Word on a Wing
Midway through another week of watching various arts writers and industry figures fire potshots at the ruling class––an activity that's left gunpowder on my own hands at times––I feel like it's worthwhile to stop and consider the potential for ricochet.
In the midst of a project I hope I'll be able to talk more about soon, I've been re-reading key sections of last year's TEFAF report. And as obvious as a couple of the critical findings may seem now, I think they also put in perspective just how cramped the art world's corridors are––and therefore, how likely it is for ballistic words to become self-inflicted wounds.
To quote the LA Times summary of the document: "The art business rests on... a coterie of 600,000 or so global millionaires who qualify as 'mid- to high-level art collectors.'" But of those 600,000, "the people who really, really matter... [are] just under 200,000 'ultra-high net worth individuals' (UHNWIs) who sit atop piles of $30 million or more."
Furthermore, these market-moving collectors "tend to be interested in the work of only about 50 to 100 artists," according to the approximately 5,500 dealers who completed surveys requested by the report's authors.
Since anonymity was a crucial condition of their responses, we have no idea who those dealers were, let alone how many more Clare McAndrew and her team canvassed unsuccessfully. But I think it's reasonable to assume that the majority of dealers who did respond were among the industry's more successful and, therefore, more influential. After all, smart sellers know that the TEFAF report is itself a marketing opportunity. The stronger the industry appears to be, the more bullish collectors will likely feel, and the more money they'll likely be prepared to spend.
Put it all together, and one starts to see the telescoping nature of influence in the industry: 600,000 collectors of note reduce to 200,000 collectors of power, catered to in the gallery and resale market by about 5,500 important dealers, most of whom aspire to represent the 50 to 100 artists that trigger large wire transfers. And thanks to the industry's consolidation in a few key cities, as well as the popularization of the global art fair circuit, most of these key actors are traveling in the same orbit year in, year out.
Granted, each of the parties above has his or her own constellation of associates, however small it may be. So the system isn't quite as dense as the previous paragraph might make it sound. On the other hand, a slightly larger network also means more people listening and (possibly) spreading word, especially in the social media age.
Any way you view it, the fine art industry is a universe inside a thimble. Much of what happens there can ignite passionate opinions. That's part of what makes it such a fascinating space, at least from my perspective.
If it's all just a spectator sport to you––or alternatively, if you're looking to brand yourself as the daring rebel––by all means, let the shade fly like ravens in a Game of Thrones episode. But for those readers who are trying to build (or sustain) a career in this industry––whether as an artist, entrepreneur, or professional––remember what a wise man told me long ago: You're always being evaluated. And in this case, the environment is tailor made for words to travel. Keep in mind that the darkest ones often have the strongest wings.