Monday, August 31, 2009


Not all exhibition opportunities are equal, depending on the artist's developmental progress. The ability to discern which are real opportunities years in advance of actual exhibition dates can be a challenge. This is more a problem for emerging and mid-career artists submitting proposals to a public or non-profit gallery where the time cycle from proposal submission to actual exhibition can be several years. The exhibition date arrives, but the artist has moved forward with their aesthetic investigations, has a more recent body of work to which they are committed, and/or, the status of the exhibition venue no longer fits with the direction of the artist's career. Experience tells me that this happens, although I've never heard my artist colleagues discuss it openly. Perhaps its because of a long held societal attitude, rubbed-off on artists, that one should be "humble", "grateful" and "self-effacing" that anyone would agree to see our art, and for free, no ticket required.

Fundraising exhibitions are another case in point where the funds raised through the sale or auction of your art, can actually undercut the artwork's fair market value, and thereby undermines your entire pricing structure. Why should someone pay the fair market value if they know that every year your work will be available at a fundraising auction. A well known artist who confided that his water colour prints of local scenes had raised over a million dollars for different fundraising events over the years, yet he was far from having anywhere near that income.  It may be flattering to be invited, but consider the expense and time away from your creating against the likelihood that your only reward might be an invitation to participate next year. Not all fundraising events have the same audiences, are organized the same way, and some may prove more beneficial to your art career than others. Despite commitment to the fundraising cause, if participation is detrimental to you art then in the long term this isn't going to be helpful to anyone.

While in Calgary this year, I visited the tiniest little non-profit artist-run centre where one of Canada's foremost contemporary artists was showing her art, and was in attendance. Given I had just visited the National Gallery to see one of her artworks which is part of the National collection, I expressed my surprise that she would be showing there. Her matter-of-fact response  was that she needed the money from the artist exhibition fee ($1200) she would be paid. The conversation continued that she was worn out traveling back-and-forth the country with her art exhibitions trying to make ends meet from her exhibition fees. That meeting was a reality check. Here is someone who had "arrived" in my view. For this artist, she viewed her reward as receiving some income however small, but she certainly didn't need this gallery on her resume.

Years ago, a not so young artist now, argued to himself aloud that he had exhibited with a list of nationally recognized artists, and therefore he too was now at their level, and should not be expected to show his work for no payment. And he was right. Like in Hollywood, the up-and -coming artist is elevated by those with whom they co-star. Another example: established artists renting studio spaces for a few months from an emerging artist studio collective declined the collective's invitation to show their work with them as part of the open-house studio exhibition.  The commercial gallery may give their established artists greater publicity than they would give to their lesser known artists in hopes of attracting buyers with a recognized name.

There's a long list of practicalities to take into consideration when agreeing to show your work. The public gallery name may fill in a line on your resume, but who will see your art. Is the gallery hidden away, with little signage and minimal advertising. An emerging artist may be willing to pick-up the slack one or two times, but the cost of staging such an exhibition makes it impractical to continue with this type of exhibition venue. Not all public galleries are equal, some pay fees, although not enough to cover costs. Others classified as community galleries and therefore get around having to pay the artist a fee, despite still having a rigorous jurying system. A public gallery with a nationally recognized curator holds much more status than a community gallery with an assigned city employee with many tasks other than the gallery.

One has to start somewhere, and there's much to be learned from every experience. But things change and being conscious of this is part of the business of art for independent visual artists.

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