Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Brave New Whirl

In the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, this morning, there is a long article about the troubles at the British music label, EMI. The company is losing money, artists and senior management as it fails to heed the rapid, user-driven changes wrought by the web.
Artists recognise that major labels like EMI no longer have a monopoly on marketing and distribution. The labels' once vice-like grip on the various rights contained within their back catalogues have been pried loose by peer-to-peer file-sharing, which has not only undermined earnings from these rights but also redefined the function of the whole idea of 'copyright'. Desperate attempts to save money by reducing investment in artist development have eradicated the only other 'added value' major labels offered.
Record companies are not alone. The disintermediating effect of the web – obviating the need for middle men between artists (or 'content producers') and their potential audience – is forcing everyone, from record labels to book publishers, film distributors and image libraries to re-examine how they operate, let alone make a profit, in the midst of mind-boggling tumult caused by relentless, rapid technological innovation and unpredictable shifts in consumer behaviour.
Everyone, that is, except commercial art galleries. They have long been gilded anachronisms which have somehow managed, thanks to a couple of recent, prolonged booms in art values around the world, to conduct their businesses in much the same way as they have since the 19th century, breeding a deluded snobbery not just about their cultural function but their importance as an edifying conduit between artist and collector. The spill of money from the art boom has also made them arrogant towards, if not downright dismissive of, the artists themselves, especially those who have yet to prove their critical or commercial worth.
Unfortunately, the number of galleries that function as anything more than sales outlets can be counted on the fingers of one hand within any one continent – with most playing no role at all in the development of up-and-coming talent or the well-considered, curatorial management of the output of well-established names.

Too many galleries are vanity operations set up by clueless amateurs, lured by the illusion that Saatchi-like wealth, fame and social acceptance can be attained by anybody who can rent a few square metres of white-painted wall space. Too many survive not on sales of art but on regular infusions of new capital from inheritances, trust funds or fuck-you-rich partners. Most deserve to fail.
The number of gallerists with a thorough knowledge of (let alone real love for) art – such as Stuart Purves and Rex Irwin in Sydney or John Buckley in Melbourne – is dwindling. What we have instead are more 'shop-keepers' who choose what to exhibit using the same, vacuous, trend-driven criteria as interior decorators or comic book traders. Their knowledge is minimal, their discernment unrefined, their sales patter inept. If they have any relationships with press media at all, they're maintained by the occasional, poorly written press release.
They also have as little as possible to do with actual artists, most of whom they regard as necessary but unruly evils over whom they need, always, to exert control.
The trouble is, most young artists are so clueless about what it takes to manage their own careers, they're quite happy to put them into the hands of any bozo offering their output four walls and a window. They'll even fork over 40 to 60 percent of the pittance they'll earn from sales, most of which will be eroded by promotional expenses (billed to them by the gallery, of course).
And yet...
As I've written elsewhere here, the ubiquity, speed and complex, no-cost networking capabilities of Web 2.0 is going to radically rupture the traditional relationship between artist and gallery. Unless the gallery can redefine its value as an intermediary – not just between the artist and private, corporate and institutional collectors but also the broader 'cloud' of individualised awareness of the artist's work that constitutes a new form of culture –
it's likely to end up a bankrupt and irrelevant concept. Just like a record company.
The real substance of commercial and intellectual exchanges in culture is shifting from the traditional bricks-and-mortar of what geeks call 'meat space' to the more adaptable, egalitarian and disintermediated 'virtual space' online. In the latter, artists have an opportunity to be truly independent and self-reliant. However, they have to find the resolve – and the nerve – to seize it, to make the most of it.


Anonymous said...

At least the clueless young artists who you mention may "fork over 40 to 60 percent of the pittance they'll earn from sales, most of which will be eroded by promotional expenses (billed to them by the gallery, of course).." at least they may be getting 40% to 60% of the retail value which is not fair of course, but from what I've learnt lately talented major indigenous artists in remote areas are so exploited by what are known as "carpetbaggers' that they are lucky to get 20% of the value of what their work sells for in a major city urban gallery. An example on 4 corners was shown recently where an 'art dealer' (thief) was selling the work for $3,000 to $5,000 and admitted paying the artist about $800 for it, and we can be sure he was exaggerating how much the actual payment once alleged expences were deducted... everything is relative.

Fatima said...

That doesn't make it better! That just means the situation is even WORSE for indigenous artists. Apart from the usual costs, they pay a bomb for foodstuffs, especially in the desert. Let's not forget that many food stores in the desert are also run by white folk who let extended families run up accounts and say "Oh, just pay it off with a painting" (it goes without saying that the painting is worth MUCH more than the account).

Anyway, none of this is NEW. Indigenous artists have been getting ripped off since they began painting on canvas (or belgium linen, which is frequently 'given' to them). And don't come back and tell me that they are lucky because they get materials supplied – that's just another ruse from people trying to rip them off under the guise of 'helping' them. Should indigenous artists be grateful if they were ripped off by the same percentage as non-indigenous artists? No! How dare you suggest that ANY artist should feel justified in receiving only 40 to 60% of their sales – let alone imply that percentage as something to indigenous artists should aspire.

My personal hope is that Australian indigenous communities harness the power of the internet, to take control of both selling their own artwork, and the way their culture is disseminated. Even many of the registered charities that help indigenous art communities are patronising – trying to 'educate' indigenous artists about the so-called benefits of the mainstream artworld, in which the charities and associated galleries ALSO profit from the artists' work. Dooney is providing a workable example for remote and disempowered artists of any background or race to regain personal, cultural and financial control of and benefit from their work – which is what all artists, ESPECIALLY indigenous artists, deserve.

jose-luis quijano said...

Wow !! I'm very pleased by the way you wrote this Post and how you articulate what I have experienced and think about commercial Gallery’s for the past 20 years. That's why I never deal with them at the same time you need to search for the right working relationship with one or two around the world that are like minded. Nothing stays the same only by having the ability to solve problem can we keep the illusion of freedom. Projects after project to keep oneself sane. If somebody wants to start a REVOLUTION count me in. VIVE LA REVOLUTION

Anonymous said...

Hazel, I love it when you talk dirty!!That was eloquently written and I think you speak for all artists on this topic.Cheers.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand.....not wanting to defend a 60% commission rate, but having spent a number of years around art and artists I've noticed that a staggering number of them are too lazy and too disinterested in commerce to bother empowering themselves through digital media.

Making use of the internet as a tool requires learning a new skill, how to sell, and selling is not about you - it's about the purchaser. Does your product/service/commodity satisfy that purchasers need? Frankly many artists are too self interested to ever excel at this process.

You are spot on about the potential for the web to enable artists to seize more control of their careers but how many artists are actually capable of selling their work at $8000 per canvas in a way that established galleries can? It is a process, it does take work, and to pretend that galleries do nothing for their money is inaccurate.

Hazel, you yourself benefited from the patronage of established galleries early in your career - would you be able to operate in the way you do now without having had that start?

Of course there are bad galleries, commission beyond 50% (without charging expenses) is inexcusable, and ripping off indigenous artists is morally repugnant shameful behaviour. But it is not good enough for artists to bleat and carry on and whine - the tools and opportunities are there, stop making excuses and start getting professional.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, galleries more often than not at times, show artists that do not sell well for various reasons. Unless they have a lot of easily selling artists, the galleries may not survive if they did not charge their high commissions. A high commission means nothing unless it is crystallised with a sale. We need galleries to be able to afford to take risks and show work that may not sell. So well sold exhibitions enable galleries to show less able to sell works and each time they are taking a risk as to sales figures. I suppose the risk factor is built into their hefty commission rates. The market at the moment would be very harsh for art sales with the economic downturn and people tending to reduce spending. I noticed that ARC/SPAN gallery in Flinders Lane is half the size it used to be. I don't know if its due to rising costs and reducing sales, but my guess is it is. Its not easy to sell art at the best of times - some artists are very sellable at any time but they are a minority. Its quite a complex issue with many competing interests.

Anonymous said...

Umm, to the anonymous promoter of the benefits of art galleries: one thing you can't say about Hazel is that she is whining without doing anything about it. According to The Age newspaper, she is one of the very few young artists earning well into six figures annually and the prices of even her smallest works at auction are close to ten grand. Both The Age and (I think) The Australian Financial Review have written about how she is at the vanguard globally of using the web not only to promote her works but also to coordinate inventory and streamline commissions and communications with buyers. As for the influence galleries have had on her career, her last three shows have been self-produced (albeit under the banner of one gallery or another eager to share her limelight) and they have been the most successful and notorious. One notable Sydney gallerist (for whom I once worked) told her in 2005 that prices for her largest works would have to stay under $9,000 (including commission)"for quite a few years to come" to be saleable. Such works, last year, were selling for nearly 30,000! Good thing she didn't listen to him.

artcanyell said...

There is no doubt that Hazel is one of the few young artists who is doing spectacularly well. As well as producing amazing and boldly daring provocative art, she also has incredible business acumen, marketing motivation and skills, impact, contemporary relevance, energy and vision than many others. It may be that gallerists need her more than she needs them at this point.

Anonymous said...

I think the comment that began with "Umm" has missed the point a little. Hazel is doing a good job of course, the comment about unprofessional / whining artists from anonymous earlier wasn't talking about Hazel at all I think that was misinterpreted badly. Also the person was talking about her early career, certainly not the last few shows.