Art Market

What Art Basel in Miami Beach’s Most Instagrammed Works Tell Us about the Art World Today

Doug Woodham and Ahmed Elgammal
Jul 11, 2018 4:46PM

Exhibit 1: From top to bottom: Sean Landers, Miss Kitty Redux, 2016-17, at Rodolphe Janssen Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2017, and installation views of Sol LeWitt, 100 Cubes, 1991, at Paula Cooper Gallery’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2017. Courtesy of Artrendex

Critics, collectors, and curators now use Instagram to share images of art that inspires and intrigues them. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer-winning art critic for New York magazine, has 287,000 Instagram followers. Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese technology entrepreneur and collector who paid $110.5 million for a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, has over 100,000 fans. Thelma Golden, the influential director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, has 62,000 Instagram admirers.  

But Instagram is more than a real-time platform for sharing and staying connected—it is also a treasure trove of publicly available information that can be mined to identify art that inspires different groups of people. To bring this concept to life, we focused on a recent art world event, Art Basel in Miami Beach, which took place last year from December 6th through 10th.

We first assembled a database of images posted by Instagram users based upon their geolocation tags showing they were in Miami during the fair, and their use of the hashtag #artbaselmiamibeach. Because selfies are such an important form of Instagram expression, but not something relevant to our analysis, an algorithm was trained to eliminate them from the database. Special care was taken to include images of people standing next to artworks, a practical reality at art fairs. We also eliminated travel-related images of hotel lobbies, food, and beaches.

This resulted in a database of approximately 35,000 images of artworks at Art Basel in Miami Beach. We then used an artificial intelligence visual search tool designed and optimized for art to identify pictures of the same artwork within this database. This special tool was developed by Artrendex, a New York-based technology startup of which Ahmed Elgammal is founder and CEO. Examples of how the algorithm classified different Instagram pictures as being the same artwork are shown in Exhibit 1. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time analytic techniques like this have been applied to art world-related Instagram data.

What was the most Instagrammed artwork at Art Basel in Miami Beach last year?

Exhibit 2: Olafur Eliasson, Your collective decision, 2017. Courtesy of Artrendex.


A tremendous number of artworks were on view last December at the various Miami art fairs, perhaps as many as 25,000 objects. For example, 269 galleries were showing at the main Art Basel in Miami Beach fair. If each of them exhibited 20 works on average, then close to 5,500 objects were for sale at the Miami Convention Center alone. If you add in the works for sale at all the other art fairs—including NADA, Pulse, Art Miami, Scope, Untitled, Aqua Art Miami, and Ink Miami—then 25,000 objects is a reasonable estimate of the total number of works on view during the fair week.

But Instagram users were very selective in what they elected to share with their followers. Around 500 objects were associated with almost 80 percent of the images in our database. Put another way, if Instagram posts are a rough proxy for popularity, around 500 works captured the imaginations of the overwhelming majority of Instagram-sharing fairgoers.

The most Instagrammed work was a wall-mounted sculpture by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. It was comprised of around 200 silvered and partially painted glass spheres that could be rotated to change the color pattern of the sculpture. Sometimes it was a feast of brightly colored glass orbs, while at other times, it became a somber meditation of blacks and greys. The Instagram images below illustrate how the sculpture changed over the course of the fair.

What were VIPs looking at?

Exhibit 3: Top 10 Instagrammed artworks during the VIP Preview Period at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2017. Courtesy of Artrendex.

1. Olafur Eliasson, Your collective decision, 2017

2. Julio Le Parc, Sphère Miroir, 2017

3. Olafur Eliasson, Penta Hexe, Green Gold, 2017

4. Jenny Holzer, All Fall, Texts: Selections from Truisms (1977–79), Living (1980–82) and Survival (1983–85), 2012

5. Andrea Galvani, Study on a Rotating Black Hole, 2017

6. Two different (but very similar) works by Tom Wesselmann: Smoker #3 (Mouth #17), 1968; Smoker banner, 1971

7. A wall of gold masks, each individually titled, by Peter Liversidge, 2017

8. Jack Pierson, Arrive Here, 2017

9. Frank Bowling, Three different works by the artist from the late 1960s/early 1970s

10. George Condo, Smiling Woman, 2009

While 82,000 people visited Art Basel in Miami Beach during its five-day run, important buyers and art world influencers had exclusive access to it during a two-day VIP preview period (December 6th and 7th). The 10 most-Instagrammed artworks from this period are shown in Exhibit 3, with the names of the artists and the titles of their works shown in Table 1. Around 20 percent of our Instagram database is comprised of posts made during the VIP period.

Most of the names on the top-10 list are well-known artists whose work frequently appears for sale at art fairs: Olafur Eliasson (with two works on the top-10 list), Julio Le Parc, Jenny Holzer, Tom Wesselmann, Jack Pierson, and George Condo. But there are also some wonderful surprises: Frank Bowling, the 82-year-old Guyana-born British artist who is being rediscovered by new audiences; a neon installation of mathematical equations related to black holes, created by the mid-career artist Andrea Galvani; and a wall of golden masks by the conceptual artist Peter Liversidge. The top 10 works tend to be large, colorful, and possess a great deal of “wall power.”

Do VIP and regular fairgoers have similar tastes?

Exhibit 4: Top 10 Instagrammed artworks during the run of the fair at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2017. Courtesy of Artrendex.

1. Olafur Eliasson, Your collective decision, 2017

2. Andrea Galvani, Study on a Rotating Black Hole, 2017

3. Joseph Kosuth, P.G. #9 (I See What I See), 1991

4. Jonathan Horowitz, Rainbow Neon Cross for Two, 2017

5. Jack Pierson, Money and Sex, 2017

6. A wall of gold masks, each individually titled, by Peter Liversidge, 2017

7. Two different (but very similar) works by Tom Wesselmann: Smoker #3 (Mouth #17), 1968; Smoker banner, 1971

8. Nick Cave, Hustle Coat, 2017

9. KAWS, The News, 2017

10. Olafur Eliasson, Penta Hexe, Green, Gold, 2017

Art Basel in Miami Beach is open to the public, and all are welcome. The price of a one-day ticket was $50 if purchased online. While major buyers, art advisors, and museum directors tend to visit the fair only during the VIP period, the three public viewing days are filled with art enthusiasts, students, and people just starting to collect. It is a wonderful time to look at art with friends and family. Approximately 80 percent of the Instagram posts in our database were made during the public portion of the art fair, or shortly thereafter.

The 10 most popular works of art based on Instagram posts from across all the fair days are shown in Exhibit 4, with the names of the artists and the titles of their works in Table 2. There are more similarities than differences between this list and the VIP list, suggesting that taste differences between the two groups of visitors are quite small. Five works from the VIP top-10 list also appear on the full fair top-10 list: the two works by Olafur Eliasson, the neon installation by Andrea Galvani, the wall of golden masks by Peter Liversidge, and the smoking lips by Tom Wesselmann. Both lists have word signage installations by Jack Pierson, but it turns out the VIP crowd preferred “Arrive Here” over “Money & Sex” (try not to read too heavily into that).

Where are all the women artists?

Only one woman was included in either of the top-10 lists: Jenny Holzer. Her work is big, bold, and immersive—attributes that no doubt helped make it an Instagram hit. If Art Basel in Miami Beach were a showcase of 19th-century and early 20th-century artists, then the prevalence of male artists on popularity lists would not be much of a surprise. But since Art Basel in Miami Beach is a showcase of contemporary art, the extreme gender imbalance is surprising. More galleries than ever before are now showing work by living women artists and important historical figures, like Joan Mitchell and Ruth Asawa (though female gallerists are more likely to show work by female artists than their male peers). While we have no data on the gender mix of the artists exhibited at the fair, a quick perusal of artist’s names on the Art Basel website suggests that male artist still take up the vast majority of the fair’s walls and floors.

Instagram posts provide an abundant source of data that can be used to identify art that inspires and intrigues people. While these data come with potential biases, including overrepresentation by heavy social media users, a tilt toward younger audiences, and a preference for big and bold over intimate and quiet, they also provide a new way to peek inside the minds of people who are passionate about art. Later this summer, we will share in a follow-up article results from analyzing Instagram data from the Art Basel fair that took place this June in Basel, Switzerland. Stay tuned.

Doug Woodham
Doug Woodham is Managing Partner of Art Fiduciary Advisors, former President of Christie’s for the Americas, and author of _Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art_.
Ahmed Elgammal
Ahmed Elgammal is Director of the Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Rutgers and the founder and CEO of Artrendex.