Where Does Art Come From?

[Takashi Yoshizak at Artbeat event. Sculpture by Kat Herine photo credit: ericjhenderson]

The Scene

What are the economic and social forces that shape the path of Art?

We, as the public, only see a small number of works compared to the volume of work and the potential for exhibition. It comes from artists who have their own money, those who find patrons, or from those few who, with sheer tenacity, will themselves over walls and through gauntlets of "NO!"

The democratization of content creation and distribution was supposed to disrupt that scenario. But, old systems are adept at replicating themselves on new machinery. Even clunky ones rely on strong balance sheets to buy time: to learn, wait, acquire. According to one of the sharper critics of the democratization idea, Evgeny Morosov, there is no "natural evolutionary path" toward equity whether we're talking about content or countries.

But far from Morosov's intellectual, moral critique and in everyday talk, people are quick to blame the artist if he or she can't find a way amidst the talk of disruption and innovation. Beneath the buzz, though, the cultural and art infrastructures from the Gilded Age still look pretty solid, especially when backed by an economy that looks very much that of the late 1800s into early 1900s - a short time ago.

Let's not dismiss the buzz. Instead, let's challenge it: How might we create other structures to deliver art to the public? I asked a few people about that. But first, a little deeper on defining the problem.

Market Failure

The underlying issue is one of a broad market that can functions at a high level while still significantly constricting the range of art that reaches the public. In this class of art and production , the supply, demand and value is determined by a handful of people.

They're not arbitrary tastemakers. Often they are trained professionals. Their system is highly concentrated, exclusive and works well for the artists who make it into the inner circle. The problem is that there's only room for a few, leaving the public unaware of the vast majority of artists and their work.

"There are only so many galleries and mostly they cater to a certain levels of wealthy collectors' needs," says Jody Rasch, a NYC-based contemporary artist who is also senior executive of a NY- based leading financial service firm, leading the social performance/impact investment group. "As a result it is difficult for up-and-coming and mid-career artists to exhibit and sell their work so the public is missing out on valuable range of interesting and innovative art and artists."

Thus, in the high-end fine art sector we see strong fundamentals: steady demand and, on the supply side, a deep-rooted support system for established artists and artists who come through specific class channels. This is still an open market, but one with a spotty infrastructure for finding new talent in non-traditional ways. Right here, let's take a look at a couple of new businesses that are addressing the latent, broader market and the opportunity they're seeking in up-and-coming professional artists.

Latent Talent

Artbeat S.A.S. is a company based in Paris, France and New York City. It's an art label that promotes undervalued high-quality talent across multiple disciplines: music, fine art, dance, fashion, film, design, and others. The firm is another step in the evolution of modern start-up culture, digital natives but more concerned with just doing business, whether in old or new ways, to create and grow a market. Artbeat gathers and presents art and artists through a combination of rotating, crowd-sourced experts and a label-style curating.

You might have flinched at that reference to "high-quality." Who can say that? What about the "eye of the beholder?" We need to let go of this romantic view of art, where everybody's work has equal value. It doesn't. Like any other discipline, art is one in which true professionals can be separated by quality well before any subjective measures intervene. To say art is everywhere is like saying doctors are everywhere. They are; but, I want a good doctor.

At the point of searching for art, we get to a daunting feature of tech culture and a peculiar limitation of the web as our principal medium for spread of ideas. Our content choices now seem overwhelming. The paradox is that this vast sea of fresh choices can easily be shrunk to a stale pond if you consider that search engines pit the results you're really searching for in direct competition with the results that come up per your unique profitability as an advertising target. Finally, add the myriad content restrictions by country and content licensing issues and our worldwide web isn't quite worldwide.

Thus, while Artbeat is in step with digital culture, its founders invest heavily in footwork, networks and "old school" media channels such as events and hardcover art books. The idea is to see people interacting with new art and artists directly. Art is, after all, a dialogue between creators and their audience - at its best when it's live and in-person. Integrating pathways for people get out and experience art in all five senses is an ethic with the side benefit of finding those unexpected good things that can only happen when we meet.

No small undertaking, but this is how Takashi Yoshizaki, NYC-based co-founder of Artbeat, wants to broaden the base of art consumers:

"We're cultivating a vibrant tail-end market, with diverse styles of art that meet the niche demands of consumers and companies. I believe we can make the 'affordable luxury' of owning art and being part of a creative process with the artist a reality. We enable an art lover to shift from being a spectator to becoming an active participant. Artists get to build an audience and art lovers gain access to a pool of talent that creates diverse, exciting work at a prices they're willing to pay. Gallerists can also find us interesting as we amass a qualified pool of artists."

Alternative Capital

Building a career in art is neither cheap nor quick. Deliberate, long-term investment is what artists need to counter the burden of applying for multiple grants or fighting to make up the budget space left by low-paying or unpaid, yet prestigious, residencies. You can be well-known and still struggle.

Enter: Pave, a platform through which the general public can invest directly in upcoming talents. Sal Lahoud, a co-founder of Pave, calls this the "evolution of patronage," as it broadens the investment base and fills the chasm left by the current celebrity-driven model. Reed Handley, Communications & Operations Manager of Pave expands on that: "The conventional gallery model can usually support only a couple of 'stars' whose sales subsidize investment in the remaining roster. Small investors can now become active participants in the art market and direct participants in the careers of artists they like."

Pave's model is comprehensive: low-cost, income-linked investment with 5 or 10-year repayment terms, plus artist services including mentorship, career and financial advisory. Even though it is tied to the artist's future income, it is the type of flexible funding not formerly available, built around the artist's talent and expected ability to repay. There isn't a debt-like obligation if an artist doesn't reach an expected income level.

In short, Pave is bringing dimension to the weaker beginning and middle sections of the market, still a highly competitive space for the artist, but now with a greater range of options for artists to build a career. It remains to be seen if this model can sustain regular capital flows for new artists, but, at this stage, it's the thinking and acting upon it that impress the most.

Together, Pave and Artbeat are launching the first, experimental, fund to support a group of seven upcoming artists: a painter, musicians, a fashion designer, and film producer, with Pave offering financial backing and Artbeat curating the selection and handling post-investment "portfolio" management.

Both firms use crowd-based technologies as levers for active and direct public participation in long-term investment in talent. Talent can now be seen as an asset class that allows the public to invest in the process of art, not just the end product, and with conscious intent to involve people and places off the radar of galleries and even cool-seeking blogs.

Power to (the) People

Devin Stewart, a senior fellow / senior program director at Carnegie Council brings the point home. Why does it even matter that we see more of what's out there:

"The rise of the artist in societies worldwide is taking place amid the backdrop of a widely shared loss of faith in politicians and policymakers who have become corrupt, cynical, and static or, as some people say, "entropic." Citizens--from Burma to Brazil to the Balkans--are more connected and have more access to global information and economic opportunity. As economist Tomas Sedlacek noted in our series of interviews with thought leaders at Carnegie Council, the era of "economists as priests" is coming to an end, and, as I've written here, we may be witnessing the emergence of artists as modern shapers of culture and norms."

There's a space to be filled by deliberate attempts to provide market access through maturing crowd platforms. Maybe we're at a moment where new forces can intervene and play a part in changing fundamental business practices. I hope we can begin to see broader access for everybody to art world, from "regular folks" buying art to financing the sculptor toiling across the street from me.

For information about upcoming events, contact Takashi Yoshizaki at takashi@artbeat.net in New York and Romain Regnier / Yun Inada at romain@artbeat.net / yun@artbeat.net in Paris.