Packaged – photo collage
The art world is a mysterious and seductive place, alluring to image-makers. Getting there should be straightforward – there it is, after all, seemingly all around us, a tantalizing domain populated by the gifted, the visionary, the fulfilled, the admired, and the rich and famous. However, while it appears to share normal space with the rest of our world, ‘the art world’ is really a planet within it, and many artists believe it has been commandeered by particularly unwelcoming and very territorial colonizers. Like any astronaut, artists need the right equipment and the right knowledge, skill and attitude to try to penetrate its outer atmosphere and even more to survive the close encounters of the professional kind that await them beyond.
As a curator, I have come to realize that many artists are their own worst enemies. They may have solid artwork to present, they may be sophisticated in their technique or imagery, they may have impressive university fine art degrees, but their professional skills are abysmal. Sometimes, their attitude is an instant turn-off as well for even the most self-effacing harbor the idea that they are misunderstood geniuses. Ego drives them, not Art, and they focus on their need for recognition, not on gaining the skills and acting in a way that will support their work. They are sometimes so clueless yet so hopeful that even other artists may avoid them: who has the time or the energy to indulge them?
Too often, the big problem is the lack of professionalism in their interactions with other professionals in the art world. Are they even aware that there are many different professionals involved and that not all share their aesthetic, intent or ambition? Too often they are not. That is perhaps because they don’t think beyond their own needs. They are ‘the artists’ after all, they make ‘the art’, that makes them so special everyone else should be happy to handle all the rest of the profession for them.
As artists, we all are waiting for our Godot (Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett), or our Good Witch Glinda (The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum), in the form of a patron who will dote on us so that we can live our art. Would it were that simple. But, not only do we surrender our professional independence when others ‘take care’ of us, we also neglect to act in our own best interest, doing stupid things like exhibiting without a written contract (a contract also protects the exhibitor from unprofessional artists), even an informal one, handing over our work without getting receipts (also protecting the exhibitor), signing away our copyrights, paying exorbitant commissions to dealers or agents who do very little for us, or being prey to every person looking to exploit our eagerness and hope. A lot of people live very comfortably representing artists who themselves struggle to live decent lives, and it falls to the artists to make sure a more equable balance is achieved.
Equality means artists must act professionally even as they have to expect to be treated professionally. It means making the art and then doing all the secondary but essential tasks that prepare BOTH the art AND the artist for exhibition and hopefully sale. Works have to be properly photographed and well documented, dossiers have to be assembled to serve their purpose and must be complete, the work has to be properly prepared for transport, these are some of the necessary tasks. Only then should the work be handed off for exhibition: and then artists must respect deadlines and exhibition requirements.
To me, the most dangerous two words in the English language (or their translation in any other language) are: Trust me, whether spoken by the artist or the representative. Absolutely, but only trust each other, artist or exhibitor (or dealer) that each has done his/her part as a matter of course.
I just read your artist’s statement in your submission for a solo exhibition with interest. Surprisingly, you chose to add there a complaint about the submission requirements. You feel that they are especially prejudicial to ‘emerging’ artists, and accuse ‘the gallery’ of being ‘exclusive’ and ‘undemocratic’.
I make the requirements as Director/Curator of the gallery to which you are applying and so I will answer your critique.
If you research reputable galleries, you will find that requirements which include previous exhibition experience and a proven presence in the community are pretty standard, and that mine are even less stringent than at many other venues. They have merit, and are necessary, because they distinguish between ‘leisure”, ‘amateur’ and ‘professional/semi-professional’. Artists in the first two categories, including so-called ‘emerging’ artists (note: the ‘emerging artist’ label was originally applied to artists whose work could be sold at lower prices), have many venues in which they can gain exhibition experience and begin establishing a public reputation, craft fairs, multi-purpose rooms, restaurants, libraries, so-called ‘vanity galleries’ and commercial galleries, for instance.
The galleries that focus on art as an element of human existence, that is, galleries which do not focus on sales, recreation or leisure, are for those artists who have progressed into a ‘professional’ practice, with all that it entails. This is the kind of gallery I run: its mandate is multi-dimensional; supporting artists is only one of intents. Education is another,
Some artists who are serious and stand behind what they do apply to my gallery despite not meeting the requirements. If the work stands on its technique, and if the artists are clear about their intent and able to articulate it, I take the responsibility of exhibiting them despite their inexperience. It is, after all, part of my responsibility as a Curator to make sure they can handle the expense and commitment that a solo exhibition represents, but I also have to make sure that I can present them favourably to an audience. These added pressures are on me.
However, many artists submit work that doesn’t live up to or match their own hype, and this disconnect is the most obvious disqualifier. To me, there is nothing more risky than artists who cannot distinguish between expectation and achievement, who present their images as individual creations instead of as a body of work, and who cannot articulate their artistic philosophies. These need not be “academic’ but they need to have a clear attitude to the medium, to technique, to subject matter and to the artists’ fundamental attitudes toward art as a practice. Only when these artists display a nascent understanding of these concepts do I follow up with studio visits and keep those in mind that I see need a few more years of practice before they can tackle a solo exhibition in spaces such as mine.
In my experience, ‘emerging’ artists are too eager to throw their work into solo exhibitions, too hungry for acclaim and commercial success - I blame the expectations of families and friends, the imperative to ‘earn a living and the reduction of art to commodity level - usually believing that what they’ve done as students under the guidance of teachers is enough as a ‘body of work’ or that sales alone qualifies them as ‘professionals/. They do not. If you know the milieu, you know that artists cannot be considered serious and a good ‘investment’ (on all levels of that word) for those taking the risk of presenting them to the public if they have never produced a body of work completely independently and given as much thought or effort to their profession as they do to their practice.
One more note: There are only so many places that can exhibit professionally, only so many qualified people doing the exhibiting, and only so many of those able and willing to take the risk to show ‘unknown’ artists. Unfortunately, and I speak here AS an artist, it’s not just about the artist. Once into the ‘professional’ realm, it’s also about the public, the curators, the venue, the concept, the fundraising, the reputation…