Only 14% of artists who start from scratch continue their creative work after 10 years

Kamil Stanuch
3 min readNov 18, 2023

There is no need to repeat that evaluating art is burdened with a strong subjective element, and any attempt to quantify concepts such as “recognition,” “influence,” or “prestige” faces many difficulties or falls into the temptation of reducing them to mercantile aspects and the market game of supply and demand (expensive = recognized).

In the work Quantifying reputation and success in art (2018), Samuel P. Fraiberger and his team attempted to measure the factors of success and career trajectories of individual artists in the context of gallery and museum networks to which they were connected.

The most damning conclusion is how an artistic path is marked by the effects of “lock-in” and “path dependence”: only 14% of artists who start from scratch continue their creative work after 10 years, and the first five exhibitions can determine that the price of their works will be 4.7 times higher.

  • 0.5 million careers. The study was based on a huge dataset collected by the company Magnus, which included information about artists’ exhibitions, sales at auctions, and offers on the primary market. These data covered 497,796 exhibitions in 16,002 galleries, 289,677 exhibitions in 7,568 museums, and 127,208 auctions in 1,239 auction houses in 143 countries over a period of 36 years (from 1980 to 2016). With this data, the researchers were able to reconstruct the artistic career of 496,354 artists.
  • Institutional prestige. According to the hypothesis of the study that artists’ careers are determined by their connections with institutions, the researchers divided artists into groups based on the prestige of their first five exhibitions. Artists were assigned high initial reputation if their works were on average exhibited in the top 20% of institutions (e.g. MoMA or Guggenheim) defined based on a network ranking (16,002 galleries, 7,568 museums, and how works circulate between institutions of different ranks). An artist received low initial reputation if their works were exhibited on average in the bottom 40%.
  • Lock-in effect. Artists who started their career in highly prestigious institutions (where they had their first exhibitions):
  • after 10 years, will continue their artistic work with almost 3 times higher probability (39% of them vs. 14% among artists who “started from scratch,” which still means that 1/3 of artists will remain in the game)
  • had twice as many exhibitions
  • The average maximum price of works by artists with high initial reputation was $193,064, while for artists with low initial reputation, it was $40,476 (almost 5 times higher price).
  • tl;dr if you want to bet on which young artist’s work to buy as an investment, look at where their first five exhibitions took place.

The study does not exclude other factors of success, it only indicates how the career trajectory is shaped considering the institutional aspect. Naturally, the best artists are most often selected for exhibitions in reputable institutions, but the belief in pure meritocracy is a fantasy — even the most outstanding emerging artist from Budapest will have to make several times greater effort to be featured in an exhibition in New York.

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Kamil Stanuch

Angel Investor at RealResearch, EreborCapital & al. | OKRs | Tech | 📈 Newsletter: kamilstanuch.substack.com