Artistic and Cultural Markets Research Paper

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A market is a forum for exchange between buyers and sellers. The concept has been broadened in its application to the artistic and cultural realms to refer to systems for the production and distribution of the arts. These systems differ from a purely atomistic market in that actors (buyers, sellers, and intermediaries) can be organizations as well as individuals. When the art form is produced by profit-seeking firms, the system is known as a culture industry. The term marketization is used to indicate that a type of culture once produced and distributed in nonmarket settings has moved into market (or marketapproximating) ones. Broadly, the term also indicates that a business-world way of thinking, referred to in the UK as ‘enterprise culture,’ has pervaded settings that used to be ‘pure.’ Key concepts involve the effects on art and culture of uncertainty, the laws of supply and demand, and the responsiveness of markets to buyers’ and sellers’ desires.

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1. History

1.1 Markets for the Fine Arts

The classic study of market effects on artistic and cultural products, by economists Baumol and Bowen (1966), focused on the performing arts. Their much cited finding is that over time the performing arts become increasingly expensive relative to the cost of living, because the number of personnel needed for performances—the musicians in an orchestra, say, or actors in a Shakespeare play—is difficult to reduce. As a result, the performing arts do not see the productivity gains realizable in manufacturing industries. Performing arts, like other service industries, face increasingly expensive payroll bills. Thus, the performing arts always struggle to find external funding, charge higher ticket prices, or suffer cuts.

At about the same time, White and White (1965 1993) published their sociological study of the transformation of the French art world from an academic system to a dealer-critic system, which occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. Successful for more than two centuries, the former system was rigidly controlled by academics. It failed when the number of aspiring artists in Paris vastly outnumbered the rewards (prizes and academic appointments) available through the academy. The surplus artists wanted an outlet for their work and a means to make a living, so they turned to dealers, people who would sell their works directly to the public. Critics were a key component in this new system, as they worked with dealers and artists to create an aesthetic system that justified the new forms of painting, and, through publishing, they conveyed these understandings to the public.

White and White demonstrate that the system through which French painting was produced influenced the content of the artworks themselves. The academic system rewarded individual paintings exhibited in salons. In judging work, academics adhered to a strict code. As a result, artists spent several years working on one painting, and although there was some room for creativity, they needed to produce work well within the accepted academic style to win a prize, or even to be invited to show their work. The dealer-critic system, on the other hand, had different requirements. Dealers needed to sell a continuing stream of paintings and, as a result, had an interest in differentiating their artists’ products by referring to each artist’s unique style. Paintings were purchased by middle-class buyers, as well as more wealthy patrons, and so were more likely to be hung in houses than in museums. This meant that small, easel paintings were preferred to monumental works, and that decorative scenes of landscape and everyday life were preferred to more complicated allegorical or historical works. Each of these requirements, along with a number of others, dovetailed with the new movement in painting, Impressionism. Though clearly there is more to artistic change than just the particular mechanisms that reward artists, White and White demonstrate the influence that these institutional arrangements had on aesthetic possibilities.

The studies by Baumol and Bowen, and White and White were important in setting the stage for serious study of arts markets. Since their studies were published, there has been a convergence of interest in artistic and cultural markets in a variety of disciplines. The main line of agreement among these scholars is that, in contemporary Western societies, the arts are profoundly shaped by their market characteristics.

1.2 Markets for Popular Arts

In an influential article, Hirsch (1972) looked at the distribution of popular arts by profit-seeking organizations in what he termed culture industries. Focusing on popular books and records, he demonstrated that cultural industries are characterized by uncertainty. Record companies and publishers wish to make a profit, but they are not sure which books and albums will succeed. They respond to this situation in a variety of ways, most notably through the strategy of overproduction. They produce many more albums and books than they can possibly sell, with the full knowledge that most will not break even. A small proportion will earn a modest return, and a very few will be phenomenally successful. These last, blockbusters, will generate enough income to cover the losses on the failures and to make a profit for the company. A second strategy taken by firms is to look at what has been recently successful and to overproduce cultural objects in the same genre or format. In this way, change in cultural industries is trendy, following fads and fashion.

A key concept in Hirsch’s work is the idea of a gatekeeper, a person or organization who allows only certain objects into (or out of ) the system. Gatekeepers are important for the content of artwork, as their guesses on what will succeed, their personal tastes, and even their unquestioned cultural assumptions can affect what they accept and reject (Griswold 1992). Gatekeepers do not directly mold artworks, but in deciding whether or not to produce or distribute an artwork, they determine the content of artwork that actually reaches the public.

2. Contemporary Research

Early approaches to artistic and cultural markets made strict distinctions between high and popular culture. High culture, such as opera, theatre, symphony, and the visual arts, was distributed by nonprofit organizations, and was oriented toward the artist. Popular culture, by contrast, was distributed by profit-making organizations and was oriented toward the consumer. Changes in society and in our understanding of culture have blurred these distinctions. Contemporary research may focus on a particular cultural form (high or popular), but is likely to use general tools for understanding organizations and markets. The laws of supply and demand apply regardless of whether the organizations involved are profit seeking. Characteristics of the production system—levels of uncertainty, ambiguity, and risk; market concentration and the level of competition; the ratios of buyers, sellers, and intermediaries—shape not only factors such as the price of an object or performance, but also the content of the art itself.

Becker (1982) suggests that distribution systems matter, especially to artistic reputation. What is not distributed cannot gain recognition nor be remembered. He identifies three key mechanisms by which artwork is supported. The first, self-support, where an artist relies on a day job, a spouse, or an inheritance for monetary needs and produces art ‘on the side,’ does not contain a market element. As Becker notes, self-supported art is often not distributed at all, let alone widely. The other two, patronage and public sale, are of more relevance here. Patronage, whereby a buyer commissions art, either a specific work or a part of the artist’s general output—has a clear market component. Patronage sounds genteel, and requires that only one buyer be pleased. It is a form of support that can foster innovation—if the buyer values this—but clearly only within the bounds of the buyer’s taste and inclinations.

Becker discusses three forms of public sale of art. Dealers act as intermediaries between artists and buyers where the artwork is a physical object (a painting, sculpture, or installation). Impresarios mediate between artists and audiences in the performing arts (theatre, symphony, dance, or experimental performance art). Culture industries are the series of organizations that link artists who produce works that exist in multiple copies (books, records, movies, film, television shows—referred to in some literature as ‘simulacra’) to a large number of consumers.

The potential scope for research in the area of artistic and cultural markets is vast. It encompasses such areas as the international market for visual arts; auctions of contemporary works of art and of works by old masters; the funding dynamics of such arts organizations as museums or symphonies; the Hollywood film production and distribution network; film production elsewhere in the world, such as India’s Bollywood; book publishing; and television broadcasting, and the international flow of programming. The list of high and popular art forms could continue. Tourism, visits both to heritage sites and to entertainment centers such as Disneyland, can be considered part of the global cultural market. Further, many consumer products, from soft drinks to jeans, are items of popular culture, and it would be easy to include an array of consumer markets as part of the cultural marketplace. Indeed, some theorists of consumerism would argue that all forms of contemporary purchasing belongs to the cultural realm.

The remainder of this research paper highlights the characteristics of markets for visual art, and sketches their implications for artists, art lovers, and art institutions. Most of the effects of the market on visual arts have complements in other artistic and cultural markets, although specific details will naturally vary from one art form to another.

3. Visual Art Markets

In the visual arts, separate markets exist for consecrated works (old masters and more recent artists with strong reputations), the contemporary avant-garde, art made by anonymous masters from developing countries (so-called primitive art), and contemporary decorative figurative art. An international market exists for each of these types of art, except the last, which is the most varied and is sold by dealers in national, regional, or local markets, or even in such outlets as craft fairs and street stalls.

The market for consecrated works, unlike most artistic markets, is characterized by undersupply— there are fewer works of art than buyers wanting them. As a result, such works are often sold at auction, where competing buyers can bid up prices to extraordinary heights. But prices can differ substantially from the estimates of the auction houses, because social expectations and the dynamics of the auction floor affect bids along with the laws of supply and demand (Smith 1989). These factors add a degree of uncertainty to the auction market.

Consecrated works are almost always pieces that are being ‘resold’ by an owner, rather than new works put up by artists. This means that such sales have little direct effect on artists themselves. Clearly, this is the case for masters long dead, and is usually the case as well for artists still living. The European Union, however, has adopted regulations that require a proportion of resale prices to be returned to living artists. The UK is resisting this legislation, arguing that it will put the London auction houses at a disadvantage to those elsewhere, especially in New York, as paying artists makes the resale of art more expensive or less profitable.

Uncertainty is heightened in the avant-garde setting, both for artists and dealers. The prestigious avantgarde markets are concentrated in a few world-class cities, notably New York, London, and Paris. The problem for dealers—the same faced by cultural industry executives—is to choose artists who will succeed. There are huge numbers of artists hoping to be discovered and shown, and it is difficult to predict whom posterity will remember. The solution is to promote a relatively large number of artists as compared with the numbers who will succeed. Of course, aspiring artists may not experience the dealers’ strategy as overproducing! Relatively few artists break through even to the level of success indicated by representation by an important dealer. In addition, dealers promote artists who work in styles similar to those that have recently been successful. Unlike cultural industry executives, they do not profess this mimicking strategy, as it goes against central tenets of avant-garde art, namely the sanctity of artistic choice, free from the interference of dealers.

The oversupply of artists leads to suppressed prices for art in general, but clearly dealers have an incentive to limit market entry and to keep prices up to a certain level by, for instance, discouraging their artists from underselling the dealer or trying to convince potential buyers that gallery prices for emerging artists are a fair expression of their future potential. As with other art markets, the avant-garde market is characterized by a

‘winner-take-all’ reward system where a few superstars receive the lion’s share of the returns (see Rosen 1981). This means that a few contemporary artists will be phenomenally successful and become rich, a modest number will just scrape a living, and most will have to supplement their incomes elsewhere.

It is often argued that artists have their fingers on the pulse of society, so if art is ugly, unpleasant, or distressing, it is because it mirrors or foreshadows disturbing things in society. But given the oversupply of artists in the contemporary art market, artists must find a way to gain attention. One could make the case, then, that the sensationalism in some of contemporary art is more a response to the pressure of the art market than a reflection of the wider cultural scene or the societal zeitgeist: bad-boy (or girl) art has a competitive advantage!

In Europe and the USA, figurative and decorative arts are devalued relative to avant-garde art. In avantgarde markets, the aesthetic system, prestigious dealers, and relative centralization provide entry barriers that do not exist in the decentralized figurative art market. As a result, prices are lower in this market. However, as Martorella (1990) demonstrates, corporations wishing to buy prestigious avant-garde art also prefer noncontroversial, figurative art. Their presence in the art market has helped legitimize some forms of figurative art as avant-garde art. US corporations’ interest in collecting regional artists has also reinforced the decentralization in the figurative art market.

The market for ‘primitive’ art brings up issues such as the exploitation of artists from developing countries by dealers and patrons in the first world (Price 1989). Today, third-world masters are usually named and their work given the honorific title of art, rather than cast anonymously as an expression of tribal visions. Issues such as cultural imperialism are less salient in markets for avant-garde and figurative art (though certainly not nonexistent), but play a key role in markets for other types of culture, notably film and television.

Moulin (1987) argues that the economic value of an artwork and its artistic value are inseparable and synonymous. An economist would argue, then, that the market was efficient in that it properly prices works based on aesthetic value. But it is also possible to argue that the economic value, rather than reflecting aesthetic value, creates it by attracting the attention of art critics and the cultural cognoscenti, and setting in motion the theorizing necessary to underpin an artist’s style.

As Menger (1999) demonstrates for a wide variety of artists in different cultural industries, more talent exists than do outlets for it. As a result, artistic careers are risky for artists. Most support themselves economically with a second job. The situation, as with other contingent labor markets (where employers hire workers only when work is available), provides a great deal of flexibility to cultural organizations such as dealers, but shifts costs from the organization to the individual.

4. The Marketization of Art Museums

Museums play a number of key roles in the visual art world; notably, they are the venue in which most ordinary viewers confront original art. Much income for US art museums comes in the form of grants for special projects, such as exhibitions and lectures, especially from corporations and government agencies. In addition, US museums increasingly rely on earned income through general admission charges, gate receipts for special shows, and through the sale of merchandise, books, and souvenirs. This funding situation has important implications for the art that is displayed in museums and for museum audiences (Alexander 1996).

Museums must now pay attention to audiences. Not only do audiences bring in money directly in terms of entrance fees and sales, they also influence project funding. Both corporations and government agencies are concerned with the size of the audience their funded projects might attract. This has led museums to operate, in essence, as public sales organizations, in that their exhibitions must appeal to the people who will ‘buy’ them. Museum curators remain committed to scholarly exhibitions and are less interested in popular ones, but the latter are easier to fund and the public likes them, so curators try hard to mount shows that are both scholarly and popular.

The decline of direct government support of cultural organizations is termed the privatization of culture. This has been a recent phenomenon in Europe as well as in the USA. For instance, the UK has reduced the amount it gives as direct grants to its national museums in an explicit attempt to make museums find a wider source of funding, most of which will be linked, directly or indirectly, to the marketplace.

An interesting change has taken place in US and UK museums over the last few decades: a shift in the basic assumptions of those in charge of museums, from a more scholarly approach to a more managerial one. Collecting, conservation, and connoisseurship remain mainstays of art museums. But a focus on business-world concerns—marketing a product, value for money, and the like—has pervaded museums. Some, particularly those with a business or economics background, see this in a positive light, as evidence that museums have entered the modern world and will finally be managed in a sensible way. Others, especially those vested in the older value system, see this as a corruption of museums, debasing the art and bringing crass considerations like the bottom line to a sacred arena where monetary concerns should be left aside.

5. Future Directions

5.1 Can Culture Sur i e the Marketplace?

An important question is how market systems, as opposed to other forms of support, affect culture. Given the pervasive oversupply of artworks and artists, a fundamental characteristic of market systems is that sellers must attract buyers. Art that no-one wants simply cannot be supported by the market. Moreover, markets imply profits. In this case, not only must buyers exist, there must be enough of them for sales to cover production and overhead costs, and to leave a surplus. The larger the audience needed, the more popular the product must be and, as a corollary, the lower the common denominator. Indeed, as cultural critics for more than a century have lamented the degraded nature of mass culture, contemporary critics worry about the declining state of art. While there might be evidence for this, there is also evidence that even cultural industries can produce innovative material. Factors such as competition, low industry concentration, and decentralization tend to encourage a wider variety of culture than their obverse. In addition, new market techniques and technology, for instance ‘narrowcasting’ in television, lead to more segmented markets and, in theory at least, allow firms to earn money by catering to more varied tastes.

Not-for-profit enterprises may seem a good alternative. But the need to attract an audience is not limited to for-profit enterprises. Not-for-profit organizations must also reach sufficient audiences while facing an inexorable upward spiral of costs, as Baumol and Bowen showed in 1966. These pressures, along with the privatization of arts funding, lead non-profit enterprises to approximate profit-seeking systems in all but their requirement to return dividends to shareholders.

DiMaggio (1986) argues that large, established arts institutions can survive the marketplace. With proven repertoires of established works well accepted by the public, they can generate significant earned income. They may subsidize an innovative program with known crowd pleasers, for instance The Nutcracker, The Messiah, or Monet’s Water Lilies. In addition to their ability to attract the ‘middlebrow,’ they have the organizational size and expertise to raise funds for such projects.

Since innovative, experimental works may be least likely to survive the marketplace, some have argued that there is a societal interest in subsidizing an oversupply of unpopular artists through government funding. While generous state sponsorship can have a positive effect on innovation and diversity in the arts, not to mention making the lives of artists easier, it is worth noting that results depend on national politics. For instance, art in Soviet societies was strongly supported by the state—and highly constrained. And political controversies in the USA served to narrow the type of art and artists sponsored by the federal government. Menger (1999) points out the important support given to artists by art colleges and university art departments, an alternative way to nurture talent that will not succeed in the marketplace.

5.2 New Technologies

A key point of uncertainty for the future of artistic and cultural markets is the influence of new technologies, especially the Internet. At the beginning of the twentyfirst century, gatekeepers within cultural industry systems are powerful intermediaries—and barriers— between artists and the public. The Internet may change this. Artists have begun to reach out to audiences via the Internet. Some, notably in music, have had some success there, though most bands build a home page in hopes of attracting a recording company to sign them onto a big contract. It is easy to imagine this changing in important ways, but it is not clear exactly how. Perhaps as more people use the Internet (and rely on automated programs to sort information), more people will go to artists directly. Or perhaps through systems of micropayments, where users pay a royalty of a few pennies for use of copyrighted material on the Web, more people will download music, movies, and books from the Internet, eliminating distributors such as music stores, cinemas, and booksellers but not recording companies, film producers, or publishers.

Other cultural institutions, such as museums, are increasingly launching Web pages. It is unclear how these pages will affect their operation. Currently, it is difficult to imagine that being able to view a painting on the Web will have any impact on museums—except to the extent that people who see images on the Net might be intrigued enough to visit the museum in person. But as technology advances, it might become possible to reproduce museum objects in ways that have high fidelity to the original object. Will people then avoid museums, and view art and heritage through their screens? It seems unlikely, although it is worth pointing out that many consumers today prefer listening to orchestral music on compact discs rather than going to hear a live symphony. If the same becomes true for seeing physical objects, museums might suffer. Performing arts organizations might do well in this future scenario, as people might start ‘attending’ concerts in higher numbers if they could experience virtual ‘live’ performances in their own living rooms whenever they wanted. Visual artists might change the way they work and sell, producing an object to be digitally scanned, and earning a microroyalty each time someone views it. The implications for arts markets, not to mention artists, artworks, and audiences, are enormous.


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