“Art History Is Exhibition History”. A Conversation with Jonas Almgren from Artfacts

Albert Oehlen, Ohne Titel, Oil on canvas, 33 3/4 x 58 2/3 in, 1992.

Artfacts provide collectors, artists, gallerists and educators with insights, trends and analysis of the ever changing art world landscape. Since 2001 Artfacts have been collecting data on the Primary Art Market worldwide. Their Artist Rankings have grown to become the industry approved rating, used by curators, galleries and collectors to assess an artist's positioning in the art world. Lena Winter, Director of MISA, speaks with Jonas Almgren from Artfacts about critical voices, trust in the digital age and the power of gatekeepers.

Lena Winter: I am a classically trained art historian. When it comes to the quality of an artist and their work, I consider the standing of the artist in their time and if they were part of the avant-garde. Artfacts ranks artists based on their exhibition history. How did that idea come about? And what was your motivation to rank artists in the first place? 

Jonas Almgren: The philosophy of Artfacts is simple: art history is exhibition history. We have long acted as the trusted record-keeper for the art world (going back to 1863), and the current profile of our company stretches back to 1998 when Artfacts collaborated on a project with the German Art Dealers Association (BVDG) and the Federation of European Art Galleries Association (FEAGA). Officially privatised in 2001, our co-founders (Marek and Stine) felt that there was a lack of information and clarity in the art world, and in 2004 they introduced the Artist Ranking algorithm. Although art insiders might know why certain artists were more prominent than others, it had never been made explicit with the aim to create transparency.

LW: Are numbers needed to gain trust in the digital age? People are used to seeing follower numbers and likes on social media, and these are frequently used as an indicator of the influence of an artist. 

JA: Absolutely, it’s a basic expectation of all consumers nowadays. Digital technologies have considerably increased the quantity and speed of data that is now made available to consumers by the brands they engage with (and vice versa), with ever-higher expectations for visibility to ensure trust. While some are taking steps to increase privacy in this respect – such as the ability to hide Likes on Instagram ­­– now that the floodgates have been opened there will always be a minimum demand. Accordingly, access to third-party or independent information to corroborate this data has also grown exponentially. Even in a very emotive field such as art, the human mind has a tendency to crave some level of rational explanation.

LW: Your numbers are not related to the art market but to the collective power of curators. Does this collective expertise lead to more trust in your ranking? 

JA: Following on from the above, yes. We often say that humankind demands some sort of measurement and objectivity in whatever they do, and that it’s far better to measure curatorial fame than purely market value as a long-term indicator of artists’ careers and importance.

Art Facts Ranking

LW: Does the ranking of an artist say anything about their price history? 

JA: On Artfacts explicitly, no. However, we have shown that there is a correlation between our measurement of cultural significance and price development, as one might expect. Therefore, cultural significance is one of the crucial inputs in the price prediction model of our AI-powered Art Advisor, Limna.

LW: How does the art world react to your concepts and ideas? Are they skeptical? I must admit that I was skeptical at first, too, because a ranking does not necessarily say anything about the quality of artworks and the standing and importance of an artist.

JA: There will always be skeptics! However, once gallerists and artists have understood how we can help rather than hinder them, many become our biggest advocates. For example, by verifying the artist's standing in the art world, galleries can assess whether the artist in question is already represented and if so, by whom. And they can find out what their activity to date has been regarding exhibitions. This makes the process of finding new talent more efficient. Moreover, it helps deciding whether the gallery can play an active role in championing and shaping their future careers, rather than relying on personal chemistry alone. It is also particularly useful in building a stronger story to explain the artist's trajectory to potential collectors, allowing them to make better purchasing decisions and find artists similar to those they may already collect.

In a similar vein, Artfacts is also beneficial for artists when they are being approached by galleries. The artists are able to gain unbiased intelligence on the galleries’ existing artists and how much success the galleries have helped them achieve since active representation.

Importantly, at Artfacts we don’t look at individual works of art. Rather, we concentrate on the standing of the artist, which is clearly expressed through the ranking. This is mirrored with Limna, as our independent price confirmation helps galleries to create confidence in potential buyers and explain prices that might otherwise be seen as arbitrary.

LW: Who are the loudest critical voices? And from whom do you get the most positive feedback?

JA: Predictably, both ends of the emotional spectrum lie with artists. Many are extremely excited to see themselves on our platform, recognizing their own ranking and how it might have evolved over time The cataloguing of their careers is often cited as a positive contribution on both a personal and an industry level. This is a double-edged sword, however, as some inevitably disagree with their rank or are upset that we don’t have their full exhibition history in our database. In these case, we simply say that we always welcome new verified submissions.

The new generation of artists and galleries have grown up with the way millennials do their shopping and recognize the importance of these changes. Acceptance is slower in the more traditional segments of the market.

LW: How many artists do you have in your data base, and how do you keep that list up to date? 

JA: We track more than 725,000 professional artists, whereas most other platforms show at most around 100,000 artists and thereby create a ceiling of exposure. We continue to supplement our data base in a number of ways, with automatically gathered data that are manually enhanced by our research team. In short, our data is crowd-sourced from some our 1 million visitors annually, but it is important to note that all information is reviewed by our researchers before anything is added to the database.

Rosemarie Trockel, Artist, Artfacts Ranking

LW: Does it make a difference in terms of ranking if an artist has a solo show at Kunstverein Braunschweig or is part of a group show at MoMA? 

JA: Yes, for every exhibition a score is calculated based on a number of factors, including the importance of the venue and whether it was solo exhibition or a group show (and if the latter, we also consider the artists that were exhibited alongside). These and similar factors are incorporated into the calculation of the ranking.

LW: When we think about sports like tennis, a player can influence their ranking by winning certain important matches. When it comes to the art world, artists can’t influence if they get invited to a solo show at an important museum because they are dependent on gatekeepers. Do you have any feedback from artists how they feel about this? 

JA: Inevitably, there are still gatekeepers in the art world. By making the art world more transparent and clear, however, artists (or their representing galleries) are put in a position where they can rationally manage their careers and understand what is needed to make progress. We frequently deal with artists who are very appreciative of the fact that they are able, often for the very first time, to gain a clear idea of how to approach their profession with a more business-minded attitude, which is something that is largely brushed over in art school.

LW: There was a time when art critics and curators could make or break the career of an artist. Do you think that gatekeepers will lose some of their power thanks to rankings such as yours?

JA: In recent history, it all started with curators who were more academic in their approach, and this power then moved on to galleries / auction houses / collectors who increaslingly created the success of artists. We believe that with products like Artfacts and Limna, which create transparency in two different ways, we can generate a more balanced view of the industry.

LW: What comes next for Artfacts, after the launch of your app Limna?

JA: We see this as an opportunity to work closely with the entire community of galleries, artists, and curators with the goal of bringing in new collectors that can appreciate the value of a transparent art world. In this way, we look forward to partnering and collaborating more closely with existing insiders to create a more expanding and open industry that will also be welcoming to newcomers.

Jonas Almgren

BIO

Jonas Almgren has a long track record of building and launching startups in Silicon Valley, New York, London, and Berlin. For the last 15 years, he has focused on the intersection of art and technology, including the VIP Art Fair in New York and Artfinder in London. He's currently working on scaling Artfacts and launching the Limna brand, combining big data with artificial intelligence to validate primary art market prices independently for the very first time.

CREDIT

Albert Oehlen, Ohne Titel, 1992, oil on canvas, 33 3/4 x 58 2/3 in 

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