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How to Collect: How does the Art Market Work?

4 April 2012
How to Collect: How Does the Art Market Work?
How to Collect: How Does the Art Market Work?

How is art given financial value in the art market?

In the art market, financial value is linked to collective critical endorsement and carefully controlled `stock’ of work entering the right public and private collections.  In an otherwise unregulated system, where anyone can proclaim themselves an `artist’ and anything can claim to be `art’, the validation of work is carried out by artists’ peers.  Networks of art world professionals – including academics, curators, dealers, artists and buyers – provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist’s work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases.  This process of filtering and legitimising is called `subscription’ and the value of an artist’s work increases in direct proportion to the subscription it attracts and sustains.  This process is reflected in the artist’s CV and is explained by dealers to potential buyers and curators, but to most people it is an opaque and obscure system.

Put simply, for an artist to attract the attention of curators and collectors, they generally need to be represented by a respected commercial gallery, operating internationally, who will promote their work.  The objective of this promotion is to secure the recognition of critically engaged opinion-formers and public institutions in the form of critical writing, prizes, awards, residencies, exhibitions and ultimately, acquisition into public collections.  All players within the art market – the artists, the curators, the dealers and the collectors – view the public institution and its collection as the most prestigious destination for the work they make, buy or sell.

What is a `critically engaged’ artist?

A `critically engaged’ artist is an artist whose practice is relevant to the current discussion and forms of contemporary visual culture as defined by a wide network of art world professionals.  These include academics, curators, dealers, artists and buyers and they provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist’s work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases.

Contemporary art public institutions present programmes that showcase critically engaged artists.  Museums and collecting institutions collect works by contemporary artists for their collections, which they consider to be critically significant.

Here is a list of leading contemporary art venues in the UK.

Here is a list of museums and collecting institutions with modern and contemporary art collections in the UK.

What does `subscription’ mean?

In the art market, financial value is linked to collective critical endorsement and carefully controlled `stock’ of work entering the right public and private collections.  In an otherwise unregulated system, where anyone can proclaim themselves an `artist’ and anything can claim to be `art’, the validation of work is carried out by artists’ peers.  Networks of art world professionals – including academics, curators, dealers, artists and buyers – provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist’s work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases.  This process of filtering and legitimising is called `subscription’ and the value of an artist’s work increases in direct proportion to the subscription it attracts and sustains.  This process is reflected in the artist’s CV and is explained by dealers to potential buyers and curators, but to most people it is an opaque and insular activity.

Interested in buying emerging artists?

The term `emerging’ artist refers to new artists (not necessarily young artists), often recently graduated (within five years of graduating from a Fine Art Degree course) artists attracting critical interest and commercial representation by arts professionals and their peers.

Here is a list of commercial galleries representing emerging artists.

Interested in buy established and mid-career artists?

The term `established’ artist refers to older artists with a developed CV and professional practice.

Here is a list of commercial galleries representing mid-career artists.

How do I know which commercial galleries I should be looking at?

  • Art fair participation – the major art fairs have a rigorous process for selecting participating galleries, which will assure international quality
  • Art press reviews – top galleries attract reviews of their shows
  • The internet – respected dealers have a professional website
  • Art world opinion – ask professionals working in the field for their advice

Here is a list of commercial galleries representing high-profile and internationally renowned artists.

How do I research artists?

When a curator or collector is interested in an artist’s work – be they collecting for a public institution’s collection or their own private collection – they will research the artist and assess the following criteria to ascertain if the artist is `critically endorsed’ and to what extent:

  • What is their age?
  • Did they study a Fine Art degree and where and when?
  • Any group or solo shows – where and curated by whom?
  • Commercial representation – again, where and by whom?
  • Participation in any international art events or projects, like biennales or exhibitions?
  • Any residencies, awards or prizes?
  • Any critical writing about the artist – bibliography?
  • Any private or corporate collections?  Any public collections?

Artists will be at different stages of the so called `subscription process’ and once critical endorsement has been attained, it needs to be maintained over time.

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