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The Art of Reputation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 August, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2018, 12:03pm

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The Art of Representation: How Audience-Specific Reputations Affect Success in the Contemporary Art Field
ERTUNG, Gokhan | VOGEV, Tamar | LEE, Yonghoon G | HEDSTRÖM, Peter
Academy of Management Journal, 59: 113-134

Reputations are important in many contexts, and especially in the contemporary art market, which is characterized by high uncertainty. Artworks are complex and difficult to compare, and there are no precise methods for making aesthetic and financial judgments. Reputation thus plays a key role by providing audiences with information that reduces this uncertainty.

Research on reputation has operated under the assumption that actors/artists/performers have a single overall reputation and, furthermore, that they interact with an audience whose members are similar in concern. However, recent research has shown that the same set of artists can face multiple audiences, and that these audiences vary in their sources of concern and uncertainty. This allows for the possibility that even when artists have built a positive reputation, the return from such a reputation may not be uniform and may depend on the type of audience with which they interact.

Gokhan Ertug, Tamar Yogev, Yonghoon G. Lee and Peter Hedström demonstrate that considering audience specificity leads to an improved understanding of reputation effects – and this has relevance for the business world, too. Using data on emerging artists in the field of contemporary art from 2001 to 2010, they investigated the manner in which artists’ audience-specific reputations affect their subsequent success with two distinct audiences: museums and galleries.

Both play significant roles in artists’ careers; however, there are important differences regarding how each evaluates artists and their artworks. Museums serve mainly as public art collectors and are funded by various types of stakeholders; they act as gatekeepers with respect to artistic quality, but do not necessarily assess the artist’s work from the perspective of profit. In contrast, galleries are private institutions, and their owners represent and sell artists’ work, often to a small pool of individual connoisseurs, while seeking to maximize sales commissions from investment in artists. Galleries are thus more interested in artists whose work has commercial viability. Both audiences face considerable uncertainty regarding the selection of artists to exhibit.

Overall, the results demonstrated that reputation effects are, indeed, audience-specific. The researchers argue that a reputation that represents a specific set of attributes is more valuable to one audience than to another. In particular, a reputation that indicates that an artist’s work is of high artistic quality will help that artist procure exhibitions at museums more than it will help them secure exhibitions at galleries. By contrast, a reputation that indicates the commercial viability of an artist’s work will help the artist secure exhibitions at galleries more than it will help them obtain exhibitions at museums. The researchers’ claim was not that museums entirely disregard commercial viability; instead, they posited that artistic quality is the primary concern and source of uncertainty for museums in responding to stakeholders and in affecting their standing in the field and, as a consequence, that artistic quality is more important to museums than to galleries.

Because museums and galleries have different concerns and interests, the value of each type of reputation for bringing success to an artist will differ with each audience. The concerns and sources of uncertainty for museums indicate that a reputation for artistic quality is more likely to bring an artist success with museums than with galleries. In contrast, an artist with a reputation for commercial viability is more likely to achieve success with galleries than with museums.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in their study is that these audience-specific reputations have a negative spillover. When artists who gain a reputation for artistic quality—which is attuned with museums’ interest—yet became a vibrant player among galleries do not ripe the advantage of reputations; in an extreme case these artists might be even penalized when they are looking for an exhibition chance in renowned museums. The inconsistency dilutes the reputation benefits that reputable artists might had, as audiences get confused.

The study provides practical implications in the business world, for those whose careers involve interacting with clients with diverse concerns and interests. Even after achieving a positive reputation with one particular group of clients, this may not be relevant for a different group of clients. Hence, such people would need to manage their careers to focus on one audience over others.