According to a study of 2015, undertaken by the Australia Council “Australians value the arts”. More particularly “[A] growing number of Australians believe that the arts make for a richer and more meaningful life; they influence how we express ourselves, our creative thinking and new ideas.”
The salient points highlighted in this report indicate that the arts, which are deeply embedded in the cultural sector, make a substantial contribution to the Australian economy. “Cultural activity” defined in this report as the visual, performing, literary and musical arts, contributes “$50 billion to Australia’s GDP, which is comparable to the GDP share in the United States”, of which $4.2 billion is derivative of the arts. Expenditure on culture by Australian governments was $7 billion in 2013 with a reported $1.3 billion having been expended on the arts. The report also notes, that the main source of income to the arts is consumer spending.
The latter is what I would like to explore today; how, we as individuals ‘support;’ in all its guises, the arts. And we actually do this in a very tangible manner. But before I do this some notes on money and the arts -
To an extent the arts has had an uneasy relationship with commerce, or more specifically, money!
A lot of commentary on the art market describes art in commercial terms: “investment of passion”, “wall power” and “branding”. And with these descriptives our appreciation of an artwork can sometimes be hindered.
By the same token we actually have to acknowledge that this commercialism, is of paramount importance to the livelihood of so many members of this arena; people such as the artists, the material suppliers, the galleries, the curators, the framers, the conservators, and ultimately, our public collections.
I can remember during one of my post-grad tutorials at Melbourne Uni, my fellow students becoming horrified when I disclosed that I worked at a gallery and what I did was sell art. Murmurings of ‘capitalism’ lingered in the air as I made a quiet but obvious retreat from the discussion and indeed, from the course itself soon afterwards.
I simply didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. 20 years later I sort of do. We don’t really like to besmirch the integrity of the arts (well certainly not the purists amongst us) with commercialism; we would rather remain discreet about it and therefore employ a secret code or language, and we utilise less obvious terms such as “acquisition”, “placement” and “de-accession” in lieu of buy and sell.
But here’s the rub - buying or acquiring art is an action by an individual which in truth, has a much more altruistic element, which we are mostly unaware of, and dare I say, holds a more formidable long term benefit, to a wider group. That group is our society. That infrastructure is our culture; our history.
So what I would like to do is to follow a trajectory of sorts from the artist’s studio, to the commercial gallery exhibition, to the curated regional gallery show, to the collection of a state-owned institution. And to hopefully demonstrate how an individual decision can have so much bearing on the ‘wealth;’ of our nation.
Working in the arts I think we sometimes take for granted that the public at large understand how the machinations of the art market operates; I don’t want to dumb this down, and I certainly don’t want to suggest it’s this simple either; there are a multitude of personalities, prejudices, politics and let’s face it, people, who complicate the process. But…in its simplest form:
In order for an artist to produce an artwork, he or she has bought materials for its production, from an arts supplier, a small business. The artist may also have had some of the work framed, another small business. A photographer has been called upon to ‘document’ the series, that photographer is another small business. A specialist arts carrier has been booked to collect and deliver this new body of work to the gallery. Before an artwork is installed at the artist’s representative gallery for exhibition purposes, several invoices have been generated by small businesses.
The gallery’s primary task is to represent artists on a long term basis, providing guidance and career management to their artists. The gallery incurs on-going costs in its support and promotion of represented artists: aside from the usual utilities and services including rental on space, a gallery may well have promoted the exhibition via print media, in the form of glossy art journal advertisements, in addition to perhaps production of a catalogue. On-line media may also have been utilised. An arts writer may also have been commissioned to produce a catalogue essay. The ‘in-tray’ is piling up.
The exhibition is one of the key promotional events for both the artist and the gallery. In preparation both the artist and the gallery have (hopefully!) worked in tandem in terms of promoting the forthcoming exhibition; the gallery will have alerted its client base which will invariably include individuals, institutions, public museums and galleries, as well as regional galleries, and much dialogue will have ensued with curators. Artists will more than likely have gone crazy on various social media platforms!! And told their fellow artists and possibly some of their former tutors and lecturers.
So after a glass of wine and an extremely entertaining conversation with the artist, you decide to buy a work. Let’s call this artist, Frank. The exhibition is availed some terrific press coverage over the remaining few weeks, in addition to an excellent review by a well-known critic. Several more works have sold now, and one work is on reserve for a public institution, the latter having been prompted by the gallery’s initiative in making contact as a result of the exhibition sales rate. (This is a hard-working gallery!). In the meantime you have told some of your friends, and in fact one of them is the wife of a senior managing partner at a law firm. His interest is piqued and he ventures one lunchtime into the gallery. He’s looking for a new piece to add to the firm’s collection. But his attention is diverted by something peeking out from the stockroom; a much larger and indeed, much more expensive work. With the approval of the law firm’s selection committee, the work is acquired. The gallery now has a new client.
Invoices are attended to forthwith; and most pleasing, with the addition of the law firm’s acquisition, some funds have been freed up for the gallery to now consider further promotional activities; perhaps an international art fair.
The arts writer, who also happens to operate as a freelance curator, having been given the opportunity to produce a catalogue essay for this artist, suggests to one of her colleagues a collaboration and one in which Frank’s work would be included; her colleague is employed by an interstate regional gallery. After much discussion and considerable paperwork, a survey show examining contemporary abstract painting has moved beyond its embryonic stage, and is now scheduled for 18 months hence. The gallery is advised of this forthcoming exhibition, and excitedly relays this news to her artist, Frank.
With this new development, the gallerist personally appraises the owners of Frank’s work, in addition to including this development in the gallery’s monthly newsletter. Happily this newsletter elicits some interest in Frank’s work, and a gallery client, who had been overseas at an art fair during Frank’s exhibition, requests some more information. There are only 2 works left in the gallery’s stockroom, but the gallerist assures the client that Frank is working on new work. (Frank was able to settle his invoices after the exhibition, and has some credit with his materials supplier.)
Meanwhile, the managing partner of the law firm continues to patronise the gallery, and brings a colleague one day, who happens to be on the Board of a Foundation, of which the latter has the primary mandate of collecting art by ‘living artists’. He’s rather taken with Frank’s work, noting also the artist’s developing CV (and in particular the collections in which his work is held), and has asked to be notified when new works arrive.
There is now a small groundswell of interest surrounding Frank’s work; indeed, the gallery has been contacted by one of the art magazines (as a result of the editor becoming aware of the commissioned essay for Frank’s exhibition), and is now seeking to commission a feature article in line with the forthcoming group survey exhibition. Potential opportunities in terms of further promotion, and therefore beneficial outcomes for the gallery and its artists are now able to be more realistically considered over the forthcoming 12 to 18 months.
Does Frank’s work end up in the NGV collection? Possibly. Does the Foundation acquire one of his works? Maybe. And does the gallery go on to participate in an international art fair? Hopefully. Did your enthusiasm for Frank’s art contribute to this? Absolutely!
We should get excited about our art acquisitions. We as a society should not be ‘shy’ about ‘investing’ in art. We can and we do contribute to the sustainability and development of our cultural infrastructure. Every so often, we simply need to remind ourselves what art does:
It starts a conversation; opens a dialogue. At its most fundamental, art expresses an idea, an observation, and/or an emotion. It enlivens our consciousness, and sometimes changes our experiences of an event or exhibition. It stimulates, nourishes and feeds our senses. It contributes to the ‘wealth’ of our culture. And it reflects our society, by way of visually documenting our history, a history which is important to our future.
*This speech was given at FUSE, Flinders Lane Gallery, during Melbourne Art Week.