There’s a word some people use to describe the contemporary art world.
One word, which more than any other, seems to elicit a response.
It’s not a good word.
Even people working in the industry can be affected by this word.
It’s sad that this is the word many people attach to the art world.
That word is ‘intimidating’.
For many people… for too many people… the art world can be intimidating.
Insiders can’t always see this. Sometimes they relish it — they feels it gives them power and access, and insider information.
Historically the art world ran on secrecy & insider information. Some may say it still does. On the other hand as this $65bn industry seeks to grow beyond its traditional collector base it needs to reset some of its cultural values — remove the snobbery and intimidation, improve the welcoming.
To serve arts purpose of spreading ideas & culture.
I’m not originally from the art world. But I’ve come to know it a little.
And whilst I totally get that it’s undoubtedly intimidating — I frequently feel intimidated — I think other words apply equally. Words like:
Inspiring, compelling, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking…
The art world is a world full of discovery, of vivid personalities, incredible stories, interesting people.
The contemporary art world is full of these beautiful and thought provoking experiences and these are the words we should be extending to others.
The good news is that many in the industry are conscious of this and working hard to make the art world a friendlier, more welcoming place. From online platforms to galleries to auction houses, each are developing strategies to develop new clients and increase access. Which really is retail 101, however what is considered best practice in other high value retail industries is slow to make it to the art market, which often considers itself a special case.
Many speak of ‘democratising the art world’. I believe there is are many people ready and waiting to engage with the art world, or increase their engagement. I describe them as ‘creatively interested’ audiences, already pre-disposed to love art. We just need to welcome them better, show them a way in. They are highly engaged with other cultural forms, theatre, music, dance— we just haven’t shown them a way in to contemporary art. They are creative professionals themselves — designers, architects, founders. They work in industries that value original thinking —many in startups or tech businesses.
How much could we grow the contemporary art market, supporting artists and a sustainable creative economy in doing so, if we were able to welcome these new audiences to contemporary art. Without the intimidation factor.
Some of the problems we need to overcome when inviting people in are:
- how and where to start, how to develop confidence in your own taste
- a lack of transparency in information, particularly in pricing
- making a passion for art ‘normal’ and not reserved for the ‘elites’
How and where to start, developing confidence in your own taste
- Start by looking. On Instagram, by visiting galleries, art fairs, art museums, grad shows, exhibitions. Ideally do it with a friend. Art is a visual experience, however also a social one. The more you look, the more you discuss, the more you learn about yourself and what you respond to. There is a world of joy and self-discovery in this journey. And while you can easily do it alone, it’s more fun with a friend.
- Meet the artist if you can, or the gallerist (the person in the gallery). Have a conversation. The irony of this industry is that most artists and gallerists are really approachable if you start a conversation. Many just don’t know how to do that themselves. The artist and their work will come to life as you find out the story behind it, which may or may not connect with you.
- You don’t have to like everything you see. Most people don’t. It’s fine. When you see or experience something that connects with you, trust me, you’ll know it. And that changes over time, as your own tastes and life experience changes.
- Having the confidence to trust your own taste is the biggest breakthrough. There is no ‘right and wrong’ and you don’t have to agree with scholars and critics. I see many parallels between art and, for example, wine, including it’s fine to start with ‘I think I know what I like’. The best people in both fields are not pretentious. The best art makes you think or makes you feel — so if you are experiencing either of those emotions you are on your way!
Lack of transparency
- Traditionally thriving with a business model based on asymmetric access to information (which meant patrons/collectors relied on the advice of insiders & tastemakers and pretty much nobody else had any access or opportunity) this now holds the art world back.
- Today’s currency is information — a lack of data leads to a lack of trust. It sounds self-evident yet it’s not yet clear to many in the art world. Global art platform Artsy say adding prices to works online delivers a more than 3x higher likelihood of sale. Yet 33% of Artsy gallery partners (who are paying monthly for the partnership) choose not to display prices. Old habits die hard.
- Most often prices are not transparent and the ‘game’ of ‘cracking the code’ on pricing makes many feel like an outsider. Information is power. Why would you make your client feel powerless? Transparency of information is the most requested attribute of millennial and online buyers today. Not to mention the educated & informed cohort of ‘creatively interested’ potential new art buyers. And yes I’ve heard all the ‘don’t show prices’ arguments - that could be another whole article, suffice to say here I believe that is old school thinking and detrimental to the industry as a whole.
Let’s make art ‘normal’
- Jerry Saltz, notorious and much followed art critic, said
I love that.
- I feel the art industry has given itself a bad rap by positioning itself as elitist. Artists are not elitist. Most gallerists are in business because they are passionate about art and artists. The 1% of the industry is elitist, by definition. Unfortunately this 1% dominates most media (multi million dollar auction sales, scandals). It ignores the fact that 85% of all art sold by volume is is under $50,000. And 95% under $250,000. *
- Art is for anyone. Art makes you see things differently, to challenge perceptions, to encourage creative thinking and problem solving. Empathy and understanding. You don’t need to be able to draw to appreciate art, in the same way you can appreciate elite sport without being an athlete yourself. Let’s make it ‘normal’ to love art, not reserved for the elites.
There are many paradoxes in the art world. The intimidation factor is one of them. Let’s replace it with another ‘i-word’.
*The Art Market Report, Art Basel & UBS, 2019