Australian Fine Artist

Our regular tutor has been away ill recently so we had a stand in for this session with a couple of interesting videos for us to watch and consider. It was a bit difficult to concentrate I must admit as the room was freezing and I spent a lot of time swapping hands over to get them warm! Never the less we persevered and I think, gained a lot from what we watched.

Video 1: Charles Saatchi

The name Saatchi is very well known in the advertising profession. As a graphic designer for over thirty years I have not only heard of them, but in my capacity in a bureau years ago, I indirectly worked for the Melbourne office as their artists came in with jobs to be processed and we handled their overflow work when the inhouse departments could not meet deadlines. I saw how the advertising business tended to burn out even very young artists during the 1990s as they often put in over twelve hour days on a regular basis, it was and still is a tough business.

Charles Saatchi decided to move his interests from the advertising industry focus to that of promoting and selling fine art about 20-30 years ago, around the same time as I was working. He put together an art prize in Britain by the look of the video, where a selection of artists competed to smaller and smaller groups until one was decided on by Saatchi himself for the opportunity to display at the Hermitage in Russia and other prizes to help boost their career and raise their profile.

The Saatchi Gallery itself looks a very imposing and grand building. It would rival any public museum or gallery in the world. Why Charles has decided to change his interest from advertising to fine art, in the form of contemporary art was not the focus of the video, rather the process the artists who were selected went through to go from one round to the next by interview and showing and explaining their work to a selection panel.

The final six were interviewed by Saatchi who would choose the artist he thought would have the skillset and ability to fulfil the obligations of the prize. The final six were mostly tertiary art graduates but there was also a member who was an experienced practising artist with no formal training. Painting and sculpture as well as video and mixed media were all considered. Past winners have gone on to be very well known all over the world and their prices have risen extraordinarily into the millions of dollars.

I found it interesting that one of the tasks set the competitors was a life drawing session. I have been taught and teach that basic drawing skills and the ability to observe and translate is very important no matter what form of art you are practising. I couldn’t believe how poor some of the drawing skills were in this group. Even in a contemporary art competition, which I think this was, basic traditional methods and skill sets were being looked for and expected. It was interesting that out of the six finalists, three were painters who could draw at least a bit.

This does not take away from the potential and innovation that was also being looked for from each artist, as well the ability to explain their process and motivation for each piece. Some of this was also lacking. Some found it very difficult to stand in front of their work and clearly explain what it was about. What were they trying to say or express, what gave them the idea?

We didn’t get to see who was the final winner and the process of and reason for the competition was to me, a bit contradictory. Was it like a game show similar to many on TV in the past decade, or was it a genuine attempt by Saatchi to encourage and promote art? I can not really give an answer to this. What it did show clearly to me was that no matter where or how we are going to show our art, compete with our art, or try to sell it, we must be prepared at some stage to explain why we do it.

As professionals in any business, continual training and improvement should be a part of our practice. All professionals have their basic training and make sure they keep their qualifications up to date, they have standards and rules of conduct. We should be prepared to understand the basics of our profession, be prepared to continually learn and aim to have a business that is always aiming for improvement. We should be able to stand in front of our art and know why we did it, what process we went through to create it and an idea of its value.

So was this about the “king maker” or showing up the need for us all to lift our game if we want to make it in a world that doesn’t owe us a living, hence, if we wish to be respected as a professional shouldn’t we make sure we train and act like one?

Video 2: The Great Contemporary Art Bubble

I had not heard of the “Great Art Bubble” but have been aware of the economies of Australia and countries overseas for a few decades as we have gone through recessions and growth to booms and back. Australia lags behind the rest of the world in how and when a recession or burst in economic bubbles occur. Sometimes it doesn’t affect us the same way, it may not be as harsh, or it may hit some parts of the economy more than others. Sooner or later though, it tends to affect us. What I have noticed in business in particular is that art departments are always a first up for cut backs in companies, and art in general as more of a luxury item rather than an essential is what people tend to stop buying.

It makes sense, if you are worried about meeting your obligations you are not likely to spend on art, go on expensive holidays, buy new cars or eat out in expensive restaurants. If your business is struggling are you still going to go out and fill the offices with expensive art?

This video brought to light the practices of collectors, brokers, auction houses etc to bathe in the good times by making sure that the artists which they backed and promoted had not only good prices, but increases in sales and sale prices that were to become unsustainable practice. Artists looked like they gained fame and money along with these businesses and groups with something like 800% increases in sometimes only a year but it really looked more like it was “about” the sellers and buyers and not the artist.

Art can be subverted. It can be all about ego, money, prestige, status. Raise an artist’s profile, make their work the stuff you just must have on your wall, make it what you have to collect and hang on your office building walls, make sure that this artist’s work continually keeps going up in price at auction and who gets hurt you may ask?

Consider this, how does the rest of the community get to see the art? The public galleries are pressured into hanging artists that are in demand. Who pays for this? It comes from the public purse.

As an artist, of course I want to see my work being promoted, I want to see it grow in value. The difference here is the following.

Who do I know? Quite often it is not the talent but the contacts that get the high profile and the money.

What am I willing to do to raise the profile of my art and become a “success”? Some artists buy back their own art to keep the prices up rather than have it passed in at auction.

Who am I willing to do business with? Am I willing to willing to join the bleeding edge for the sake of money? Galleries have a look they want to sell.

The methods of trading and secret deals that were exposed in this video were only what I have suspected of parts of the art market for many years. You can’t see some of the poor standards of art being hotly sold at huge prices without wondering, who did this person know to get that sold or hung? What has gone on that we don’t know about?

Of course all this speculation and unrealistic trading was hit by the inevitable 2008-9 GFC. Changes in the law in recent years may cut down some of the practices of the 1990s by auction houses, but the ego factor in parts of the arts market I feel may not go away, but just cool off for a while until the next big thing to push or promote for money.

The amount of artists, the quantity of “contemporary” art works that look similar was also addressed during this video. I have felt this when attending some exhibitions. I couldn’t tell one artist’s work from another.  I have failed to see significant effort to create an individual style or show any indication of formal training or understanding of traditional methods of creating artwork (EG: composition, materials, design, colour theory, understanding of tone, light, line, texture, final presentation).

Damien Hurst, who became very well known and wealthy from sales of his art through auction houses and purchasing by collectors at one stage experimented with going direct by holding his own show and auction. Contrary to the looming economic downturn predictions for the success or more likely failure, he made good sales for this event, but the inevitable downturn did come.

Even in Victoria there are galleries holding on to a lot of work and handling a lot of artists, with works hung for quite a while without selling. Several galleries have closed over the past few years and I have not seen good percentages of sales in many cases in the bottom and upper end of the market.

The video cited 2009 as a year where there were many failures to sell including works by very well known artists.

What people tend to forget is that what goes up, can easily go down, particularly in a speculative market. Even though people can buy what they want rather than what they need, when the money runs out, luxury items get put on the back burner. There isn’t enough wealth out there to support the amount of artists practising to bring in big money for all of us or even many of us… and do we really want to be involved in the suspect practices of certain groups? It takes the power out of your hands and the whole thing becomes speculative. It is ego run amok.

As the economic downturn hit, Hurst closed studios where he had assistants assembling his artworks, his mass produced process was taken back to production of paintings 100% completed by his hand, out of one studio, which to my thinking shows better integrity and quality than something he only finished off.

The movie Wall Street kept coming to mind during this video. Greed is good, the love of money, status and ego all went through my mind. Where in all of this was the art, the love of the process and production of work of integrity and quality? Of course I don’t want to live as a pauper, I want a comfortable lifestyle, I would also like to see my work recognised, sell and be known as a good if not great artist (preferably before I die) – but for the work, for the effort I put into making it the best I can produce and for the love I have in doing it, for being an artist of good and honest character. Something in stark contrast to a lot of what I was looking at today.

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