Saturday, September 18, 2010

The End

This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again
Can you picture what will be
So limitless and free...
The End by Jim Morrison, 1967
I first met Michael Short in 2006. He was then editor of the finance section of Melbourne's most respected daily newspaper, The Age. He knew of my art but was most curious about my decision, a year earlier, to quit the prominent Melbourne gallery that represented me then to manage my own marketing, sales and collector relationships using the web.
He introduced himself to me in a phone call. He didn't bother with small talk. He just fired an intimidating volley of critically framed questions at me and insisted on evidence to back up my answers. I sent him copies of my tax returns for the previous two years and gave him the 'phone number of my accountant. Whatever he learned must have reassured him because he called again a couple of days later to tell me he had assigned a reporter and a photographer to produce a story.
It appeared on the front page of his section on Wednesday, 5th July, the day before the opening of my first exhibition of watercolours, Venus In Hell, at MARS Gallery, in Port Melbourne. The headline read State-of-the-art selling rivals traditional play to the gallery. There was a photo of me looking a little like Neo from The Matrix, clutching a lap-top computer.
It didn't take long for the traditional gallery system to react. On Saturday, the managing director of one of Australia's most successful commercial galleries, a senior member of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, turned up at MARS Gallery in high dudgeon. I'd met him a few years before, when my most fervent ambition was to be invited to join his respected stable of artists. Now here he was, up in my face because I'd dared to suggest, in the very pages of a prominent newspaper that were most frequently read by his big-money clients, that his business was doomed. We argued tersely for ten minutes in front of several people and when I raised the notion that what I was doing was making art more accessible to more people, he declared, angrily, "I get to decide who sees art."
The remark stunned us both into silence: in just seven small words, the gallery's basic tenet of rigorous control of the artist and their work and the individual collector was laid bare. Exposed with it were the few ragged fissures that over the next few years would widen to become a deep, treacherous crevasse isolating the art world's greying old guard from a new generation of artists and collectors.
Now everything has changed. Old, staid commercial galleries are trying to figure out how to re-vitalise creaky business models as their bricks-and-mortar rents increase, their sales – and relevance – decline, and their artists become restive over commission rates, poor collector relationships and inept marketing. Meanwhile, younger, more technologically adept artists are using a variety of different online environments, including social media, to by-pass not only galleries but critics, art journals, art fairs and competitions to connect directly with collectors – who no longer need galleries to access information about new artists or to provide data on values – and fans, who are happy to act as nodal points for viral communications and exchanges of ideas.
This doesn't spell the death of the 'real world' exhibition or the smart, imaginative and flexible interemediary. A younger generation produces its own shows, either at established spaces willing to negotiate one-off deals or in temporary, 'pop-up' galleries realised with the cooperation of shrewd landlords of unleased commercial real estate. It is also encouraging auction houses to redefine their role as partners not only of institutional, commercial and private collectors but also of the artists, the best-known of whom cut deals to sell large inventories of their work in highly publicised sales that can resemble meticulously staged performance art.
My own work turns up regularly on the secondary market in Australia and S.E. Asia. I've developed close personal contacts within a handful of major auction houses, including Christie's, in London, where, despite the fact that my work has yet to be exhibited anywhere in Europe, three of my paintings have achieved record prices in recent sales. My base of collectors has broadened markedly – six years ago, it was restricted to Australia but now it's international, with a large number of my works in private collections in the USA, the UK, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, China, South-East Asia, the United Arab Emirates and even Jamaica – prices paid for early work has risen over 1000 per cent in ten years.
Despite a global economic crisis – and a year in which I have been confined to a psychiatric clinic, declared bankrupt and forced to curtail my output to care for a gravely ill parent, my prices have remained steady because of my constant, highly communicative online presence and direct contact with collectors of my work.
The ubiquity of access to my work (and me) online as well as the ubiquity of the work itself – literally thousands of images of my paintings, drawings, and photographs scattered across other people's web sites, blogs and social media galleries – has delivered benefits that reflect a radical transformation of the way value is being determined.
In the wider market, objects of singular rarity are matched in value and appreciation by serially produced pieces which are more readily recognised and which resonate within popular culture. Simultaneously, the real locus of value (and power) is shifting from the individual product – the artwork, the song, the novel – to the producer, the artist, whose reputation (or, regrettably maybe, brand) is increasingly determined not by the common assent of a collective of mainly white, late middle-aged, male critics, gallerists, and curators but by an inter-connected tangle of awareness and associations within the tech-enhanced neural networks of popular culture. In the process, the role of the intermediary is also being redefined.
Since its inception – just a few weeks after the first article commissioned by Michael Short was published in The Age, just a week or so after Venus In Hell closed at MARS Gallery – this blog has documented in often too intimate detail the confounding and not untroubled adventure that is my 'career'. Successively archived since 2008, along with my heavily trafficked web site, by the National Library of Australia's Pandora project, it preserves a 'permanent' record of my career and an intensely personal observation of the evolution of the web as the most powerful medium of information, collaboration, transaction and transformation in the history of art.
Exactly four years after Michael Short's first article on me, he and I were in contact again. Michael proposed that I'd be a worthwhile subject for a video interview and text-based feature on what he described as a new multi-media package, produced for The Age, called The Zone , that dealt with "the free-market of ideas". I would be its first-ever from the art world: among previous subjects were the new CSIRO Chairman and former director of World Vision Australia, Simon McKeon, magazine editor and environmentalist Tamsin O'Neill, economist Martin Fell, and Austhink co-founder and director Paul Monk.
In the video conversation with Michael, I spoke of my decision to step outside the traditional, commercial and institutional gallery system – a turning point in both my life and career – and its consequences, good and bad. I explained my use of the web and social media as a means of connecting directly with the audience and collectors of my work, and why that connection mattered to me. I argued that it wasn't just about marketing my work but an intense need to articulate ideas within that work as well as to retain a large measure of freedom and financial self-reliance.
The course of our conversation wasn't easy: Michael probed me about my bi-polar affective disorder and my having been committed, earlier this year, to a psychiatric clinic. He was also aware that the extended lay-off had forced me into bankruptcy: mercifully, I was not questioned about that.
The video interview and accompanying 'hard copy' profile, titled The Art of Living, were distributed widely by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, as well as The National Times, Media Drive, Brisbane Times, and WA Today. The number of viewers for the video set a new high for The Zone, second only to a clip of the Australian prime minister's tattooed step-daughter posing for a men's magazine in a bikini.
After The Zone published its profile, last Monday, I drove across town to Fairfax Digital's Brisbane offices to participate in a live-chat session hosted by The Zone. Just having to go to an office other than my own was telling: old media's grasp on the freedoms of technology lags far behind the high concepts that are The Zone's chosen turf.
The online audience's reactions to my interview were pretty much as I'd expected: support from some artists and most collectors; defence of the traditional gallery by one lost soul; snide, dismissive attacks from less well-known artists (whose real names and email addresses were unhidden by online 'nics' within Fairfax Digital's system); criticism from old-school gallerists who refused to 'get' the paradigm shift and argued vehemently for the status quo; requests for advice on how to emulate my career; the usual excuses about how 'this' worked only for me because I'm an 'attractive' woman; schadenfreude-laden references to my breakdown; demands that I recant my position given that I still self-produce one-off exhibitions with commercial galleries; and so on.
You can still view the questions. I couldn't answer them all, although I spent three hours – rather than the scheduled one – addressing as many as I could in detail.
The interview and live-chat experience underscored how much had changed during the past half decade. But I couldn't help but notice how much I had changed, too. Once, I would have been crushed by criticism – and worse – from others within the art world. Nowadays, my raw nerves serve me well and I relish a fight. I'm all for passionate responses but I have no mercy when a detractor loses an argument – and their cool – and resorts to insults. I remind myself, as I've reminded others here, that it's not my job to reassure. Quite the opposite. It's part of an artist's job to question, confound, agitate, disturb and surprise. Too many have forgotten that.
There was one thing I didn't expect: many artists suggested that I should lead some kind of fight to reduce gallery commission rates. I thought my position on this would have been obvious: I see no point in lobbying for changes in a structure I believe to be irrelevant and doomed. But there I was arguing for complete autonomy and all they wanted was for me to become a union leader. Talk about missing the bigger picture, the bigger opportunity.
In many ways, it's fitting that Michael Short, the editor who first recognised the possible wider impact of a young artist choosing to step outside the traditional gallery system to manage her own career online, was the one who arranged and conducted the interview which now stands as a summary of the results of that somewhat reckless choice. It also marks the end of another chapter in the narrative of my life and art.
The ideas I've been expounding and defending for four years are now so widely accepted, they're almost commonplace. A younger generation of artists doesn't need to be convinced of the web or the benefits of independence and self-management – if anything, they take it for granted. So, soon, will a new generation of gallerists, who will find different ways of collaborating or partnering with artists to achieve their not-always-convergent goals and who will abandon the old-school impulse to corral and control the intricate, mutable relationships between artwork, artist and collector.
My personal militancy was always just a means to an end, not an end itself. I wanted to create a structure that supported my artistic ambitions, that enabled me to pursue the ideas that I found most compelling, to share them with everyone who might be interested in them, and eventually, to present the work derived from them how, when and where I wanted – oh yes, and to be well rewarded for the risks I took. I'm no longer interested in arguing anymore about whether this 'works' for everyone: it's plain to see that it does.
Now I have bigger things to get on with – in my art and my life.

24 comments:

bruna said...

nice wrap-up of a long intrepidous fight. i keep wishing you lots of luck in the next steps!

Mike Wood said...

Now that's what I call a busy and successful week. Glad I could follow on with that. Great video interview.

Onwards, upwards and Per ardua ad astra.

Karen Martin Sampson said...

Fascinating post, Hazel. I am a lot older than you but always found the "old" school of the gallery system to be intimidating and infuriating. I have always done better by word-of-mouth than by playing the gallery game. Now with the internet and social networking I am learning, yet again, how to promote my work and not feel used by any system. I am not cutting edge but there seems to be a place for my work, and I am having a lot more fun as a Old Age Pensioner than I ever dreamt! I am a loyal follower and wishing you continued success.

James Schmeling said...

Thanks for the excellent post, sharing terrific level of detail on thoughts, process, and interaction with others.

karo Akpokiere said...

Well said!. Progress is certain. :-).

Barney Davey said...

Your fluent literacy in openly describing both your personal and professional life are on par with your talent and ambition, putting both at the pinnacle. There is an interesting juxtaposition in that your blogging provides lucid, accurate and refreshingly honest insights -- so much so that most reading them would run from such exposure of their personal lives -- while your work, although straightforward on the superficial level, in that it is immediately obvious the subject is, for instance, a sexy female, is a tangled mix of deeply layered meanings that are as obscure as your life is open. This is what makes you such a stand out stand out and truly unique.

I don't see any artist trying to compete with you directly, which is remarkable in an art world where the bandwagon effect is always in play. The juxtaposition of your work and life creates a wonderful powerful dichotomy that shapes opinion and helps to make you the compelling artist and personality you are. My blog post for today is titled When Greatness in Your Art Career Competes with Your Full-time Job. For all the challenges in your life, this is is one concern you have courageously and successfully fought your entire career with no "All the stars are parking cars" syndrome for you. Thank you for your frankness and fierce courage in lighting the way towards a new paradigm of how art is brought to market. Congrats on all your recent well-deserved publicity!

Lindyklk said...

Brilliantly stated as always ~

Barney Davey said it best ~

Well done & bravo Hazel Dooney!!

Angela Treat Lyon said...

I say hear! hear! I love it that you ARE articulate and that you do stand for freedom and financial self-reliance. You speak for many of us whose words aren't quite as crisp - thanks!

Fiona Purdy said...

What a marvelous post Hazel - bravo for being brave, for standing up for yourself and your convictions, for your success and for being a role model. You are amazing and an inspiration to me and many other artists - when I feel myself backing down to external resistance and more importantly my internal resistance I will think of you and not cave in to wither.

Hazel please keep on keeping on!

Nicola Moir said...

It is very interesting to her you talk so openly about the gallery system. I have been told by gallery owners in the past that they do not like artists to have personal websites. This proposal seems backwards in the present rise of social media. It is refreshing to hear you speak so clearly about the reality of the commercial art world.

talkabout_this said...

Ten days since a post. The longest gap I think since the new year adventure. So am I reading this right, it's good-bye blog?

If so, good luck, I'll miss it (I know you're not going away).

You have been like the Steppen' Razor, Molly, entering Straylight to free the intelligence.

José Luis Moreno-Ruiz said...

The End?
Why, milady?
I hope not!
JL

laf said...

Long time no read, hope it's because you're going forward and not backwards.
Good luck and thanks

Mishka said...

Gorgeous blog entry. Eloquent and inspiring.

x

Carol Lee Beckx said...

I started reading Self vs Self towards the end of last year, and then went back into the archives as well. The posts have consistently been so well written, incisive and absolutely to the point. You have inspired me to go out and set up an online presence as an artist as I face changes and challenges in the years ahead.
Thank you Hazel

ani said...

~ applause ~
cheers and good luck!!

David M. Kessler said...

Hazel,

I will really miss your weekly postings, as I know others will. Thanks for what you have done to make other artists aware that they can make it on their own. Best Wishes!

Beth Jennings said...

'It's part of an artist's job to question, confound, agitate, disturb and surprise.'...this is clearly why you do your art, and why you have the success and following that you have. You are a natural leader Hazel, because you know what you believe and that drives your decisions. How amazing for a gallery owner to say 'i decide what art people see'...ha ha! he nailed it...this is why artists are starving...because they believe the tripe and such gallery owners succeed in keeping artists in their place. I love that you've bucked that system. Yes indeed it's about self branding these days, but do it with class, in a way that reflects everthing about you as an artist, and that branding will be so much more accurate than how a gallery will ever represent you. Awesome, Hazel, and beautifully written. Thank you for this wonderful and enriching post....

José Luis Moreno-Ruiz said...

Come back, Hazel!
Babe, come back!
JL

artvaughan said...

YES!

Anonymous said...

are you okay Hazel?

Hope all is well

VEE GEE

Anonymous said...

Long may you run,
long may you run...

-M

Nicole Pletts said...

HOpe you are ok and your dad too? I was a late bloomer with respect to your website so am most sad I didn't get to appreciate it for a longer time.
I wish you well.

Nicole (South Africa)

Anonymous said...

Hi Hazel: My name is Joe Murray, ( I created the cartoons "Rocko's Modern Life and Camp Lazlo). I've made a living as an artist all of my life, sometimes independent, sometimes deep under the thumb of corporate America. ( Which I'm done with) I've found your blog very inspiring,and your independent spirit a window into the way I was in my early twenties. I want to be there again. Your approach to selling your work gives me hope of what the internet has to offer.

Thank you Helen.