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“Successful artists don’t just pop up out of the blue”

How does the art market work? / Seminar at the Department of Art History at Freie Universität

May 31, 2012

Wie funktioniert der Kunstmarkt? Antworten auf diese Frage gibt die Galeristin und promovierte Kunsthistorikerin Harriet Häußler in ihrer Seminarreihe an der Freien Universität.
How does the art market work? The gallery owner and art historian Harriet Haeussler provides answers to this question in her series of seminars at Freie Universität. Image Credit: Melanie Hansen
With wide eyes and an open mouth, the figure stands on a bridge, covering its ears: The expressionist masterpiece The Scream, by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, is one of the world’s best-known paintings. There are four versions of the image, three of them owned by the Norwegian government. A few weeks ago, the fourth was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York, setting a record for the winning bid, at 119.9 million dollars. Gallery operator Harriet Häussler, who holds a doctorate in art history, examines how the market for art works in a seminar at the Department of Art History at Freie Universität.

Why do some works of art earn millions while others do not? Why do some artists skyrocket to superstardom while others work away unnoticed in their studios? The system behind the art market has rules all its own. In “The Art Market in Practice,” a seminar series at Freie Universität and the only course of its kind in Germany to tackle this topic, Harriet Häussler tries to elucidate these rules for her students. How do the players in the art market – artists, gallery owners, dealers, auctioneers, critics, curators, collectors, and museum directors – operate, and what methods do they use in order to be successful?

Häussler, who is originally from Munich, is sure of one thing: “Successful artists don’t just pop up out of the blue. There’s always a strategy behind it.” Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst, for example, left nothing to chance in their careers, she says. According to Häussler, every one of them deliberately sought out contact with the art market of their time. Picasso, for instance, painted portraits of three influential critics for his first solo exhibition – works of art as a kind of bribery. Warhol, for his part, sought out connections with the most important galleries, and Hirst invited well-known collector Charles Saatchi to one of his first exhibitions. “You can debate whether Georges Braque – who, along with Picasso, was one of the founding figures of Cubism – wasn’t the better Cubist painter. But Picasso simply marketed himself better,” Häussler says.

Many art historians view the commercialism of the art market as a provocation, so many aspects of the system have not yet been investigated sufficiently. “The art market is often shrugged off as a poor cousin or a sub-branch of art history, but in my opinion it represents much more than that,” Häussler says.

What does it mean, for example, to create an “international style” for the art market, as Hirst does? The artist’s “spot paintings” – made from colored dots – are abstract, so they are popular even in Islamic countries, where there are still lingering reservations against certain figurative representations. And that in turn makes Hirst’s pictures so international that they can be sold all over the world: not only in Europe, China, and the United States, but also in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. “In my view, that is what makes it worthwhile to study the art market academically and from an art history perspective,” Häussler says.

Gallery operator Häussler hopes to teach students in her seminars about these kinds of connections – along with one other important thing: “that the art market is an absolutely attractive labor market.” She should know: Since 2005, Häussler and her former partner (and now husband) Aeneas Bastian have been running the Berlin gallery “upstairs,” initially on Holzmarkt, then on Zimmerstrasse and, since 2010, on Kupfergraben – right across from Museum Island. With each new location, the gallery has risen in prominence. When they first started out, the gallery only featured contemporary art, but about five years ago their offerings expanded to include 20th-century art, with individual exhibitions of works by Picasso, Warhol, and Hirst.

Further Information

Dr. Harriet Häussler, Department of Art History, Freie Universität Berlin, Email: