How do you build a sus­tain­able art ca­reer?

Sunday Trust - - ART & IDEAS - Source:­

Here’s how artists of two gen­er­a­tions-Njideka Akun­y­ili Crosby and Ce­cily Brown-have de­vel­oped sus­tain­able ca­reers amid in­tense pres­sure.

How does an artist build a steady and long-last­ing ca­reer af­ter an early bout of in­tense auc­tion suc­cess? Two tal­ents of dif­fer­ent artis­tic gen­er­a­tions-35year-old Njideka Akun­y­ili Crosby and 49-year-old Ce­cily Brownof­fer com­ple­men­tary case stud­ies. Over the past few years, Crosby has as­cended to bona fide art-mar­ket star­dom at a rapid pace. Sim­i­larly, Brown found fame as a young painter-and is now prov­ing that it is pos­si­ble not only to sur­vive, but also to thrive in mid­ca­reer. Burst­ing Onto the Scene Rewind to Art Basel Mi­ami Beach in De­cem­ber 2014. The Lon­don-based gallery Vic­to­ria Miro de­buted large and strik­ing works by a young painter it had re­cently signed. There was in­stant de­mand: five in­sti­tu­tions vied for a 1960s-style in­te­rior that ul­ti­mately sold to Cape Town’s Zeitz Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Africa for nearly $50,000. “We’ve never had such an im­me­di­ate re­sponse to a new artist,” the gallery’s di­rec­tor, Glenn Scott-Wright, said at the time. Just 10 years ear­lier, the Nige­rian-born, Los An­ge­les-based artist had wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in medicine; she turned to art only af­ter she failed to get into her firstchoice med­i­cal school. A Fresh Per­spec­tive Crosby, who first gained the at­ten­tion of tastemak­ers dur­ing a res­i­dency at the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem in 2012, pro­duces sump­tu­ous, lay­ered, and of­ten large-scale work-al­most al­ways on pa­per, her pre­ferred medium-that is un­abashedly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. She fre­quently com­bines ref­er­ences to Nige­ria, where she was born, with ref­er­ences to Amer­ica, where she lives. Her aes­thetic is im­me­di­ately rec­og­niz­able, dis­tin­guished by her in­no­va­tive trans­fer-and-col­lage tech­nique and her con­fi­dent use of color. Dur­ing her de­but at Art Basel Mi­ami Beach, in 2014, her con­tentrich and in­tri­cate paint­ings felt (as they have con­tin­ued to feel since) like a re­fresh­ing ri­poste to the an­o­dyne, for­get­table ab­strac­tion known as Zom­bie For­mal­ism that was then in vogue. Break­out Mo­ment Crosby’s work came to broader pub­lic at­ten­tion in 2015, when the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art com­mis­sioned Be­fore Now Af­ter (Mama, Mummy and Mamma), a por­trait of women from three gen­er­a­tions in her fam­ily, for a bill­board vis­i­ble from New York’s High Line, one of the world’s busiest parks. (The fol­low­ing March, the mu­seum bought her 2016 dip­tych Por­tals at the Ar­mory Show for its col­lec­tion.) A Rapid Rise By 2016, de­mand for Crosby’s work was clearly out­strip­ping sup­ply. She pro­duces only a few works each year, and there was sim­ply not enough to go around. Col­lec­tors’ frus­tra­tion at their in­abil­ity to ac­quire Crosby’s work on the pri­mary mar­ket trans­lated into an auc­tion frenzy a few months later. Sotheby’s tested the wa­ter by plac­ing an un­ti­tled work on pa­per from 2011 in its Con­tem­po­rary Cu­rated sale that Septem­ber. The piece flew past its es­ti­mate of $18,000 to $25,000 to sell for $93,750. En­ter­ing Blue-Chip Ter­ri­tory In No­vem­ber 2016, con­fi­dent of de­mand, Sotheby’s placed Drown (2012), a ten­der ren­der­ing of Crosby and her hus­band re­clin­ing in em­brace, as the first lot in its evening sale. Es­ti­mated at between $200,000 and $300,000, the work was chased by six bid­ders to a record $1.1 mil­lion. Since that sale, Crosby’s auc­tion record has been bro­ken sev­eral times. Drown is now only the sixth-most ex­pen­sive work sold by the artist, who earned a MacArthur “Ge­nius Grant” in 2017. Her cur­rent record is $3.4 mil­lion, set by Bush Ba­bies (2017) this May at Sotheby’s. In­ter­est­ingly, that lush col­lage of fo­liage is both smaller and less fig­u­ra­tive than one might ex­pect from Crosby, sug­gest­ing just how deep the de­sire to own her work re­ally is.

Ce­cily Brown: De­fy­ing the Mid­ca­reer Slump

For young artists like Crosby, the next chal­lenge is to build a mar­ket that is not only strong but sus­tain­able over the next 50 years. Th­ese artists could do worse than ob­serve the tra­jec­tory of Ce­cily Brown, a text­book ex­am­ple of an artist who hit the head­lines early on but has man­aged to build a last­ing ca­reer. Now, with fresh work and a rein­vig­o­rated col­lec­tor base, Brown is op­er­at­ing at the height of her pow­ers. Tak­ing the Plunge Brown left Lon­don at the peak of the Young British Artist (YBA) boom, in 1994, af­ter win­ning a plane ticket to New York as a se­cond-place prize in a UK art con­test. A non­ironic painter, she felt im­me­di­ately at home in Amer­ica, where art was taken more se­ri­ously and the en­vi­ron­ment was more earnest. An Orig­i­nal Art Star Brown was a sen­sa­tion in the New York of the early 2000s, ap­pear­ing on prom­i­nent tele­vi­sion shows and sign­ing with mega gallery Gagosian. Sums re­al­ized by her paint­ings-ro­man­tic, large, and sexy works that vi­brate between ab­strac­tion and fig­u­ra­tionclimbed into the six fig­ures. “I can be proud that I am one of the few women com­mand­ing high prices,” she told the Fi­nan­cial Times. Tak­ing Risks In­tent on find­ing new con­texts for her work, Brown left Gagosian, cor­dially by all ac­counts, in 2015. She has since shown with a va­ri­ety of smaller gal­leries: Michele Mac­carone in New York, Thomas Dane Gallery in Lon­don, and Paula Cooper in New York. The lat­ter, in par­tic­u­lar, has worked to re­in­force her rep­u­ta­tion, show­ing the breadth of her tal­ent and as­pi­ra­tions. A Mid­ca­reer Boost The mar­ket has no­ticed: de­mand for Brown’s paint­ings has shot up in the past year. Five of her top 10 auc­tion re­sults were achieved in 2018, in­clud­ing the record $6.8 mil­lion sale of Sud­denly Last Sum­mer (1999) at Sotheby’s in New York, where six bid­ders pushed the work well over its high es­ti­mate of $2.5 mil­lion. The fol­low­ing month, at Sotheby’s in Lon­don, The Skin of Our Teeth (1999) be­came her se­cond-most ex­pen­sive work sold pub­licly: it fetched £3 mil­lion ($3.98 mil­lion), more than dou­ble its £950,000 ($1.2 mil­lion) high es­ti­mate. Ma­tur­ing Mar­ket With a to­tal of $19.7 mil­lion in sales, Brown came in 10th on our list of top-sell­ing con­tem­po­rary artists at auc­tion for the first half of 2018. But per­haps more im­por­tantly, the range of strong re­sults across price points and dates sug­gests a real depth of in­ter­est. Lots in the New York day sales this May brought above pre­sale ex­pec­ta­tions, in­clud­ing Girl Trou­ble (1999), which fetched $1.8 mil­lion (est. $700,000 to $1 mil­lion) at Chris­tie’s, and Madrepora (Al­lu­vial) (2017), which earned $131,250 (est. $60,000 to $80,000) at Sotheby’s. Brown once con­fided that it took un­til her mid-30s to feel like she had mas­tered her medium and was able to ma­nip­u­late paint in the way that she wanted. Now firmly mid­ca­reer, she is more con­fi­dent-and the plea­sure she feels in paint­ing is show­ing.


Njideka Akun­y­ili Crosby, in­stal­la­tion view of Be­fore Now Af­ter (Mama, Mummy, and Mamma) (2015). Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art. Cour­tesy of the artist and Vic­to­ria Miro, Lon­don. Ron Am­stutz

Njideka’s earn­ings

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