Research & Policy #15

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 15:16 -- damien

In recent years the arts sector has been selling itself as an industry that is big. The cultural industry, we keep hearing, is bigger than beer, or footwear, or whatever other slightly smaller industry sector we are able to identify. But we might remember that there are other statistics as well. Like the fact that average Australian household expenditure on paintings and sculpture is less than the amount we spend on blank video cassette tapes. While the size of the culture industry-which takes in everything from television to opera-may well be quite substantial, we need to recognise that the market for visual art and fine craft products is actually quite small. And, as the recently released Australia Council report, To Sell Art, Know Your Market, shows, buying art is not something that everybody does on a regular basis.


In essence, To Sell Art, Know Your Market, is a market research document; a survey of visual art and fine craft buyers that aims to assist those who sell art and craft to better serve their existing markets, and possibly to expand into new markets. The study, conducted for the Australia Council's new Audience Development and Advocacy Division by the research firm Quadrant Research, sets out to "provide a comprehensive profile of consumers and potential consumers of original contemporary Australian works of visual art and fine craft". (p.7) Significantly, the notion of "consumption" at play in this report is focussed on the purchase of works, rather than simply looking at them. While participation in many other areas of the arts does involve buying things-from theatre tickets to books-in the visual arts, it is very easy to be an active consumer without needing to spend money (although, of course, some galleries do charge entrance fees, particularly for special exhibitions).


In the past, much of the detailed research of public participation in the visual arts has tended to focus on gallery attendances. For example, audiences were the primary focus of Tony Bennett's and John Frow's report for the Australia Council, Art Galleries: Who Goes?-discussed in my first "research & policy" column for Eyeline in 1992. A good deal of research into audiences has also been conducted by individual public galleries, partly in response to increasing pressure from government and funding authorities to show both higher levels, and increasingly diverse patterns of visitation. Some of this research may be as simple as counting numbers through the door, while at other times galleries not only seek demographic and attitudinal information from visitors, but also survey non-visitors. To some extent, this earlier focus on gallery audiences rather than art buyers should come as no surprise. In the non-commercial context, one key measure of success is the number of people who make use of the services galleries provide.


In the commercial gallery context the situation is somewhat different. While there may be many people who spend time on week-ends "doing the galleries", unless enough people actually buy the art they see, the galleries they visit will not stay in business. In other words, while the aim of public galleries might be to increase visitor numbers, for commercial galleries merely trying to get more people through the doors would be a bit like a boutique aiming to increase the number of people browsing and window shopping-it may keep the staff busy, but will it move the merchandise?


To Sell Art, Know Your Market is an important, and rare, study of art buying. There were four key components to the research process. Firstly, a small qualitative study of active, lapsed and potential buyers. Then, a substantial targeted survey of art and craft buyers-with the eventual analysis based on a total of 590 completed questionnaires. This was followed by a survey to "determine both the levels of visual art and fine craft purchasing and the incidence of gallery and museum visits among the general public". (p.8) The process concluded with a set of interviews with galleries, undertaken in order to get some sense of how they were currently marketing their services.


Perhaps the best place to begin an examination of To Sell Art, Know Your Market, is with the study of the general population, or rather, the comparisons between the general population and the sample of art and craft buyers. While the demographic comparisons between the two groups are very interesting, they are perhaps a little too complicated to go into in any detail here, except for a couple of useful preliminary points of comparison that can be made quickly. For example, comparing the demographic make up of the sample of art and craft buyers with the general public: 58% of the buyers sample held university degrees compared to 13% of the general public, 56% were managers or professionals while this occupational classification was held by only 24% of the public, and perhaps most tellingly, over 65% of the buyers sample had a household income of over $40,000 as compared to only 29% of the general public (in fact, 29% of the buyers sample had a household income of over $80,000) . The buyers sample was also skewed in age, with only 3% under 25 and over 55% over 45, and there were also more women amongst the buyers. Perhaps it is also worth noting that while 21% of buyers listed their occupation as "artist", this group made up a tiny 1% of the general population.


So what does this tell us? Perhaps nothing that will come as a real surprise. Art buyers tend towards managerial or professional occupations (particularly so if we classify artists as professionals), they tend to have higher incomes, and are usually not particularly young. They are also "more likely than the general population to be female ", which may surprise some, given that the highest profile art collectors seem to be male. But most importantly, and the report notes that Canadian research bears this out, art and craft buyers include "a high proportion of university educated people". (p.9) To a substantial degree and particularly in relation to this last factor, this picture of the art buyer tallies with earlier studies of gallery visitors, such as the work by Frow and Bennett mentioned earlier. We might also note that recent detailed research by Frow and Bennett, examining patterns of Australian cultural consumption, suggests that the positive correlation between high levels of formal education and cultural participation rates may extend into many other areas as well. (see Culture and Policy Vol.8: 1, 1997)


Significantly, To Sell Art, Know Your Market finds that there is "a strong correlation between visiting public art galleries and art/craft exhibitions and purchasing art and fine craft". (p11) What this seems to suggest is that there is a benefit in encouraging more people into art galleries, even if initially it is only to look. Amongst the report's discussion of why buyers buy (based substantially on the qualitative phase of the project) perhaps one of the most useful sections concerns the catalysts for making a purchase-those factors which convert people from browsers into buyers.


While there are some fairly obvious catalysts, such as improved economic circumstances, or home decorating, the anecdotal evidence also suggests that personal contacts are also important; be they contacts with other buyers, gallery staff, or artists. The usefulness of a direct introduction seems to be born out in many of the comments about the intimidating nature of many galleries, and the apparent mystery surrounding the buying process. As one respondent put it, "I think that the top galleries are a bit like clubs ... you have to be determined to walk in ". (p.32) While these sorts of responses might confirm the views of those who are critical of the apparent "elitism" of many art galleries, what they also reinforce is the point that buying art is seen by many (both buyers and non-buyers) as a marker of social sophistication. In other words, one of the appealing aspects of collecting art is that it is seen as a sign of discernment. In the context of cultural studies research this might provide the framework for a critique of the art system-how it might be used in the marketing of art is another matter.


In developing a framework for the analysis of its findings, To Sell Art, Know Your Market identifies a number of relatively distinct clusters of buyers: the passionate, confident art seeker; the excited, uncertain investor; the unemotional conservative; the home decorator; and, the younger disinterested. What is interesting, is that rather than focussing on the latter groups (which include only occasional buyers), or on non-buyers in general, the report suggests that gallery marketing be focussed on the two main buyer clusters. In other words, unlike audience studies, which usually aim to identify who isn't going to galleries-with the aim of finding ways to attract them-this study recognises that buying Australian contemporary art and fine craft is not for everyone, and that it is unlikely that the art buying habit will be extended to a broader public. In essence, what it suggests is that rather than trying to get more people to buy art, the aim should be to convince existing buyers to buy more.