Third provocation: Art Is Profit?

Provocations is a free series of discussions about art and its function and place in today’s society…

 Third Provocation:

Art Is Profit?

Provocations is a free series of discussions about art and its function and place in today’s society…

Creativity and profit can exist side by side. Can the artist draw a balance between creativity and profit? Can creativity ever be completely free of the green dollar in our present society if the artist is to earn a living? Is the artist ultimately a small business making sure he or she satisfies the marketplace or can creativity resist commodification?



Mark Carr and Martin Gollan had organised this discussion at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, and provided a warm welcome. Four people took part in this discussion. The different colours here indicate different people saying things. Not all the discussion was noted down, and sometimes what is written here is a summary of a discussion involving comments from several people in response to what one person said. Where the text is the default black, it a summary of what several people said, or the original notes failed to record who had said it.

Before the discussion

We reminisced for a while about nightclubbing in Newcastle in the early 1980s, and tried to remember the names of the nightclubs, where they were, and what they were like (we felt lucky to have survived experiencing some of them).

The discussion

Martin started the discussion of the evening.

How bizarre the art market is! When finance markets were crashing, it didn’t affect the art market. It’s in a bubble of its own. There is profit at the very top. The art market is almost a feudal system with the landed and super-rich at the top and artists at the bottom.

How do you judge value when there’s such a wide range of work: some skilled in painting and drawing, others produce work that could be a crumpled piece of paper, or a performance piece eg someone switching the light on and off.

Performance artists can make money from multiples such as photos of the events they do.

How do you apply a value judgment [when faced with such varied styles and media]? Maybe it’s not quite a feudal system but a mercantile system: tiers of art market – super-rich level, commercial level, and small gallery level. How do you make money at a gallery? Individual artists are bottom of the pile. There’s the choice of whether to do decorative [that might sell quite steadily], or to get another job [and do art in spare time].

There’s a system that makes profit.

Culture in the UK of more historical art whilst the US is more contemporary art. The gallery system supports [supported?] a stable of artists.

The residencies available are about performance or ephemeral work.

The greatest joy is the physical creation. Secondly, it would be nice to make money.

There is difficulty in showing work in the North East. Arts Council-funded space tends to show a certain type of work.

The Acme Gallery [London] seemed to show more a variety of work in its day, not just one genre. The North East lacks such galleries. Most of the galleries are either highly commercial (often more graphic art than fine art) or focus on performance, conceptual or ephemeral.

There was some discussion of individual galleries in the area. The relative liveliness of the art market in Yorkshire was mentioned, and how Leeds seems to be a good place for artists.

Getting funding from the Arts Council is a matter of knowing the right words to tick their boxes. The grant-givers have control over what art is made and shown. The money they give to arts organisations influences what art those organisations support.

There is a living to be made by those who work in the arts agencies that are funded by the Arts Council to distribute funding. There used to be money available to individual artists to buy essential equipment (e.g. a camera), do research, go on research trips, put on an exhibition (money for framing and advertising).

Selling work on the web – does that give artists the opportunity to sell outside the gallery system? It does require quite a lot of the artist’s time to build up an online presence and connect with people on social media. I connect with artists and we share work in progress, information about opportunities, what exhibitions are on. I also connect with a lot of people in other spheres, some of whom are interested in art.

I don’t want to spend the time doing it [social media]. I’d rather spend my time doing other things than being online.

I focus on people [on social media] that I like following. I find it interesting and it can be useful to connect with others when you’re otherwise working on your own.

Social media can help to connect with people (including people who might buy artwork), but it does take time.

Thoughts after the discussion

When I was a teenager, considering a career in art, I was told it would be difficult to make a living as a fine artist; and was advised against becoming doing graphics and going into advertising because it was a tough world that sucked all the creativity out of young artists and spat them out, drained or even wrecked, after some years. Of course, what I hadn’t realised in my teens was that women’s art was valued less highly than men’s, no matter what the standard of their work was, so any woman artist facing more of an uphill struggle. By chance, as I was writing this, I saw an article in Forbes on this very topic and stating that being online would help even things up (I’m not so optimistic – men’s work still seems to get more coverage at the serious money end): Why The Internet Will Loosen The Iron Grip Men Have On The Art World.

Although I’ve researched how successful artists developed their careers in the 19th century, I’m still not sure I understand how the current art market works.

It seems generally easier to be a graphic artist or illustrator than a fine artist in the 21st century. Obviously art galleries need to sell work to be able to afford the premises and to promote the work and the artists so will tend to go for work that they think is most likely to sell. The commercial art galleries seem to be selling mostly illustrations or graphical art presented as fine art. The street/urban art galleries are selling art that is mostly illustrative or graphical (some typographical). The fine art that sells seems to be mostly safe, decorative – or by the celebrities of the art world.

The serious money art market is centred in major cities, especially London, New York and Paris in the West, and involves the extremely rich people. Historical art tends to be strong because dead artists won’t be flooding the market with more work so collectors know that the work is limited in quantity; and they can feel confident it has a long term value (so is a useful investment) because it has been collected by art museums. There is often a lull in the popularity of an artist or style. It seems strange to us now that the work of the Pre-Raphaelites became very unfashionable and cheap for a few decades. Sometimes work by an individual artist never regains its value whilst others only gain value after the artist’s death.

Is there still a patronage system?  It was possibly easier to be an artist making a living in the 19th century when the middle class was growing rapidly and had money to spare to buy art to put in their nice houses.  Technology enabled the production of relatively cheap illustrated periodicals and books in the second half of the 19th century and provided young artists with a way of getting paid for making art at the same time as getting their work seen more widely. Many of those artists continued to be mainly illustrators, either for periodical and books or for advertising. Some of those artists went on to get paintings into the Royal Academy Summer Show which assured potential collectors they had some level of skill and were worth buying. Finding buyers for the more provocative or difficult-to-have-in-a-polite-drawing-room work was still very difficult then.

These days, in England, we have the Arts Council that can provide funding for the difficult or impossible to sell performance and ephemeral work that might not otherwise be made or seen. Is it possible to make a living as an artist if one doesn’t know the people who want and are able to buy art? Are most of those people really to be found only in London in the UK?

The lack of spaces to show a variety of work is a problem in the North East. The lack of connections with those with enough money to buy art could be a problem. The lack of connections with the London art market is probably a problem. We need to do more to try to open things up.

The next Provocations

Do join in the discussions. Follow the Provocations website for information about the whole series. Follow @biscuitinstudio for news and reminders of these events and others held at the Biscuit Tin Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne. Book your free tickets and put these dates in your calendar.

Fourth Provocation

Art is Entertainment?

Art makes itself irrelevant declaring that anything can be elevated to art by the mere choice of the artist. Have things gone too far; should we have stopped at Duchamp? Does art undermine any political or social potential by offering the public objects, actions, scenarios that may shock, amuse and mystify, but elevate itself no further than entertainment?

6.30pm to 8.30pm, Thursday, 25 February 2016: book your free place.

Fifth Provocation

Art is Dissent?

If art is to be relevant it must be a means of dissent. Can the artist be a dissenting voice if he/she must satisfy the foibles of the market? Does the artists popular role of ‘outsider’ weaken the potential for true dissent? Where does dissent end and cheap shock tactics begin?

7pm to 9pm, Thursday, 31 March 2016: book your free place.


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