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:: By Phoebe Maltz, ’05

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Investigations ::

The price of talent

Often it seems that out of nowhere, artists emerge with works suddenly valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, with shows in top museums and fame that brings material rewards to collectors who were in-the-know early on. Determining which young artists will, two or 20 years down the road, experience such success has been a mystery. But now a voice outside the art world has a theory: in the working paper “Anticipating Artistic Success (or, How to Beat the Art Market): Lessons from History,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Chicago economics professor David Galenson offers his take on what investors should look for when trolling for new talent. According to Galenson, the artists most likely to gain future success are past or current star students in the Yale University art department.

His economics background might have led to his answer. Galenson attributes his ability to see the big picture, and thus gain a greater understanding of the art market, to his tendency, as an economist, toward “systematic generalization.” As is customary in his field, he was able to take “a lot of things that were just isolated facts” and view them together to achieve a conclusive result.

Studying modern-art history, Galenson noticed that, from the impressionists onward, several decades’ worth of artists were not formally trained but rather convened in cafes, bars, and other informal locales. Yet in the past four or five decades, he found, the most influential artists have received formal educations, generally masters of fine arts degrees. Furthermore, today’s top-selling artists—Chuck Close, John Currin, Matthew Barney, for example—have earned those degrees at Yale.

Galenson compiled a spreadsheet with a list of major artists born in the 1930s–60s, recording their birth (and in some cases death) dates; when they got their Yale degrees; when their works sold for which large sums; and when their works first appeared in two respected modern-art texts, History of Modern Art and Modern Art. Comparing the figures with other top art schools’, he found, Yale topped the list.

Having established that the art world’s future is centered at Yale, Galenson encourages investing in artists considered by their classmates and professors to be the most promising.

Though Galenson doesn’t know why Yale in particular is where the art-world action is centered, he theorizes that, like Chicago’s economics department, certain places get the “reputation of a place that trains important people.” Once such talent clusters have formed, already established artists identify whom among the younger set are the future stars, and thus are privy to information that will not reach collectors and dealers until years later. “The first people who will recognize an important artist are other artists,” he says. “In virtually all cases,” important or soon-to-be-important artists are not in isolation. “We can’t know who they are,” he says, “but they know each other.”

Another factor Galenson considers crucial is an artist’s creative life cycle, whether an individual is classified as conceptual and deductive or innovative and inductive. Placing artists in one of these categories—or on a spectrum between the two—helps predict when they’ll produce their best work.

The conceptual group includes artists who do their best pieces early, generally in their 20s, and who carefully think out their works—be they novels or paintings—before executing them. In this group Galenson places Pablo Picasso, who planned his sculptures and paintings meticulously, and James Joyce, who wrote his fiction with the aid of outlines.

In contrast, Galenson says, the innovative types “tend to improve with age” and are “never exactly sure where they’re going.” These artists produce no single masterpiece but instead create a spontaneous, unplanned string of ever-improving works. “Experimental people,” he says, “are interested in describing the world.”

Galenson’s art theories stem from an amateur’s interest and self-education, not formal training. But he believes he’s onto something the art world has missed. “Why should an economist,” he asks, “have to discover that there’s been this enormous change in artists’ careers in the last 50 years?”

The change—that major artists now come out of art schools and are no longer self-taught—is, he argues, something “art historians have hardly even noticed, let alone explained.” Galenson would like to see more conversations between economists and humanities specialists, he says, so they could begin integrating economics-style analysis into their own work.