From the Studio


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What place the artist today?

This is the first time that I have written a blog entry and really the first time I’ve tried to write about my art practice and wider art issues.

I have been a practising artist since I left art school, but really since I gained representation in an actual gallery some three decades ago. I’ve watched and experienced many changes during that time.

Before I can explore where, as an artist, my, our place today is, perhaps a little history might be worth a look at.

When I entered the art world for the first time it was quite a different beast than it is now. As with so many aspects of the world we live in it has fundamentally changed from a quite hierarchical system with the gallery as the gateway to a career to a much more fragmented system.

So what was my goal when I started? Quite naively I wanted to make good paintings. A little later that became to make good art. At first I had no intention to become a full-time artist. I had other career goals and just wanted to paint as well.

I quickly came to realise that to do the type of art I wanted to explore, I would need to commit a lot of time and effort. This eventually led to deciding to paint full-time.

Of course, this was a major decision as I now had to survive somehow.

This eventually led me to the realisation that I’d have to sell my work to produce an income. Now that might be obvious to many of you but at the time there were many that expressed the opinion that art needed to be pure and above commercialism. An idealistic position for sure but also with some merit.

This, of course, meant exhibiting in a gallery. How I got there I’ll explore in future posts.

So what did I find once I got there? I found a system of selling art that relied on a few things. Naively at first, I looked at the spaces that my work would be displayed in as the most important aspect in a gallery – an obvious aspect when how your art looks is something very important to an artist.

I quickly learned that this was only one small part of how selling art worked. Back then there was no internet and it really was about who you knew that allowed you to progress.

The gallery was the gatekeeper between art and buyer. If you wanted a work of art you went to a gallery. They were, and still are, the middlemen. If you want to sell to an audience that can afford the artworks you are selling you need access to that audience. Back then that meant having a gallery that was close to where that audience worked or lived.

A gallerist would typically learn to reach out in a social way to make connections to these mostly well-off people and build a direct relationship with them, though some passing traffic was also very desirable. Only later did I come to realise that is what mostly decided who was accepted into a gallery.

For the privilege of being a represented artist, the gallery took a quite large percentage of the sale. In return, they provided a space to hang your work. An audience via their mailing list and a broker to deal with the buyer for you. My job was to provide on a regular basis quality work. Back then there was also another aspect that was implicit in the gallery system. That was that the star artists would be used to cross-subsidise the new artists. Hence it was up to the gallerist to decide who they felt could go on to become a star earner for the gallery. Of course, it was never mentioned in those terms.

So part of the unwritten contract was that a gallery would use their connections and promote an artist so as to progress through the system. Growing prices and keeping the whole system working. The artist part was as the became more collected and well known and to also play the part of “artist” as to be promotable!

Of course, this often meant that the gallery had a hierarchy which as an artist you quickly became aware of. It was never spoken about, or at least rarely, but most new artists quickly felt it even if they didn’t understand why it was so. That sounds like another blog entry for another time.

Changes!

After a few years of being in this system and progressing reasonably well the first great change happened.

The introduction of the GST lead to quite a shakeout of the gallery system. Many gallerists who understood how the system worked chose to leave and either shut their galleries or sold them. It was a time of great rotation and meant I had to look for new representation. Now no matter how well you were going in a particular gallery, unless you had gained a national reputation it was a fraught business to change galleries. I had a year without representation and hence no income.

Eventually, I did find a new gallery and went onto continue building my career.

During this time in the early 2000s, an aspect of the change that the GST had prompted was many new galleries being run by people who didn’t have the understanding of how galleries really worked and it quickly became evident that many careers were suffering accordingly. I managed to dodge most of that for a while.

I had the best years of my career until the next big change occurred. That change was the GFC or Global Financial Crisis.

That was the year that the gallery system fractured and along with the coming of the internet to business, broke open the role that the gatekeepers had played.

By that time I had been an artist that was being collected and being hung in major competitions with an increasing income. Moving up the hierarchy. Not a star but an artist on the rise.

Almost overnight, the industry went from prospering to contraction which it has never really fully recovered from.

I left the gallery I was with as they were panicking. There has been a change in management two years earlier and they were totally unequipped to deal with this new environment. Another time in the exhibiting and income wilderness.

Why did the GFC affect the art world so much when the rest of the economy survived so well? That is again for another entry.

So eventually I found representation again a restarted my career. But something had changed in the system. The unwritten agreement between artist and gallery was changing and often without consultation.

Galleries were providing less and asking more. A shift was happening. Just like in the economy where business had worked out you could make more profit if you got the consumer to do more of the work. You could cut costs and pocket the difference. Self-checkouts in the major supermarkets as one small example.

Galleries started to expect artists to build their own audiences. The old contract of an artist as artwork provider wasn’t enough. It became expected that an artist would be a promoter and a marketer as well. Yet this is a time where galleries also increase their take of the sale. Soon they even started expecting the artist to pay for exhibition costs or at least share them 50/50. This has more to do with the gallery trying to find a business model as there traditional sources of audience diminish. Indeed there are many galleries that now charge the artist a fee to hang there work and take a commission. A smaller one but still.

This takes away the galleries need to provide an audience and the costs that go with it. So it is a much-changed environment for an artist to survive in than when I first started. All this so I can continue to create paintings.

About Andrew Bennett

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