When something in the art world seems too ridiculous to be true, the question arises of whether it could be an experimental work of art itself. ArtRank, a service supposedly in private operation since 2012 but only publicly revealed earlier this year, is an online consultancy service seeking to rank emerging artists in multiple top-ten lists based on selling points. It bases its rankings on a self-described system of, “qualitatively weighted metrics including web presence (verified social media counts, inbound links), studio capacity and output, market maker contracts and acquisitions, major collector and museum support, gallery representation and auction results.” Insiders get early access for $3,500 per quarter before the lists are made public.
The site was originally called Sell You Later and used a spoof Yves Saint Laurent logo as its emblem before “corporate sponsors” allegedly forced a more mature name change and design overhaul. The initial name gave Sell You Later the appearance of a neo-Dada prank piece taunting an art market that doesn’t plan on humbling down anytime soon. ArtRank, at the very least, now looks legitimate, ranking the top ten artists in six categories based on price points.
Both incarnations of the site have garnered plenty of attention and press coverage, though few media outlets and blogs have questioned its authenticity. Artists have responded humorlessly to the concept of being objectified by the site. The default discussion seemed to just assume that ArtRank was in fact a legitimate service that allowed clients to pay $3,500 per quarter for a hip and tech-savvy art advising 2.0 experience, the utmost faith, as always, resting not in personal taste or cultural value but in swathes of hard market data.
Putting the pieces together reveals some red flags. One of the site’s founders, a USC graduate named Carlos Rivera, shows up to interviews on a Ducati and says things like, “...we sold all of our Bitcoin holdings at 700GBP but this is not to mean we will never reinvest in Bitcoin,” and, in reference to name options, “ArtAnal, short for ArtAnalytics, was also on our shortlist.” The statements read more like Andy Kaufman than Charles Saatchi. Rivera, who for a few years operated the small West Hollywood gallery Rivera & Rivera, comes from an art background—his parents are collectors—and says he wanted to apply the algorithmic trading methods typically used for investment banking to the art world. In a Guardian interview, Rivera explained, “Historically, art does well coming out of recession...It’s S-W-A-G, right? Silver. Wine. Art. Gold.” If Rivera is performing, it’s a rather brilliant lampooning of a very specific type of individual who tends to be attracted to today’s art market; but if he is, in fact, a tunnel-visioned USC finance bro who seeks to further evaluate contemporary art for the sake of investment strategy, he’s par for the course.
One theory about the site comes back to USC. Marc Horowitz, fiancée of post-internet innovator Petra Cortright and a notorious online art business meta-prankster himself, taught a course at the university called Internet Studio: Online Experimentation and Expression. An anonymous source from a major auction house told us, “My grand theory is that either Carlos Rivera or one of his friends took or heard about Marc’s class, got the idea for the site, and launched it as a sort of biz/art project in a similar vein as K-Hole. Because of the attention it got, he/they have tried to ‘legitimize’ it—or not—it may still be a complete façade and the ultimate art market hoax.” Regardless of ArtRank’s intentions, the venture has managed to stir up conspiracy theories. ArtRank raises questions about how far market speculation of art can and will go and, more importantly, who will end up being responsible for making the tactical decisions that lead to major shifts. If the site is a hoax, it can’t be called unintelligent.
The results of ArtRank are only updated quarterly, which would allow plenty of time for trolling and press junkets, in between formulating convincing Buy and Sell Now lists of artists. What’s most troubling is the lack of press skepticism and the disillusioned sense that ArtRank is an adequate reflection of where the art market currently stands. It’s worth exploring both the curious nature of the site and what it says about cultural production in the 21st-century. On the one hand, ranking artists algorithmically based on market value is an indicator of just how far art has been removed from the market-resistant laurels some artists and critics alike would like to believe it rests upon. This is the idealistic route, obviously. The other viewpoint is to ask, really, who are we kidding? ArtRank is less a straw that could break the camel’s back than a symptom of where things are at. It is a tool to be used by a self-selected niche audience to do something that they would figure out how to do somehow with or without ArtRank’s assistance. The bizarre extremes of the present-day art market both restrict artists and invite them to lambast it satirically. If ArtRank isn’t currently doing this, someone else will.