What level am I?
DEFINING THE ARTIST’S LEVEL
Emerging Artist - this generally refers to an artist recently trained, or one who is older switched careers, or after a period away from art decided to make art their true full time calling. To be emerging is when you are getting some recognition. Many artists do this by getting into group exhibits or getting their first solo exhibit in a boutique gallery, such as a coffee shop that gives the artist their wall space for a month.
You would think that beats using a term like “unknown artist”. But unknown indicates no one knows of the artist, a prejudicial concept at its core. What does “unknown” mean? Our culture interprets that to mean that people have not heard, read, or seen anything regarding that person. Of course, that is never true, so the markets for notoriety evolved a schedule to define this further.
Roughly, notoriety in the art world goes like this:
● D-list: unheard of person within their career or discipline (leaving open questions like: over what geographic area and period of time?)
● C- list: Yay, your career peers have met or heard of you, hopefully in a positive reference.
● B-list is a frightening place, because you are well known in your career or vocation but the general public isn’t familiar with you. Why frightening?
● Because next is A-list, where they know about you worldwide, and you dare not do anything to disappoint the millions.
Imagine that an emerging D-list artist is about to escape the humility prison, and assuming things keep moving for them, they will eventually be C- List, which next brings us to the artist equivalent of this third place stature.
Mid - Career Artist
Some writers generalize this level of achievement by pointing to the artist’s resume, which has “noteworthy exhibitions, both solo and group, at institutions such as museums.” These artists have exhibited in commercial galleries, participated in art fairs and/or artist residency programs, are reviewed in print or online, or have other means that established their professional bones. This includes patrons giving them cash help and other honors worth recognizing.
In fact, the other honors may include substantial grants from foundations, recognition as an author, curating their artist’s work and other challenging stuff that hones their depth of expression from an outside point of view.
In short, mid-career is a made up art market term to describe artists who do outstanding work, have some recognition spread over more than their local metropolis, and whose work is moderately saleable. We don’t see them at the Metropolitan Museum or the Pompidou Center in Paris, or in any of the slick art magazines, but they cannot be ignored. Clearly, this is the market for the collector who wants the best from professional artists, but also wants a moderate affordable price.
Imagine a big painting that sells for $12,000 as opposed to that painting (sometimes not even as skilled or deep) that went for $275,000 to some executive showing up at the art fair in their G5 corporate jet. Well, after that heretical statement, I should be clear that I am not against the idea of being very wealthy, owning and loving art. What is upsetting is when the A-list gets more narrow and a lot of the money that could have helped develop the careers of the emerging or mid-career artists is diverted to artists who already have, and then get more of, the lion’s share.
Bottom line is, as a collector, if you buy into the A-list, you are often buying at the apogee of that item’s value. If you love it and must have it, then that is a great reason to buy, and in this case the price is immaterial. We artists always hope you will buy our art out of love. The wrong reasons for collecting are: hoping it will rise in value, make your friends think you are a gifted aesthetician, or make you feel you are accepted in the tribe you admire at the moment.
This level is easy to define. Established and B or A list fits the concept too. For example the general U.S. public has heard or seen the work of Ansel Adams, so that is A-list. A B-list artist is likely not known by the general public but is very famous among art lovers and the art market. In either case, their resume is filled with awards and exhibits of the highest recognition by institutions.
The top fifty paid artists right now (2020) include some you would expect and a few you wouldn’t. Some are there because their work topic was about a human obsession or trend of that time. That type of art speaks to current concerns and interest resulting sometimes into greater recognition than the actual artwork deserves. Speaking of human obsession, one of the more popular themes has been portraits of film stars. The importance is the subject while the artistic qualities of the work are less important. A smaller number of other artists become established because how they grew their work became something wonderful and unusual.
This is similar to what you see in the stock market, a difference between people who invest in the “trusty and long-lived stocks”, meaning we remember them for their relevancy in the past rather than for their innovation in the present, and the minority who invest in the latest adventurous companies. General Motors (GM) and General Electric (GE) are still around, but except for continuing to exist, they have not been a growing investment for over a decade. Opposite that is Tesla, a very valuable company today though only 17 years old. While some investors prefer reliable, others like the latest ideas and are willing to pay for it dearly. However the two types of investments are not meaningfully relatable to the art world. One difference is that the value of stocks is aided by numerical data for all to see, while art is subjective. Sometimes in the auction market prices can be hard to rationalize, in fact the whole pricing game in art could feel freaky.
Like many of the contemporary tech stocks the value of a contemporary artwork is determined more by emotional attachments than supportive metrics. So you, the buyer of art, should be careful when buying high priced art of current established artists.
Maybe a step more reliable is to buy vintage historical work of the A-list artists, oftentimes incredibly expensive, but at least there is a long history of their price changes. For example, we came to own a very desirable print of a young India women by Edward S. Curtiss for just under $1000. It was one of hundreds of copies of that image, but we knew that Curtiss was very popular with collectors. A quarter century later we sold it through the secondary market, using a consignment to a gallery famous for representing the Curtiss works. Two years after placing it with that dealer, it sold for more than thirty times the price we bought it for. Yes, that is unusual, but is it?
When our Bathhouse Gallery exhibited for the first time our artist was our teacher, Ansel Adams. We hung over sixty of his 16x20 inch prints in their 22x28 inch frames. Many sold at the retail price Mr. Adams asked us to use. They were $150 each, framed! Four years later, the front page of the Wall Street Journal noted that the same Adams prints in the same size were selling for $450, and in another six years they were $3,000. Only ten years had passed since our Bathhouse exhibit. By the turn of the century, the price of this size work was in the $30,000 to $80,000 range. However, since then they have stabilized to some degree. The point is that vintage work is far more likely to reflect current fair market value than a recent work.
I like Andreas Gursky’s collaged works a lot, but am less enthusiastic over his traditional imagery. I also like Adams work equally. Mine is only one opinion, and being an artist, I have my own hang-ups and prejudices. Notwithstanding that I do question if a 60” print of Adam’s most famous “Moonrise Over Hernandez” is worth a small fraction of Gursky’s “Rhein II”, which is even larger. When a fine art photograph is as large as Adam’s work is, how much more money is some additional size worth? My own choice would be the Adams, because it is already apparent that it has great value but is very cheap compared to the less proven value of the super expensive Gursky.
As a side note, I admit to being heavily influenced by these two A-list artists. Adams strongly influenced my sense of formal perspective and play of contrast, as seen in my very vintage portfolio “Urban Inversions”. Gursky’s collaged or sometime deconstructed work sent me off in a direction that can be seen in my early collages of twenty years ago.
Rhein II is actually a deconstruction because Gursky removed several distracting objects using digital app means to render an artwork with greater clarity of meaning. It is a use of altered creation that I also employ as in my image below “Artist’s Mystery”.
It is a straight forward photograph except the little bookstore in the upper left is a part of the mystery. I made one small change in this otherwise normal image via the bookstore. Can you see what it is? *
Pricing has a more meaningful range when you buy art from mid-career or emerging artists. Their sales are usually the first time, meaning they have not yet been traded from one collector to another.
I have met some established artists who reached that lofty position recently. They were B list, and were shocked by the prices they heard their work was selling for in the secondary market. An Asian artist said “I saw that the auction house in London sold my 12-year-old painting for $64,000. But I didn’t make anything from that sale. My art dealer sold it for $12,500 the first time when I had finished it, and after their commission I only got 6,500. It’s so frustrating when I see my art go through several hands, and each time someone makes a profit but I get nothing”.
HOW IS PRICING FOR WOMEN ARTISTS?
I'm often asked, by women in particular, what I think of women photography artists who helped change the all-male dynamic. Photography examples are Julia Margaret Cameron in the 19th century, Dorothea Lange and Bernice Abbott, in the first half of the twentieth, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman in the second, and in this century Sally Mann and Susan Meiselas. These are A-list names to some extent, and the artworks sell for small to sometimes large fortunes. Contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman get prices that are competitive with men on the average, though I am not statistically exactly informed on that. A few years ago she was listed as the highest paid photography-based artist in the world. You could buy her work, but like Andreas Gursky, there is little to go on for what the value of the work will be in twenty years.
The alternative is to buy the historical vintage work of all but the last three of these artists. While history may revise the value of some of these vintage works down, it will value some further up. But the vintage artworks of these artists are desirable at this time because their value and fame is steady.
Dorothea Lange - “Migrant Mother”
We can evaluate the progress of the three artists who are alive now by examining how their work has grown (or not), since the images they made much earlier in their lives are those they are celebrated for. Has their style, interests, expression changed since then? Or do they repeat themselves endlessly like the corporatized mystery and love story novelettes do?
In writing about female artists, I don’t mean to ignore the male ones, and of course I am part of that group. What I have stated about pricing in art so far is essentially the same for female and male.
SOCIAL MEDIA ADDS TO OUR CONFUSION WHEN BUYING ART
Status among artists depended on these descriptions for a century, but then came social media. Like our bedrock institutions, our contemporary culture intermixes, distracts, misleads, misinforms, and obviates with stats that have little to do with quality. Last year I was told a somewhat substantial art gallery in Los Angeles had a pretty okay emerging artist they were promoting. T