely supportive of one another.

It can be a little more difficult accessing info about the inner workings of one's market, as the info about how various galleries are doing is...not out there for public consumption. It is certain that large numbers of galleries have "gone under" in these past years.

I cringed a bit at the description of a guest to an art studio negatively comparing the art to someone else's....and if not being able to respond , then the work is left looking derivative. The art speaks for itself, largely. And one would hope that persons would approach one another with grace.

Building the career for the moment might mean doing the very thing you mention: hunkering down in the studio, and being very productive, and continually aiming for excellence. There might not always be an "in" to the market, particularly in difficult times, so there needs to be a balance between awareness of what is going on in the art community, & networking,
("getting out there") also in supporting other artists, and largely in remaining very productive with one's own art.

12/15/2010 09:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand your commitment to historical perspective because you curate -- but as an artist, I know that artists who *study* their competition are rarely those who innovate in a meaningful way -- they get too influenced by their competitors and water down their own vision.

If a viewer has too little time to view the work itself and instead relies on pure dialog, the appropriate interaction with the art is lost on them anyhow.

Everyone is busy -- but the current art has become like a commercial jingle when it should be a symphony. (Make it big; if you can't make it big, make it red.) Isn't anyone else tired of the devolution of art?

12/15/2010 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

but I'd bet that they have little knowledge of art history. You would lose that bet.

12/15/2010 10:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spoke with two dealers about studio visits and what they look for in an artist. The first dealer I asked is the gallery that I work with. 50% is the work (innovation, conceptual, craft etc.) the other 50% is the individual; their intelligence, how they conduct themselves, dialogue. A good dealer does a lot of studio visits and as a result views a lot of art. One artist is nervous and shy and expects the work to 'speak for itself'. The other artist is interested in critique, conversation, response or rebuttals. Who is going to come out on top if both bodies of work are interesting? The other dealer I spoke with topped the percentage at 80% being personality! If you are not a PHD candidate, at the very least be a charming motherfucker.

12/16/2010 02:01:00 PM  
Anonymous m. muldrow said...

Knowing your market and knowing when to find your market is very important.I was in SF for many years,in the height of the Mission School movement,the galleries that I most respected and the emerging artist museum opportunities were geared towards supporting that movement.It was very exciting---if you were a Barry McGee , Chris Johanson et al..but I was not a part of that scene,my work was not that aesthetic and I found myself without representation.although I sold well to collectors,I couldn't break into the galleries(that I wanted to be at) so, it made sense to go to LA,where there wasn't the stranglehold of New Misssion/or old school Diebenkorn.It is not the case in SF anymore,but anyhow,I am represented in LA and it was advantageous to look outward.I now live in a small town,I know the overall collector base is conservative,I don't bother with the market here.It is important to know when to pursue your ambitions elsewhere and not keep knocking your head against the wall,it is your job to look for the door...

12/16/2010 03:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

Doing the preliminary research before you begin a project, to me, is just a way of trying to be sure that you are not going to waste the next two years of your life doing something that doesn’t need to be done. Another benefit is that if you discover related work, and you still decide to push forward, it helps you position yourself and articulate how your work is going to be different and why that difference is important before you even start the project.

I really enjoy the research part of my work.... following trails of artist names, curator’s names, gallery’s artist rosters, themed exhibition catalogs, books related to the ones I look up on amazon, etc. It always leads me to discovering amazing new artists, even if they are not doing what I do. Going to art fairs and seeing as much as you can is also helpful to learn if there are others who are working in a similar way.

The research is not foolproof.... I have heard several stories of artists who do the research and later discover that an emerging artist on the other side of the globe is doing something similar to what they are doing.... but it does help narrow the odds.

Every semester I have at least one student who hands me the line that they do not want to be “influenced”. After many years of teaching in one art community, I have seen artists pick up images subconsciously, only to have those images turn up in their own work a few years later, and they are completely unaware that they have copied work almost verbatum. Doing your homework can help you avoid this.

12/16/2010 08:30:00 PM  
Anonymous kim matthews said...

Concern with "originality" is a trap-and a cliche! Look at everything-new and old, good and bad-all the time. We're all connected, and that connection will invariably come through one way or another from time to time. Curators, critics, and art historians are trained to see influences and to talk about work relative to other work. The point is to do your work and support it with study. If you're diligent, curious, thoughtful, honest, and fortunate, eventually your unique contribution to your discipline will emerge. At least that's what I need to believe,

12/23/2010 01:37:00 PM  

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