What Type of Art Is Popular with Collectors Today?

Wooden crates being screwed open, nails being tapped into freshly built walls, and gallery directors instructing installers are the sounds heard in the anxious days before art fairs open to VIPs and the public. Collectors, curators, and the culturally aware will soon be critiquing the works and sharing their views on social media. Art fairs — especially the heavily attended events promoted by Frieze and Art Basel — have become laboratories where it’s possible to measure taste preferences for different types of art by analyzing the Instagram posts of fairgoers.

Instagram is a daily (maybe hourly) obsession for many art lovers. From Cindy Sherman’s selfies to Brett Gorvy’s stream of beautiful images, frequently accompanied by delicious insider gossip and music tracks, Instagram serves up endless visual images to half a billion people around the world who use this forum daily. These posts are a treasure-trove of information that can be used to identify artworks that intrigue, shock, or inspire people.

But, rather than simply counting the number of ‘likes’ an image receives, we believe a better measurement of a work’s impact is to assess how people react to the art they viscerally connect with when seeing it in person. To that end, we have been aggregating Instagram posts by visitors to the world’s top art fairs, using the data to create refined measures of popularity that we can compare over time. This article is focused on such results from the 2018 Frieze Week in London, UK, and the June edition of Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland.

There were noticeable differences among fairgoers’ favorites. At Frieze, the 10 most Instagrammed works were by mid-career and older artists, who tended to eschew abstraction in favor of text-based or figurative work that could easily fit into a city-sized apartment or suburban home. These artists were almost evenly split between men and women, showcasing the rising role and importance of female artists. But at Art Basel, the most Instagrammed works tended to be huge, conceptually laden installations suitable for acquisition only by extremely wealthy collectors with their own private exhibition spaces to fill or perhaps an institution looking to provide visitors with an immersive experience.

British visual artist David Shrigley’s work was the art piece posted most frequently on Instagram by guests attending Frieze London and Frieze Masters 2018

Top Artworks During Frieze London and Frieze Masters 2018
Frieze London, the fair devoted to contemporary art, and Frieze Masters, which includes art from ancient times to the late 20th century, reported record attendance last year. The most Instagrammed work across both fairs was by David Shrigley, the Turner Prize-nominated artist best known for his sardonic works that riff on life’s absurdities. At Frieze London, his mock shopfront with large-scale neon panels, a two-screen digital animation, a sound piece, and a series of works on paper drew fairgoers with its colorful neon signs of deadpan messages rendered in the artist’s handwriting. His most popular sign in the group crisply stated in blue neon “MY ARTWORK IS TERRIBLE AND I AM A VERY BAD PERSON” — a charming statement of self-deprecation in the middle of the fair!

Like Shrigley, three other artists on the top-10 list created text-based art: Tracey Emin with a neon piece, Jeppe Hein with handwritten messages on a two-way mirror, and Tim Etchells with an outdoor sculpture that spelled out the title of the piece (‘Everything Is Lost’, 2018) in metal letters. The literalness of these artworks, which avoid metaphor or embellishment, may be what made them so appealing to Frieze Instagrammers. Similarly, abstraction was in short supply among the top 10 images, except for a stunning piece by Rana Begum that played with seriality, color, and perception. Fairgoers seemed to prefer artworks with specific and seemingly known intent over works with illusive meaning.

Additionally — with the exception of the second most popular work, a large-scale installation by Tatiana Trouvé comprising a large bronze tree trunk, a water element, and concrete slabs — each of the top 10 Frieze artworks could be reasonably installed in someone’s home — a feature of the fair at large which was lamented by some. The houseability of the art was in sharp contrast to the most Instagrammed works from Art Basel.

Lastly, social justice is a frequent theme of artistic production and art criticism. Yet works exploring this were largely absent from the list of Frieze’s 10 most Instagrammed artworks, with the possible exception of a sculpture by Josh Kline featuring a curled-up mannequin lying on the floor in a plastic bag, entitled ‘Dave/Journalist’ (2016). Fairgoers may have wanted a respite from the world at large or found the social justice–inspired works at the fair not compelling enough to share with friends.

Top Artworks During Art Basel in Basel 2018
Nearly 95,000 visitors attended the most recent incarnation of Art Basel in Basel — an extraordinary figure given that the town has only 170,000 inhabitants. Widely viewed as the most important fair in the world, it offers attendees a standard art fair experience of gallery booths in a conference center plus an exhibition of gargantuan artworks in the fair’s Unlimited sector. This part of the fair is a showcase for the unlimited ambition of artists, both living and deceased, who play with scale, motion, sound, and/or group experiences; it is a high-end shopping bazaar for those with the means and desire to own fantastical and outsized objects. Museum directors and trustees are often seen prowling Unlimited in pursuit of immersive, Instagram-worthy pieces and installations that, if acquired, could draw audiences to their institutions.

Eight of the ten most Instagrammed works at Art Basel this year were from Unlimited. The most Instagrammed work was a sculpture by Robert Longo of a mysterious orb, nearly 6-and-a-half ft in diameter, suspended in a darkened room; it comprised 40,000 bullets, which approximates the number of people killed annually by guns in the USA. To support efforts to reduce gun violence, the artist announced that 20% of the proceeds from the sale of the sculpture would be donated to Everytown for Gun Safety.

The exceptions were Alberto Giacometti sculptures exhibited at Fondation Beyeler as part of a blockbuster show devoted to him and Francis Bacon. No works from the main fair made the top 10 list.

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