The surprising (?) formula for becoming an art star

From Kelly Crow at the WSJ:

New artists who show their work early in a relatively small network of 400 venues—like Gagosian Gallery or the Guggenheim Museum—are all but guaranteed a successful art career, the study said. By contrast, artists who exhibit mainly in lower-level galleries and midtier institutions are likely to remain stuck in that orbit.

“There’s this invisible network of trust that exists in the art world, but the group that decides who matters in art was considerably smaller and more powerful than we expected,” said Albert-László Barabási, a data scientist who studies networks at Northeastern and led the study along with several colleagues including a data scientist now at the World Bank, Samuel Fraiberger. Their findings also show up in Dr. Barabási’s book published earlier this week, “The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.”

His findings undermine a popular art-world notion that a prodigy could create in obscurity and get discovered years later. Instead, the research suggests that artists who start out seeking connections with powerful curators, dealers and collectors within the nerve center of the art world are far more likely to hit the big time…

“If one of your first five shows as an artist is held at a gallery in the heart of this network, the chances of your ending your career on the fringes is 0.2%,” Dr. Barabási said. “The network itself will protect you because people talk to each other and trade each other’s shows.”

…“The art world prides itself on being so open and inclusive, but the truth is the opposite,” Mr. Resch said.

The same is true for academia, I might add.  And most other things.


Cause or effect? Could it be that exclusive art galleries have an eye for 'good art'?

My view is that the art world isn't meritocratic at all: the art that happens to be selected for the Guggenheim isn't any different than the art hanging in a lower-level institution, and if they were swapped, the fortunes of the artists would also swap.

However, you are right that their assumption of causation could be wrong. From skimming the paper, it seems the main way they try to show it is not caused by art quality is an assumption that art quality is constant across countries. Therefore, because different countries have different levels of access to high-level institutions, they assume access isn't driven by quality. However, this seems like a terrible assumption. Is there any non-trivial product for which the quality is constant across countries?

Let's have a randomized control trial on this! Of course, the art world would never go for this, because of what it might reveal (like blind wine-tasting experiments).

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This was my thought as well. Also, is 400 venues a *small* network? For becoming a success (as fuzzy a term as that may be), many professional networks (particularly academia) seem to be much smaller. How many law schools have ever been represented on the Supreme Court? What's distribution of colleges at the high levels of Goldman Sachs, etc.? How many econ programs are represented among top economists? How many top politicians in the UK didn't go to Eton?

Maybe, this just means that there are far more art galleries than needed to support high quality art. The same might be true for academia, I might add.

Or maybe it means that having a good "brand" is more important than doing good work. There's an "art gallery" at the mall near me that had a exhibit of work done by one of the members of Kiss last year and a Ric Ocasek display this year. I know a couple serious young artists whose work I like and have bought, but I doubt they have a chance.

Think of all the books written by famous people (The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, etc.) that sell in the millions of copies while Brooklyn writers sometimes manage to get reviews from their friends at the NYTimes and sell 50,000 copies; I have no idea how many talented authors never find their audiences, but I can affirm that a lot of dreck gets published.

It's absolutely true that most art is not of the highest quality, but it may also be true that the sorting mechanism is busted.


More proof that talent, intelligence, creativity, and hard work are commodities, and that marketing/networking are the crucial skills.

I came across a similar version of this year's ago during a discussion on strategy dynamics at the London Business School. The discussion concerned the way that he build up and depletion of tangible and intangible resources can determine success. In the art world, where it can be difficult to differentiate the quality of artists objectively, the artists stock of the intangible resources of "reputation" becomes key in determining future success. Certain people or institutions can confer more reputation points than others and so can set up a positive feedback loop that strongly reinforces early success. So, if a big shot collector (it was Saatchi at the time) buys from your graduate show, you are made. Otherwise, good luck...

"The same is true for academia, I might add. And most other things."

True, and it does raise the question of which activities are most open or accessible?

To me, access doesn't have to mean being able to bypass the gatekeepers (be they top galleries/museums or top universities), it also means can someone come out of nowhere and gain access to the inner circle that's protected by those gatekeepers?

E.g. if you want to play in the NBA, then unless you come from abroad you pretty much have to play in college, at the Division 1 level, and the more prestigious the program (UNC, UCLA, etc.) the better compared to say a mid-major program. The network is much smaller than the 400 venues that are art's inner circle.

But a talented basketball-playing youth has a good chance of gaining access to that inner circle. If you're good at basketball, someone will notice and even if you don't join one of those AAU traveling clubs, you can play for your high school and if you're good you will get noticed and recruited.

So I'd say that basketball has pretty good access despite the restrictive inner circle of gatekeepers.

Academia is similar. If you get a PhD from a top economics program you will pretty much never be unemployed in your life. The inner circle of top econ programs is small -- top 20 maybe even top 10 -- but if you have a good record as an undergraduate you can gain admission to those programs. And although it helps to have attended say an Ivy League school as an undergrad, you can come from a middling public college and get admitted to a top econ program -- and in turn can come from a nondescript public high school yet get admitted to a college that will give you a good enough education to get admitted to a good grad school

Politics is another mixed bag. There are always electoral winners who seemingly come out of nowhere, bypassing the inner circle of political party movers and shakers. But I think they usually have some sort of circle of backers themselves, a base of support, that enabled them to come out of nowhere. Donald Trump is the most obvious example, he didn't have the support of the Republican inner circle but it's not as if he emerged from obscurity.

Popular music might one of the easier areas where one can bypass the inner circle gatekeepers. As with politicians, you have to develop a base of fans, but youtube and/or years of touring are ways of doing that.

Score one for George Dickie...

"...seeking connections with powerful curators, dealers and collectors within the nerve center of the art world are far more likely to hit the big time."

That's precisely what sales people do: seek connections. As employed consultant, I do it. Parents supporting the sports career of their children do it. Freelancers and small contractors too.

Seeking connections it's not easy, it's a job and it's not an Universal Law of Success. It involves talking to people you don't like, making awkward phone calls, being ignored and rejected. The feeling that several people in a room want you to leave immediately but smile politely at the same time, is disquieting and probably taking days of my life. Well, that's the job.

If someone is scared of rejection, should not talk down the effort of people facing it on a daily basis. But, it's easier to point to an entrenched network and call it a day.

There are so many things that are upsetting about this though. First, a system that elevates people based upon who is capable of making social connections is obviously sacrificing other criteria that is more relevant to actually producing quality products. Second, making social connections more important to your career encourages people to have shallow, untruthful, manipulative and quid pro quo relationships. Third, it encourages group think as controversial ideas or practices are not the best way to make new connections.

It might be necessary, but it's definitely gross. I'm not saying it's not work, but it's work I wish no one had to do.

Second, making social connections more important to your career encourages people to have shallow, untruthful, manipulative and quid pro quo relationships.

If only there were some way to organize society (or a subset thereof) so that educated people would not automatically regard "career" and "self-actualization" as their telos.

Upsetting, but how are my clients going to know and remember I'm capable of producing quality products? Social connections.

In my job engineers do also sales. Time is spent 90% engineering and 10% social connections. In large companies there's specialized sales people devoted 100% to social connections.

I don't see how the gross work of sales can be avoided. For artists, the option is to be an apprentice of a master forever. For most of us, the option is to be fixed income employee sweet sales bonuses =(

> For most of us, the option is to be fixed income employee forever

"forever" in the sense of "until being ejected from the sharply narrowing pyramid structure of the contemporary corporation".

I am a bit puzzled by Tyler final commentary about the same happening in academia. I thought there were some objective measures of value, for example the number of references to a paper by peers.

Sports is likely the environment where it happens less.

In business it happens, but it depends a lot on the “rent position” of the specific organization. I worked for some very protected companies (not necessarily by the government, often simply by a brand or some other asset created with hardship in the past and being diluted away) where this was common, but also in industries where you almost literally “ate what you killed”, like in management consulting. Nepotism and favoritism do not work well there.

It's definitely true for most entrepreneurs, especially in tech. Peter Thiel plays the role of gatekeeper for many in tech (as do Marc Andreessen and others). How the Collison brothers convinced Thiel to provide funding for their startup (Stripe) is one for the ages: they offered criticism of PayPal! That proved both Thiel's thick skin and the Collisons' confidence in their startup. But here's the downside of the tech gatekeepers: sameness. How many personal assistant apps do we need? I exaggerate, but only a little. The same is true in the art world. And, with a few exceptions, academia (an exception is the Univ. of Chicago). Cowen may believe GMU is another exception, but is it?

Ask GAWKER about Thiel's thick skin :-)

'Especially in tech'

Except that there are some tech co's that don't 'sell', and don't even HAVE a sales force:

You are excepting Chicago for the heterogeneity of the graduates? Or because they don't actually gatekeep?

The same is true for academia, I might add. And most other things.

Academia, yes. But most other things? No.

I would much like to know Tyler’s opinion on this one question: does ‘most other things’ also include the world of classic rock?

Reality concedes, for once:

Professor Magritte's proof is beyond reproach,
his empiric claim immune to harsh rebuke:
eggs swinging from their cages' perches don't sing,
they flutter their colored shells only for show—
only are wingéd eggs capable of song,
their feathered throats alone capable of flight.
this careful observation came somewhat late:
eggs once were painted as if in cages born,
as if melodies could warble from soft shells.
what had people been thinking for all those years?
only can feathered eggs fly, wingéd throats sing!

(Reality may itself catch up one day . . . )

This raises the question of how the center of the art world shifts from city to city. Wouldn't these networks tend to fix the center at one place and keep it there?

I couldn't read the full article since it's behind a paywall, but did the writer mention The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe? This book whipped the veil off the modern art world when it was published in 1975. It is an hilarious read.

Doesn't this also undermine the evaluation of 'quality' in the art world as well? This result would suggest to me that either a) the overwhelming majority of good artists learn their craft by being part of this influential network, and/or b) that the work in the influential network is not necessarily better than the rest, but merely better connected.

I think the second case is more likely, but they're not mutually exclusive. Search costs seem relevant here as well.

The follow on is that if the art world literally cannot see quality or reward it, then should you support these institutions as a donor?

"The same is true for academia, I might add. And most other things."

I am shocked, SHOCKED, to discover that elites across industries favor their own.

Wait until all those people who say we live in a meritocracy find out!

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