Visual Arts Picture Isn't as Rosy as It First Appears

For Release

August 11, 2005

A RAND Corporation report issued today suggests that the visual arts picture isn't as rosy as it first appears, despite record museum attendance, booming commercial popularity, soaring prices for artists' work and well-publicized museum expansions.

The report, titled “A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era,” looks beneath the surface and finds significant challenges facing the many parts of the complicated web of artists, institutions and patrons that make up the visual arts world.

The RAND report focuses on the fine visual arts. These are defined as art objects such as paintings, sculpture, photographs and some types of media art and performance art that are produced by professional visual artists, distributed in galleries and auction houses, and displayed in fine arts institutions, especially museums.

“Our report provides a roadmap for understanding the state of the visual arts community and identifies the challenges facing the different segments of the visual arts system, “ said Kevin McCarthy, a senior RAND researcher and lead author of the report. “Our hope is that our report will help artists, administrators, art patrons and the public consider the future needs of the visual arts.”

The report also says:

  • The growth in museum attendance in recent years is primarily a product of population growth and higher education levels rather than a result of efforts by museums to attract larger and more diverse audiences. Underlying social trends—driven by changing leisure patterns, increasing population diversity, and more intense competition from the entertainment and leisure industries—suggest new growth in demand will not come easily.
  • Although a few “superstars” at the top of the artists' hierarchy sell their work for hundreds of thousands and occasionally millions of dollars, the vast majority of visual artists often struggle to make a living from the sale of their work and typically earn a substantial portion of their income from non-arts employment.
  • At the same time that prices have reached headline-grabbing heights, the arts market has become increasingly like other asset markets. The value of an artist's work is determined not, as was traditionally the case, by the consensus of experts, but increasingly by a small number of affluent buyers who are drawn to purchase works for their potential investment value.
  • As the dominant institutions in the visual arts world, museums have always faced tensions among their multiple missions. But these tensions have intensified in an increasingly pluralistic society in which museums are often forced to choose between their art-oriented missions (preservation, presentation and scholarship) and their market-oriented missions (audiences, community involvement, and doing what is necessary to respond to financial pressures). Moreover, as they seek to expand audiences, they face tradeoffs between drawing large crowds and undermining the quality of an individual's museum-going experience.
  • Responding to these challenges may prove particularly difficult for most museums in light of the increasing concentration of resources (revenues, assets and collections) in the hands of America's “superstar” museums—the small number of prestigious museums in the nation's major metropolitan areas with world-renowned collections.
  • To navigate successfully through the challenges of the new environment, the majority of the country's art museums will need to address three strategic questions for the future: What is their primary goal? How will they measure their success? And do they have the capabilities they need to thrive?
  • The increasing complexity of the visual arts world is reflected not only in the aforementioned trends and challenges, but also in the unprecedented artistic diversity of contemporary work and discourse and in the proliferation of both for profit and non-profit visual arts organizations—including non-profit galleries, artist collectives, community studios, and a host of service organizations—serving a variety of educational, critical, support, exhibition, and other roles.

The study was supported by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to help build research capability in the arts to foster discussion and communication among cultural leaders, policymakers, journalists, artists, the philanthropic community, and the American public.

The report was co-authored by Elizabeth Heneghan Ondaatje of RAND, Arthur Brooks of RAND and Syracuse University, and Andras Szanto of Columbia University.

Printed copies of “A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era,” (ISBN 0-8330-3793-5) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services ( or call toll free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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