Symposium by Libby Anson

Benjy BearImage 1
A critical examination of the art market and its working practices.

Two Day Symposium 27- 28 October 1995.

Image 1:
Benjy Bear

Part of Liverpool's Visionfest, this event was a pilot for a series of symposia focusing on issues concerning the visual arts and its practitioners. The Visionfest Programme Director, John Brady, considers such events are necessary because many artists are unaware they need training in order to operate effectively as part of a professional workforce. He persuaded business sponsors that artists might heed relevant advice from those they respected in the art-world rather that men in pin-striped suits. Subsequent funding reduced the individual registration fee to only 5 to cover catering costs. With hindsight, it was unfortunate that a more national representation of delegates did not attend. A larger budget and time scale might facilitate more widely spread publicity for future symposia. The rhetoric of Terry Atkinson's address, focusing on production and distribution, demanded knowledge of a particular (i.e. marxian) ideology in order to access his discussion effectively. He proceeded, largely anecdotally, via his influential meetings with Joseph Kosuth and his involvement with Art and Language as both producer (artist) and distributor (artist and teacher). He coined "Thaatchi-ism" to illustrate the situation in which it is debatable whether the money or the ideological market leads the way. To him, what matters are the ideas; if you produce meaning you produce art. He questioned whether (meaning as) art should be considered as a commodity. In which market does its real value lie?

In contrast, Matthew Slotover, editor of Frieze magazine, was jargon-free. He offered advice, "unashamedly", on how to "make it" - a topic which, he said, was often approached with embarrassment. He pointed out that the best artists are the best businessmen, using as the definitive example Damien Hirst and his renowned Freeze initiative of 1988. This project worked, he explained, because it was an original idea that was perfectly timed. It "created a buzz" and was professionally managed and aggressively marketed. Good work will always stand out and get noticed... if it is marketed correctly. He suggested that artists be well informed about work around them, plan ahead and develop chains of events and contacts. He recommended London, New York and ... Glasgow as cities in which to exhibit. The art world is now so international that curators gravitate to where the best art is concentrated. Glasgow was cited specifically as a city where artist-led enterprises - alternative and independently run exhibition spaces and initiatives in education - have created a thriving artistic community producing quality work. Summing up, Slotover advised artists to "get to know" other artists they respect: be critical: make good art that is personal and portable, (documented as slides, video, photos etc.). In open discussion he suggested that we are overproducing artists as a result of the art schools boom in the sixties. Terry Atkinson asked how producing artists can be "stopped" and in relation to what does "over-production" mean - making a living from art?

Ann Gallagher, exhibitions officer at the Visual Arts Department of the British Council, spoke about criteria for the selection process within the commercial and non-commercial gallery systems, with particular reference to group shows. She stressed the importance of the show's critical success, reflecting a worthwhile and popular programme. The image of the space itself must be promoted as one which shows work of quality. The character of the venue needs to be appropriate for the work shown. Gallagher used the example of selecting the General Release exhibition at the '95 Venice Biennial. Selectors need to be involved in discussion (to promote awareness of their subject), research (by looking at degree shows and pre-selected "short-cuts" like The New Contemporaries) and using recommendations from other curators. Gallagher concluded by asking whether galleries are still needed and if the system "functions properly".

Jyrki Sivkonen, presently Gregory Fellow at Leeds University, offered his view of Finland's radically different system. That no commercial art market exists, as such, affects the way art production is considered there. The Finnish government subsidises artists' practice; there is a welfare state for art. Work is bought by national collections not private patrons. If an art market goes bankrupt artists lose their raison d'etre: if there is no market they have nothing to lose. He suggested that it is therefore possible to produce art without compromising, "without currency you can go against the current".

Rodney Dickson, an artist based in Liverpool, is not excited by London - the conventional place to be. It is not as expensive to live outside of the capital and it has been easier for him to make art when he wants to and not in order to stay alive, (how he survives he did not say). He suggested that artists make the best work they can then promote it as far and as well as possible. He warned against falling into the trap of playing the market by compromising and "making art about art". If an artist is successful in London, he or she will be busier that a businessman but won't be getting the same money for the effort; one does not achieve success for nothing.

Rose Farrell & George Parkin, collaborative photographic artists from Melbourne, focused on their dilemma of working outside the capital. Sydney is the biggest and most influential art market in Australia. Unless artists show there it is very difficult to acquire an international profile on the commercial market, even if work is being included in national collections. Therefore, in spite of the financial implications and the necessity to support themselves with other jobs, the opportunity to find recognition overseas is sufficient incentive for them to promote work abroad on a regular basis.

Stephen Snoddy, Exhibitions Director at Cornerhouse, Manchester, described his instinctive approach to curating. His own personality informs his response to the briefs and responsibilities of running an exhibition programme. This approach began with his own experience as an art student in Belfast, during which time he kept fully informed of current shows and work on the mainland. When he took charge of a Belfast arts centre his interest in art about art developed into an interest in art about life. He described some of the shows he had originated at Arnolfini, (Alistair MacLennan, Shifting Focus, and Jack B Yeats) and Cornerhouse. The development of his exhibition programming came from his own passion for art, a willingness to engage with personal issues (writing a catalogue essay for the Tate Gallery about Richard Hamilton's Irish work), self-belief and a reluctance to become diverted from his objectives. He is keen to emphasise the relationship between image and text, for example, by curating This Not That - John Baldessari. He also commissioned a series of communiques to highlight issues raised by particular exhibitions in order to bring Cornerhouse into an intellectual context at relatively low cost. It is important for him to by-pass London by bringing international artists to Manchester, literally, via the city's airport. He feels it is important for artists and curators to collaborate and is also keen to create debate between historical and contemporary art by utilising the collections in galleries around the city. Another of his strategies is to give British artists who have been "forgotten" (Edward Allington, Rose Garrard, Rita Donagh), a well publicised show with a substantial catalogue which allows them to be sold/toured to other venues.

Richard Cork explained the criteria but not necessarily the hidden agendas behind the selection of the South Bank's National Touring Exhibition, The British Art Show 4, which opened in seven venues across Manchester in November. Not intended as a progress report of the last five years, it was chosen with Rose Finn-Kelcey and Thomas Lawson from a personal perspective. Submissions from directors, curators and exhibitions organisers across the British Isles were considered although Cork claimed that regional response was comparatively poor. (John Brady questioned whether the selectors approached R.A.B.'s). Previous selectors advised against visits to artist' studios as a non-productive method. The outcome is a show of London gallery based artists, most of whom graduated within the last ten years. Cork claimed that time and financial constraints discounted the inclusion of live and community based work. However, both the artist and the selectors received a fee for their involvement. A major problem from the beginning was the "ill-advised" title, which is criticised for having "a heavy, nationalistic flavour" and "which raises expectations of inclusiveness and comprehensiveness that a selection panel should not be required to fulfil".

A symposium targeting artists facilitates their participation in dialogues crucial to the development and promotion of their professional practice. Here, it appeared that they were awe-struck by the calibre of the speakers. The audience accepted their respective addresses and "workshops" with reverence and largely without challenge. The tendency for one-way conversation prevailed, with the "cultural bureaucrats" more on a pedestal than a platform. Mathew Slotover, Ann Gallagher and Richard Cork were considered to respond to a "brief" in terms of their respective job descriptions, but not to be pro-active in questioning their role or challenging the status-quo of the systems within which they operate. This was repeatedly criticised with regard to the lack of promotion of the work of artists outside of London. It was agreed that those behind the artists - dealers, curators, critics - are those who make more of a difference to careers than do the artists themselves or their work. What constitutes the art market was a major issue; too often, money and selling are considered unhealthy aspects. The emphasis on the commercial gallery market was a bone of contention. The need to integrate artists into society, to recognise the market for art within the community, in education, design, architecture, hospitals and industry was recurrently expressed. The general consensus among delegates was that they had not been offered any real insights from the speakers. However, they admitted that it was reassuring to have what they already know reaffirmed.

© Libby Anson, News at Ten, Liverpool. 1996elogo