Contemporary Art Stars:
Lessons from the Rankings

Alain Quemin
In Les Stars de l’art contemporain. Notoriété et consécration artistiques dans les arts visuels, published by Éditions CNRS in Paris in 2013, Alain Quemin examines the ranking “charts” that attempt to determine the most important, or most prominent, artists and the most powerful figures in the art scene. By comparing the various rankings, he analyzes how the charts are constructed, the extent to which their results overlap, and the relationship between institutional and economic success in the marketplace. He then examines the factors at play in achieving fame or canonization. For esse, Alain Quemin responds to questions about his work from Ana Leticia Fialho and outlines the genesis of his research, its aims, and its principal findings.

Ana Leticia Fialho: Could you explain how you came to analyze visual arts ranking charts in your latest book, Les Stars de l’art?

Alain Quemin: As a sociologist, for the last twenty years my specialty has been the visual arts — specifically, contemporary art — and I wanted to analyze the question of fame in the field. Very quickly, it seemed essential to look at the “top artists charts” that are burgeoning in the area, which aim to establish objective rankings of artists’ reputations. Although these charts are widespread, little is known about how they’re put together; hence my desire to cast some light on them. Also, no one has looked at how such charts evolve over the years or compared their results to see whether or not they overlap.

ALF: What are the main artist ranking systems you analyzed and what differences did you note between them?

A. Q.: Kunstkompass, a list of the world’s one hundred most prominent artists, is a chart of “stars,” but it’s also the star of the charts! It was started in 1970, and it has been published almost every year since then. Thus, it allows one to learn a good deal about the transformations that have taken place in the contemporary art world. It is telling that 1970 was the year in which contemporary art emerged as a category. It seems as if, from the very emergence of contemporary art with When Attitudes Become Form, the major exhibition organized at the Berne Kunsthalle by Harald Szeemann in 1969, some instrument had to be created to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the value of contemporary art. I compare this list to that of Artfacts, the other main ranking of artists, which is significantly newer, and whose methodology is quite different and far more complex — but whose results are surprisingly close to those of Kunstkompass, at least in the upper rankings. One should note that in both cases the rankings are based on expert opinion (for example, in the case of Kunstkompass, having had an exhibition in a major institution and having been the subject of articles in the principal international art magazines). I was also interested in online visibility as reflected by artnet’s lists, which are based on the searches made for an artist’s name on its website. There, where the filter of professional and expert opinion doesn’t operate as it does in the cases mentioned above, the results are very different. I also analyzed the rankings generated by auction sales as indicated in Artprice’s data.

ALF: What about contemporary art “charts” other than those dedicated to artists?

AQ: Amusingly enough, rankings of works have begun to appear recently! But the results aren’t very different from those for artists. There is now also a very conspicuous ranking of the most powerful figures in the contemporary art world, the “Power 100,” published annually by The Art Review, which clearly moves beyond simply ranking artists and includes collectors, dealers, museum and exhibition curators, and so on. In fact, I found and analyzed about a dozen different lists concerning contemporary art. Today, such rankings are proliferating — they’re everywhere!

ALF: Who makes use of such rankings in the contemporary art world, and what do they use them for?

AQ: As a sociologist, what interested me was to note that when figures in the contemporary art world — collectors, artists, dealers, and so on — are interviewed and asked about this subject, the rankings are often criticized, even decried. Nonetheless, these lists are generally well known, and the same people who emphasize their limitations or explain their biases are showing by this very fact how interested they are in them.As a player in the contemporary art world myself, more than once I’ve seen dealers or collectors connect to the Internet to search those rankings for information on the artists I was talking to them about. In the end, as I’ve mentioned, contemporary art rankings have proliferated in recent years, which indicates the great demand for listings of this type. So, there are many signs that large numbers of people are interested in contemporary art rankings. Why? Because they synthesize information and make it possible, at least partly, to resolve the uncertainty that hangs over the value of contemporary art and the quality of current artists.

ALF: You compare the rankings to People Magazine, which nobody reads but everyone consults. Could you elaborate on this?

AQ: In matters of art, it is generally accepted that having an “eye,” being able to determine for oneself whether something is good or not, is a great quality. Still, sharing information and judgments with other people in the contemporary art world is equally essential. Even people who don’t see the rankings as perfectly accurate often like to “take a look” at them and know what they say, especially because the rankings are meant to depict some objective reality. But they also help to create that reality; they have a performative dimension.

ALF: You stress that Kunstkompass, although it’s viewed as authoritative, isn’t totally reliable. How, in broad terms, does it work and what are its main flaws?

AQ: Let’s just say that Kunstkompass shows a distinct bias for German artists. This is because it attributes points in its compilation to various world artists on the basis of solo exhibitions, group shows, and the coverage they’ve received in major international art magazines, and its mechanism over-represents German institutions. And, as in all countries, these institutions tend to exhibit many of their own national artists. Nonetheless, despite such limitations, the mere longevity of Kunstkompass testifies to its success.

ALF: Kunstkompass is not an economic indicator, contrary to what many believe.

AQ: Absolutely. It really is the artists’ international visibility that’s evaluated, measured, and that determines the ranking as published. Only recently has visibility been compared with the artists’ average sale price at market — with quoted value. This makes it possible to determine whether an artist’s work is a good deal, too expensive, or offered at a fair price relative to his or her reputation alone.

ALF: What connection exists between the kind of success represented by fame and market success?

AQ: Today, it seems that at a high level of recognition, there is no automatic link with market success. There are artists whose production is very much oriented toward museums and others who address themselves primarily to the market. The superstars — the artists at the very top of this hierarchy — most often succeed in both worlds.

ALF: What are the main differences between the logic driving recognition by the market and the logic driving recognition by institutions?

AQ: The market is subject to demand from collectors, many of them private collectors, including individuals, for whom the dimensions of works and exigencies of conservation have enormous importance. Museums and galleries are significantly less subject to these imperatives; on the contrary, they are able to seek out spectacular works of very large dimensions — installations and environments, for example — that are less easily absorbed by the market. The criteria and scales used to assess artists’ work are affected by this.

ALF: How might one define the artists oriented toward the market and those oriented toward institutions? Who are the best-known individuals in each group?

AQ: An artist focused on the market often produces pleasant work, whose approach is not too austere; it might be colourful, pop, even decorative, and its creator is easily identifiable, which makes such works excellent markers of social distinction. Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami are good examples of market-oriented artists. Artists focused on institutions tend to produce installations, or video, or conceptual pieces; they create “drier” works — works that might be unsettling. Examples are Bruce Nauman and Christian Boltanski.

ALF: What distinction do you make between fame and canonization? What changes when an artist moves from one to the other?

AQ: Canonization is the supreme form of recognition and fame. It is clear that certain artists, once they have managed to occupy the top spots in the rankings for a time, can hardly be displaced. They have risen from stars to superstars to icons. They embody, so to speak, contemporary artistic creation. Today, this describes artists such as Gerhard Richter, Bruce Nauman, and Georg Baselitz.

ALF: Artists and galleries mutually contribute to each other’s reputation. Could you elaborate on this idea?

AQ: Who is a “star” artist? He or she is an artist who is represented by an important gallery and whose work is exhibited in major museums. What is an important gallery or a major museum? It is a place in which are exhibited . . . the most important artists. In fact, the spaces and persons mutually qualify one another; each becomes the guarantor of the aesthetic quality — and often the financial value — of the other.

ALF: According to your research, the rankings make it possible to clearly identify artistic nerve centres and establish a veritable hierarchy of countries in the international contemporary art scene.

AQ: Absolutely! Despite the contemporary art world’s reigning ideology of artistic globalization and vanishing borders, these things continue to have meaning and countries remain highly hierarchized. Today, the United States, and New York in particular, clearly constitutes the uncontested centre of the contemporary art world. On its own, the United States contributes roughly half of the most internationally visible contemporary production. That’s huge. And one finds, significantly behind, Germany and Berlin, and the U.K. and London. France and Paris come still farther behind, much lower, as part of a group of countries that includes Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Each of these countries accounts for roughly five percent or less. All discourse aside, the presence of other countries in the most visible international scene, the one where the liveliest competition takes place, is marginal or nonexistent. Today, many of the artists from countries that are more peripheral to the contemporary art world, especially (but not only) the more exotic ones, are forced to become expatriates, often in Berlin, but even more often in New York, in order to be part of an expanding scene and a dynamic market, and thus to increase their chances for success. The rankings that only take account of the nationality of artists are often misleading. Countries and cities of residence are far more important, because they weigh more heavily on what kind of networks the artist is able to access. So, one doesn’t expatriate to just anywhere, and the most famous expats are now extremely concentrated in New York.

ALF: Your research shows that — here too, a far cry from the ideology asserting that talent alone accounts for the success of many artists — age plays a decisive role. How does that work now, and how has this evolved since the 1970s?

AQ: Today, “star” artists are around sixty years old on average, and many are over seventy. The contemporary art world likes to see itself as very open; it is even sometimes marked by a cult of youth, but becoming recognized as an important artist takes a good deal of time . . . during which one ages. These days, we talk, without laughing, about “young artists” forty or forty-five years old. The few rare cases of widely recognized young artists, such as the forty-something Jonathan Meese and Olafur Eliasson, allow us to forget about their even more famous peers who are, generally, much older. We tend to overlook the fact that in 1970, artists under the age of thirty figured among the one hundred most famous artists in the world: Bruce Nauman, for instance, was only twenty-nine, and some were barely over the age of twenty — the Belgian painter Robert Verheyen was just twenty-two. Today, that’s not only impossible, it’s unthinkable.

ALF: What role does gender play in achieving fame? Women still seem to face obstacles in the process of achieving recognition as artists.

AQ: Contrary to what I naïvely presumed before beginning this research, although women’s situation has generally improved in Western societies since the early 1970s, their place in the arts has not progressed at all. The proportion of women among the most visible artists even lost ground, from eight percent in 1970 to practically nothing in the mid-1980s. Then, especially in the early 1990s, the position of women began to improve; they became more visible. Today, however, women artists are still hitting a glass ceiling, and they account for less than one quarter of the “star” artists. Their situation is even less enviable on the market, where they hold only an eight to ten percent share. I think that the lot of women artists is less likely to improve because many people think — incorrectly — that their issues regarding access to recognition have been fully resolved.

ALF: Finally, what does the sociological perspective offer us in better understanding access to fame in contemporary art?

AQ: Sociology allows us to better grasp the workings of ranking charts and the role that they play in the contemporary art world. As a sociologist, I think it’s important to try to understand and unveil social realities — to show, for example, that currently the best-known contemporary artists are generally very old, that most women still occupy secondary positions, that different countries hold highly hierarchized positions on the international art scene, and that the weight of the United States is crushing, even in an era when we want to believe in globalization and a permanent cultural melting pot. To bring these things to light, one must always take an objective look at reality and call into question preconceived ideas, most of which are false.

Translated from the French by Peter Dubé

Alain Quemin
Alain Quemin
Alain Quemin
This article also appears in the issue 81 - Being Thirty

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