Magnus Resch Has the Art World Down to a Science

Not everyone agrees with Magnus Resch. But it's hard to not agree with his impressive data. In his new and insightful book, How To Become a Successful Artist, the author, art economist and Yale professor has the art world down to a science: he’s collected the data, done the research and composed the interviews to bring forth a proven guide to, well, how to be an artist. Cultured spoke with the author on his findings.

Annie Armstrong: You have a pretty impressive resumé—a PhD in art economics, six books to your name, etcetera—what made you want to give your specialized knowledge away?

Magnus Resch: I cannot accept the status quo of the art world. The average female artist in Berlin has an annual income of $10,000; a degree in fine art is the least valued major in the US; success is defined by an exclusive network of white men. Meanwhile, women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community rarely see the same opportunities. I want to change this. My mission is to help usher in a more democratic, transparent and inclusive art world so artists can live from their practice.

AA: Your approach to the art market is emphatically data-driven. How do you then account for the occasional freak market snaps, like the Zombie Formalism movement or NFTs?

MR: Outliers are part of the game. NFT is an entertaining bubble; Zombie Formalism was a great movement. I still collect some of these artists even now. I don’t see anything inherently bad in bubbles. They shine a spotlight on artists who were neglected for too long and who can finally make some money. And structurally, this kind of trend can be positive in growing the market. A year ago, no one cared about digital art and now NFTs are white hot. Yes, it will pass,but it attracts a new group of buyers and spills some crypto money into the pockets of poor digital artists.

AA: I'd imagine that the toughest pill for a lot of artists to swallow is that you have to play ball with the industry’s desires and etiquette. What's your best advice for how to bite that bullet without losing your own unique voice?

MR: You can sell art without selling your soul. Business, money and management are not dirty words, nor are they incompatible with the arts. It’s outdated to claim that management will reduce creativity, or that business principles will lead to meaningless exhibitions. On the contrary—artists need to be educated in management skills. For me, the goals of an artist can be divided into three categories: economic, artistic and socio-ethical. A successful artist is respected by their reference group, while maximizing their financial profit on the basis of ethical business practices.

AA: What's your response to artists who might think this approach is too formulaic, too business-centered?

MR: Change your mindset. As an artist you are an entrepreneur running a business. Stop thinking of yourself as solely an artist. You are a business person too. There are limitations to this model, and not all entrepreneurial management principles will transpose to the art market. My book addresses this head-on by merging business with art practices. In fact, I emphasize the balance between artistic quality and management orientation. In my many interviews with artists, it was very apparent that the actual art piece remains at the center of their practice. The passion, conviction and emotion that go into an artwork cannot and should not be replaced by management principles. Instead, both should go hand in hand.

AA: Who are some of the artists or art dealers that inspire you personally, through their approach to the art market?

MR: I really like Peter Halley. In my book he describes how he works with different galleries around the world: He always works non-exclusively and sells outright to the gallery, which then resells. It’s an approach that allows him to have a constant cash flow and not to worry about galleries failing to pay. Another great example is Tyler Mitchell. In my book he explains how he uses Instagram to connect with people he likes, seeking collaborations. One of these collaborations led to the now famous Vogue shooting which kick-started his career. Or I spoke to Katherine Bernhardt. She shared advice that stuck: “Quit drinking early.”

AA: This isn't really a question, but it's staggering to me that FedEx's revenue in 2019 was larger than the revenue of all galleries, auction houses, dealers, advisers and online platforms. I always think of the art market as this giant, monolithic, unregulated beast. That makes it seem almost quaint!

MR: $450 million for a Leonardo, $91.1 million for a rabbit by Jeff Koons, $70 million for an NFT and $1 billion revenue for Gagosian. You think the art market is an industry with huge figures behind it. But this only represents a tiny part of the industry. The wider art market is very small and financially in terrible shape. The number of buyers has gone down over the last 10 years, and only the glamor end has seen prices increase. The media has done a good job in promoting the top end, but the real art world is left out of the media headlines.

AA: In your dream world, what does the art market look like 30 years from now?

MR: My vision is an art world that is transparent, fair and equal and embraces new technologies. Exhibitions are curated via swarm intelligence, not through the selection of a few so-called experts with an art history degree. A more diverse group of artists will finally get museum recognition, supported by a healthy gallery system that is adjusted to the number of buyers. This will attract a new generation of art buyers whose focus is on purpose, rather than profit. They understand that buying art is not just the purchase of an artwork but a philanthropic investment. The questions responsible art buyers will ask are not, “How much can I sell it for in 5 years?” but, “How will my purchase support a community and align with my values?”

Magnus Resch is a serial entrepreneur and teaches art management at Yale University. His new book How To Become a Successful Artist is published by Phaidon and based on a research study, published in Science. He is the author of the bestselling books, Management of Art Galleries and 100 Secrets of the Art World.

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