27 Jul

LikeSome new research on artists working outside the gallery system has just been published by Axis [1]: Validation Beyond the Gallery. As an artist who has little interest in making objects that can be sold, collected or otherwise institutionalised, as a relative outsider (and Outsider) even among the outlying group of artists who feel the same [2], and as somebody doing ongoing work related to artists’ livelihoods and pay, there’s some interesting stuff in there. The only caveat I’d add is that the study is by their own description qualitative [3], i.e. an interpretation of narrative from only 25 participants, so personally I’d be very cautious about forming policy or drawing universal conclusions from such an incredibly small sample of participants.

Having said that, the TLDR version will perhaps be unsurprising to anyone with any experience in the matters under discussion, although evidently it still needs to be said:

  • Publicly funded organisations– and funders themselves doubly so– still won’t and don’t, for the most part, commit to artists directly because they’re geared towards fixed-term, limited and highly instrumentalised, institutionally-driven projects.
  • The (fairly large) sector is critically ignored, and often treated as the poor cousin of “proper” gallery-based art.
  • Meanwhile many artists are neither suitable for nor interested in the “Art World” that consists of the art market and the symbiotic private/major institution gallery system that is widely– obsessively, even– covered by academia, the mainstream media and the specialised art magazines to the exclusion and detriment of all the other “art worlds” that exist.
  • Experiencing any degree of success or recognition in this sector is pretty much a crapshoot because the infrastructure is so haphazard, which in turn fragments the community of artists working within it. This study very tellingly reveals that even people who work in the sector struggle to name their peers, and find it hard to define success beyond just being able to keep doing it.

Link for an introduction to the research and the wider project of which it is a part. It’s worth reading, for artists and commissioners or policy people alike, with some thought-provoking quotes from the artists and producers who were interviewed.

NB Reading it in the embedded publication viewer is like trying to knit socks onto a flea, and the way to access it at a comfortably readable size or download it is not immediately obvious: to do so, click the “i” at top right or just cut out the middle man and click here.


[1] For people outside the UK, this refers to the artists’ database and networking platform, not the WWII coalition of powers opposed to the Allies. Man, I never tire of this gag.

[2] It’s a bit less blatantly obnoxious and the artists are a bit less cut-throat about it, if only because it’s hardly worth cutting anybody’s throat over the meagre sums usually available for commissions and performances, but performance and community artists have a definite inner circle as well. You tend to see the same people– some of them, at best, one trick ponies– and the same narrow types of work on the same circuits time and time again because it’s still who you know that counts for more than what you know. That’s artbiz.

[3] Some artists might like to make sure they know the difference between qualitative research, quantitive research, and “research” that is only research is the most literal, basic sense of “systematically finding facts”; this applies especially to the most recent generation of people mangled through an art pedagogy regime which is currently obsessed with brainwashing artists into believing their art is research and research is art, without ever training them in anything resembling actual research methodologies, objectivity, or how to interpret data.

7 Responses to “ARE YOU VALID?”

  1. stevemessam 27/07/2015 at 9:54 AM #

    so, to find out about working outside the art institution environment – you ask art institutions? I sense a potential flaw…

    • Alistair 27/07/2015 at 11:09 AM #

      To be precise, they asked commissioners who were then asked to suggest artists, but your point is still entirely valid. (a) The top-down, institutional (i.e. not artist-led) approach is so entrenched that even people researching it apparently don’t think to start with the artists and work from there. (b) Commissioners (the better ones by their own admission and to their great regret) definitely don’t know all the most interesting artists and most relevant work anyway. Plus, as Dawn Giles rightly points out in the study, artists themselves often have no idea how invisible they are to their ostensible peers; many people assume that somebody must be looking if they’re keeping up some kind of practice as artists, but by and large commissioners institutional or otherwise are not actively looking for anyone new. So, as previously mentioned, we can’t assume that commissioners or artists in this sector know other good or relevant artists, at least not beyond their own very small networks. And anyway, in the worst cases organisations and galleries are actively, pointedly and proudly not looking. I know this from experience.

      One example is somebody who came to a live show of mine and works for a well known production organisation that likes to cultivate a scrappy underdog persona– taking advantange of a comp ticket she’d requested and free transport, mind you. Afterwards, when I asked her with no particular ulterior motive other than curiosity if there were other venues she’d recommend for it, she sneered “I’m not working tonight.” If you’re not working, pay for your ticket and don’t be all up in my face about how important you are. It was a sold-out show where members of the public, the people I actually work for, were on a waiting list for this arrogant ingrate’s seat. The same show went on to sell nearly 45,000 tickets abroad and webcast live to thousands, in one country (not the UK) alone. QED for the conclusions of this report.

      Assume a conceptual break as well as a paragraph break because I’m not in any way comparing this nasty individual to them, but in the last few months alone I’ve heard the directors of Gasworks and Jerwood admit that open calls are pretty much the only way they find artists who aren’t already on their radar or in their networks, and of course every time they do one they’re totally overwhelmed. Not to mention the fact that an open call is a call, made at a time and with parameters of the organisation’s choosing, i.e. another top down and non artist-centred exercise, even if the chosen two or three or ten artists eventually get a good deal from it.

      Not that I think they’re necessarily wrong to firewall what they see as their core functions, because I’ve worked inside and outside the defences; unsolicited submissions in every medium and artform were already on their way to being totally out of control (in terms of sheer numbers and of the quality to crap ratio) by the early 90s when I started professionally. By the late 90s anyone in their right mind- whether in publishing, the media, fine art, or whatever- had overtly or to all intents and purposes stopped in any way advertising a desire for new work/new artists except occasionally, on very strict, limited and usually project-based terms.

      • stevemessam 27/07/2015 at 11:36 AM #

        Oh yes. All valid points. It might have been more interesting if they looked at who is commissioning artists outside the establishment to get a better picture of the art landscape. I know there are lots of art worlds, and I’m personally glad I’m in the right one for me. I could probably count the number of publicly funded curators who have commissioned me over the past ten years on one hand. Of course that poses the problem of how to find who those people are. In cases like this it would be great if there was some kind of database of artists you could use to find artists working in this way…

        It’s an interesting subject and would be good to really lift the lid on artists working – who’s doing what where. It’d certainly be healthy for art in general. Let alone really look at the subject of validation and recognition properly.

      • Alistair 27/07/2015 at 12:37 PM #

        I think your question about where the art and artists really are and the questions raised by the research concur (as do I) that what’s desperately needed is some research, discussion, sharing and pragmatic infrastructure for art and artists outside of the market (which is probably most of them, actually) as opposed to the current laissez faire indifference shown towards non-institutional artists, which is shown even sometimes by the individuals and organisations tasked with supporting them.

  2. Alistair 27/07/2015 at 4:04 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

  3. anitachowdry 27/07/2015 at 5:46 PM #

    Thankyou for highlighting this report Alistair – I have read it with interest. As an artist who has spent a great deal of my career working in museums, galleries and arts organizations in the education and interpretation sector, I can identify with some of the issues highlighted in the responses to the questions posed in the report. One that particularly hits home is highlighted on page 11 of the report: “Some artists mention that while they sometimes work within the gallery system, this is most often as part of the education department…many felt sidelined, sensitive to a percieved hierarchy between educational work and work displayed in the galleries…” — meaning that one is perceived merely as an interpreter of the work in the galleries.
    While I have always supported the importance of interpreting work in exhibitions to audiences, and have devoted a great deal of my expertise towards affectively fulfilling this role, it is the “perceived hierarchy”, particularly in comparison with one’s peers, that hurts.

    The “perception” is done by the art and education professionals who hire artists to undertake the interpretive roles – a potentially creative role in itself, which I have undertaken myself on many occasions. Sadly this worthy arena has also been riddled with many less than professional, and sometimes downright ignorant careerists, who have through their ignorance and sometimes blatant cliquiness, perpetuated these perceptions by classing artists who work in educational roles as somehow less worthy.

    It has happened a lot to me in the course of my career – I think the most unforgettable was a particularly unintelligent blossom of a ‘cultural director’ at Asia House (a small arts organization) in the mid 2000s, who patronizingly informed me that “as a LESSER ARTIST”, I might sometime be given the chance to display some work in their cafe !!! Not to mention a Camden Council banners project where the four artists who worked their guts out over months were wonderfully eclipsed during the celebratory ceremony by the organization’s decision to invite a celebrity, Anthony Gormley, to come and steal our limelight (no mention of the four artists who were responsible for creating the work with local schools)
    What is particularly galling is the fact that these ‘gatekeepers’ who make these judgements do not necessarily know that much about art.

    As my career has progressed, one of my solutions has been to collaborate with institutions to create exhibitions myself, through which I can present concepts with my own work and that of artists I can nominate, and use this as the focus of educational programmes. It takes a lot more preparatory work, but it is worth it.

    • Alistair 27/07/2015 at 5:59 PM #

      Thanks for sharing this, Anita. The “lesser artist” thing is particularly crap. I’m sure most of us who work in the arts have similar horror stories about so-called “educational” or “community engagement” programs or “educational departments” where artists are treated like glorified (and underpaid) nannies instead of qualified, creative experts… and usually by people who don’t know the first thing about education or art.

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