Cereus Art Founder Emma Nuzzo on the Challenges Artists of Color Face with the Art Market
For many emerging artists, navigating sales with galleries can feel daunting. Many artists are ill-equipped to avoid bad-faith collectors, build successful relationships with gallerists, and understand the $60 billion art industry at large.
While an MFA can introduce artists to curators and critics, such degree programs rarely offer the professional financial advice that artists need to succeed. This leaves emerging artists vulnerable to predatory buyers and sellers who aren’t concerned with an artist’s long-term growth. As online art buying becomes increasingly popular, thereby democratizing the collecting process, new platforms are also emerging to help artists and gallerists.
Primary-market auctions on online platforms like Artsy, for example, allow artists to make direct sales and receive quick payment for their work. For its current post-war and contemporary sale, Artsy Auctions partnered with Cereus Art, an organization that provides tools for emerging artists of color to build a financially stable art practice. Those services include financial education, partnerships with online auctions, and mentorship for artists who aren’t represented by a gallery.
Artsy spoke with Cereus founder Emma Nuzzo, as well as several artists featured in the current auction on Artsy (the first 31 lots of which were curated by Cereus), to learn more about the difficulties emerging artists of color face as they attempt to successfully navigate the art market.
Portrait of Emma Nuzzo. Courtesy of Emma Nuzzo.
Nuzzo was inspired to start Cereus after years of observing her artist friends struggle financially. “Only 9% of MFA graduates are able to make a living off of their practice, and of this percentage, 81% identify as cis white men,” she said.
All of the artists I interviewed for this piece agreed that their MFA programs did not adequately give them access to information or resources related to selling their work. Amy Bravo, Judy Chung, Shabez Jamal, and Na’ye Perez have all gained financial literacy from organizations like Cereus, as well as informal conversations with fellow artists, and trial and error.
“MFA programs do not prepare artists for the art market across the board,” Perez said. “Artists aren’t taught how to sustain their prices [by] not pricing works too high too soon; budgeting; [and] negotiating contracts [and] percentages.”
Perez expressed how difficult it is to be paid in a timely manner as an artist, noting that many collectors who buy through the traditional gallery system do not pay within 30 days of a sale. “To pay [in a timely way] is supporting artists, especially emerging arts who don’t have access to resources or the privileges others enjoy,” the artist said. Perez added that gatekeeping plays a role in the withholding of resources because collectors assume that artists are financially stable or have access to economic security through their connections.
The fact that many artists—specifically those of color—are burdened by a lack of resources to learn how to profit from their work, while also not compromising their practice in the process, is alarming. Bravo noted that financial stress places undue impact upon an artist’s creative drive.
“Selling work immediately changes your relationship to your work,” said Bravo. “It can very quickly turn your studio practice into a ‘production’ space rather than a place to explore new things and feel challenged.” For Bravo, having a thoughtful team that is invested in working with an artist in the long term and with their “weird practice” can help an artist maintain longevity and financial stability in their field.
Nuzzo believes online platforms are well equipped to showcase underrepresented artists because they can reach collectors living in areas where the overhead of running a brick-and-mortar gallery is extremely challenging. This gives Cereus the freedom to make impactful partnerships with like-minded organizations and online platforms, like Artsy, while passing as much profit as possible to the artists—Cereus offers artists commissions ranging between 80% and 85%, depending on the project.
Because traditional galleries tend to favor the status quo over taking chances with new talent, according to Nuzzo, artists of color bear the brunt of these decisions. “Collectors, other gallerists, curators, and dealers are more frequently exposed to work by white creatives than that of artists of the global majority.
Conversely, online platforms have greater capacity to showcase these artists,” Nuzzo explained. “I’ve noticed a marked and substantial increase in our sales and growth of potential collector base since we started our Artsy gallery page,” she added, noting that the more online visibility Cereus has, the more discoverable the artists working with the platform become.
For Nuzzo, frank conversations around payment, collectors, and commission rates with artists make the art market more transparent. Ultimately, she explained, there’s more opportunity than ever to “amplify exposure of these artists’ work to an expanded set of democratized potential collectors and art professionals”—which will, most importantly, support these artists’ careers.