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Hidden Masterpieces: Successful Artists Are Master Connection Creators

In the 1970s, New York City seethed with underground artistic energy that jostled the city like the constant rock and roll of subway trains rumbling underneath the crumbling streets and avenues. Of the dozens — maybe hundreds — of those artists who were reinventing the city’s art scene, two people stood out. They were both graffiti artists that produced impromptu pieces that began to create a buzz among the city’s art lovers. Yet, despite being equally talented, equally creative, and equally ambitious, only one of these artists would go on to become a world famous artist until his untimely death at 27 and sell paintings for more than a hundreds millions of dollars. The other artist continues to produce art, but even though his early work was largely indistinguishable from his famous former artistic partner, he never achieved the notoriety or the success of his former partner-in-art crime.

So, why did one of these artists become world famous and the other remains mostly unknown?

The key to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s success — if you haven’t guessed that’s who I was talking about — was his ability to network and make connections, according to Albert-Laszlo Barabasi writes in a fascinating new book called The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. Although talented artistically, Al Diaz, who once turned tags into art with his friend, Basquiat, never had thattalent, Barabasi contends. According to Barabasi, who is the Robert Gray Dodge Professor of Network Science and a Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Complex Network Research, Basquiat relied on a few network-building skills in his rise from homelessness to a world famous artist.

Let’s take a look at those skills:

Always Be Hustling

While many artists look down on the act of networking as something beneath the dignity of an artist, Basquiat, maybe instinctively, never stopped networking. He continued to relentlessly seek out people who would both appreciate his art and, importantly, help him build his growing network of patrons and supporters.

Perhaps Basquiat just had a drive to to be famous. Or, he realized that art is meant to be shared and sharing required networks. Regardless, Basquiat built connections the way sculptors carve fully formed figures from stone.

Find Where Connectors Connect

“Indeed, Basquiat assembled his relationships in the art world like a carefully curated gallery show.”

Basquiat wasn’t the type to send query letters or notes of introduction to people he wanted to meet, people he knew would elevate his art. He sought them out physically in their environs. Today, Basquiat wouldn’t have been much of a Tweet, or Facebook post type of artist. He sold a postcard to Andy Warhol. He hung out in the School of Visual Arts to meet artist Keith Haring.

In Barabasi’s words, “Indeed, Basquiat assembled his relationships in the art world like a carefully curated gallery show.”

Make Those Connections Count

“By carefully and aggressively building a series of meaningful connections, Basquiat went from homeless teenager to A-list artist in under two years.”

Often it’s not the number of people in your network, but how important and meaningful those people are in your network. In other words, certain connections can help you grow your network, while others might hold it back. Basquiat was an artist at choosing the people in his network. Note, how Basquiat made sure to connect with moves-and-shakers like Warhol and Haring.

“By carefully and aggressively building a series of meaningful connections, Basquiat went from homeless teenager to A-list artist in under two years,” writes Barabasi.

Connect With Fellow Connectors

Perhaps the best connection that Basquiat made was to meet Diego Cortez, a East Village artist who had even more and even better connections. Cortez agreed to add Basquiat’s pieces to a group show. Within days, Basquiat’s works would be hanging alongside the works of his heroes, Haring and Warhol, along with Robert Mapplethorpe’s pieces.

Barabasi sums up the true power of art often lies in the ability of the artist to make connections.

“The fact is, no one can assign value to masterpieces or assess their worth by simply looking at them. Instead, we have to look at the invisible network of curators, art historians, gallery owners, dealers, agents, auction houses, and collectors that determines what gets into museums and the price we’re willing to pay for them. These networks not only determine which works hang on museum walls; they even command which works we line up to see.”

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