Having Made the Leap

“Art is long and life is short, and we must wait patiently while trying to sell our skin dearly. Me, I’d really like to be your age and go off with whatever knowledge I had to do my service in Africa. But for example, I’d get myself a better body than the one I have. [Van Gogh Letters]

Ask any successful artist, and I bet you’ll learn that achieving that success didn’t come from raw artistic talent alone. For artrepreneurs, there’s a tension between the arts and business that their entrepreneur counterparts may not always face.
According to Lukas de Beer’s 2016 book, “Artrepreneur,” artists are driven by raw creativity and passion that can potentially hinder their ability to think entrepreneurially. Though artrepreneurs must treat their work as a business, there’s an additional element of authenticity and connection that’s often only understood by other artists. [John Hall on Artrepeneurs]

If I wasn’t so caught up and absorbed in work, how I’d like to sell all that lot! There’s not much to be earned from it, and that’s why nobody takes it up. Nevertheless, after a few years it will all become quite rare, will be sold more dearly. It’s for that reason that we shouldn’t scorn the small advantage that we have at present, of going through thousands to make our choice. [Van Gogh Letters]

“Mind you, this isn’t a market rant. Even in 1964, happenings guru Allan Kaprow decried, “If the artist was in hell in 1946, now he is in business.” Mega-galleries do as many good and bad shows of contemporary art as any gallery. I go to and write about some of these. All this has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, without moralizing. Still, mega-galleries do so many more contemporary shows of so many more artists of a certain ilk in so many places at once that the experience starts to feel preplanned and cynical. Often, in this context, even good work takes on deleterious meanings: hype, hubris, commodity fetishism, hyperefficiency, expeditiousness. The artist Carissa Rodriguez recently compared galleries to “bleached anuses” in porn, meaning (I think) that they’re unnaturally sterile.
Don’t blame the dealers or the size of the spaces. These galleries are businesses, doing what businesses do. Any artist who signs with one of these places knows exactly what he or she is doing. Artists always claim to do only what’s creatively best for their work, yet in many cases going with a mega is the opposite of what they need. I imagine freaked-out artists, having made the leap, thinking, What have I done? How do I get out of here? If it weren’t for their marketability, half of these artists wouldn’t get offers from anyone. An aesthetic crisis looms.
To grow so huge, these gallerists have had to increase their overhead and output of energy enormously, while decreasing their artistic complexity, capacity for chaos, and quick and fresh thinking. The megas have reached a dangerous stage where they’re using the same amount of energy that they’re generating. In nature, this break-even moment is called the “compensation point,” the time in a plant’s life when a branch consumes the same amount of energy as it produces. When the compensation point is passed, the plant cuts off growth to the branch, and it dies. It’s time for all of us to do the same. With exceptions for their historical shows, and those few living artists who escape the vision-squishing force of these places, mega-galleries have reached their compensation points. Said simply, mega-galleries are a system too big not to fail. That, or they’ll rule the Earth for a million years.” [Jerry Saltz on the Trouble with Mega-Galleries]

Well, Gauguin and I must look ahead, we must work at getting a roof over our heads, beds; the essentials, in short, to endure the siege by failure that will last the whole of our life. And we must settle down in the least expensive place. Then we’ll have the peace of mind needed to produce a large amount, even if we sell little or nothing. But if expenses exceeded income, we’d be wrong to hope too much that everything would work out through the sale of our paintings. On the contrary, we’d be obliged to part with them at any price at the wrong time. [Van Gogh Letters]

“Like other independent professionals, artists have a keen memory of past financial crises. For New York City-based painter and printmaker Julio Valdez, the repeated economic shocks of the early 1990’s, 1997, 2001 and 2008, compelled him to ask some tough questions. “How did we get into this? There’s no war. There’s no famine. You work hard, and something happens. Again and again. It has nothing to do with you.”
Valdez understood that an artist pursuing a traditional career—shows in galleries, commissions, teaching—would always be the first to suffer “when the economy has a little sneeze,” as he put it. There were two problems.
First, Valdez noticed, talented young artists struggled to get a foothold in the market, not learning essential business wisdom from older colleagues or partnering to reduce expenses. “Why can’t artists join a practice like lawyers, doctors or accountants?” he asked himself.
Secondly, artists often confused the idealism of creating art with the essentials of running a business. “Art has no compromise—with anything, anybody, any process. But once the art is done, it is a business. You have to do your taxes. You have to know how much you spend on rent, supplies and materials. There’s always a cost involved.” [Benjamin Wolff on Artrepeneurs]

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