Why is the work of mid-career, established artists worth more?

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Why is the work of mid-career, established artists worth more? Looking at an artist’s resume to consider the depth of their experience, and other ideas to sleuth out before you buy.

A career is like a structure. Its foundation is first, then the main structure, followed by the finishing touches. With time a career gains maturity, depth, insight, perspective and nuance. “Construction”, Ha Giang Province, Vietnam from “The Soul of Vietnam” by L. D’Attilio

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Mid-career and established artists usually have received some kind of recognition from the art world. Their resume will reflect that they have done exhibits, have gotten grants, and perhaps have published a commercially successful book of their work.

  • They have a unique way to express the artwork’s intentions, composition, and concepts that is distinctly original in its idea and execution compared to the millions uploaded each day to social media.

  • Their artwork incorporates an unusual emotional idea, and there is consistency and clear intention in what they’re trying to communicate. Perhaps there is a whole project (like my New Global Women Vietnam project) based on one idea that tests out that idea in interesting ways.

  • Established artists will have explored more than one style of making art. Rather than producing only documentary work, for instance, they will also have tried landscapes, portraiture, abstract, and other styles to stretch their understanding of what art’s possibilities are.

  • An experienced artist is not on trend, they are blazing their own trail, trying to produce something that reflects who they are and what they’ve experienced in their lives. (As my teacher Ansel Adams used to say, “the trouble with being successful is that suddenly I am surrounded by little new Ansel Adams everywhere.”

First and foremost, the attraction of you to an artwork is tremendously important, and hopefully what you experience internally from witnessing that artwork plays a large role in your purchase decision.

Secondly, the background seen through the artist's history in the resume is another big factor. However, since the vast majority of online photo galleries are selling the artwork of artists without career longevity, you can assume the prices can (and probably should) be quite low. That's a great opportunity to build a collection, because there is always a chance that an artist will be a mature, well-regarded one someday.

Conversely, you should not be surprised that accomplished professional artists with extensive resumes can be quite expensive. Fortunately, some of we photographers are comfortable offering smaller versions of our art in open editions at quite low prices. I believe it is our responsibility to inspire new collectors and collections, and give people with a modest budget an opportunity to indulge in collecting.

The pressure to conflate the newbie artists who have great social media skills with experienced professionals has turned the art market into a confused mess for the collector. My goal here is to amplify further on how time and experience play a big role in an artist’s career. Famous or unknown, newbie or experienced, young or old; these are not things to be judged. But understanding how artists develop to a degree of mastery where they consistently create solid exceptional work will help you evaluate this important aspect of your “to buy or not to buy” decision.

Some further insights can be pursued here. Let's start with the drawing of a two-year-old child. With crayons and paper, off they go with some wild scribbles or maybe something less wild. It's fun, and most children are creatively free because they haven’t yet learned to self-censor.

After a month, you suggest they “draw” that, and you point to a ball. Out comes some form of nonlinear shape. The efforts expand with time, and at three or four something either as a complex abstract or something sort of identifiable is proudly produced. The child has begun to accept the idea that art is illustration, with some choosing to illustrate their feelings, while others draw what they see and contemplate,

It all goes well for a while, but the child and the people around them eventually thirst for more. Depending on those experiences through elementary school, the young artist may suppress or respond to their imagination and expression. What is clear is that all along their mind and heart has been learning to interpret and possibly express every experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, and feeling. And as we say “practice makes perfect”.

The artist who will become an experienced adult professional spent an entire childhood learning to make art. They did not learn by spending only a year at it. They did not grow without the constant practice, mistakes, corrections, learning and refining necessary for greatness at any endeavor.

As a quick comparison, imagine a symphony violinist in a professional orchestra, one of some thirty of them, all superb artists. Would you spend serious money to hear that orchestra if the violinists had only been playing a year, even if 50,000 of their Twitter followers claimed you should? And would you spend that money on a painter or photographer who had almost no significant experience but could claim legions of online followers?

Back to the child, now a young grown up. A few may have such a capability that already some of the artwork they make is quite good. Sometimes the forces of ambition, the subject, the time, the mood and so on set the stage just right. At that point, critics will typically rave about that artist, referring to them as a new young talent. But, honestly? That success is a one-time happening, brought on by a fortunate set of intersecting forces. Real talent can only be measured over time, seeing the artist’s consistency and growth.

In other words, the idea that there are these young geniuses like van Gogh running around in the art world is actually a very rare occurrence. People who get that characterization thrown at them are probably poorly described, because it usually takes years of maturation and experience to fully round out one’s talent.

Here's a personal story that illustrates this point. In my first year of university, after growing up learning the clarinet, I took up the bassoon, an awkward instrument with many challenges. Two and a half years later, and due to odd circumstances, I was hired as a bassoonist in one of the United States’ major symphonic orchestras. Was I capable? Sort of, yes. Was I masterful? Hell no. Did I need all the patience of the experienced colleagues around me? Certainly. But at that time I was the youngest American musician hired by a symphony orchestra in the U.S., and I was in way over my head.

Three years and two other major orchestras later I found myself one of the most experienced professionals in an orchestra that had only been founded six years earlier. By then, I could do a lot on bassoon and sound reasonably solid. But in those three years I had fallen under the wings of two of the finest woodwind players/teachers in the world. Through them, I had the experience of being a guest artist with A-list musicians from some of the world’s most famous ensembles, heady stuff for a soul just twenty five years of age. I was more confident by then, and pretty sure I was an artist who had something to offer. But a part of me was wary, and it took five more years before I felt good enough about my performance that I could take chances expanding my own sense of expression and creation.

Years went by, and I had already thought of what would be next for me as I approached an age that held the promise of a more elevated way of musical expression. I was in my mid-forties, and over the next few years the magic finally arrived. I felt sparks of intuition that led me to play some solos and other phrases in ways that were truly unique to me, and I could witness the impact it had on the audience and my colleagues. Those moments were when I believed I had reached a level of artistry that I could accept as the highest form of expression. In other words, it took me practicing from seventh grade to middle age to reach that point!

What I have learned through the experience of reaching my goal to express feelings and ideas in a profound way is that it takes decades of self-nurturing and experience to get there.

And so it was this same story for me in the visual arts. Right after the earliest successes as a full time musician, I had an amazing first portfolio evolve with a strong response to it. I was sort of a half time professional artist at the same time I was a musician. Elated with those first five years as a fine art photographer, I took some more art courses and set off in my time away from the symphony to make my mark as a photo artist.

Within a year I came to hate every photograph I took. I kept it up, but avoided trying to focus on pure art until another eight years went by and some inspiration came again, mainly because I switched to color. It took sixteen more years poking around different ideas and subjects, and by then I had left music and was ready to swarm the darkroom again.

From there on, the progress was steady and within another ten years I was at that point of feeling some accomplishment.

To be fair, it doesn't always work that way. My influences in photography were from my artist father Anthony, my teacher Ansel Adams, and through the unmatchable expressions of W. Eugene Smith. Adam's main known work is from his earlier years and he did not change style, subject, or medium much. His accomplishments in those prime years were so terrific and influential on our reverence for the Western settings he chose, that we don’t feel him diminished for his lesser known later efforts as an artist.

Smith, on the other hand, started off as a traditional photojournalist, a description that is right for his entire long career. But he matured steadily through that career, later despite devastating injuries, to make what in my mind are the most substantial photo essays of the twentieth century. In those later years, for instance, he produced his series for Life Magazine on the Japanese Village of Minimata, which helped very early to alert people worldwide to the oncoming dangers of pollution of the ocean.

And finally, there’s my father Anthony D’Attilio, whose early work is interesting, but often derivative. Then, in middle-age, his giant murals carved in glass were in hotels and federal buildings. Still, D-list, dad’s most famous accomplishment was the massive carved glass eagles that are the domes of the Senate and House of the U.S. Congress. And in some way, those emblems in the highest place in the most important building in the U.S. (installed 1950, they are still there) don’t define him. Like Smith, he increased his devotion to his visual art, and from the mid-fifties for three decades he made art of profound expression and depth. That art would not have been possible earlier in his career. What did inspire it was that for much of his lifelong art career he also was a world renowned marine biologist specializing in mollusks.

Here’s the takeaway: if you succeed too much and too long when you are very young, it is possible that you will keep repeating yourself or run out of a wondrous expression. The long, slow road to maturity favors expression and understanding, but imposes a need for lasting patience and humility as the early starters in front wave back at you.

If you're trying to decide whether to buy an artwork, I think it is not about young or old, but it is about you using your own observations of an artwork and some solid background on the artist to decide what the value of the art is. Regardless of what anyone says it is worth, ultimately you can ask the question, “would I rather keep the money I have to spend on this, or prefer to have the art?”

Look inside yourself and ask which will impact your life more over some years. Try to imagine yourself looking back at this moment years from now: are you happy or unhappy with the decision you made?

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