Artist Emergence and The Art Market

Artist Emergence in Florence circa 1978.jpg

Artists from the Accademia on the Piazza degli Uffizi, Firenze.
Photo: Jill Thayer, 1978.

Narrative transcript: “Artist Emergence and the Art Market” from “The Art of Life” with Dr. Jill Thayer, a podcast on Voice of Paso Internet radio on the Central Coast of California.

Podcast audio:

This subject evolved from my doctoral dissertation, “Artist Emergence in Contemporary Culture: A Dialectic in Social and Material Conditions of Southern California Artists (Claremont Graduate University,” 2011) that explored artist and cultural contributor case studies with focus on regional and international artists based in Southern California. Research included interviews with multi-cultural and intergenerational emerging, midcareer, and established artists, and individuals (i.e. art critic, gallerists, auction house director, art historian, collectors, and arts management program administrator) who offer valuable data and insight to the study.

How can an artist make it in the world?

I asked myself this question walking through the Piazza di Santa Croce during a 1978 post-graduate study in Florence, Italy. The Basilica of Santa Croce, built in the late 13th Century is adorned with frescoes by Giotto. This exquisite chapel is the resting place for artist/architect Michelangelo, astronomer/physicist Galileo, historian/philosopher Machiavelli, composer Rossini, and artist/bronze-smith Lorenzo Ghiberti to name a few.

On this hot Summer day, I leisurely strolled across the stone-laden streets filled with artists, easels, lawn chairs, and tourists trying to get a deal on the newly created work. A troupe of students on hiatus from the Accademia spent many a day in the open square sharing their work and catering to the crowd in an effort to eek out a living with talent and showmanship. They were inherently gifted, as they shared their wares, each, a master of technique and portraiture. I remember thinking how difficult it must be to give away one’s work for pennies on the dollar. I was in awe of the spectacle but questioned their decision to sell themselves short. It was a lesson in commodity and culture.

Fast-forward almost four decades… Galleries, auction houses, art fairs, digital media, dealers, critics, collectors, and more contribute to the demand and fluctuation in art market capital imposing inflated or undervalued prices that inform the index. Exchange value reflects economic conditions, but art fares better and recovers quicker than other commodities overall as value is conferred and validated by the public sector. Still, art remains most valuable to those who have a relationship to it. This relationship associates with the phe-nom-enol-ogical connection or aesthetic experience of the viewer and sig-nification of the work.

The perceived value of art is informed by a structure of conventions, specifically, through the interaction and relationship created by the collector, curator, dealer, institution, gallery, critic, and those of and peripheral to the art market. This system invests and reinforces a belief in the innate value of art, whether actualized physically, intellectually, psychologically, or spiritually in those who subscribe to the power (or authority) of the work. And, as Dave Hickey argues, “the quality of an art object is directly proportional to the quantity of something that it gives to someone who belongs to some constituency of interest.”

The Expanded Marketplace

In the frenetic pace of today’s media-obsessed culture, art reflects a changing society as well as the artist’s voice. The landscape has evolved into highly competitive emerging markets, both geographically and virtually. In spite of strengthening global economies, political unrest continues to have repercussions that greatly affect international art market prices. In his book, “A New Art from Emerging Markets,” Iain Robertson, Head of Art Business Studies at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, looks at how value in non-Western contemporary art is constructed largely by external political events and economic factors rather than aesthetic consideration. The text also considers whether it is better to let a new art market grow organically, driven by commercial imperatives, or for the government to step in to construct a cultural and economic infrastructure within which an art market can be placed. For over a hundred years, the Western market for international contemporary art has held sway. But today, that system and the art that it has validated, are being questioned by the increasingly sceptical ethno-cultures of China, South-East Asia, India, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Robertson’s book explores how fundamental economic and political forces have combined with a revival in ancient beliefs to change our world and drive a paradigm shift in cultural perception and value.

While those in the art market remain transfixed on the horizon, artists are experiencing their own evolution in navigating the perils and opportunities of these changing times. As a result, many are creating new conversations through their work and re-examining their relationship to the culture. Vickie Elmer notes in her article, “The Global Art Industry” that an estimated $64 billion in art was sold in 2015, down about 7 percent from the previous year. The U.S. market, the world’s largest, continued to grow, but the art world is highly polarized. China ranks second in global art auction sales, and for a couple of years was the top market. Some experts suggest that the art market valuation would be far larger if data could be gathered from all the independent sales, small artisan markets and tourist spots. The global art market consists of paintings and sculpture, but also art prints, antique tea sets and furniture, quilts and fiber work, even graffiti by Banksy, the English street artist. This diversity creates several strata: artists selling monthly in a New Orleans park, weekend artisans who sell to friends over local craft beer, major auction houses marketing trophy pieces, and small galleries in places like Buenos Aires, Beijing, and Bangalore.”

While a vast number of artists embrace globalization through communication technologies, the relationship of art and culture remains complex as the Internet fuels the debate of high and low art. Virtual worlds represent original art through online environments where money, power, and prestige are de rigueur. Though innovative work emerges from these online platforms precariously riding the crest of consumer culture, one has to look at the integrity and stability of the art itself, its quality, reality, essence, and purity of expression in connection to the viewer and the artist. Art production and commodification are firmly entrenched in the system while artist access to global information has brought creative expression to new heights. In so doing, the business of art has been redefined. As mass culture and commerce continue to drive the market, a fine line exists between aesthetic and commodity with artists striving to maintain artistic integrity. That being said, regardless of the creative process they must still make a living.

“Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can only be explored by those willing to take the risks.” – Mark Rothko

Did the Florentine artists described earlier devalue their work at the mercy of the economy? Was this a conditioned practice set forth by their predecessors or was this justifiably a generation of creative individuals who were unaware of the broader picture? Simply put, these artists were trying to make a living. Imagine how their career might have led to greater opportunities had they understood the mechanisms of the market.

In our globalized culture and technological boom surrounding us, what belief systems and support structures exist? Artists thrive within a sphere of influence that may be informed by social, political, philosophical, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, or creative forces. Many follow spiritual paths in an effort to connect, transform, and create while others work democratically within a network of alliances and communities. Still others choose to go it alone in their career endeavors.

The art market is made up of an established network of cooperative links that combine common practice and conventional understanding. Support structures might include family, academic and cultural institutions, peers, or community organizations that offer insight and resource to the artist. These relationships to real or virtual communities build a foundational framework, which serves to inspire, inform, and support artists along the way.


“Artist Emergence and the Art Market” from “The Art of Life” with Dr. Jill Thayer, a weekly podcast on Voice of Paso Internet radio. Jill shares her thoughts on art, culture, and life on the Central Coast including a look at regional artists, professional practice, and topics that affect our quality of life. The weekly series is featured on Fridays around :10 past the hour at 6am though 9am on the Voice of Paso Internet radio. ©2017 Jill Thayer, Ph.D. [Go, search for “Voice of Paso” and copy the link from the browser bar or click: “Art of Life Promo”:]

Jill Thayer, Ph.D. is an artist, educator, art historian, curator, and archivist. She received her doctorate in Cultural Studies/Museum Studies from Claremont Graduate University with transdisciplinary study in Global Strategy and Trade at St. Peter’s College, University of Oxford, UK. Jill brings insight to the contemporary dialogue by exploring the narratives of people and their contributions to the culture. “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” her post-doctoral fellowship series of Claremont Graduate University Art alumni, professors, and professors emeritus is included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. Jill is a contributing writer for art publications internationally and produces “The Art of Life,” a podcast for Voice of Paso Internet radio on the Central Coast in California where she lives and works.