What are galleries for? Artists as indentured servants

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it. A gallery is for showing pictures, of course. Let’s be liberal, and say it is a place for displaying works of art, or where people go to view works of art.

I’m not referring to museums of art, or state galleries. The question is really about commercial galleries. The visual artists I know appear to be, now, in a situation something like the position poets were in twenty-five years ago (not much has changed, everything has changed) when there were, in Australia, literally no major commercial publishers of poetry and a few writers I knew got together and formed a small, private press to publish each other. Over the course of the following fifteen years this small unincorporated association published twenty books and had some success. By the end of it, though, it was still publishing slim volumes—we believed in quality—to deafening silence from reviewers. One of its last books was an anthology of more than a dozen writers that did not get a single review. When we asked the editor of a nationally distributed review magazine why no article was arranged, we were told the anthology was “obviously good”. Well, thank you, we said, and the conversation ended there.

Perhaps we failed to be interesting or controversial enough. Self-reliance is not newsworthy.

Visual artists could hardly claim to be in same situation. There are galleries galore. The public listings are full of openings to attend. Opportunities are everywhere. Or, are they?

It’s not as though writers or poets can claim there is no publishing going on. What we can claim, I think, is that publishers are interested only, exclusively, in their bottom lines, in seeing their accounts written in black ink. You can’t blame them. There is no profit in poetry. And there is no profit in some difficult visual artist whose work cannot quickly establish a market value that buyers are willing to match with dollars. It does not matter if he or she is a genius. Genius doesn’t pay the bills.

The principal difference between writers and visual artists from a commodity point of view is that writers create a product that is the art world’s version of fast moving consumer goods. Buyers literally take literature off the shelves, in shops that resemble supermarkets. Decisions are made pronto! A book is a standard gift option. Visual artists don’t normally make products of this kind. Purchases are considered. The visual arts are not bought to be consumed, and set aside, in the same way books are bought and shelved. This demeans the relationship readers have with literature, but there is a kernel of truth in it.

Commercial galleries plot a course between what one must suppose is a genuine interest in art and the mundane worries of their pockets. Welcome to the world as we know it.

There is nowhere for visual artists to go that is not smell of commercial relationships. Writers, by contrast, are the piece-workers of the art world, huddled in their garrets, earning a pittance for every thousand words: the smell of money rarely reaches their rooms.

Above all else, it’s disatisfaction that they share; and isolation from the very people who want to make contact with them.

Commercial galleries, if the system that the galleries describe were to work as perfectly as everyone hopes, offer more than representation. There is supposed to be much else that comes with the relationship: the problem is, really, whether or not this “much else” actually materialises.

Commercial galleries are supposed to:

  1. Represent artists—that is, speak for them, and about them; negotiate for them; promote them.
  2. Provide exhibitions or shows at least every two years.
  3. Maintain up to date records of works held on consignment and try to sell these works.
  4. Help to build an artist’s reputation by promoting scholarly and other writing about their art.
  5. Generally, manage the relationship between the artist and the market to maximise the artist’s opportunities to profit from his or her work.

If galleries actually achieved this for more than a handful of the most prominent visual artists, artists would think, no doubt, that the galleries were doing a good job.

But they are not doing it.

A mid-range artist in Australia, for example, exhibiting 30 works at a significant commercial gallery once every two years, and selling perhaps 20 of these (a successful show!) for an average price of AU$4,000, brings $80,000 to the cash register. Forty per cent of this goes to the gallery: $32,000. This leaves $48,000 for the artist. A pittance for two year’s work. It’s no wonder they have to have second jobs! (Let’s not even mention the tax situation.)

No-one attacks the galleries. Why would anyone want to? Even if there were any public discussion of commercial galleries, surely artists would not have anything bad to say about the galleries that are, of course, the very arteries through which the life-blood af art courses…

Absence of discussion and debate does not mean absence of comment. It is well-known, of course, who the bad apples are. (Who knows, we might even get around to naming them here in future episodes: stay tuned…)

It’s the relationship between artists and galleries I’m interested in. Now, do you notice anything odd about the following statements quoted, verbatim, from the ACGA website:

Vision:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association seeks to contribute to the visual arts in a way that enhances understanding of and support for the primary market while cultivating sound entrepreneurial ethics and an ever-strengthening national and international market for Australian art.

Mission:
The Australian Commercial Galleries Association exists to represent, promote and further the interests of Australian commercial galleries whose core business is the ethical representation of living Australian artists. A dual aspect of the Association’s mission is to develop Australian artists’ livelihood and reputation while contributing to an enhanced public understanding of contemporary Australian art in the primary market.

ACGA

I think there are several strange things going on in these quotes, not least of which is that the vision statement does not envision anything (unless it is that the national and international market for Australian art is “ever-strengthening”). I wonder, for example, why this organisation is so obsessed with ethics and ethical bahaviour. Has someone accused it or its members of something terrible, or do their consciences need to be salved?

I mention this obsession with ethics in the vision and mission statements of the ACGA because the point at which the code discusses a gallery’s right to receive a commission on all sales of an artist’s work strikes me as being distinctly unethical.

The partnership between the gallery and the artist establishes commission as payment by the artist for the gallery’s intensive ongoing work and representation in the development of the artist’s career, reputation and livelihood. As such it should be recognised as an agent’s fee, earned by the gallery in return for the type of ongoing services listed under item 4.

ACGA

Item 4 in the code of practice lists a whole heap of things that galleries barely do at all for most artists, and do very badly most of the time. (Read the whole sad catalogue at the ACGA website.) The code is, in fact, a strained attempt to justify a claim that artists, particularly struggling, unknown artists, but also middle-rung artists, have little or no power to deny to galleries.

Artists, in fact, have to put up and shut up in the face of galleries who do nothing for them between annual or bi-annual shows but still want 40 per cent of sales they haven’t been involved in.

Wouldn’t it be fairer, more ethical, as a starting point in negotiations between artists and galleries, to say that galleries were entitled to up to 40 per cent commission on any artworks they choose to show, or choose to hold on to between shows?

You can hear the director-fussbudgets of galleries around Australia huffing, puffing and moaning already, can’t you? Oh, dear, how will they ever earn a living if they only get commission on the works they really want to sell?

The services these fussbudgets (don’t go off to the dictionary: it means one who is overly particular about unimportant things) offer to artists are described in terms that make their gallery businesses sound like retirement homes for librarians. They promise to be monitoring, archiving, maintaining and pursuing. And when they’re not doing that, they’re cultivating, collaborating and recording. All very important stuff, I don’t doubt. Meanwhile, it is the artist who is doing the real work.

The list of services that galleries perform to earn their commission is a furphy, a wild rumour, a tall story, and everyone knows it. Artists make their reputations by sticking at their work. It is a hard slog that, even for artists of acknowledged brilliance, goes on for years. To pretend this isn’t the case, and instead put about that the development of an artist’s reputation and career is something that is strategised by whispers and nods between gallery directors and clients with too much money in their pockets, is simply to lie. And there’s nothing ethical about that.

What is going to change, though? How can the system be changed? Important questions, to be answered by someone else.