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Albert-László Barabási is a network scientist, fascinated with a wide range of topics, from unveiling the structure of the brain and treating diseases using network medicine to the emergence of[…]

Success in the art world can mean different things to different artists. While some artists work solely for the pleasure of producing art, others seek external recognition, such as being shown in prestigious galleries or museums and selling their craft. The latter —  profitability, recognition, demand — is how success is traditionally defined in the field.

But out of all the emerging artists across the world, only a select few will make it to international recognition in their careers. Network physicist Albert-László Barabási believes he can predict who it’s going to be. And he doesn’t even need to look at the artist’s artwork. While talent is essential for an artist’s success, understanding the networks in which their work is embedded is perhaps even more important.

Access to these networks is determined by complex dependencies, with gatekeepers, such as institutions and galleries, playing a crucial role in an artist’s access to the market. Through mapping out these networks, Barabási has been able to predict artistic success with impressive accuracy. With an acute understanding of the various institutions and galleries that routinely lead to the center of the network, an artist can increase their chances of success and longevity in the art world.

Barabási: There are multiple measures of success in art. Some artists work for the pleasure of producing, and they really don't care about external recognition. Some really wanna make an impact in their immediate community. However, the traditional measure of success is, really, external recognition. What galleries showed your work? What museums show your work? Is your work selling? Is it entering the auction market? The amount of money collectors are willing to pay for it? What are the factors that really drive these measurable successes? 

Before starting my studies in science, I wanted to be an artist, and I studied to be an artist, and I hang out with artists and collectors, and so on. Many of my friends, as artists, are convinced that they have only one job in front of them: to really express their talent, to paint, to sculpt, to do whatever they do, and it is not their job to be discovered. That's society's work. One of the reasons I'm really interested in art, beyond the intellectual interest towards arts, is because art is very different from other measures of performance. 

If you are a runner, I can just have a chronometer and measure how fast you run, and that will uniquely determine whether you're a good runner or a bad runner, and also will determine the rewards you get from running. The problem in art is that we don't have a chronometer. In contemporary art, it's almost impossible to look at the work in isolation and decide what is its value, how important it is. In the contemporary art context, the value of an artwork is determined by very complex networks. Who is the artist? Where that artist had exhibited before? Where was that work exhibited before? Who owns it, and who owned it before? And how these multiple links connect to the canon and to art history in general. 

So if we want to understand how, really, value merges in the art world, we need to really map out these dependencies, and the multiple networks that drive the value of our art. A few years ago, we did that. Through this mapping process, we ended up getting a worldwide map of institutions, where it turned out the most central nodes, the most connected nodes, happened to be also the most prestigious museums. MoMA, Tate, Gagosian Gallery — some of the biggest museums worldwide. The most interesting aspect of this network was that it allowed us to predict artistic success. That is, if you give me an artist and their first five exhibits, I put them on the map, and we could fast forward their career, where they gonna be 10, 20 years from now. And the predictions were incredibly accurate.

You have to think from the perspective of the gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers are the institutions. And the network of how the gatekeepers are connected and who is paying attention to whom, is really the one that determines your access to the art market as an artist — because the path towards the center is much faster if you're already next to it, and it's very difficult for somebody to enter from the periphery. But our research did show that it's possible. We ended up finding about, roughly, 250 artists who really started from the bottom, from the periphery, from unknown institutions, and made it all the way to the top. And what the data indicated is that they did not follow the traditional advice of how you succeed as an artist: which is get a gallery, and work with them. That is, the gallery will guarantee your future. Rather, these artists who managed to go from the periphery to the center, at the beginning of their career, they worked with many, many institutions. They practically exhibited everywhere they were willing to show their work. And through these many random acts of exhibitions, they ended up hitting a couple of better connected nodes that offer the path for them towards the center.

It's really reconfirmed of how important networks are in art and how important it is for an artist to really understand the networks in which their work is embedded in in order to guarantee that sooner or later the work will arrive or he or she dreams to arrive at. Artistic success is driven by many factors. Location is one of them. Talent is another one. Talent is what gives you access to the nodes that you start working. Talent is the one that gives you entry into the network. And the more talented you are, more and higher level institutions are willing to work with them.

So the reason we can predict your future from the first five exhibits because by who was willing to work with you in your five exhibits is already a measure of your talent, and your future journey in the art world. The problem is that as a young artist, you don't really understand which is the better institution, and which is more connected. Of course, everybody knows the role of MoMA and the big, big galleries, but what you don't know is that among the many small galleries that you have access to, who may have a path towards the center. 

The question you need to ask: Are you there in the short run or the long run? In the short run, you can make a career to Instagram and these many social networks. But if you are in for the long run these noise-making effects don't really matter. The question is: Can you bring an artistic practice that resonates with the time, and has a unique visual characteristics? In that sense, science and art are not different. The influential artists and the influential scientists are those on whose work the next generation of artists or scientists can build on.