Duke Professor leads ample international collaboration to research a more inclusive, bias free and data driven art history

Hans J. Van Miegroet
Hans J. Van Miegroet

Q: Could you tell us about yourself and your professional journey from Belgium to Durham?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: I am Flemish and I grew up in a family of scientists. I am second generation academic.  My sister is also a scientist who used to work in Oak Ridge National laboratory. I was confronted, very early on, with fundamental science questions and exposed to art. At the same time, international exposure was part of our family culture: my father studied at ETH in Switzerland and taught in Germany and Belgium. Both my parents were all over the world, for a variety of assignments. So, while many European countries and especially cities are very inward oriented, I got a got the opposite message from the very beginning. My goal was to study at the University of California and, although many people said that nobody would be interested in Netherlandish art there, they were. Therefore, after I graduated from the University of Ghent (Belgium) I applied for a Fulbright fellowship for my PhD in the US. I received my Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was surprised to see that in the US universities would pay people to complete their PhD degrees. I had a great time at UCSB and the Getty Research Institute and this experience has shaped my career.

Q: How the idea of your Art Markets project was born?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: I started teaching at Duke art history introductory courses and I was never really satisfied with that. I come out of that mercantile culture of art in the Netherlands, and I've had that experience in the Getty Research Institute with scholars who were working on art markets. At that point in time, this was not a popular theme in the humanities, I began to reach out to people in Cultural Economics who could basically instruct me.

Over the years, I learned is that it's not that important what you know, it's more important to realize what you don't know.

So I reached out to Neil deMarchi, Rhodes Scholar and Professor of Economics. For 20 years, we researched and taught Art & Markets together and met every Friday afternoon for at least three hours. And sometimes the meetings were more about talking and writing down notes. It's very important for researchers to realize that cross-disciplinary work is more about personal relationship and less about designing a good research hypothesis. Sometimes it's simply an exchange of curiosity. There is a whole dynamic that begins to develop. We got to teach each other economics and art history, respectively. I'm now teaching a combined Economics and Art History course in Art Markets for the last 20 years at Duke and it is a good thing that we have the intellectual freedom in our department to practice new approaches “with no constraints”, as economists would say.

Q: Why wasn’t this a popular topic among humanists?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet:  First, because art historians, in particular, and humanists in general, do not like to talk about transactions, aggregates of mass produced art and money. Also, they do not like to talk about art as a consumption good or as an asset class, as economists do. But it is important to think in an economic manner if you want to develop an understanding of how art emerged and developed in Europe. Second, because most humanists have little to no statistical training; so, by not knowing even basic concepts of statistics, you basically isolate yourself from understanding important causally related evidence. I'm not saying that everybody has to become economist, mathematician or statistician. But it's important to be conversant with it or, at least, have an intellectual openness for it.

Q: What dissatisfied you about how art history was taught before?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: Lack of training in the social sciences and understanding of scientific methods, such as data analysis and basic statistics. This is the core issue. Some of us are no longer in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge or may not see humanities research as a priority because it is not always applicable. With the rise of computational methodologies, we are adding competencies such as machine learning or AI that many humanists do not understand how this could actually work together. There is a serious attempt to do so, also here at Duke, in what is known as digital humanities. But it’s important to remember that there was a similar discussion in the sciences about digital astronomy in the 1980s!! And some said “let’s get rid of this digital thing because we are all doing it” so they the reverted back to astronomy, without the digital qualifier. You could make a similar argument for the humanities. It is all about evolving competencies and research interests. You cannot avoid dealing with aggregate data and introducing innovative and more precise metrics in the age of data, even in the humanities.

Q: Could you explain the role of the Duke, Arts, Law and Markets Initiative (DALMI) at Duke?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: Neil and I agreed that we also needed a place where students could engage with our research topics. It happened during the time when we were establishing a JDMA that allowed law students to come and complete a master’s program in art history. So we ended up having graduate students doing a lot of the core research in economics, art, and law.  We attracted students that were trained in several disciplinary areas. DALMI became a place where students could meet to engage in art market research and good conversation. Conversational culture is very important and virtual environments are not always conducive for these types of natural exchanges. I also learned from my experience with Neil that physical proximity matters: people need to sit together and talk to each other about topics they read about or want to research. DALMI also became a “heaven” for undergraduate students. One of my undergraduate art history students, Holland Stam became so interested in the topic that she began to study economics and statistics to write an Art History honor’s thesis on racial inequality in art history text books.  She observed using very precise metrics, that more than 90% of art history is a history of white male artists.  We also conduct a lot of research in the aggregate. Many humanists traditionally study famous artists, theories or the art movements. But often we forget 95% of artists that are now ignored, but who produced most of the art that has disappeared. Bottomline, DALMI is a place where we experiment and try to write a new research agenda for integrated and data-driven art history-economics research.

Q: It is fascinating. A public space to talk about art in a broader and inclusive way…

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: We were able to physically create a Piazza at the Duke Smith Warehouse where students like to come. Students crave community, especially in this pandemic period. Good cross-disciplinarily is all about people creating communities and organically work together. In other words, proximity matters.

“A lot of art historians are not aware of what statisticians warn you about: selection bias, confirmation bias and survivorship bias.”

Hans J. Van Miegroet

Q: What surprised and excited you most during your work on Mapping Markets project?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: What surprised me most was that in the Humanities, and specifically in early modern art history that we often go with all kinds of cultural narratives that are not always well tested. For example, the Italians say that they invented the Renaissance, but is that true and what is that exactly? What are the metrics? A lot of art historians are not aware of what statisticians warn you about: selection bias, confirmation bias and survivorship bias. Most of the studies in art history have one or more of these biases solidly implanted, both in their methodologies and in their narratives. For example, we studied the great masters because their paintings have survived in churches (survivorship bias), but we usually ignore the art that is no longer present. You can fill out an entire library with books about Rubens or Rembrandt. But these artists are not that special if you do not consider all those people who are behind them and who made their work possible, those who created an efficient labor force and a visual environment for their work to flourish.

What interested me is a pretty mundane question as to why people at some point in time decided to hang paintings in their homes. People tend to think that Florence, Amsterdam and Antwerp are all the same, but they are not, they are in different development stage of market development. In Florence, for example, mostly elites owned art. In Amsterdam everybody owned art, it was affordable - just 10 guilders for a painting! People in Antwerp and Amsterdam used to go to the market to buy apples, cabbage and a painting. There were cities that were producing 30,000 paintings per year, mostly for export. Most of these paintings did not survive. Another surprising thing is that many of these paintings had a “built in” expiration date. They were sold from Spain all the way to the Americas. Who would have thought? Then the question becomes how relevant is studying this type of art, especially when it has disappeared? A critical point in art history and visual studies is to avoid selecting only data that confirm the hypothesis. If we are not avoiding these selection and confirmation biases, we are comparing apples and oranges without understanding how art was produced in art markets that were basically in different stages of development.

Q: And how have these findings confirmed your research hypotheses?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: I learned to explore and avoid going in my research with a hypothesis rooted in one or the other cultural narrative. Let’s take the example of Paris. When we began to study art in Paris, we - first had to establish whether the city was a net producer or a net importer of art. It looks like a relatively simple question, but it took us five years of data analysis to determine that. The French narrative was “Parisian buyers in the past did not care about Dutch art because it was considered very vulgar”. But we gathered data about Parisian consumer behavior during the entire 18th century. We found that people consistently were paying more for Dutch paintings than for French paintings, an observation that contradicts the French cultural narrative. I was invited to Louvre to present these findings in front of an audience that I knew was not in favor of what we had found. That was Karl Popper in action – falsifying the hypothesis to the extent that it stands. If you look at say, Kelvin Lancaster’s consumer theory, it follows that people buy a product irrespective of what the maker intends. And that is true for paintings as well. Consumers often project 2 or 3 characteristics in a painting, then as well as now. This is a very dynamic concept. If you apply this to art, a lot of the traditional art narratives are just that, narratives with little or no factual basis. Quite often, artists are not always aware that audiences read their art differently from what they intended. In other words, meaning unfolds in the reception and understanding these practices is an integral part of this discussion.

Q: What are the challenges of this big research project that you conduct at Duke?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: Magnitude and scope are the biggest challenge. How to scale this type of data-rich research? Where to start? When we started Mapping Markets 1, we were Nederland-centric for art markets were very well developed in the early modern period. But what I learned quickly is that we also need to pay attention to the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe. We now are being more inclusive, including understanding migration patterns and their relationship to cultural industries. We work with scholars in Riga and Vilnius, for example. There is no substitute for local knowledge, which sometimes is anecdotal, but it is so important! I interviewed Ukrainian people about Russian, Polish and Jewish communities. In one of the Bass Connections teams, at DALMI, a student from Albania told me about ethnic minorities in Albania, which were often discriminated by the Greeks. Together we studied cultures of erasure. These are cultures which do not exist anymore and are ignored in scholarly writings.

Q: Do you foresee that your model will be adopted by other Humanities disciplines?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: It is adopted already in some places. In Germany and Holland, universities already appoint professors of Art Market, who are trained in both Art History and Economics. Traditionally, art history appointments are based on art periods – you are the contemporary person, a Renaissance person, so on.

Let’s take another example. One of the biggest art data bases in the world is the Getty Research Institute Provenance Index database. We invited the Director Christian Huemer at Duke and my graduate students showed him that the database was unusable to conduct research in the aggregate. The reason for this deficiency is that the database was created by the humanists with limited knowledge of data gathering, data cleaning and research in the aggregate. You could search for information about individual artists, but we wanted to look at 500,000 data points which at that time was impossible. Based on our feedback, the database was re-designed to serve this research need. Now Christian Huemer is the head of the Belvedere Research Center in Vienna. My former PHD student, Sandra Van Ginhoven, who gave that feedback to the Getty people, is the now head of the GRI Provenance Index data base in Los Angeles. And both are now also part of our new research project Mapping Markets 2.0, which also includes a world-renowned Duke mathematician Ingrid Daubechies, who is best known for her work with wavelets in image compression.

“The old Humanities concept is under siege and change is not a bad thing.”

Hans J. Van Miegroet

Q: Do you think that there is an identity crisis in the Humanities? Is there a need to reinvent Humanities?

Hans J.  Van Miegroet: There are discussions that go on for an entire generation. So, I see it not as an identity crisis, but as a matter of critical reflection. Are you feeling that Humanities are under the siege? The old Humanities concept is under siege and change is not a bad thing. Change is good and needs to be seen as an opportunity! We really need to re-assess the humanities training to facilitate the change and prepare people to re-discover the appetite for fundamental knowledge transfer and fundamental research. Maybe we need to rethink the first two years in the University – humanists need to learn basic statistics and data analyses while science students would benefit from being introduced to literature and art, broadly defined.

Q: What advice would you give to trainees in the Humanities to best express themselves, show the importance of their work and obtain funding, which I know is a frustration for many….

Hans J. Van Miegroet: You need to have a compass – “I do this because I think that this is important and I know what I am doing”. The reward may not come immediately, but take advantage of the fact that you are in an environment like Duke where you can experiment. Keep an open mind and think outside the box. Try Occam’s razor. Make the least possible assumptions and start with the least complicated solution. Try counter - intuitivity, be creative and go where you never went before but pay attention to the metrics. In the Sciences, often big discoveries can be very creative, accidental, at times even counter-intuitive, and the same applies to the Humanities.