What Does "Emerging" Really Mean in the Art World?

What Does "Emerging" Really Mean in the Art World?

By Julia Halperin for ARTINFO

As writers, we here at ARTINFO are contractually obligated to love words. But in the highly theoretical, constantly evolving realm of visual art, certain words are trickier than others. Terms like "contemporary," "painting," and "multimedia" are constantly used in auction house catalogues, artist biographies, and press releases, but their definitions are rarely as constant as their presence. In an effort to improve our collective vocabulary, ARTINFO is launching a new series, Definitions, in which we ask various art world figures — artists, curators, academics, and others — to define some of the most slippery terms in art.

For our inaugural installment, we've asked a selection of art professionals to take on that consistently befuddling word, "emerging." The term, according to art historian Terry Smith, became widely used in the increasingly professionalized art world of the 1960s to describe art school graduates in the early stages their careers. Since then, it has wiggled into almost every corner of the art world. It can be used to describe the mission of a gallery or function as the organizing principle of a museum show. Artists must be considered "emerging" to qualify for certain fellowships, grants, and training programs. Although the term is almost universally regarded with skepticism, it nonetheless has become one with real significance for those who work in contemporary art.

In search of an illuminating definition, ARTINFO turned to Phillips de Pury, an international auction house specializing in contemporary art; the artists of Rachel Uffner Gallery, a gallery on the Lower East Side often considered to specialize in "emerging" artists; and Terry Smith, an award-winning art historian and author of the book "What is Contemporary Art?" Their definitions are based on every conceivable rubric, from age to exhibition history to reputation. Read our various interpretations of "emerging" below to see if you qualify.


"Emerging is an effective but ultimately limiting term used to describe a wide cross-section of artists employing an even broader array of practices. Most commonly it qualifies an artist often at the beginning of his or her career, implying the promise of a building consensus as to the importance and value of the work. This complex dynamic can be driven and impacted by critical response and curatorial support as well as market success and reputation." - Zach Miner of Phillips de Pury, responsible for the "Contemporary Part I Sale"


"Between unknown and overexposed?" - Roger White, artist and co-founder of the journal Paper Monument

"Any artist who has a gallery but is not yet fully supporting themselves with their work." - Becket Bowes, artist

"An artist you may not have heard of or an artist you may have heard of. An artist under 35 years old, unless s/he has been in the biennial, unless that was basically his/her first major show, unless the work is at a price point above $50,000? No auction record? A young artist; an old artist who never had a solo show; or an old artist who has shown a lot, but in venues you don't recognize." - Sara Greenberger Rafferty, artist

"The nature of an 'emerging' position seems at odds with a lifelong engagement with art. The term emerging is characterized by a short time span — and is possibly the means to an unfortunately defined end. By gaining validity as emerging you are simultaneously approaching the end of that condition and given no guaranteed descriptive second tier after that. The term alludes to someone coming onto a scene they may only be a part of for a limited time, their reservoir almost immediately depleted in the not-so-distant future. That's a pickle. And the one thing we know is, artists go on. Naming and justifying the belief in an 'emerging' position for an artist in regards to a viewing public may not be conducive to a sustained commitment to art. Nonetheless, the importance of being a young artist, of being at the beginning of a practice, must be taken into account — not in the name of emerging (and thus soon not emerging), but in the spirit of continuing. When I ask young artists if they think the term is accurate or necessary or do they use it themselves they say, 'No, but we like the word submerge.' I think we should lose the term. - Pam Lins, artist and professor, Cooper Union School of Art


"An artist recently birthed from the womb of professional schooling, actively committed to the life of an artist at any cost, and capable of producing work that mixes conformity and innovation in ways at once recognizable yet eccentric enough to attract the curiosity of artworld gatekeepers — that is, gallerists, collectors, curators, critics, and dispensers of grants.

"The term 'emerging artist' is an artifact of the relatively recent professionalization of visual arts production, the boom in the market for contemporary art, and the Malthusian output of graduates from the expansion of tertiary education in many countries since the 1960s. It highlights the first step in the career of an individual artist, rather than the participant in a collective or a movement, or a member of a generation. These terms are echoes from modernity: 'emergence' is a contemporary term: it highlights incipience, the fantasy of perpetual coming-into-being. This can include artists — often mature, highly accomplished artists from outside the great art distribution centers — who come to its notice.

"Despite the minute percentage that actually succeeds as artists in the expanded world of contemporary art, the term presumes a career path that could lead on to 'mid-career,' 'senior,' and 'life-time achievement' levels. In countries that support the arts as a social good (Canada, Australia, Germany, etc.), these labels designate concrete criteria of reputation and recognition, and thus eligibility for support. Three years seems to be about the average time frame for this transitory state. After that, one has emerged, and thus stays in limbo, drops out, or joins the cohort of the dominant (or at least the prevailing), where one stays until residual decline slowly sets in, or one is abruptly sidelined. Meanwhile, emergence continues to emerge." - Terry Smith , Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read more here.


To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.