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Want To Be A Successful Artist? You'll Need The Right Social Connections, Study Says

Artists work on a mural in Boston's Kenmore Square last summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Artists work on a mural in Boston's Kenmore Square last summer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At CASTLEDRONE, an experimental art space in Hyde Park, installation and performance artist Bashezo (who uses they/them pronouns) takes confident, jerky steps in a black, lycra suit. Their gestures — reflective poses on the floor and deliberate, vulnerable moments of audience interaction — elude my impulse to liken the performance to any single metaphor.

Soft, black materials cover every visible surface — thick foam on the floor, industrial fabric on the walls, and cavernous mesh chambers into which Bashezo disappears and reappears throughout the performance. “Space With Those Without Names” visualizes how the intermingling of “death, blackness and transfiguration” shape the artist.

Artist Bashezo performing in 2016 (Courtesy of the artist)
Artist Bashezo performing in 2016 (Courtesy of the artist)

Bashezo transports viewers far from white-walled galleries to a world of their own making, dedicated to queer, trans, black, indigenous and people of color (QTBIPOC).

Before the performance, I ask Bashezo if they wanted to make it big someday, and they burst into laughter. “Well, I don’t have aspirations to be an art star, for one,” cackles Bashezo.

The art world, they tell me, is as unfair as a bank that loans money to those who already have capital. Artists with a history of accolades are often the ones awarded with prestigious gallery representation and competitive grants while others struggle for a foothold.

“I’ve heard from mid-career artists that you are supposed to climb a ladder, turning down certain places because they are seen as illegitimate,” explains Bashezo, who earned an MFA in 2017 from MassArt.

Artists who seek success in galleries understand that climbing the ladder is easier with a powerful network. But what they may not realize is that there is new proof that suggests a social network is the only thing that makes a difference.

Albert-László Barabási, the senior author of a new study published in Science this month and a distinguished professor at Northeastern University, says his team is confident that talent is not a major factor in determining success. If talent were a driving force, he says, “each country would then contribute [artists] in proportion, and that’s clearly not the case.”

Reconstructing the exhibition histories of half a million artists, Barabási’s researchers determined that an artist’s career depends on their access to a network of curators, collectors and experts who hold the keys to powerful institutions. No matter where they are in the market, artists experience the Markov Principle, a statistical model that says that what is happening now — good or bad — is likely to keep happening in the future.

Take, for example, artists experiencing early success in prominent galleries. Described as artists with “high initial reputation,” this group is overwhelmingly more likely to show again at prestigious institutions in the future than exhibit in lower-level galleries. Works by high initial reputation artists are also far more valued in the market, trading nearly five times more often in auction houses for prices more than five times higher than those of other artists.

Within their first five exhibitions, artists who want to achieve stardom must access the art world’s most elite spaces. If they do not, researchers found that artists on the periphery of the market have a 17 times higher chance of continuing to exhibit at mid- to lower-level galleries than at a high-prestige location.

Barabási says his study found that artists who were successful were networkers who could convince gatekeepers to the most prestigious spaces that their work had value. He counsels emerging artists to understand how the networks operate. Then, he advises, “You must choose your way to participate.”

For Boston artists, stardom can seem elusive given the harsh financial realities of working in the city. The soaring cost of living and what appears to be a decline in established arts studios remain barriers for emerging artists. While the city has established several programs providing financial support for artists, clear pathways for gainful employment in the arts remain elusive. For QTBIPOC artists, structural barriers loom even larger.

Bashezo, who is also an assistant professor at MassArt, told me that their most important advice to young artists facing these barriers is to be imaginative in how they approach the art world. “With the few students of color that I have … I tell them to think about how we can imagine other ways that we can get our work out there … in addition to getting recognition from more traditional sources.”

One example of thinking beyond the the art world’s exclusivity is Unbound Bodies — the QTIBIPOC collective that Bashezo co-founded. The first event catalyzed new, inspiring connections among QTBIPOC artists in Boston.

“It was very intentionally a community-building event,” says Bashezo. “We held community dinners for artists who felt really isolated and had never met each other. What was really beautiful is that from there people were able to build their own connections that have produced their own creative collaborations and endeavors.”

For Bashezo, community building is not a mechanism for getting QTBIPOC artists into the art world’s upper echelons. They hope spaces like these will manifest possibilities for artists that will become “grooves and patterns of their own.”

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