The global art market going East and West bipolar introduces an opportunity to establish and reinforce a dialogue related to a contemporary paradigm of public relations
By Jiamin Ren
A hybrid model of communication and new field of PR practice related to the global art market
Things are changing quite rapidly with the present-day global art market—rebounding to near pre-Great Recession highs—reaching €47.42 (or $65.9 billion US) in sales in 2013.
Two factors drove the art market’s resurgence:
1. Record prices set for post-WWII artists.
2. The large pool of USA-based buyers.
China has proven to be the second largest market, accounting for 24 per cent of global sales.
What is pertinent for readers of PR Conversations is the development of “Art PR”—an area of practice that is a relatively new phenomenon.
Even at the turn of this century, Art PR was almost non-existent, its services only available from large (usually multinational) PR firms handling mostly institutional clients, such as museums. For most small- to medium-sized commercial galleries—particularly following the effects of the recent economic recession—it would be an absurd and extravagant expense to hire a PR agency. Yet the once-consolidated wisdom that if a gallery retained good artists, artworks and exhibitions the media would come clamouring became history, as conventional boundaries within the art world collapsed.
One offshoot of this is the increasingly keen and mindful relationship art has with public relations. Key players within the art world—artists, galleries, auction houses, art dealers, etc.— begun to think strategically about what these stakeholders call “communication and promotion.”
The allure of the East
Buoyed by North American sales, the art market began to look east, with venerable, global auction houses, such as Christie’s, opening new gallery spaces in Asia. The aim was to attract buyers in Mainland China and throughout the region. One challenge was that Chinese collectors overwhelmingly focused on Chinese art, from Ming Vases to Chinese contemporary paintings.
From a global perspective, some in the art market industry saw enormous potential in Chinese buyers’ acquiring a taste for Western arts. Others had doubts, as many of the religious elements and themes from Western art are alien to Chinese culture.
Notwithstanding the increasing possibilities of Art PR, in contrast with the comprehensive study of public relations in other established and burgeoning sectors, there seems to be muted discussion on the excellence of public relations in the global art market. However, as this distinctive market becomes stronger and increasingly global, there is an equal demand for a contemporary paradigm of public relations.
What can this paradigm be, especially when it has an ambition of global expansion?
Theoretical versus practice
The current trend of public relations excellence places increasing emphasis on stakeholder governance and symmetrical communication, weighted against more-traditional reputation management and publicity.
The espoused Excellence Theory states that for an organization to be effective it must behave in ways that solve the problems and satisfy the goals of stakeholders, as well as of those of management. Per Grunig, “If it does not, stakeholders will either pressure the organization to change or oppose it in ways that add cost and risk to organizational policies and decisions.”  One path to this goal is for organizations to communicate symmetrically to cultivate high quality, long-term relationships with their publics.
Christie’s versus Sotheby’s
A comparison of practices implemented by two of the world’s most-venerable auction houses should more-clearly illustrate this topic regarding Art PR.
For years, Christie’s has been relatively traditional and conservative, with its public relations efforts mostly residing in media relations and publicity, typically news coverage of dazzling record-breaking auction sales.
On the other hand, Sotheby’s seems to have adopted a more proactive approach to interact with its publics. For example, in 2012 it began a series of video programs, such as “The Defining Moment” series, featuring interviews with legendary collectors and dealers. Typically, a video interview would have its subjects discussing a particular artwork coming up for sale, providing knowledge, extra information, anecdotes that enrich the background of an artwork in a more human tone. (Contents are available on Sotheby’s website and its social media properties, such as its YouTube channel and blogs.)
The Southeby’s videos are entertaining, informative, and educational. Their cultural value remain timeless—far beyond relating stunning sales figures—as it is anticipated that a variety of people will visit the sites and watch a related video long after a sale is over. Unsurprisingly, the practice generated a considerable amount of media coverage from journalists and industry websites. More important was increasing the number of potential patrons to Sotheby’s offerings.
The most significant takeaways or outcomes of Sotheby’s deliberate practice:
- Resources and knowledge that add virtual value for the auction house’s stakeholder publics.
- The demonstration of effective practices in Art public relations.
- Proof of win-win results of symmetrical communication.
Operational context of specific applications (and a hat tip to my professor)
PR scholars like Toni Muzi Falconi underscore the necessity of the operational context of specific applications, i.e., a combination of circumstances in a given territory and at a given moment, which requires a continued audit process. One tool perfect for such a purpose is distributed monitoring dashboards, both globally and in each relevant territory.
The comprehensiveness of this monitoring framework also benefits ambitions in the global art market and, by extension, the practice of Art PR.
Using China as an example, weighting in the influence of Taoism and Confucianism demonstrates a higher tolerance for ambiguity, coupled with the power imbalance of a prevailing culture of respecting authority and seniority.
For example, as rendered—and demonstrated—by zhōng yōng in the Doctrine of the Mean and Focusing the Familiar, the prevailing culture of Moderation. As a core concept of Confucianism, it has a significant influence on various spheres of Chinese culture, from wisdom of life to aesthetic appreciation. It represents a central thinking that, “In all activities and thoughts one has to adhere to moderation.” This translates to standing in the harmonious centre, without leaning towards any extremes, in the process emphasizing harmony and stablility.
As this Eastern philosophy is quite different from that of the West, in order to establish a meaningful relationship—with the aim of encouraging the Chinese collector to acquire a taste for Western arts—this is essential information needed to be absorbed in order to make sound communication decisions.
Some interpretive provisos
However, in being mindful of “over correction,” one may also notice the tendency of dismissing or depreciating unilateral communication, as well as the symbolic interpretative approach known for the following operational phases:
- Crafting messages to influence the interpretation that stakeholder publics hold in their minds about organizations, their actions and behaviours.
- The PR professional’s endeavour to manage the meaning attached to the various publics’ interpretation of that behaviour.
- [Per the above] This can include over-use of popular concepts such as:
- reputation; and
This argument underscores the need for an imbalanced control and influential power between the organization and its stakeholder publics.
However, it would seem imbalanced input or influential power (in the field) of art communication is both inevitable and necessary, due to the nature of this territory.
Generally, the commercial value of a piece of art is based on its collective intentionality.
Unlike other commodities, there is no intrinsic, objective value in artwork, as “human stipulation and declaration constitute and sustain its commercial value.”
Additionally, art “consumption” is often led by significant trends, usually created by the cultural criticism generated by influencers and opinion leaders, for example renowned art critics, legendary collectors, museums, etc.
Playing significant roles in taste forming, these stakeholders on the more-informed side have predominant influential power in the communicative context. Additionally, as the threshold of being an influencer in art markets remains quite high, the imbalanced influence is inevitable.
The China effect on global Art PR
More interestingly, per the earlier discussion, the tendency of power imbalance is even more obvious and more legitimized in China’s art market with its prevailing culture of respecting authority and seniority. Namely, this localized market grants an implicit power imbalance between knowledgeable and reputable “authorities” and general art buyers.
In order to “introduce” Western arts to Chinese collectors necessitates initiating a cross-cultural conversation, the process of which has to deal with symbolic interpretive activities because of the inherent characteristic of art consumption.
Although some scholars point out that “image” suggests that public relations deals with shadows and illusions rather than reality, growing a global art market industry, by its very East/West bipolar nature, is very closely related to “illusion” and ambiguity.
In order to achieve sustainable outgrowth for its stakeholder publics, the global art market, should therefore adopt a hybrid model, integrating both the strategic behavioural approach and the symbolic interpretive one.
Jiamin Ren’s post for PR Conversations is based on her submitted capstone paper for the New York University master’s degree program in Public Relations and Corporate Communications.
 Excellence Theory in Public Relations, James E Grunig
 Shen Fu’en 潘富恩 (1987). “Zhongyong 中庸”, in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學, vol. 2, pp. 1,229-1,230. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
 Findlay, M. (2012). The value of art: Money, power, beauty. Munich: Prestel.
Jiamin Ren hails from Shenzhen, China. She is currently based in New York City, as a full-time graduate student studying towards her master’s degree in public relations and corporate communications at NYU (with her graduate degree completion estimated for May 2015).
During her undergraduate degree program in communication at South China Normal University (Guangzhou), she worked at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising South China, as a strategic planning assistant, practising brand building, consumer research planning, and corporate communication workshops planning.
Enthusiastic about communication in general, Jiamin is developing an ardent interest in art and global art markets. If you share any of her enthusiasms, Jiamin invites you to contact her by email, or via LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/pub/jiamin-ren/9b/966/6b0/ or Twitter: @carmenyamnyu