What Baseball Taught Me About the Art Market
By Hugo Liu, Chief Scientist at Artsy
The art world is full of dichotomies. On one hand, art is a wonder of humanity, giving us public masterpieces such as Starry Night and Mona Lisa. Museum attendance is at record levels, and “bucket list” art is a healthy measure of society’s engagement. On the other hand, despite having a $45–65 billion size, the art market (and thus the pool of people participating in the market) is arguably quite small and shallow. The art world is often criticized as elitist and exclusionary, and the art market remains relatively opaque and challenging to navigate. As a data scientist who has worked on questions of taste and trend prediction, I’ve explored why that dynamic exists and what the art world can learn from other industries where data insights power informed decision making.
A revealing statistic about who isn’t participating in the market is that of the world’s 16.5 million high-net-worth individuals (those with at least $1 million in cash), perhaps fewer than 0.1 percent can be counted as serious collectors of contemporary art (spending $50 thousand a year). This isn’t because art isn’t well-known or well-loved. According to the American Association of Museums, there are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the number of visits to all major league sporting events and theme parks combined. It’s not explicitly about affordability either, at least in relative terms, to other luxury, rare, or unique goods. The majority of “high value” artworks in the art market are comparable to the cost of cars, boats, luxury handbags, and watches, and in many cases may hold their value better too. The hesitation to buy and sell art may have more to do with the lack of understanding, trust, and confidence in how art is valued, a dynamic that is exacerbated by the opacity of the art world.
In order to grow the art market, both in total value and number of engaged participants, we need to foster broader understanding, trust, openness, and confidence in art and artist valuation. To understand how market data can transform the art market, I often think about examples from an industry where data has made a huge impact — baseball.
Baseball Cards and Player Statistics
More than with any other pastime, data has always played a prominent role in baseball. Baseball card collecting helped to popularize the sport and to elevate its players to national heroes. They introduced an easy-to-understand vocabulary for evaluating and appreciating players, with famous statistics like HRs and RBIs. Baseball records are legendary (see Roger Maris’ 61 home runs) and often contentious (see Barry Bond’s 73 home runs). Baseball statistics are a form of data storytelling, and they’ve added another dimension of fan engagement to the pastime.
Moneyball and Team Management
As baseball statistics grew in sophistication with advances in sabermetrics, the sport has seen big investments from a new wave of data-driven managers and owners who are informed by a rational, analytical valuation of players and use data to operate and de-risk their business decisions. The influx of data-driven capital and investment into the sport has led to modern stadiums, broadcast accessibility, and technological improvements to the viewing experience, such as real-time strike zone pitch tracking.
Can we provide similar, easy-to-access data for the art market, and would that bring new buyers and sellers into play? It’s said that art buyers are often driven by emotion. Whether or not that’s true, we should also welcome the engagement of participants who would like data to lessen the risk of their emotional decisions. Some worry that more data in art will devolve art into something akin to an asset class, swarmed by bankers. However, I believe art buyers will continue to be guided by what they love and which art resonates with them deeply, and that data insights will only help to strengthen their engagement and confidence when buying or selling. After all, it’s rare to find a baseball statistics fan who isn’t also a keen fan of the game of baseball.
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