Interview with with Marek Claassen, the director of artfacts.net
The following interview was made with Marek Claassen, the director of artfacts.net and served as a starting point for an online research and a series of interventions with the purpose of giving higher visibility to the participants of Periferic 8. The results of this intervention can be viewed at .
Zsuzsa Laszlo: How do you define the role of artfacts.net within the art world?
Marek Claassen: We introduced a quantitative method to measure how much an artist is embedded in the international art world. We start with long term relationships between artists and galleries or collections that represent them. These are very strong commitments that last very long. We count the number of countries and the number of collections and galleries. And then we look at solo and group shows. The more international artists a gallery or a museum has, the more its exhibitions value. Let’s say that we have an institution like Tate Modern where thousands of artists are collected. If you have a solo show there you get all the points from these artists and your rank will go up extremely. Biennials, group shows work like collections, their value is based on the artists whose works they show. So if there’s an Andy Warhol its value goes up a lot.
ZSL: Is this the secret of success? Do curators have to place works by Andy Warhol and other very famous artists next to the ones they would like to promote? Can these strategic exhibitions create real recognition revealing the true mechanism of the art world or do they just momentarily deceive the system?
MC: You can play the same tricks with google: by mixing famous and unknown names you can attract attention. We are in a time where there is so much information everywhere that you have to orientate yourself somehow. So even if it’s a minor work, if Andy Warhol is related somehow to the subject of the exhibition it means that many people can relate to it too.
ZSL: Can you also monitor the significance of artist run spaces, residency programs or street art?
MC: We have to make hard compromises. If we had more employees, we could go deeper, and have millions of items creating a clearer picture of the peripheries of the art world. Another factor is that we only register places that are completely dedicated to art. So we don’t include exhibitions in bank branches or restaurants in our system. Banksy for instance is right now ranked only 9913 although he is very famous and I like him a lot. But he only has 15 exhibitions, which shows that he is not so much appreciated among established curators.We introduced major changes in last autumn because we received many calls and emails from smaller galleries and artists exhibiting in biennials. Now we give bigger weight to curated shows without a collection. We will fine-tune the system now and then. It is related to the number of data we have. When we started we only had 20 000 exhibitions whereas now 130 000 are in our system. We get more and more embedded in the art world so we can get better feedback and we can reflect on it. In the end, it is only a mathematical description of the art world.
ZSL: However globalized the art world is, I think it is still a utopia – though a very ambitious and heroic one – to represent the whole world, everything what is happening in contemporary art.
MC: Our ranking is something that is good to know about, but it is not to be followed blindly. Another aspect is that anyone can have an influence on the system and can change the picture. A new feature of ours is that you can submit data. The computer is not a snob, does not know what’s Tate Modern and does not have prejudice for a gallery in Africa, so the machine handles everything the same way. That is why artfacts.net is an argument. 20 000 people are using artfacts.net over 200 times a week, many professionals look at it, many art fairs use our data.
ZSL: So artfacts.net could help professionals to see how a certain exhibition or biennial can affect artists’ carriers. What could be even more interesting is to see how and according to what factors the “value” of galleries and biennials is changing. How are the centers and peripheries of the art world evolving and disappearing?
MC: Biennials function in our system like collections, they receive their value from the participating artists. Venice Biennial values so much because the artists chosen by the countries are usually already well-known. Rank is only based on the number of points. Probably it is more interesting to look at the rising factor: how much someone’s rank changes.Biennials often present emerging artists. In the case of the 2005 Beijing Biennial there was no selecting committee, in the communist fashion organizers wrote to the artist associations in each country to send one artist. They sent artists who were best represented in these associations but not best from a curatorial point of view. Many such artists appear only once in artfacts.net because they are teachers or interior designers but after one such show they don’t do anything again on this level.
ZSL: I think it’s not only about the level of their activity. It is a new phenomenon that curators tend to involve in their shows: not only artists, but curators or professionals from other fields. These participants, of course, won’t be collected or represented by galleries. Artists also often do curatorial work which affects greatly their carriers but that would be difficult to include in such a system. Manifesta 7 is a very good example for all these situations where curators and participants seem interchangeable in several cases.
MC: There’s a similar discrepancy between the auction prices and our ranking. An Asian art magazine asked us to do a ranking for Asian artists. Artprice.com was invited as well, but they only had Chinese painters in their system, while our ranking started with Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, mainly installation and fluxus artists. 80% of the private collectors want oil paintings but many of these artists vanish because they are not accepted in the curatorial environment. There’s a big hype for Chinese paintings, people spend millions on it, but it is just design. Artfacts.net reflects the curator’s point of view. However, if we go deeper down in the art world to smaller galleries and less established artists who may still be very important regionally, it gets blurred.
ZSL: Yes, it is surly blurred in Eastern Europe. Is it because this region is not communicating well enough or because regional significance is very different from the international one?
MC: First we focused on our member galleries (who pay for their membership) because we have to have money from somewhere to be able to pay our employees, but then lots of people complained saying that you can’t do a valid ranking when you prefer the people paying you. So we stopped this, we only enter the data of our clients first, but then we process the others as well. However, we have to be careful because we are not only a program magazine, we build our ranking on these data. A show in our system can be seen like a hammer price in an auction. Nowadays maybe 5-10% of our data is mistaken, but we try to do our best, one day we find them (the mistakes). It is another question that in certain countries there is no functioning art world. Like in India, many artists can sell their works to collections, but don’t have shows.
ZSL: These artists usually only get famous abroad. It is true for Eastern Europe as well.
MC: In the art world you have to be a gypsy. There have always been centers in the art world: Rome, Paris, New York, maybe Berlin as well. So you have to go to such places. My opinion is that you are only professional, also as a curator or anyone in the art world, when you live from it, when you don’t have any other income.
ZSL: It is also so because “western” curators are always searching for new names, emerging artists unknown but still meaningful, for economic and commercial reasons, and also being aware of post-colonialist criticism. However, if you take an important international art magazine, almost all of the exhibition reviews are from Western Europe and North America so these non-Western artists only remain export specialties and cannot make an international reputation staying in their own cultural context. Proliferating biennials in Near- and Far-East probably will counter efficiently this bias while Eastern-Europe, Hungary for sure, is yet to find forceful strategies to be on the map of the international art world.
MC: It’s like in the sports world where clubs buy and sell players to be able go one league up. In the primary art market price can only go up. If an artist is not selling galleries do not lower the price, they drop the artist. There is only one way and this is up, if you don’t go up you are out. You can drive taxis, change profession, you are out of the system. I tell you this is why the art world is a big attraction to ruling nations with a huge middle class. 95% artworks sold are for 5000 dollars. The great majority is not buying Van Goghs or Richard Prince photographs of cowboys for a million dollars. The average lawyer and doctor buy art in their local galleries. And if a country doesn’t have middle class it has a zero chance to build up its artists. The basis, a big number of galleries is missing. It’s no good either when artists are subsidized by the government. You can see what happened in Holland: artists stop working, they have fix salaries and they don’t have to really care any more.
ZSL: Isn’t the situation different in the case of artists who don’t produce objects that can be easily included in the art market?
MC: Just look at Christo, his land art is unsaleable but he is still represented by 63 commercial galleries and 62 public collections. You have to make an artifact for your collector. A collector is like a lover, admirer. You have to give them something let it be a limited number of golden dvds, and they will appreciate it. They will lift you up, talk about you and invite all their friends to show them your work. You have to have artifacts, even in extreme cases like Banksy, they sell the walls of these houses. But if there is a dictator who thinks that certain art should be promoted it won’t work, whatever money is invested. In such countries the art world will die out.
ZSL: In Hungary and Romania curators are struggling a lot to get state money for projects that are not immediately compatible with the art market. At the same time in Western Europe and the US there are many state institutions and private funds that finance non-market art projects. In Venice Biennial or Manifesta huge amounts of state money are spent and the difference between various countries’ capacities is quite obvious. Collectors only come later, when artists get established.
MC: Still, you have to make sure you find collectors and you always have to go where your art is appreciated by private collectors. To do a state funded show is a kind of pedagogic approach. If your art is so good that it should leave a footstep in the history then you have to do networking to as many people as you can, to have many people who can carry your idea, otherwise it will become forgotten. There might be exceptions but statistically this is a way, and we have to face that your show will certainly have a bigger influence in New York than in Senegal. This is how the art world is functioning. If you do good, you should speak about it.