Monday morning, two and a half weeks to my next exhibition. I’ve selected the paintings I’ll be taking, a total of 23, from which I expect to hang 15, given the space available. I’ve produced the posters and fliers, and just completed the press release. I’ve dropped the publicity materials off at the gallery, my wife has taken the time off work to drive the van over to Northwich from Sheffield (I’ve not had a licence long enough to hire one myself). Just got to finish one or two pieces, and make sure all are ready to hang, then I can relax and enjoy the four 55 mile trips across the Pennines and back so I can layout and hang the work, and make sure the show is looking its best before the opening night. It’s my first show of the year, and I am excited to be exhibiting in a new town, and nervously hoping that people will actually turn up to see the work, which brings me to the subject of this blog.
I’ve seen a lot of comments recently from artists, indicating that we should not pay to show. If you’re good enough, you’ll be taken up by a gallery’ seems to be the argument, and in a lot of ways, I am sympathetic to this view. Having to pay for wall space in a commercial gallery is not something I will do lightly. Nor is paying for inclusion in website content, usually as ‘featured artist’ or for work placement in a video-stream exhibition something I’m happy about either.
However, I am paying for the shows I have coming up, as thousands of artists do every year, and this does not contradict the paragraph above. If commercial galleries are well enough connected, then they will be able to survive by commissions alone, and will have the opportunity to be selective. Would that there were more of these, but certainly up here, the gallery market is suffering. Faced with competition from the internet, the fixed assets, with heavy business costs, of a city centre location are not conducive to profitably running an arts business, and the economy has yet to recover up north. The number of buyers is not enough it would seem to sustain much in the way of contemporary art galleries in Sheffield, for example, where two have closed in the last 18 months. London may be healthy enough, but getting noticed by a London gallery requires persistence, contacts, and hype, none of which fall into your lap. Faced with this situation, artists are forced to put on pop-up and self funded exhibitions, but it need not necessarily be commercial galleries that benefit.
There is an increasing trend for the recycling of old industrial and office buildings into art studios. Often run as social enterprises, they also often have gallery space attached. The gallery may be of benefit to the studio holders, but it must also cover its costs. Organisations like this are seeking to provide studio space for the lowest possible price, and studio rental subsidies for gallery space can be a huge drain on the generally stretched resources of the artists. This neatly illustrates the point made by a friend of my wife, Sally Goldsmith, last year, in a letter published in the Guardian, pointing out that far from the State being the major funder of the Arts in the UK, it was the artists and their families who provided the most support. A gallery owner confirmed this recently, pointing out that the galleries largest client base of buyers was other artists. However, it is not sustainable for these studios to subsidise galleries in this way. The impact on studio rents tends to exclude artists from poorer backgrounds, and the energy drain on studio holders who also have to provide the labour and skills to run the gallery means that the likelihood of succeeding commercially is low. Arts Council funding is in short supply, and often focused on active, rather than passive activities engaging with local communities. Consequently, gallery space has to be available to hire, not for free. Simple economics, but a harsh reality, but the approach benefits both the organisation, and the visiting artists. For the organisation, the rents they have to charge are reduced, and the profile they gain through having shows keeps them in the public mind. In some areas of low participation in culture events these are often the only cultural businesses around, and are essential if we are to ensure that people still have access to art. In the longer term, the possibility that these businesses may build up enough of a visitor base to be able to risk commission only shows can only benefit all artists. For me, as the visiting artist, the exposure to a new audience and the opportunity to build a following outside of Sheffield have encouraged me down this route. Of course more people have seen my work on the internet than have seen it on the canvas, but a screen presents a barrier that cannot be overcome, and I want my work to be seen, that’s why I painted it.
It is for these reasons that I urge people to support their own local arts communities. Go to the exhibitions, and don’t worry about not being sure if a particular show is your thing, you might find something that delights, or intrigues, when you see it in the flesh. Remember that just because someone has paid to put on a show for you it doesn’t necessarily diminish the value of the work, and that while all exhibiting artists are hoping that their work will be well received, they are mostly hoping that it will at least be viewed. It’s generally free, which cannot be said about many other events these days, so all it will cost you is your time, a gift that really can be said to benefit all. Without an external audience, artists will stop exhibiting outside of the major cultural centres. The opportunities to see all art will diminish or disappear for many areas, as will the number of practicing artists, leaving us, and you, with at best a 1200 x 800 pixel image of work produced in isolation of a viewer as our only access to new art, and galleries and museums filled with the safe and established. So give your local artists a chance while you’ve still got the opportunity.