The art world is at a dead end. Consumers and artists alike have remained passively in the service of the market, leaving a small circle of collectors, gallerists, and museum directors to set the agenda. Everyone else—most gallerists, curators, and artists themselves—play supporting roles, forming the lower part of a pyramid whose peak is largely inaccessible. Artists hoping for success are doomed if they don’t conform to the rules of the game, and those who do succeed are rare. Most art is still bound up in ideas of exclusivity, both in the individual nature of each work and the elitism associated with its ownership—a concept that sidelines the essential communicative purpose of art, sacrificing it to private ownership and economic value. The art market has become soulless. The alternatives? Either art loses itself in a cult of empty exclusivity, or it turns to its audience. It’s time to wake up.
In nearly every other market, the power of the public has been transformative. Social media and other online tools have given people platforms to articulate their preferences. We comment, like, and share like never before, and markets have responded by modulating their offerings to our tastes without policing our preferences. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, endless curated content on blogs and websites—we now inhabit a world where virtually limitless tailored content is available, yet we have completely overlooked a stubbornly unchanging part of cultural life. The art world hasn’t changed. Curators still decide what will be shown in exhibitions while museums, at best, count the visitors. A few players maintain dominance by snubbing the voices of a surprisingly docile public. The people’s opinion counts for little.
Because public institutions and large events like biennials are dependent on galleries and collectors for financial support, they show only a few art market superstars and aspirants, making them effectively showcases for the tiny number of artists who have accessed the headline-making end of the value market. We could show empirically that a small network of New York gallerists has a chokehold on determining what is good art and what is shown, ensuring the value of their prize assets. But these gallerists also determine who, outside this clique, is left in the dust. Under the entirely fictional “aura” of art, with all its radical history, it is chilling to see that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA artists rarely make the cut. In this world, diversity is for lip service only.
Hugely successful blockbuster exhibitions don’t exert any pressure on the dominance of the magic circle at the heart of the art market. For older, art-savvy visitors, they are staged as an educational program. For the young, blockbuster shows are an Instagram spectacle. Is anyone invited to participate in the selection itself? Nein. Instead, museums are staffing their education departments to drill appreciation for the tastes of a few wealthy art collectors into our heads. But it remains meaningless.
It wouldn’t be hard to give the public more say. Audiences must start to realize they don’t have to admire other people’s investments. They can decide what is worth seeing and what should be exhibited. Audiences can take up art as their own cause. They can make it a form of culture in which they can get involved; for which they can speak; which listens to their voices; and which, in turn, also speaks for them.
We need to make public art institutions more democratic. We must set up an art ecosystem in which artists turn to their audience and vice versa, and in which the market learns to respect the voices of the many. It isn’t impossible: We are already seeing some large institutions beginning to think along these lines. But the moment will pass us by if we do not act.
Audience: Choose for yourselves what’s worth seeing!
The first call to action is to everyone who enjoys looking at art and wants to have a say in what should be exhibited. We expect to make our own music playlists, listening to recommendations and harvesting the best, but we haven’t even considered doing this with art. Seek out like-minded people and decide together what’s worth seeing! What was once primarily the preserve of curators should start to include the audience. This doesn’t mean replacing curators, but it could start with partnering with them. Nor does a democratization of art have to change into dictatorship by the majority: Different viewers can choose different art forms. If we can introduce this culture shift, art has a chance of becoming something that doesn’t just serve a commercial market benefiting a tiny handful of investors, but instead represents and mirrors our own interests.
Artists: Mobilize your fans!
The second call to action is to artists. Turn around and walk away from the dead end of the market. Abandon notions of being discovered, and question the idea of exclusivity. Above all, challenge the idea of art expertise, a protectionist branding trick that serves a handful of actors and leaves nearly every artist on the planet completely exposed. Turn instead toward your viewers. Reinvent the mold of the modern age: Why do we assume art has to be about the one-off? Forget about “aura,” this marketing slogan for advertising exclusivity. Make copies, imitate, mix things up, sample: It’s fair game in the music world, and these ideas can be exploited for artists who choose to redirect their imagination to those ends. Use the freedom of art! It’s your stock in trade and a right that is yours to defend.
Museums: Reinvigorate your empty, white cubes!
Be brave: That new audience you’ve been seeking for years is on your doorstep. Museums can collaborate to create not just an environment, but a new experience in which the viewers give meaning to art: You just have to allow them to participate. Unaccountable art history graduates working in a self-referential industry have defined what art is for too long. It’s the choice of the many voices that matters. Listen to them! Give them a space!
Collectors: Buy what you like, not investments!
Exclusivity by its nature demands that it must remain aloof from the biggest class of potential buyers: the smaller buyers who are invisible to many gallerists amid their blind rush from fair to fair. This “long tail” of art lovers—those who don’t buy as an investment, but instead buy out of enthusiasm—need to be reached in new places, with apps and platforms that create transparency and liquidity. Let’s be clear: Art is not an investment. Art is accessible. Art is for everyone. We need an art market for the many, not for the few.
Will this benefit the art itself, which sits at the creative heart of all this debate? Experts will almost certainly say no, because mass decisions will not necessarily coincide with their own interests. Artists who have spent decades cultivating networks of collectors and curators are afraid of the public, and rightly so. Curators are alarmed by the loss of control that could result if the audience suddenly began to have a say in programming their spaces. We’ll see more of a very different kind of art, because it will address very different needs.
If the revival of democracy in art succeeds, we will all benefit from it. The audience will be able to relate to what it sees. The artists will find renewed recognition outside of the small scene into which they’re currently funnelled. The collectors will once again collect what really matters to them. We believe in the power of art. Let’s free it from the straitjacket of exclusivity and give it back to all those who love it.