In college I studied art history with a particular focus on the museum and gallery business. I was fascinated by the art market because it’s a plain example of where traditional economic models fail. They fail mostly because they don’t account for the emotional side of human behavior, which is irrational, (though not necessarily unpredictable, as Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational points out). Or put another way, it doesn’t account for how human emotions drive behavior.
The art market is an extreme example of where our emotions drive our purchasing behavior, therefore I’ve been thinking about what lessons we can take from it. I’ve always felt that a significant part of selling artwork is about the experience around the work itself. I’m talking about the gallery setting, the presentation of the history of the work, and the process of discovery. These elements work together to create what I think of as an aura around the work. Creating this aura is key to establishing the emotional connection that drives the purchase process.
These days, I think a great deal about emotions and human behavior because they are essential to creating effective marketing programs. I also think that there is a great deal we can learn about creating emotionally engaging experiences from the arts. In this post, I’m going to get a little personal by telling you a story about two artists, one of whom should be a little familiar …. because it’s me. Before I jump into that, however, I’ll set the stage with a little background on how I understand the art business.
Why Do People Buy Art?
Art won’t organize your life, it won’t save you money, and it probably won’t do the dishes. Unless you’re an art dealer or a professional collector (not the end consumer), it’s unlikely that the primary driver of an art purchase is it’s investment potential. For many people art is a means of decorating their homes and expressing themselves. As such, artwork is a consummate luxury item.
We buy artwork because of the way it makes us feel and the associated perceptions that go along with those feelings. In my experience as a dealer, people tend to buy artwork that somehow serves as a representation of their own identity. In other words, many of my clients felt the artist’s expression, the piece of artwork, allowed them to express something about themselves. Sometimes this was simply their need to feel culturally sophisticated, sometimes it was more personal. Either way, there was always some need to express themselves under the surface.
A Little Art-His-Story
If you look back to the beginning of Art History (meaning, when we starting recording it) you’ll find it’s quite creative. I used to call Art History “his-story” because it started with male historians writing about mythical male artists. It includes more than a few references to masters who were reclusive and brilliant.
UPDATE: Here’s a great radio show from This American Life, about the importance of creation myths in artistic production.
Those stories used to be part of the secret sauce that set up the dramatic aura around an artist and his/her work. As the arts have evolved, we’ve found additional ways to create that aura with art that is controversial, aesthetically seductive, nostalgic, and conceptual. No matter the approach, there seems to be two common denominators that most successful art has, including a notable author/artist and an experience that illicits an emotional response of some kind.
A Not So Famous Artist
As my final project at the School of The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I started work on an art installation entitled ROOM. I won’t go into detail about the project here, but if you want to learn more about it you can visit this page. Suffice it to say, the project turned out to be much bigger than a thesis project and I ended up tinkering on it for over five years before showing it for the first time. It was kind of like an old car that you might keep in your garage to take apart and reassembled on the weekends. Only in this case, the installation was a room full of furniture that I took apart and reassembled in a new way.
It’s a complicated project, and probably the most engaging art piece I’ll ever make (though I’m not making much art anymore). I’m pretty attached to it because I invested so much time and energy into it, but it’s never been formally recognized on its merit by a museum or gallery. Pieces have been shown at museums and galleries but it’s never been shown all together as an installation in that context. I’m sure everyone’s worked on something they were proud of but that didn’t get the attention they felt it deserved. Well, the installation is that thing for me.
There are many people who have written about my installation and how it offers an intensely emotional experience. Pieces have been included in shows, and it was even the subject of a short television piece. Still, something’s been preventing it from breaking through the wall of obscurity. Oh, I should also mention that the installation isn’t saleable in the consumer sense. It’s a typical art for arts sake kind of project. Here’s a image of the installation, its a time exposure so that’s a younger me shown in three different places:
A Not So Famous Artist Becomes Famous
Several years after my installation was exhibited in Boston, in the studio in which it was created, I learned about an artist who worked on a project that has many similarities to ROOM. His name was James Hampton. You probably haven’t heard of him because his work is also somewhat obscure, though his piece entitled The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American Art. How did it get there?
Hampton was an African-American man who grew up in South Carolina and moved to Washington D.C. at twenty-two before serving in the army during World War II between 1942 and 1945. In D.C., he worked as a janitor after the war, essentially until his death in 1964. He was known to be a very quiet and reclusive man who had no formal education. A few weeks after his death, his landlord, Meyer Wertlieb, stopped receiving rent payments and tried to visit Hampton to find out why. Of course, he discovered that Hampton had passed away.
As Wertlieb went through the process of emptying Hampton’s apartment he discovered that Hampton had been working on an art installation in the garage for 14 years. The installation was a symmetrical presentation of old furniture whose surface was decorated with a collection of aluminum and gold foil scraps, various pieces of cardboard, old light bulbs, shards of mirror and old desk blotters.
The installation was accompanied by an extensive notebook entitled, St James: The Book of the 7 Dispensation, which is written in a code language. In 1964, the Washington Post wrote a story about Hampton and two people bought the piece from Wertlieb and then anonymously donated it to the Smithsonian Institute. If you’re interested in learning more about Hampton you can learn more here:
Hampton’s life story brings us back to the original mythology of the artist. What’s interesting is that it’s unclear if Hampton even considered himself an artist. The content of the piece is religious in nature, so it’s possible that he intended it as a literal throne. Either way, the fact that he was seen as a reclusive genius, in combination with the way his work was discovered, led to a powerful experience for those who discovered the project.
The Take Away
Just for the record, I’m not thinking of becoming a recluse or hiding my installation in a garage until I die, but my experience with my installation has changed the way I approach my work. In truth, I didn’t really think about how I would share my installation with the world when I was creating it. I’m sure the project would be quite different if I had. That said, I’ve included information about my artwork because I wanted to highlight the importance of thinking about how to bring products or services to market before creating them.
The art market is unique because purchasing behaviors are more emotionally driven than other markets. With that in mind, dealers in the art market have extensive experience crafting these experiences and we can learn from them. To some degree these experiences revolve around the reputation of the dealer and the relationships s/he has with the community. I also think that is comes back to the two common denominators that successful artworks embody, the identity of the author/artists and the emotional experience the pieces illicit.
In a marketing context, this boils down to telling compelling and engaging stories about who makes products and services, presenting the products or services in the context of an emotional experience, and sharing experiences from consumers who benefit from the use of the product or service.