…. you caught me….pondering my local arts scene … my place (or lack of it) within said art scene…how exhibiting has changed over the years, and, as a footnote, whether physical art galleries are still relevant as a venue for me. (answer to last question- perhaps not.)
I am not sure why there is this recent expectation that anyone self-identified as an ‘artist’ is entitled to or should expect to make a living in their chosen hometown doing just that. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of the whole business model of being an “artist”; you make a business plan, type out a budget and projections, and “voila!” Not much consideration about the quality of the work or what it means or how well it is conceived.
I’m actually waiting for the flashmob of local accountants, (or fill in your choice of profession here- ) demanding more coverage in the local news, whining about how no one appreciates them and supports them, wondering how we can re-make our town into a destination for people seeking accountants…. ok- this gets silly in a hurry … but hopefully you can see the point here.
What is taking place here? What actually constitutes “support?” Does it mean being paid by a local non-profit to sit on street corners “performing” to drive business to downtown restaurants and shops? Does it mean the artists paying a local public venue good money for the privilege of showing work to a local audience? (we used to call this a ‘vanity’ gallery – and it’s about $100 a day for the privilege.)
It should be simple enough. You do something that people value and want, you find an audience. Otherwise- look elsewhere in addition to your local friends and admirers. Lots of elsewheres. Sure, other factors are often critical- meeting the right people at the right time, having a partner who brings in the income so you can be in the studio or workshop, being willing to go wherever and do whatever it takes to find more opportunities.
A couple decades back, after grad school, the norm was teaching and gallery representation. Galleries were more relevant because they were the way to find an audience pre-internet. The validation of gallery representation was a mark of professional status, giving you something to work towards- having a solo show every two years. It was affirming to have people working in those galleries that believed in you and your work. Those lines on the resume added up to solidify serious intent. This is still true, but not the only truth.
Last year, one of my former gallerists, the lovely Francince Seders, retired and closed her Seattle space. She had a long run – over 40 years – and carried work from some serious heavyweights. She championed regional Northwest artists, had a very special relationship to those she exhibited, and operated with the highest level of integrity. But she too lamented the changes she saw… more online / less in-person. A gallery in CA that briefly carried my work went out of business, (not before I made sure I was paid though) and another in Ashland, OR, with beautifully designed shows, had an owner who retired end of last year, and the gallery was up for sale. All this just goes to show how things are constantly evolving according to factors that are not always in the control of the painter, or even the gallery owner. So do we wring our hands?
Perhaps this is bound to happen. It speaks to the labor, expense and dedication (on both the part of artists and gallerists) involved in making a go of it through hard times and the challenge of continuing to work through your own aging process. In my own small city, I’ve seen lots of venues come and go during 20+ years- not too surprising given the demographics of the area. Some were fairly provincial in scope or ambition to begin with- but sadly the few attempts at local contemporary commercial spaces, have had an average life span of about 2 years. Now, more then ever, if artists want to get their work out to the public, they have to be nimble, have lots of outlets, new venues. Even if they do have a gallery, they are likely expected to do some promotional lifting.
Plus, the internet has totally changed this equation. There is a lot more “inventory” to deal with. Anyone and everyone can call them selves a “professional”- and perhaps start selling their work. Buyers don’t have to be educated in the visual arts to know what they like, and can afford. Which means that there is a multiplicity of things that make me cringe, but also make me swoon – in a good way mind you. All this is mind-boggling democratic. It’s all a giant soup of choice, and the world keeps spinning.
Many people can’t easily travel to galleries, or are too busy or intimidated. Most folks probably feel they can’t afford the prices. Lots of people seem to think the Arts are a value to society. (insert your favorite study here) But there is a lot of competition for the brief attention span and limited time of said appreciators. And what does it mean to be an appreciator? What does it mean to participate? How will all these struggling arts organizations keep cultivating an audience?
I would think that creative/maker people should be among the most flexible among us, but what I’ve witnessed lately is that when the subsidy rug is pulled out from under them, they get very panicky, and wonder if the sky is falling. But when we demand support, are willing to give our work away, think someone else is going to save us, and cling to old models and institutions, we seem a bit desperate…. and no one is attracted to desperation.
So, my modest proposal….just go back to the work. All the rest is noise. Just do the work that makes your soul complete, and if you must, make a living in some other way along side of it. Share what you do freely. Keep seeking out those connections and supporters. If times get better, or you connect with the right people or patrons or project, great. You will hopefully at least have made some contribution to the timeless creative conversation.