Because you are reading this article, I know two things about you.
1. At some point in your life, your mind and your heart declared: ‘I am an artist.’
From that moment it was true. You are an artist, even though the declaration may have been made in silence, in the privacy of your own thoughts.
2. Very soon, the question arose: How can I get my work shown?
In the current climate of relentless inclusiveness, an over-used slogan pushes the nice line: ‘Everything is Art and everyone is an artist.’
The hard truth is: there are two kinds of people who create artistic works.
They are the artist and the hobbyist. To be a hobbyist is a valid choice – if made by choice, rather than by lack of courage to face public judgement. But the artist has a gut-deep need to show his or her work. She or he has to share it with an audience.
I know these things about you because I’ve been there. Over a span of nearly forty years, I’ve been both artist and gallery owner-director. Back when I was starting out, most of what happened to further my career was just a matter of trying this and that, failing at some points, stumbling upon the things that worked. I would have given a lot for a handbook to show me the way. So, I can tell you I understand much of what you are facing now and I’m glad to have an opportunity to make some suggestions that will ease your path.
Making art is not a business. But making a living from your art depends upon the business of showing it to sell it.
The options for getting your work shown fall into four main categories.
1.) Public galleries – funded and run by governments
2.) Private galleries – funded and run by an individual owner
3.) Art shows – funded and organised by art societies or charities
4. The Internet
Each of these options has its benefits and its disadvantages. Only one thing is certain: you have to try at least one of them.
As you read, you’ll soon notice my personal biases for and against each option discussed. I make no apology for this, when it comes to Art, I cannot lie for the sake of politeness.
Art is serious – a recent theory even proposes that ‘Art made us human.’ Your art is the most serious thing in your life, so I will write here in the same way I talked to emerging artists at my galleries.
Let’s look at the options, one by one.
The public gallery.
The fundamental thing for the artist to remember about public galleries is: they are departments of government. Thus, they are expressions of political will. At their best, they offer exhibits of art from diverse cultures or periods or Movements, presented by informed curators in a logical sequence. Their purpose is to entertain and offer alternatives for the public to consider. At worst, they become well-intentioned gestures towards giving the public what is deemed to be ‘good’ for it.
Many, perhaps most, public galleries are founded upon donations of works given by collectors or artists. In time, governments amended the laws that endowed such generosity with a tax benefit for the giver. Now, public galleries must increasingly resort to other means of acquiring artworks deemed ‘worthy’ or ‘important’ for their collections. Whether through auction sales or by direct negotiation with collectors, this requires serious money.
Though the shortfalls are eased by philanthropists, corporate or private, their generosity may be bracketed by conditions that reflect the commercial, financial or political interests of the donor. Although the public – through taxes – provides the funds for acquisitions, it gets no say in what is bought. This is why a large sector of the public considers public galleries to be only for the elite of the art Establishment.
For the artist, the question is: do you wish to be part of it?
If you choose this path, your first step will be to join up as a member of the gallery community. From there, you will be required to follow the protocols of the government department under which the gallery operates and the preferences of the curator who has tenure at the time. Both of these are subject to change and are not negotiable by an ’emerging artist’ such as you, the newbie. Your work is not likely to be shown except as part of a group exhibition.
This is all I can tell you about public galleries, and it comes only from listening to artists who chose this option. It is not a path I ever chose. But at roughly mid-career, it ‘chose’ me, when the local government of my city commissioned from me a painting for the opening of the Cairns Regional Art Gallery, where my Portrait of Lady Norman is on permanent display.
In the next article, I’ll be telling you about the second of the four options for getting your paintings hung: the Private gallery in the high street.