The Museum of Modern Art in New York (via Flickr)

It’s no secret that the art world caters to a select few, but a recent report backs this reality with hard data: 47% of United States museums focus on the top 4% of contemporary artists, according to a new study from investment bank UBS and Arts Economics. Titled “The Role of Cities In the US Art Ecosystems,” the report found that galleries show a much more diverse range of artists, with only 23% of American galleries centering artists in the top 4%.

In another revealing statistic, the report found that only 38% of artists featured in for-profit exhibitions (including galleries and art fairs) were women. In nonprofit exhibitions, women made up 42% of artists.

Based on data from analytics company Wondeur AI, the research also analyzed which American cities are most promising for new emerging artists, finding gender disparities in the opportunities available to them and variance in those artists’ performance after exhibitions in different urban centers.

Wondeur AI categorized 250,000 living artists into three categories based on the number of group and solo exhibitions they’d earned, the prestige of the exhibiting institutions, and museum acquisitions: “stars” (the top 4%), “established” (the next 12%), and “emerging” (the remaining 84%). The company then examined how many artists in each category for-profit and nonprofit institutions exhibited between 2017 and 2021. An institution’s focus was determined by the category of artist they showed the most.

Nearly half of US museums focus on the top 4% of contemporary artists. (© Arts Economics, 2022 with data from Wondeur AI; screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

In addition to displaying the work of more non-star artists than museums, galleries also exhibited slightly more work by emerging artists than other types of nonprofits and cultural organizations did. The report found that even though gallery sales still favored the stars, exhibition programming was much more inclusive of lesser-known names.

“This indicates that commercial galleries in the US play a critical role in the careers of artists, with a range of different galleries focused on artists at different career stages,” the report reads. “Unlike most museums, galleries are important from an early stage, and feature in the exhibition programs of artists all the way through their careers.”

Researchers then examined the “art ecosystem” across the country, focusing on how emerging artists fared in different American cities.

The report identified the five American cities with the most art institutions — New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami — and ranked their galleries and museums based on the proportion of star, established, and emerging artists they represented. San Francisco and Chicago had the highest percentage of galleries centering emerging artists (39%) and Los Angeles and Chicago had the most museums focused on them (21% and 24%, respectively).

But focusing on early-career artists did not equate with a readiness to exhibit lesser-known emerging artists. Wondeur AI devised a metric to measure this phenomenon — “risk appetite,” defined as an institution’s willingness to exhibit early-career artists before other galleries or museums. The artists studied in this sample were a subset of the emerging artist category who started exhibiting after 2010.

Gender disparities still exist across the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. (© Arts Economics, 2022 with data from Wondeur AI; screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Even though New York did not have the highest percentage of museums and galleries focused on emerging artists, both its museums and galleries ranked first in risk appetite. While other cities’ galleries fell close behind, museums in Chicago and Miami were notably less likely to take a chance on a less-exhibited artist than museums in other cities.

But given gender inequities and the sheer number of art institutions in different cities, where do newer emerging artists have the best chance of landing an exhibition?

For women artists, the answer may be surprising. “Miami stood out as the only city where emerging female artists were more likely to be exhibited for the first time over their male peers in both the museum and commercial gallery sectors, indicating that it could be an important testing ground for some artists that go on to be successful elsewhere,” the report’s authors wrote.

The risk appetite and the percentage of institutions focused on emerging artists paint different pictures of which cities are the most welcoming for early-career artists. Another metric, performance, adds one more layer.

Using the same subsample of emerging artists from the “risk appetite” metric, Wondeur AI tracked those artists for three years before and after an early-career show and compared the results. They measured performance by number of exhibitions, whether those were solo or group shows, and the cultural power of the institutions that held the exhibitions. After factoring in performance, some cities that appeared more promising for new emerging artists appeared less so, and some cities with lower risk appetites showed better artist performance.

After factoring in performance, some cities that appeared more promising for new emerging artists appeared less so. (© Arts Economics, 2022 with data from Wondeur AI; screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

The artists who showed the highest performance, however, had exhibited at a museum in New York.

And in LA and New York, museums had the highest risk appetite of any city. The Big Apple had “one of the most diversified structures of all cities, with the most congruence between the gallery and museum sectors,” according to the report.

Unsurprisingly, NYC also had the country’s highest percentage of galleries dedicated to star artists (over 30%), but its other galleries were more adventurous: New York galleries had the highest risk appetite for new artists. The city is also home to 26% of the country’s total art institutions, followed by Los Angeles (7%), San Francisco (4%), Chicago (3%), and Miami (2%). And from 2017 to 2021, NYC hosted over a third of the country’s art exhibitions.

NYC may be a promising destination for emerging artists, but it’s hardly an affordable option, with rental prices at a record high and climbing inflation.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.