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Advantage Play: How the Pandemic Revealed the Patrons’ Show is a Sure Bet

by Steve Roberson

Lisa Roberson slowly moved through The Art League’s gallery, filled floor to ceiling with art inside Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory. She considered each of the 500-plus artworks. With the aid of an app on her phone, she rated the pieces, knowing soon she and her husband would be going home with one of their favorite pieces of art among them. The couple had tickets to The Art League Patrons’ Show, an arts fundraiser like none other. 

The couple, who have won several prized pieces of art they have attended the Patrons’ Show, wondered how they and the other regulars can seemingly do that year after year. In 2021, COVID provided a path to gather insight into the unique event, its attendees, and their tastes in art.

 

Background

The 52-year-old Patrons’ Show is a unique event, perhaps the only one of its kind. Members of The Art League, several notable local artists among them, donate their work to the event. The Art League Gallery is filled from floor to ceiling with the donated art that is on view three weeks before the show. Images of the artworks are also accessible on the League’s website and via The Art Thief, a purpose-built iOS app for the Patrons’ Show.

The event typically occurs in February at the Torpedo Factory, where a crowd of attendees packs in for several hours in anticipation of the excitement ahead. The Patrons’ Show is not an auction. There’s no bidding. Instead, the names of ticket holders are randomly selected. The emcee calls the first person’s name, they choose their favorite piece of art, and the art is theirs to keep for the ticket’s cost. The following person called then picks their favorite of the remaining artworks, and so on throughout the night. 

The lively crowd cheers for some of the more unusual pieces and lets out the occasional sigh of disappointment when a particularly popular artwork is chosen. There’s also the booing. Occasionally the crowd will boo when someone requests works that others have already claimed. While it’s good-natured ribbing, it also encourages everyone to pay attention. After all, having hundreds of people boo you, even if it is just in jest, is something most people try to avoid. Of course, none of that could happen during a pandemic.

 

Pandemic Planning

Preparing for the 2021 Patrons’ Show started in the summer of 2020. While it was clear that packing in hundreds of people into a building in the winter wasn’t going to happen, the fundraiser was more critical than ever, given The Art League’s regular revenue streams like art classes and programs had been majorly impacted by the pandemic. An online Patrons’ Show seemed like it could be the answer. 

Rob Spewak hosted the video stream for the 2021 Patrons’ Show. The event followed a similar format to previous years, with pandemic modifications and enhancements.

Most years, the game is for ticket goers to order the pieces of artwork in the show from their most to least favorite. Because ticket holders are called in a random drawing, they don’t know what artwork will still be available when their name is called. Out of necessity, the 2021 Patrons’ Show was different. Participants submitted their list of art before the drawing via the event website or The Art Thief app. The drawing occurred via video stream, and when someone’s name was called, their top available pick of art was automatically assigned to them by software that kept track of all the lists submitted. Consequently, there was a record of both the art that participants received and what they wanted to receive in the specific order they preferred. This data painted a fascinating picture of the event.

And with that came the opportunity to investigate why this event is so successful for the participants like Lisa.

 

The Patrons’ Lists

Looking at the lists of art submitted shows that participants put a lot of time and effort into rating and ordering the artwork. The median list had 112 artworks on it, with all but a handful of lists having at least 20 artworks. In fact, more than 10% of the population had close to all of the artworks on their list. This may have resulted from the app making it easy for people to organize art into broad buckets assigning one to five stars. We don’t know if the people with more than 500 artworks on their list precisely ranked each piece.

Individual lists by the number of artworks rated.


The Goods

The most important thing the data can tell us is how well the event worked out for the people participating. Has Lisa just been a lucky outlier, or do people commonly get a piece of art that they love? Spoiler alert: it turns out that it’s freakishly common for people to go home with a piece of art near the top of their list. Nearly one in five people went home with their top pick. Let that sink in. After surveying over 500 artworks, 19.6% of people got to keep their favorite piece. And the numbers only get better from there.

More than half the participants went home with one of their top five choices. 

Another way to say it is that 54.3% of people got to keep something they judged as in the top 1% of the show. From my personal experience, people are typically over the moon to get something from their top five.

The data show that two-thirds of people received artwork in their top 10 and 80% of people received artwork in their top 20.

Participants Received Art That Was:

Their Top Pick 19.6%
In Their Top 5 54.3%
In Their Top 10 67.1%
In Their Top 20 80.2%
In Their Top 50 93.3%


Diversity of Taste

So why are so many people getting a good outcome? Could there be some magical artificial intelligence optimizing the outcome? Nope, it turns out that people don’t universally agree upon the desirability of pieces of art. Aside from personal taste, there may be all sorts of factors involved: size, style, media, subject matter, connection to the artist, available wall space at home. It’s difficult to know, but we can look at the art and see how people ranked it.

A natural place to start is with the top picks, the highest-ranked pieces that, given the opportunity, a person would take home before any others. There’s every reason to think that a good deal of consideration goes into top picks.

Of the 515 artworks in 2021, 192 of them were at least one person’s top pick. That’s right: 37% of the art at the show ranked as the best one for at least one person. Over 100 works each rated as the favorite for precisely one person. The graph below illustrates that while a few pieces ranked as top picks for many people, the curve drops quickly and flattens out.

Times a particular artwork ranked as a participant’s top pick.

Looking at the most frequently top-rated art, we see that, The Dress, by Susan O’Neill, was chosen by 24 people, followed by George Washington at Gadsby’s Tavern, by Patrick Kerwin with 17 top picks. Clouds Over Prime Hook, by Tess Olsen, was the top pick for 15 people.

Taking that to the next step, we can look at how common it is for an artwork to show up at the top 5, 10, or 20 of someone’s list. This helps us understand if interest in the art is concentrated among a small subset of pieces. As you can see from the chart below, it’s the opposite. People’s interest in owning a particular piece is spread across almost all of the art. In fact, 75% of the art shows up in at least one person’s top five, and almost all, 96.7% of the art, shows up in at least one person’s top 20.

Artworks Show Up in at Least One List:

As a Top Pick 37.3%
In The Top 5 75.0%
In The Top 10 89.5%
In The Top 20 96.7%

Finally, we can look at how often an artwork shows up on a person’s list. As you can see from the chart below, nothing is universally liked nor disliked. In fact, the piece most frequently listed only showed up on 350 lists meaning that even the most popular artwork, for this definition of popular, more than 150 people didn’t want it at all. Even the art that showed up on the least number of lists was on a list 62 times.

The number of times an artwork appeared in a participants list.

 

So how did our heroine, Lisa, ultimately fare? She and her husband have participated in the Patrons’ Show for the last seven years, and while some years were disappointing, at least three of those years, 2021 included, they went home with the top artwork on their list, 10,000 Maniacs by Joyce McCarten. It’s perhaps fitting that they received that particular piece of art as they were the only two people who had placed it at the top of their list.

 

10,000 Maniacs; acrylic and collage by Joyce McCarten; One of the 515 artworks in the 2021 Patrons’ Show.

 

Beyond Art

As for big-picture conclusions that we can draw following the 2021 Patrons’ Show, the data can potentially provide insight into all sorts of situations like dating, hiring, buying a home, or any other instance where a multitude of factors are involved, and you’re looking for the best fit for you as opposed to some absolute notion of best. It’s a reminder that there are plenty of times that someone else doesn’t have to lose for you to win.

Of course, it’s possible that 2021 was an anomaly in some way or that gods of random number generation happen to pick people in the best possible order to make everyone as happy as possible, but all that seems highly unlikely. All the evidence seems to point out that people want different things. In situations like this, that’s a beautiful thing.

If we can gather data in the same way next year, I think it will lead to the same conclusion. Regardless, I know I’ll be participating in future Patrons’ Shows along with my wife, Lisa.

 

About the Author

Steve Roberson and Zurka Interactive, the company he works for, provide pro-bono support to The Art League for its annual Patrons’ Show. They created the free app Art Thief and the website that made the virtual version of the Patrons’ Show possible in 2021.

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