Course offers students a glimpse ‘behind the curtains’ of the art business
Jeff Koons, the world’s top-selling living artist, produces his work through a factory-like system in which a team of artists and craftspeople, working in a New York studio, follow his precise specifications to bring his artistic visions to life.
During a recent conversation with students in “Entrepreneurship in the Art Market,” a Yale School of Management (SOM) course popular with business and art students alike, an M.F.A. student asked Koons how he distinguishes making art from the churning out of products, given his assembly-line business model.
Koons, whose stainless-steel, 3-foot-tall sculpture, “Rabbit,” sold at auction in 2019 for more than $91 million, a record for a living artist, said he believes art is a vehicle connecting him to all human disciplines.
“When I make my work, I’m always all in,” Koons, who joined the session via Zoom, told the class. “I just give it everything. If society finds any value in it, I’ve always believed that they would take care of me; that I could just continue to do what I’m doing.”
The course, which is taught by art-market economist and author Magnus Resch, offers students an inside look at the business of art, including how it is produced, sold, and collected. And it has attracted an unusual mix of students from across the Yale campus, including M.F.A. students from the School of Art, for whom the course offered insights into how they can promote their own work.
For the course’s final session, on Oct. 9, Resch had assembled an all-star lineup of guest speakers. In addition to Koons, there was Kenny Schachter, a prominent critic, curator, and artist, and Stefan Simchowitz, a Los Angeles-based art dealer known for his unconventional approach to discovering artists and marketing their work.
“I would say we have the most controversial people in the art world coming today, and all within three hours,” Resch told the class. “It’s going to be wild.”
And it was.
Like Koons, Schachter and Simchowitz engaged with the students’ questions, which were at times pointed, but always well-informed.
“My aim is to bring in a diversity of speakers who sometimes have contradictory views on the market,” Resch said. “Sometimes their views are opposite to what I’ve taught the students, but that’s the whole point.
“I provide the students a framework based on my studies and experience and then invite other experts who represent a range of views and experiences. I enjoy seeing the students challenging them using the ideas we’ve discussed in class.”
‘A unique educational experience’
This is the fourth time Resch has taught the course at SOM. As the syllabus makes clear, the art market is a tough business: 30% of galleries run at a loss and 90% of artists do not make a living from their practices.
This course, Resch said, aims to offer students insights into the market’s complexities.
“I want students to leave with a very clear understanding of the structure of the art market, which will help them to navigate it,” he said. “That helps artists when they leave art school to know how to find a gallery and market their work. For the MBAs, if they ever want to be collectors or become involved in the art market, they’ll know about its inner functions.”
In addition to regular class sessions, students visited two art fairs in New York City (the Spring/Break Art Show and the Armory Show) for a firsthand look at how the art market works, including conversations with exhibitors.
“Magnus drilled into us the confidence to approach the gallerist and ask questions,” Archana Gulgulia, a second-year M.B.A. student at the School of Management, said. “That changed the entire experience. We learned about very interesting dimensions that artists use as inspirations and galleries use as booth themes that otherwise has been lost on me while I wondrously roamed these fairs. This in effect has broken the ice for me with the once mysterious art world.”
Later, Nicole Berry, director of the Armory Show (which features more than 225 galleries and works by more than 800 contemporary artists), visited the class for a conversation about the fair’s revenue model, its size, and other aspects of its business.
The class also hosted two mixers, allowing the M.B.A. and M.F.A. students to mingle.
Nic[o] Brierre Aziz, a first-year student at the Yale School of Art, was drawn to the course by a desire to better understand the world “behind the curtain” of an artist’s practice.
“I believe as artists we’re often put in position as the performers on the stage and there is so much behind the curtain that we’re not exposed to,” said Brierre Aziz, who is a Haitian-New Orleanian interdisciplinary artist and curator. “I think it’s thus so important to know what’s happening behind the curtain to assist with the overall sustainability of our careers.”
He enjoyed the opportunity to interact with students from SOM and other professional schools.
“This class and getting to interact with M.B.A. students are a prime example of the power and necessity of having students across schools and disciplines engaging with each other,” said Brierre Aziz, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in business. “During the mixers, I was able to have numerous conversations with M.B.A. and even law and drama students in the class who have this deep interest in art and some who have even worked with artists or art organizations in some way prior to coming to Yale.
“Ultimately, I think these simple interactions can create so many new possibilities during our time at Yale and beyond.”
Other guest speakers during the semester included Sandy Heller, a prominent art consultant; Isa Lorenzo, a Manilla-based gallerist who promotes Filipino and Southeast Asian art; Erin Jenoa Gilbert, a leading art advisor for artists of African descent; and Jason Price, a founder of NXTHVN, a nonprofit arts incubator in New Haven that supports artists, curators, and educational programming.
“This course stands out for its distinctive blend of business and art students, creating a unique educational experience,” said Jenoa Gilbert. “As a speaker I am always excited to present empirical data as well actual experiences. Magnus excels at facilitating connections between students and guest speakers, informing and inspiring meaningful networking opportunities.
“After my talk, I was approached by several students seeking guidance for their careers, and I'm committed to providing support.”
Samanta Cubias, who is pursuing joint degrees at SOM and the David Geffen School of Drama, where she studies theater management, valued the opportunity to learn about the art market from veteran practitioners.
“As a student, I learn best from case studies and by hearing from individuals who are out in the field doing the work we’re talking about in class,” Cubias said. “This course could have easily been just a series of power point presentations on the state of the art market. Instead, we got to learn about the art market from the key players who influence it.”
During the final class session, the three guest speakers were asked to share advice on navigating the art market. Schachter, who is a columnist for Artnet, advised the aspiring artists to be persistent.
“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said. “… When it comes to your career, ‘no’ does not mean ‘no,’ it means find another way.”
Simchowitz, who uses Instagram and other social media to discover artists and market their work, advised anyone seeking to start an art collection to focus on art being produced where they live.
“I would urge you to look at artists who are in your communities, to provide capital for them, to take risks,” he said. “… Art is something that has a function … it changes your life. It changes your day-to-day experience. It changes how you think. I would go and make money in whatever industry you’re going to make money in … but always make art a part of your life.”
Koons, who worked as a commodities broker on Wall Street while launching his career as an artist, urged young artists to stay loyal to themselves and assume responsibility for making their work and sharing it with the world.
Earlier in the session, he related an encounter he’d had as 19-year-old with Salvador Dalí. The famed surrealist artist set aside time amid a busy schedule to meet with a kid he didn’t know. Koons suggested that the meeting taught him the importance of being generous.
“It always comes down to generosity,” he said.
Brierre Aziz, who had asked Koons about his factory-style method, was struck by how Koons emphasized this point.
“To be honest, I was expecting a bit of a hyper-capitalist-artist energy,” Brierre Aziz said. “But he came across as a very mindful and genuine artist who just happens to be living and still somehow have works sell for tens of millions of dollars.”