I’ve swapped one of my normal hillside blogging spots for a comfy sofa and a cuppa. It’s Heritage Open Weekend so I’ve taken the opportunity to have a nose around Farfield Mill Art and Heritage Centre as it’s free today. There’s normally an entrance fee to see the artists studios, shops, small exhibitions and displays of the weaving heritage of this bit of the dales. Not the best choice of art or the most engaging of displays so the entrance fee is another barrier to me coming more often. But still, these things cost money to run and the cash has to come from somewhere.
It’s a topic I’ve found myself conversing about a lot this week – firstly at a talk I was asked to do about being a professional artist in Cumbria for Littoral Arts in the Lakes. It also dominated chats I had when I visited the lovely folk at the Storey Gallery in Lancaster and meeting the deputy director at the North Pennines AONB in Teesdale. There’s a great deal of concern around at the moment about the state of government funding for the arts and public funding generally. Wobbly times it seems. David Shrigley has even made this video for the cause.
As an individual artist I realised long ago that you couldn’t rely on public money to pay you a living. I’m sure there are artists and even more arts organisations who feel the state owes them a living, but that’s something I feel very uncomfortable about. As Alistair Hudson from Grizedale Arts pointed out in his presentation at Littoral the visual arts are largely dictated by the commercial sector. Artists are only famous and successful if they are selling well. The Turner Prize is never contested by struggling artists. The public face of visual arts is determined by a small group of influential gallerists and collectors. In fact they have it all pretty much sewn up at the top end.
So what chance do artists who don’t want to go that route have of ‘making it’? It’s all a matter of business models. The music industry was once seen as a similar situation with record companies monopolising on what was considered talent. Then came Napster and illegal file sharing and a whole range of internet based ways of discovering more music – beyond just those the record companies wanted to sell you. Then iTunes came along and wanted to sell you that new found music legally. Now places like Bandcamp mean that musicians can make and sell music without record companies. There’s more profit and less interference. Win / win for the artists. While musicians are waking up to the fact they can control their own artistic directon and make a living too, the record labels ate crying foul and blame it on piracy for the wholes in their pockets when it’s just that their business model has just been bettered. Similar things are happening in publishing with a whole bunch of authors taking advantage of the boom in ebooks and loopholes in their publishers contracts which enable them to bypass them and sell more directly to the public.
That’s all great for musicians and writers, but what about visual artists?
In 2008 Damien Hirst pulled a fast one by selling directly through an auction house. The sale room becoming a solo exhibition and the auction house publishing the catalogue. As the buyer pays the sales commission on top of the hammer price hirst pocketed every penny of the £111 million sales.
Christo and the late Jeanne-Claude fund their multimillion dollar temporary installations entirely from their own pocket. They make their money selling drawings, prints and models produced as part of the preparatory process and giving lectures. Not only does it give them a more sustainable business model but crucially it gives them 100% independence from the agendas of cultural institutions funders and curators.
It’s that independence from the source of money that I aim for. While I’m lucky to be in a rare position to make some form of living solely from my art I also realise just how important it is to keep money and art separate. Making art for money generally leads to bad art. It then becomes a manifacturing process Using art to subsequently realise more money is a far more sustainable option as it ensures investment for the future and room for development. How that balance is realised depends on the business model. It’s not arts funding that will see artist through these uncertain times, its a look at the broader business model. Art always fairs well in turbulent times. Maybe the latest financial insecurities will prove to be a good thing for arts – a chance to step back and regroup. A time to reflect on the value of the arts and the affects of art.
In the meantime I’ll reflect with a cup of tea on a comfy sofa. There’s a lot of profit in a cup of tea…