Off to market: why art needs commerce

Great article by Matt Roberts in the Guardian today – interesting to stand back and see the way the landscape in the arts sector has changed. (original article here)

“The golden age of public funding in arts is over – it’s time policy makers help visual artists link creativity to revenue”

damien hirst mother and child divided
They can't all be Hirst, but self-starting artists are beginning to break through. Now they need help in breaking even. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen / Rex Features

As a fine arts student in the West Midlands, I can’t remember any of my tutors discussing the commercial system, even conversationally. Five years earlier, the National Lottery had begun to subsidise Arts Council England (ACE), institutions such as Tate Modern and Baltic were inspiring unprecedented visitor numbers, and the millennium project the Year of the Artist was supporting over 1700 artists’ projects across England.

To a mid-career artist it must have felt like the long overdue recognition they deserved, as an unending procession of new public galleries and funding schemes rose up before them. Now it seems slightly odd that so many arts workers seem to have embraced this wealth of public subsidy without questioning its sustainability. But having been overlooked for so long it’s understandable that nobody wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth.

During this ‘golden period’ of public funding the commercial system, already seen as cold and disinterested by many, became further distanced from artists’ everyday experiences. For some, including many academics, the commercial sector was viewed as fawning, bourgeois, uncritical and London-centric. Within the artistic community a very dim view was taken of any work considered to be ‘too commercial’, a vague criticism aimed at artists whose work was seen to focus more on aesthetic values rather than political or philosophical enquiry.

This increasing division between commercial and non-commercial activity was further reflected in ACE’s policy priorities. From 2000-2005, visual arts officers, responsible for issuing grants, were deeply worried by the potential of applicants for profit-making.

Exhibitions and projects were intended to produce and exhibit high quality artworks for the benefit of the English public, and any earned income from selling tickets, sales of work or publications was at best seen as a distraction. If potential income was greater than the sum of the initial grant or deemed to be a motivating factor for the activity then any kind of funding was highly unlikely.

The 2004 ACE publication Taste Buds and its magic number 5.9 million (people who “aspire to buy original art, by artists living or dead, but have yet to buy”) changed the attitude of policymakers almost instantaneously. From the top down ACE began to believe that instead of castigating galleries and groups that were able to turn a profit, a huge amount of extra money could be brought into the sector by linking high quality galleries interested in selling work with a public who genuinely wanted to buy.

Serendipitously the Zoo Art Fair, which was founded in October 2004, offered a not-for-profit alternative to the market-driven Frieze Art Fair. Championing “emerging commercial and non-commercial art organisations”, the Zoo Art Fair gave 26 galleries, project spaces and artist collectives under three years old the chance to benefit from the increased audience and collectors who had come to town to visit Frieze.

Between 2005-2009 the Zoo Art Fair welcomed more than 57,000 visitors and gave a platform to artist-led organisations such as Moot, Workplace, Vane and the International Three, who were encouraged by ACE to venture down from Nottingham, Gateshead and Manchester respectively to take part.

In 2004 the idea that an artists’ group should be financially supported to promote artists at art fairs was still a fairly controversial one, despite the fact that many international institutions had supported their galleries in doing so for many, many years. Despite the Zoo Art Fair’s eventual disappearance, the argument for an art fair which includes or even caters solely for artist-led organisations has proved a persuasive one.

In Sweden, the Supermarket Art Fair has operated since 2007 as a counterpoint to the pre-existing Market Art Fair, and in Denmark, Alt_Cphhas emerged as the alternative to the Copenhagen Art Fair. Even in the UK the artist-led fair has re-surfaced with Jasper Joffe’s Free Art Fair in 2007 and the Sluice Art Fair emphasising experimentation and the exchange of ideas above profit.

The notion of artists representing their own work and that of their peers to smaller, more sustainable local markets is becoming increasingly popular. More and more not-for-profit groups are seeing commercial platforms as a way of avoiding the need to rely on any particular funder. This is visible in the steady growth of emerging gallery sections at the traditional art fairs, such as Frame at Frieze and the Art Projects sectionof the London Art Fair.

But with several previous generations of artists discouraged from exploring commercial opportunities and the current crop left with little alternative, we still have a long way to go to achieve a successful balance between critical and financial interests. This is such a sensitive issue that Market Project was founded by a group of eight artists and a curator, all based in the East of England, to investigate constructive engagement with economic and revenue-making aspects of the art world. This has led to several provocative events in different parts of the region such as Too Many Artists at Colchester’s firstsite and Collecting the Uncollectable at Aid & Abet in Cambridge, as well as a series of lively posts and articles on the Market Projects website.

That artists’ groups are now able to benefit from their business acumen and entrepreneurial ability, rather than being hampered by them is long overdue. It encourages all artists to take responsibility for the financial aspects of their practice rather than waiting endlessly for someone to do it for them.

The risk is that in re-shaping the landscape so quickly those artists who don’t have the promotional skills to sell themselves may be doubly punished, finding themselves locked out of a funding system that requires them to function as creative business people and with too little knowledge of how to successfully sell their work. Equally, not-for-profit galleries and groups who are unattractive to investors and patrons due to their location or niche audiences will inevitably struggle to compete with metropolitan or more commercially savvy operations.

Recognising that the commercial and public sectors need to be more closely aligned is an important first step. However, arts policy makers need to take responsibility for the division they allowed to form within the sector and invest more heavily in training and professional development to give everyone a fighting chance.

Matt Roberts is chairman of Matt Roberts Arts – a not for profit organisation founded in 2006 to create opportunities for artists in new locations and contexts.

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