Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How Many Photography Collectors Are There?

I have often wondered about how many photography collectors there really are all over the world if you were to try and count them all up. When asked, no one seems to have any kind of definitive answer, and many folks are secretive about the information they do have.

So I recently decided to try and make a back of the envelope calculation of this elusive number. I began this quest with a few high level numbers that I had gathered from various public sources, and then tried to narrow them down to represent the world of collectors. With a gross estimate in hand, I then sent out some inquiries to a wide variety of sources that might have some insight into the answer, based on their activities in the photography business, and asked them to add their thoughts to the range I provided, or to point me up or down if they preferred to keep their data private.

Of course, finding an answer to this question depends significantly on how you define the word “collector”, and different members of the food chain define it differently, often depending on the kinds of collectors being targeted. While this whole exercise is a collection of assumptions and estimations, I’ve tried to focus the analysis using the following two definitions of collector: a person who is comfortable spending $1000+ (or $5000+) on photography in a single calendar year. Depending on which spending level you choose, quite different total numbers will pop out.

So let’s begin with photography fair attendance numbers. All of the estimates coming up are made with a mind to make the numbers as large as possible, to estimate on the outer edge of what the number might really be. I’ve got three data points from the most recent versions of each fair: AIPAD New York 2009: 8000 visitors, Paris Photo 2008: 35000 visitors, Les Rencontres D’Arles 2008: 60000 visitors. AIPAD is I believe a collector heavy show. So while there are clearly curators, professionals, artists, press and general photo enthusiasts in the crowd, a good portion are real buyers. My estimate is approximately half might fit into the $5000+ category (4000 people), and perhaps three quarters in the $1000+ group (6000 people). The two shows in France have a much larger portion of local photo enthusiasts in the crowd. For Paris Photo, let’s go with as much as 15% of the attendees in the $5000+ group (5250 people), and 25% in the $1000+ group (8750 people). Since Arles is mostly expositions, the percentages need to be even lower: at most 10% for the $5000+ crowd (6000 people) and 15% for the $1000+ crowd (9000 people).

Let’s match this against some magazine numbers. Artforum has a paid circulation of approximately 60000. My guess is that optimistically 10% of these people (6000) could be photography collectors of some kind, most likely in the top price range. Aperture has a subscriber base of 24000. I think as many as a quarter (25%) of these people could be in the $5000+ collector group (6000 people), perhaps as many as half (50%) in the $1000+ group (12000 people).

So where do these first numbers leave us?

For the $5000+ group: 4000, 5250, 6000, 6000, 6000
For the $1000+ group: 6000, 8750, 9000, 6000, 12000

If we take the average for each, we get 5450 on the top and 8350 for the broader group. Call it 6000 and 9000 for aggressive roundness.

As I mentioned above, I then sent out some emails to various photography businesses that have collector client lists, and I tried to pick folks that don’t have obviously overlapping customers (i.e contemporary versus vintage). For the sake of privacy, I will not mention any of them by name or even group type, but suffice it to say, each of these businesses has a list of collectors that they contact frequently. I anchored them higher, with a total range of 8000 to 10000, without any price definitions, and asked them to comment.

The general and consistent impression from this diverse group was that 8000 to 10000 was too high, perhaps meaningfully so. Some highlighted that a much smaller number are active, repeat buyers and that these folks are the bread and butter of the market. Some mentioned the layering of buyers, and found it hard to quantify the lower priced collectors, which there are clearly many more of, but no one really knows how many more (nor do they know how to contact or service them it seems). Several pointed to less than 5000 as about the right range for the number of more active collectors.

Given all the data above, my conclusion from this non-scientific, assumption-heavy analysis is that there are at most 5000 active collectors who spend meaningful amounts of money on photography on an annual basis. I think we can also conclude that there are likely another 5000 or so collectors who are less active and commit fewer dollars each year. All in, 10000 total collectors is the biggest number we can defend with any meaningful credibility, and even that number might be a stretch. Please feel free to add your own data or question our assumptions in the comments, as we'd like to refine the numbers if we can get some additional solid inputs.

Questions for another day (and without obvious answers) include what percentage of these collectors are using the Internet in their collecting activities, how many regularly read blogs, visit artist sites or use social networking tools, and how we can encourage more of them to become involved in what we are doing here.

15 comments:

Joe Reifer said...

Wow. It's really thought provoking and somewhat sobering to come up with a number of active photography collectors. A friend has a great analogy when people ask if he makes a living as a fine art photographer -- he says he likes to play basketball for fun, but to make a living purely through fine art photography would be like making the NBA. Based on your numbers he's going to need to change this analogy -- it would be like making the NBA All-Star team.

Todd Walker said...

What a terrific post, highly relevant to some thinking I've been doing lately about the photography market. Great questions at the end, which I hope you get around to investigating eventually.

What's scary about the numbers here is comparing collector #s to the number of fine art photographers attempting to make a living in a market so small. In the current conditions, I'd assume many collectors would scale back to tried/true artists, making the process of moving from promising new photographer to old-hand an even more challenging hill to climb than it was even a few years ago. (Though, that challenge may thin the ranks of aspirants a bit?)

It seems to me that this collector group you've identified would constitute a core of spending in art photography. Moving outwards, you'd have people who are primarily buying photography books. Farther from that, people who make museum and gallery visits a core of their travel/entertainment activity. Would be interesting to work through the yearly spend for each ring in the circle. Still, galleries are chasing a fairly limited, finite and inelastic customer base.

Cody Bratt said...

I think the post is very interesting, but I wonder if we, as photographers, should worry about catering for such a small group of collectors.

I'd rather sell 100 prints for $10 than 1 print for $1000. The pool of folks who will pay for a $10 print is quite wide if you can make it easy for them. The question then becomes how do you funnel such a large number of potential buyers?

They're out there. For example, my girlfriend and I likely spend at least $1000.00 on art per year, we just do all the hard work of finding it ourselves.

Another related question: why is 20x200 the only attempt I've seen to sell photography at scale, and why does Jen Bekman still demand to be so exclusive with her submission process?

gphoto said...

Food for thought. The best number I've heard of for how big the fine art photography market is somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 Million a year.

Mark Colman said...

Thanks for your sobering and thought provoking post. I'd be interested to know if the majority of photography collectors are largely outside the USA.

For those of us trying to get our work seen, competing with dead photographers and the living, we can only hope that the numbers will increase.

dlkcollection said...

Rather than respond to each of these individually, I 'll try to catch the highlights in one big response.

First, one of the big issues facing the photography market is this split between established, gallery represented photographers (both alive and dead) and "emerging" photographers, and how these two groups access potential collectors. For the established artists, the traditional gallery system is still a high touch, in person selling approach. If we take as given that the Internet is a disintermediating force that allows artists and collectors to bypass the traditional system, then we should see the beginnings of new methods of direct remote selling. The problem is how do buyers and sellers find each other out there (especially when many high end collectors are not using the Internet much in their collecting activities), and how do unknown artists build the word of mouth credibility that galleries work so hard to develop. For emerging artists to grow the collector base and reach larger numbers of people (which I believe is entirely possible), both problems need to be solved: a way to aggregate and match photographers and collectors at lower prices and a way for reviews and information (not just PR) to be shared in objective ways. We're certainly starting to see some of the galleries who deal in emerging work explore different ways to do low cost portfolios, editions, or Internet specials/auctions, all of which are trying to broaden/find the base. I'm sure someone has tried (or will try) to build "the Amazon of photography", but the aggregating needs to be paired with trusted sources of curating/editing or it ends up as an unnavigable undifferentiated grab bag.

As for gphoto's annual turnover number of $200M, I think that number is credible, if a little high in the current recession. I did a quick calculation of the 10K collectors, sifted out into tiers based on annual dollars spent on photography, and I can get to 200M with some help from museums and contemporary collectors crossing over to buy photography (and who are not captured in the total number of collectors). The numbers of collectors in each tier seem plausible to me given our experience in the market. So perhaps 200M is a pretty good number for general use. Todd's concentric rings would build the numbers up further.

I'm not at all sure about the spread of collectors internationally, but I expect it would be quite directly correlated with income levels, i.e. centers of money will also breed centers of collecting (at least at the high end). More broad based, lower cost collecting is likely being slowly transformed by the Internet, making it both more local and more global.

RedSardine said...

One can look at the number and location of specialist photography galleries. These are overwhelmingly located in the US. It then gets very fragmented and some may be surprised to know that the UK, for example, has a just a handful of such galleries (probably one dominates market share).

The economics of a gallery are such that if the collector base is limited, you are simply going to struggle selling prints for say $2k-$10k.

However, if you sell photography within a fine art context, your prices can of course far exceed the average price found in a specialist gallery. In other words, you're going to find it easier selling a modern print for $75,000 at Gagosian than at one of the specialist galleries.

This means that calculating the complete photography collection market is very complex, as many people buy photography who do not see themselves as photography collectors but rather as art collectors. These people have very significant sums to spend, are numerous and have a material impact on the photography market as such.

Of course this market structure creates one of the more interesting dynamics for a collector as she/he seeks to understand the position and direction of the work of the huge number of artists and photographers in the world.

So I think one needs to assume a % of the total modern art market that happens to be delivered through photography and add that to the "pure" photography collection market. It will be a big number (Mr Gursky's price/print alone will see to that).

dlkcollection said...

RedSardine,

I think you are right that galleries and their location can be used as another set of data that can help predict the total number of collectors. Galleries can't survive without consistent buyers.

I also agree that there is a difference between pure photography collectors and fine art collectors who cross over into photography from time to time, particularly in the contemporary market. I think there are plenty of contemporary collections that contain mostly painting and scultpure, with a handful of photographs thrown in for good measure (Eli Broad's collection as an example). I also think that for the most part these are the buyers of the high end contemporary work (Gursky, Prince, Sherman et al), rather than the pure play photo collectors. By and large, I think these same people are NOT buying high end Weston, Stieglitz, and Steichen; this is a different group entirely. So there is clearly some segmentation that could go on if we were really trying to cut the data more finely and locate where the dollars are really being spent and by whom.

In any case, I agree that there are many more potential and real crossover collectors than pure play photography collectors. I doubt however that most of these people would be interested in a daily dose of photography from a site like ours (we're likely too specialized for them). Which brings us back to the pure play photography collectors as our primary audience. How to reach that larger extended high end group is a puzzle, as I don't think broader contempoary art sites/sources cover photography very well (if at all)...

The other thing this highlights is of course the abyss between photographers who are categorized as "photographers" and those who are "contemporary artists", and the implications on which collectors will be attracted/targeted as a result. But that's a larger topic than can be addressed appropriately here.

John Armstrong said...

I got a link to this post from Bryan Formhals. I love your back of the envelop calculations. Do you have a number for how many total living photographers there are in the world who are of potential interest to the art world?

My own gut feeling, based on the rate I discover new photographers as I browse the web, is that there are somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 such photographers globally, of which the vast majority are young/emerging.

My criterion for counting is that the photographer has a website that looks like an artist's or photoessayist's website, i.e. it has multiple images which cohere as a project (or multiple projects), contact information, and generally at least a minimal bio and/or statement of purpose.

I also count photographers who appear on the artist roster of a gallery site but have no site of their own, but these are only a tiny fraction of the whole.

Do you think my numbers are too high? Too low? I'd love to hear your opinion either way.

David Kachel said...

In response to John Armstrong...

An even more telling bit of information might be the yearly turnover rate in the number of fine art photographers worldwide. That is, how may of the 100,ooo-500,000 drop out and are replaced on a yearly basis

John Armstrong said...

Hi David, Since I posted this I have been all the more convinced that half a million is the right ballpark and may even be too small. I hadn't throught of turnover/dropout, but I believe that the rate of additions swamps the rate of deletions.

It's a huge thing. Digital + internet gives photography the lowest barrier to entry of all art forms. It makes it the perfect form for people at the margins of or entirely outside the Western artworld establishment who have something to say.

I don't want to impose on our host by going on about this here. I'll just repeat my admiration for his willngness to do some computations and put numbers on things.

Supah Chocolate Bear said...

That's an absolutely amazing calculation. I feel like I'm doing photography in wrong country. I need to leave South Africa and go to places like Paris to display my work. But the real question is can this vast audience of collectors be reached virtually?

B. said...

I met a man recently who sells polaroids to "private collectors" and usually reels in 100-150 a pop. I plan to model for him but also do this myself. I cannot seem to find anyone though...I do believe a lot of "collectors" (at least of this kind) are in Europe- so the problem for me is finding/getting in contact with them. So far I have only had a few responses and all turn out to be duds.

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Jonathan Eastland said...

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