Artist-run initiatives


There are probably more artists working now than at any time in history. If you add all the artists emerging from all the BA Fine Art, BA Art & Design, Art Academies, MFA and Ph.D programmes in art practice around the world, plus all those who are not formally trained, the global numbers are staggering. There is probably more money spent on art now than at any time in history, and more art being produced than at any time in the past. But, large as it is, the numbers of artists ‘taken up’ by the art world, represented by galleries and earning enough money from the sales of their works to live on and/or feed a family are remarkably few. In the late 1980s I was working on a survey of art and craft education in England and Wales, and we discovered that there were 735 places just in these two parts of Britain where you could study art/craft.¹ In Leeds, where I now teach, there are four art schools in the same street, producing c. 200 visual arts graduates every year. London now has over 2000 galleries of different types, but when you consider the immense backlog of past graduates waiting in the wings, the number does not seem so large. In a real sense, the world is over-saturated with artists, but the art world only needs a handful of new ‘marketable’ products every year. It can be argued that for most people, just studying art and spending some time making art and thinking about art is a good thing in itself – at least one is not making weapons or stealing people’s pensions – and that filling the world with creative people is a good thing in itself. It can also be argued that all the problems of the world (not just the art-world) derive ultimately from over-population – problems with resources, traffic, city growth, housing, declining agriculture, animal and plant extinctions, over-fishing, pollution, water shortages, unemployment and so on. It is clearly not logical to assume that the world and its finite resources can support an infinitely expanding population, and it is clearly logical to aim for a sustainable balance between population and resources for the future, if we are not to drive ourselves into extinction. In the meantime though, here we are in an overcrowded world, with huge numbers of artists and less than huge numbers of opportunities.

Looked at structurally, from the side so to speak, the ‘art world’ can be seen to divide into several layers or strata. These strata also extend horizontally to an increasing or decreasing extent, like the cross-sections of a pyramid. At the ‘top’ are the Turner-prize winners and Damien Hirsts, Baselitzes and Koons, not to mention the Wei Weis and emerging Chinese artists of the future: artists who have made enough of an impression on the art world and who have a record of proven sales and collectors to guarantee their position financially and historically in the annals of world art. At the ‘bottom’ of the pyramid are all the amateur artists who enjoy making art, who spend some time doing it, are perhaps trained in it, but don’t make a living out of it. In between there are various other strata, comprising various other ‘art worlds’. There are the many serious artists who work on the ‘fringes’ of the top level art world or ‘below’ – Maybe they work all their lives at art, but never get the big breaks; they might participate in a few exhibitions and events with the major league artists but for various reasons are not ‘taken up’ by the élite art-world. They might earn enough from their art to survive as artists, or they might work in education or the arts sector to finance their practice. There are those ‘professionals’ of the art world, writers, critics, teachers, professors who work in the art world, participate in it at varying levels and yet are not living entirely through their art. ‘Below’ them (and these strata are not meant to be judgemental or qualitative – they are more structural), are those artists who work, with varying degrees of success, at their art, seriously, renting studios, collaborating in local initiatives, participating in the localised art culture of their place and space, and on, through the pyramid to the level of local amateur artist who survive by other means. The French government for example, takes quite a pragmatic approach to defining artists: It considers artists from a tax perspective – if you earn over a certain salary per annum from your art, you are a professional artist. If you don’t, you are an amateur.

This stratified model is quite useful because it enables one to see that the art world is not homogeneous, and that there are many simultaneous ways to be an artist in the 21st-century. It is also clear that not every one can be a Turner-prize winner numerically. It may also help one decide whereabouts in the art world one is located currently, and where one might wish to be.

Artist-run initiatives are clearly one positive response to this global situation. It is obvious that the vast majority of artists operating today, occupy some of the ‘middle ground’ of the art world ‘pyramid’. Some may aspire to the upper levels; others may be committed and happy to be operating precisely at the level in which they are – the ‘top’ is not necessarily ‘the best’. Each level or strata carries its own benefits and disadvantages. And of course, the ‘pyramid’ is not stable. Artists can be dropped as well as picked up by galleries and dealers, and stylistic or market changes can elevate or doom careers.

Given that artists are good at creative problem solving, they are often at the forefront of social development – Very often artists have been proven to give rise to urban development, simply by moving into a deprived or run-down area where rents are cheap, and creating something vibrant and positive in their environment. This then becomes attractive to local business, property developers and entrepreneurs, who see the potential, move in and create financial growth. The artists move on to other, cheaper areas, and so it continues. Artist-led initiatives, NGOs, artist residency programmes, open studios, artist-run galleries, open calls, Arts festivals and other cultural initiatives are the natural catchment, catalyst and stabilizer for much of these middle strata of the art world. Rather than wait around for an over-saturated art world to notice them and take them up, the organizers of artist-led initiatives create their own opportunites, utilising what and who they know, turning disused spaces into temporary art spaces, organizing opportunities for artists to create and develop their work, encouraging exchange and debate between artists and nations, and countering national, ‘top-down’ ideologies in favour of rhizomatic, trans-cultural exchange. They offer a very real and necessary service to artists, by stimulating them into action, encouraging mobility and open-ness and giving rise to new bonds of friendship and exchange.

It is interesting to note that one of the most prestigious of the élite art-world’s events, the Venice Biennale, was set up by a committee of art lovers, including Michelangelo Guggenheim, to address the problem that 19th-century Italian art had drifted off, from its glory days in the Renaisance and Mannerism, into provincialism and nationalist inconsequence. It had become separated from the mainstream events happening elsewhere in Europe (notably Paris). The committee which set up the first Biennale declared:

“An international exhibition should attract a greater public with the prestige of its illustrious foreign artists, placing their work at the disposition of all those intellectuals unable to undertake long journeys so as to get to know and to compare the various aesthetic directions, and will enrich the intellectual patrimony of our young artists who will thus be able to draw the broadest conceptions from the work of their fellow artists from other countries..”²

The idea being that an injection of international art into the localised art world of 19th-century Italy would act as a stimulant for national cultural renewal. For a culture to be vibrant, it needed cross-pollination from its international neighbours. What started as a local initiative to stimulate a stagnant local art scene, has now become one of the most prestigious indicators of the international art world. What is useful in this history is the realisation that the strata of the art world are not stable over time. Seismic shifts are possible whereby strata can rise and fall. What was once a local event or organisation can move up to become a significant indicator on the world stage, and vice versa: what was formerly ‘cutting-edge’ can decline and go ‘off the boil’.

For artist-run initiatives to develop and thrive, they need firstly to understand at which level of the art world they are aiming and at which level they wish to operate. If they are achieving their mission and fulfilling their intentions, then there is no necessity to change for the sake of it. Their goal will be to simply secure funding and opportunities to enable continuation. If their ambitions are to move ‘up’ the pyramid, towards greater impact and recognition, then they must realise that their agenda must change. They must become more competitive, and engage with the more ‘professional’ aspects of fund-raising, critical participation, journalism, PR, marketing, which moves them closer into the ambit of the commercial (and cut-throat) art world. This will inevitably change their remit, and their attitude.

Kenneth G. Hay, Leeds, UK.

(Kenneth Hay is Professor of Contemporary Art Practice in the School of Design at he University of Leeds, where he works as an artist, writer and teacher. He has exhibited widely, and writes on contemporary art, history and theory).

¹ Ashwin, C (ed), “The Education and Training of Craftspeople in Engand & Wales” (DES/Crafts Council, Middlesex Polytechnic, 1987).

² Discussion in Venice Council 1893. Preface to the Catalogue of the first Venice Biennale, 1895.

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