Economics Fairs Books United Kingdom

The rise and rise of the superstar artists

In an extract from her new book, Georgina Adam explains how a handful of artists have become multi-millionaires

Defining moment: Jay-Z and Marina Abramovic’s power huddle at Pace, New York. Photo: Mimi Ritzen Crawford

On 7 July 2013 in New York, a number of artists, dealers, critics, actors and curators received an emailed invitation to a super-secret event: a six-hour performance of rapper Jay-Z’s song “Picasso Baby”, in Pace Gallery’s Chelsea space, to be turned into a video by Mark Romanek.

Despite the secrecy, by the time the likes of artists George Condo, Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnston, Andres Serrano and Lawrence Weiner; film director Jim Jarmusch; art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso and prominent critic Jerry Saltz were being ushered into the gallery three days later, some fans had gathered in the street outside in clusters and the police were directing operations.

Inside, eight cameras were being set up and guests were being asked if they wanted to perform face-to-face with Jay-Z in the roped-off centre of the space. The reference was clear—Jay-Z was inspired for his video by performance artist Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, which saw her sitting in MoMA facing visitors for a total of 736 hours (14 March-31 May 2010).

Abramovic, who arrived like a star in a vast black SUV, was among those who interacted with Jay-Z that summer afternoon, circling him before finally leaning her forehead against his and staring into his eyes.

The artist-as-superstar is not new. In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was so famed that France’s Francis I carried him off as a prize trophy to Amboise, where the artist died three years later, supposedly in the king’s arms. In the 19th century, the paintings, lives and scandalous loves of Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites made them famous, and their prices exploded: a William Holman Hunt sold in 1874 for £11,000 (around £1.44m today), while in 1876 the French painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier sold the detailed Napoleonic battle scene 1807, Friedland (1861-75) to an American department store magnate for what was then considered the astronomical sum of $60,000 ($1.6m in 2013).

But for every success story, there were far more artistes maudits, a situation that endures today: the visible tip of success hides a vast chunk of failure. According to Don Thompson, the economist and author, some 45,000 artists in New York and London alone are struggling to make a living; around 75 in New York have superstar status, earning seven figure sums. But this figure can be read the other way as well: probably at no moment in history have there been so many, and so many very rich, artists.

Finding out exactly how much they are worth is tough, as the cut they are taking home from their galleries is not public, nor are details of how much the various deals they make with luxury-goods companies, for example, are worth. Or at least, only their business manager knows, because, yes, many artists do have business managers today.

At the top of the pyramid of wealth, although not necessarily of critical approbation, stands Damien Hirst, who The Sunday Times reported was worth £215m in 2013. His friend Jeff Koons holds the world record for a sale at auction, of any work by a living artist. The $58.4m did not go to Koons himself, since the work was being resold by the investor/collector and billionaire publisher Peter Brant. But Koons sells other high priced works, in editions, on the primary market through dealers Sonnabend, Gagosian and Zwirner, and at colossal prices. At Zwirner’s “Gazing Ball” exhibition in 2012, 17 works in editions of three with one artist’s proof were priced from around $300,000 to $3m, with an average price of around $1.6m. All sold.

Also high in the wealth stakes are Takashi Murakami, Brice Marden, Julian Schnabel, Jasper Johns, Anish Kapoor, Zhang Huan, Cai Guo-Qiang and Zeng Fanzhi. To them must be added a swathe of names who have also probably made millions from their art: John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Kaws, Barry McGee, Fernando Botero, Claes Oldenburg, Banksy, Nan Goldin, Gilbert & George, Tracey Emin, Georg Baselitz, Chuck Close, Andreas Gursky, David Hockney, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Antony Gormley and many others.

Then there are a couple of names who are totally unknown to most people, even in the art world. These are the richest artists you’ve never heard of: graffiti artist David Choe painted the Facebook headquarters in 2007 and was rewarded with stock, which now makes him worth about $200m. The Welshman Andrew Vicari has made an estimated $142m from supplying portraits and paintings of horses, battle and genre scenes to Middle Easterners, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

“Artists going back over the centuries would ingratiate themselves with the powerful figures of the day, such as the Church or bankers. There’s nothing new here,” says Gregor Muir, the director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts. “But it’s interesting to see how artists today are guided by our present culture of excessive wealth. In 2004 when Maurizio Cattelan’s La Nona Ora, 1999, sold for over $3m, it created a shock wave. Subsequently, some wanted to compete with this new price level for work by a living artist. A few would continue to forge ever closer ties with key international collectors and in some ways they started to embrace their lifestyles, with artists frequenting the best hotels and rubbing shoulders with the money as never before. It might even be argued that some started to produce work that was geared to the taste of the new collecting base. Moreover, these artists were becoming big business in themselves and it felt as though people with branding expertise were a part of the picture, alongside finance experts. During this period, the rapid price hike for contemporary art could not have been achieved by dealers alone.”

Inevitably, most of the top end of the art market today links back to Andy Warhol and indeed many of his innovations, applied and amplified by artists of the 21st century, are some of the reasons for the current market boom.

Warhol was the trailblazer for so much: the obsession with the media and celebrity, the commoditisation of art and the industrialisation of production, with the artist’s “hand” removed from the process.

He even anticipated the link-up with luxury goods, a connection that has massively contributed to growing today’s market. “The Blackglama ads [for mink coats], doing the windows for leading department stores, the portrait series of the 1970s—all these were about luxury goods produced for very rich people,” says author and critic Blake Gopnik, who is writing a Warhol biography. “He was dissolving the boundaries between high and low art by selling out the art form and he was doing it deliberately.”

A characteristic of this century has been the extraordinary ascent of some young artists, whose careers have been made by the market. An example is Jacob Kassay who makes quite plain, silvered “paintings”. In 2009, two works sold through his then dealer Eleven Rivington at the Nada art fair in Miami for $8,000 each. Within a year his work was such hot property that a piece was auctioned at Phillips de Pury for $86,500—ten times its low estimate; on 11 November 2013 a new record of $317,000 was set at Phillips, New York. Matthew Day Jackson, Wade Guyton, Oscar Murillo and Nate Lowman are other examples of young artists—some in their 20s—who have achieved extraordinary success with little museum approbation. Art dealer Michael Short says: “It’s fascinating that a gallery or auction house can say a work of art is at such and such a value, when the work of art hasn’t proven itself through exhibitions in galleries or museums or hasn’t been evaluated by the critics or curators; the work’s value can be created by, and reside in, the expectations of the market.”

Another result of today’s “celebrity culture” has been the increasing willingness, or even alacrity, of successful artists to change their galleries to promote their own careers, or increasingly even to run their careers themselves using an agent. Examples are legion of artists leaving the dealers who very often believed in them and promoted them, only to see them depart when they achieved success.

“The artists don’t want to stay in the mid-tier galleries—they want to go with the big ones, and today they can call the tune if they have a certain kind of career,” says one dealer. The bigger galleries are better able to promote artists more widely, able to finance the scale of their ambitions and give them international shows. Speaking to the New York Times in 2006, Ed Ruscha said: “The art world as it is now is a much more accelerated industry. It’s a much bigger and, in many ways, much nastier world.”

Some artists have achieved such success that they are starting their own museums: the gunpowder artist Cai Guo-Qiang is building one in his hometown of Quanzhou in China, while Zeng Fanzhi has hired the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to design his Yuan Museum in Beijing, due to open in 2015. In Tokyo, Takashi Murakami has set up his own space while, in London, Damien Hirst is developing a building to show his collection of about 2,000 works, from Richard Hamilton and Francis Bacon to Sarah Lucas, Jeff Koons and Banksy.

In a talk at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to launch this new book on 20 June (in association with Lund Humphries), Georgina Adam, our art market editor-at-large, explores the transformation of the contemporary art market from a niche business to a global operation worth around $50bn a year

More from The Art Newspaper


23 Jun 14
2:22 CET


It should be noted that there is not even one traditional classically-trained artist among those cited here. Most, in fact, are not artists at all, not by any objective definition of the term "art," that is.

23 Jun 14
2:21 CET


Sounds like a very interesting book. Art`s materialism is actually a wonderful thing. I only wish Ms Adam had included the young and now prospering Akiane Kramarik.She`s 18 and opening her own art school! An unprecedented artist.

23 Jun 14
2:20 CET


Good work, colleague. Real depth here. I though this sentence was key: "The work’s value can be created by, and reside in, the expectations of the market".

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this