The Making of an artist’s career

Guest article by Dr Chris Davies

With museums and galleries still restricted by the effects of the pandemic, Dr Christopher Davies explores the making of an artist’s career. The approach is Socratic, provocative, inviting debate

Introduction

Why one artist succeeds whilst others fail has long intrigued art historians. It raises a number of questions: Are some artists simply more talented than others? What part does originality play in success or otherwise? Do some artists succeed because they reflect and respond to the zeitgeist, making a significant contribution to the discipline? What is the relationship between aesthetic value and monetary value? And how is it decided? Is art a commodity, a product no different from any other product? Or is self-expression the driving force behind the production of art? Can critical recognition and financial success be attributed to the notion of genius, a concept sadly out of vogue during current times of levelling out; when according to Joseph Beuys anyone can be an artist? Or is success determined by the available support systems, the mechanisms of the market place? There are no absolute answers, only adopted positions. The making of a career in the arts is a complex, multi-layered affair, the coming together of a number of determinants, some of which are intangible. No one factor leads to success. Moreover few artists’ careers display a well-defined linear progression, often there are periods of recognition followed by neglect. Artists make work with the intention of it reaching audiences, to be viewed and, ideally, purchased.

Historical Context

The relationship between art and money is a time-honoured one and has changed little over the centuries. From the 14th Century until the late 18th Century patronage was the means by which art reached audiences and was acquired, commissioned and paid for, by Guilds, the Church or the aristocracy. With the emergence of capitalism in the late 17th Century and throughout the 18th Century art production, sales, and acquisition became subject to the vicissitudes of the market place. Artists societies were established in response to this: in 1768 the Royal Academy of Arts was founded, with the aim of raising the professional status of the artist by establishing a rigorous system of arts education and critical evaluation, with a premium placed on ‘innovation and individuation’. A year later the first juried exhibition was held and continues to this day as the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. With the demand for art from the affluent Victorian middle classes rising the market responded accordingly, with commercial galleries being established. Artists made work and then presented it to the marketplace. This situation has remained largely unchanged, albeit with a few adjustments, to the present day. So how does an artist forge a career?

The Making of a Career

The simplest approach is to view the making of a career is the four P’s: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. The artist decides what to produce. Art production often reflects demands made by stakeholders in the process: patrons, dealers, collectors, auction houses, galleries and museums and cultural influences. During the Renaissance and beyond painters often followed clear, well defined instructions from patrons: subject, materials, scale and display. In the 18th Century large-scale History paintings were acquired by wealthy aristocrats living in stately homes. In the following century ‘6 footers’ became less desirable because the emerging middle classes were living in smaller town houses.

There is a symbiotic relationship between artistic production and its presentation and positioning in the market. Dealers know the market and provide advice on prices. The commercial value of art is based on collective intentionality. There is no intrinsic, objective value. Human stipulation and declaration create and sustain the commercial value. Thus all value attributed to an art object is a construct; art does not stand in isolation, instead many agents are involved in establishing its meaning and value. It is important to recognise that for artistic success to occur art must be presented and positioned in the market. Most artists who have gained recognition of some kind have a pretty clear picture of the world that first receives their art. They have tactics of engagement or avoidance that suit their temperament’. Some artists are savvier than others, with an eye on the market, ready to make the most of opportunities. David Hockney is a case in point. A fine draughtsman but with limitations as a painter Hockney throughout his career has made the right moves at the right time, adapting his work to market trends, nurturing his reputation. Hockney, like Andy Warhol, is a first-class self-publicist, both are brands, seen as sound investment and therefore in demand from collectors.

 

During the past 150 years the most effective mechanism for the display and effecting sales has been the exhibition. This forms part of promotion, with publicity (including newspapers, radio, television, and social media) advertising, circulation lists, preview, critical reception, catalogues, monographs and display notices.

In reality, rarely is critical acclaim achieved without some modicum of commercial success. Therefore, what is more interesting to the practising professional artist than the adoption of a position of denial of the market is reconciling the inevitable tensions between aesthetic value and monetary value. The challenge is to balance idealism with pragmatism, the aesthetic with the mercantile. And although for many artists, recognition and the forging of a long lasting reputation is of the upmost importance, nevertheless most artists recognise the importance of sales, that the income earned from sales enables the production of art to continue.

A more nuanced assessment of how careers are forged is to consider a more sophisticated four stage model: peer recognition; critical recognition; patronage by dealers and collectors; and public acclaim.

The first stage, peer recognition, is achieved when the artist’s equals, his exact contemporaries and the circle of practising artists recognise and provide support and endorsement. Peer recognition is achieved either by word-of-mouth or the inclusion of an emerging artist’s work in an exhibition dedicated to contemporary practice. These usually take place in capital centres: London, New York, Berlin but also in cities with a strong artistic background. Liverpool hosts the John Moores Painting Exhibition, a major national painting award, one which any aspiring painter aims for inclusion.

But before this degree shows are often the starting point in an artist’s career. Gallery owners, especially in London, attend degree shows to view the work of emerging talent. Word soon gets around that there is a new artist worth looking at and representing. In marketing this is referred to as ‘buzz marketing’; arguably more important than advertising in the early stages of a career.

The second stage in the process arises when an artist and the body of work receives positive attention from professional critics, rigorously trained in the arts and/or art history to the highest standards. Attention from critics, but not art journalists or bloggers, who are often treated with scepticism by gallery owners, collectors and museum directors and curators, helps to create the verbal language that allows the work to be contextualised, opening critical analysis and discourse. Gallery owners draw distinctions.

With positive notices the third stage is likely to follow, support from gallery owners, museum directors and curators, and collectors, usually in the form of exhibitions, either group or solo exhibitions. The exhibition is pivotal to success. As early as 1909 the importance of the exhibition was recognised when Art News noted, ‘the artist knows full well that exhibiting is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. The more his work is seen, wider will be the recognition accorded to him, the greater his opportunities of effecting sales’.

The primary function of a gallery is to stimulate demand for an artist’s work and to realise sales. The private gallery mediates between the numerous stakeholders operating in the various art worlds; between the artist, potential customers, the tastemakers – critics, fellow artists, and art historians – and the public galleries and museums and other organisations who exist to support, patronise and acquire art.

The final stage is public acclaim, the point when the artist’s work is on public display, ideally in major art galleries and museums and featured in seminal exhibitions and viewed, with strong footfall.

The making of an artist’s career is gained through a number of convergences, operating in a complex matrix of influences and determinants. The art world – art production and the art world(s) to a degree reflects societal attitudes and values and rarely stays still. What of the future? Two recent developments, social media and the Me Too/Black Lives Matter/Cancel Culture campaigns may impact on the making of careers now and in the future. Social media has provided new opportunities for artists to present and sell work and sustain careers, challenging the art establishment and the status quo. However there is a downside, with professional critical analysis by rigorously trained art historians and critics being undermined; social media platforms are crowded with ‘amateur’ art commentators pronouncing ‘knowledgeably’ on art. In 2012 the late Umberto Eco- author, literary critic, philosopher and semiotician- bemoaned social media, writing (it) gives legions of individuals the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community…but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner.

 

The second development, the emergence of the above-mentioned campaign groups could have a major impact on art production, the marketing of art, and the making and sustaining of careers. There is a danger that artists will play it safe, producing work that will not offend, that gallery owners will be fearful of taking on controversial artists and national and regional museums will be ‘persuaded’ to display work only of politically correct artists, irrespective of aesthetic value.


Header image: Francis Bacon’s studio


Dr Chris Davies is an Art Historian, Freelance Lecturer Arts and Humanities and for 30+ years a lecturer and programme leader degree contemporary arts practice. He has co-organised and curated exhibitions, seminars and symposiums, as well as engagement with local arts organisations.

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