WELL BEGUN, half done. That proverb, ascribed to Aristotle, seems an apt description of the art market—at least it is if a study of artistic careers, published this week in Science, is to be believed. In this study Albert-László Barabási, a physicist at Northeastern University in Boston, and Samuel Fraiberger, a data scientist at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences, deconstruct almost half a million artistic careers. They conclude that for artists, professional success seems often to depend on an early endorsement by the right set of galleries.
Dr Barabási and Dr Fraiberger used data from Magnus, a firm that collects information about the art market, such as auction sales and exhibitions, to build a picture of how works of art flow around the world’s thousands of galleries and museums. The researchers’ thinking was that the more places an artwork has been exhibited, the more demand there is for it—and the more successful that artwork (and its creator) might reasonably be thought to be. This, in turn, by a process of feedback, permits a map to be made showing which are the most prestigious and important art institutions in the world.
The feedback mechanism Dr Barabási and Dr Fraiberger used was inspired by PageRank, the algorithm at the heart of Google’s search engine. PageRank determines a web page’s importance not by looking at the contents of the page itself but rather by counting how many other pages on the web link to it, and how important those other pages are themselves deemed, by the same iterative process, to be. Dr Barabási and Dr Fraiberger arrived similarly at a prestige rating for each gallery or museum, by counting how many other museums and galleries sent artworks to it, and then giving due account to how prestigious those places were themselves.
The algorithm showed, to nobody’s surprise, that the art world’s biggest nodes are a group of European and North American powerhouses that include the Museum of Modern Art, the Gagosian Gallery and the Guggenheim in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. These places had the highest prestige ratings, and most of the world’s most successful art had, at some point, ended up being exhibited in one or more of them.
Just below the top tier, and less well-known outside the art world, were a set of institutions that also acted as important paths to artistic success—being those that most frequently feed works into the top tier. They include the Leo Castelli and Paula Cooper galleries in New York, Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris and London, and Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin.
Their mapping exercise also permitted Dr Barabási and Dr Fraiberger to follow individual artists’ careers. They were able to create an early-success score for each artist by averaging the prestige ratings of the museums or galleries which showed that artist’s first five exhibitions. Remarkably, this simple early-career score gave the two researchers all they needed to predict an artist’s future success.
Elite artists—those whose score at the start of their careers was in the top 20%—had only a 0.2% chance of ending their careers in the bottom 20%. Almost 60% maintained their elite status throughout.
At the other end of the scale it seems extremely hard to join the elite if you did not begin there. Of those artists who started by exhibiting in the bottom 20% of institutions, only 10% eventually made it into the elite group—and around 16% stayed at the bottom. These figures actually under-represent the scale of the struggle that such artists face, since most in this initial group did not stick it out for long. Of those who started at the bottom of the success scale, only 14% remained in the industry ten years after their fifth exhibit. For the elite group that figure was almost three times higher, 39%.
The financial consequence of all this is that elite artists’ work sells 4.7 times more often at auctions than that of those at the bottom end, with maximum prices 5.2 times higher. Which could, of course, be evidence of a meritocratic system working perfectly. After all, for a young artist to beat the competition for wall space in a top gallery suggests he or she is producing work of great quality. Cynics might be forgiven, however, for wondering whether talent is the only factor involved in getting those crucial early shows. A topic, perhaps, for further research.