Why do young Italian artists struggle to establish themselves abroad?

How does one build a successful artist's career? More importantly, why do young Italian artists struggle to establish themselves abroad?

How does one build a successful artist’s career? And most importantly, why do young Italian artists struggle to establish themselves abroad? It is not easy to give answers, partly because each artistic path is unique, but bringing a few examples may serve to highlight the dynamics that can contribute to an artist’s establishment internationally.

First of all, let us start with an assumption, namely, that the ways in which an artist is established have changed significantly over time following the trend of the art system. If for Arte Povera or Transavantgarde artists the figure of the critic/curator such as Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva was still decisive, for artists of the latest generations the link with a powerful gallery with a strong international presence is much more important. In the current year, one of the most sensational and at the same time emblematic facts of the frenzy congenital to the contemporary art market is represented by the formidable rise of the very young Anna Weyant (1995) and the corresponding exponential growth of her quotations. Joining in 2022, the stable from Gagosian Gallery, one of the most influential and prestigious galleries among those active in the contemporary art market, Anna Weyant is now known for her paintings populated by female figures (echoing the work of John Currin), and for being the partner of the famous art dealer. The young artist’s name, began to make its way into the art world, becoming a veritable market case when last May, her oil painting titled Falling Woman (2020) was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York for $1.3 million, from an initial estimate that placed it between $150,000 and $200,000. Weyant’s exploit, after all, does not constitute an isolated event in the market, which especially in the last decade has regularly witnessed sudden surges of emerging artists following collaboration with one of the global mega-galleries.

Another entity exerting increasing influence on the market is contemporary art museums, some of which, play a key role in establishing emerging artists, thus also determining their economic success. The phenomenon has grown over the past two decades with the proliferation of new foundations dedicated to contemporary art created by private collectors: former industrial plants converted into exhibition spaces and museum-monuments dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art. These museums offered their spaces to young artists, including through commissions or artist residencies, thus initiating them into early institutionalization. Some residencies then, such as those of the Rubell Museum in Miami, are immediately associated with artists whose careers can only grow. Examples are the cases of Sterling Ruby, Oscar Murillo, and more recently that of Amoako Boafo, who, after his residency at the Rubell Museum in 2019, saw his auction prices skyrocket. But the same fate has befallen subsequent artists-in-residence, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Kennedy Yanko, and Genesis Tramaine.

Flora Yukhnovich at Palazzo Monti, Brescia
Flora Yukhnovich at Palazzo Monti, Brescia

Enjoying the support of certain major collectors, entering their collections is not only a personal recognition but a critical success factor in an artist’s career. Let us also not forget that the choices of major collectors increasingly guide those of other collectors and in some cases the galleries themselves, who decide to represent an artist after discovering him or her through a residency. This is the case from the very young British artist Flora Yukhnovich (1990), who a few months after her residency in Brescia at Palazzo Monti in 2018 was recruited by Victoria Miro, who now represents her worldwide and whose auction results are breaking all records. Although the quality of the work and artistic research is and remains an indispensable factor in enhancing the value of an artist’s work, in the contemporary art market, especially ultra-contemporary art, an artist’s value is also created by simply passing through one of these venues. In fact, if the artist, in addition to being supported by an influential collector, and having a good gallery behind him, is included in the exhibitions that matter and also succeeds in establishing himself internationally, his price increases. Exhibitions, then, although promoted as an exclusively cultural affair, have a strong influence on the market going so far as to distort values in some cases. A solo show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, as well as an anthological exhibition at Palazzo Grassi or even more so, at MoMa in New York or the Tate Modern in London, can result in not inconsiderable price swings. In fact, every exhibition of a certain importance, organized in institutional spaces, behind which there is considerable investment supported by financiers, collectors or by the gallery owners themselves, has an indirect relationship with the market, if only because it allows attention to be focused for a certain amount of time, on the artist it promotes.

Therefore, the degree of development of a country’s cultural institutions is a significant indicator of its cultural power, and those countries that are not well equipped to compete in the international museum circuit risk seeing their artists devalued and marginalized. Currently, North America, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland are the main countries controlling the contemporary art market. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that young artists under 40, such as Jadé Fadojutimi, Ewa Juszkiewicz, Christina Quarles, Avery Singer, Emily Mae Smith, Josh Sperling, and Loie Hollowell, who are promoted and supported by large and powerful galleries such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Perrotin, and Pace Gallery and valued internationally by major cultural institutions, are also the most highly rated young artists. In fact, it is believed that works exchanged in the United States have a higher quotation, since in these markets, the intense marketing practiced by operators is able to raise the economic value of the artists and works that are fortunate enough to be located there. Those who are part of more decentralized cultural contexts, like Italy for example, objectively do not have the opportunity to reach the highest levels of notoriety.

This contribution was originally published in No. 16 of our print magazine Windows on Art on paper. Click here to subscribe.

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