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The artist profession of the twenty-first century is enjoying a slow but fundamental evolution into a career with standards, opinions and respect. There is a current shift in self-perception among artists towards a more savvy, self-sufficient practitioner who can act in several roles and take on responsibilities relating to ones practice that would traditionally undertaken by others presentation, studio provision, self-management to name a few. Some case studies follow.
In many ways the artist-led approach can be defined by its clichéd polar opposite: the utterly impersonal pen-pushing, small-talking, suited hierarchy of nine-to-five employment. The desire among artists to operate within a self-created community is rooted in the halcyon 1960s, but present-day groupings of artists associate themselves with a more pragmatic culture of micro-businesses and sole-traders than idealistic communes. Small and medium-sized businesses (which includes self-employed practitioners) account for the majority of the labour force in the UK.
This self-defined approach to working is prevalent particularly among emerging contemporary artists and is accepted as the norm. But whose legacy are they taking on, and where does this activity fit within the lineage of artist-led activity? The inspiration for Birmingham-based Colony came from the artist-led initiatives of the 1960s and 70s, and more contemporary groups and spaces such as Bank and Jeffrey Charles; but the necessity arose when Ikons temporary closure and relocation left the UKs second largest city without a permanent contemporary art space. Founders Casey and McAree are quick to acknowledge their predecessors, B16 among them. They see Colonys work as providing as a continuation of B16s efforts, and an impetus for spaces like Spectacle, Periscope, and The Springhill Institute.
As the granddaddy of UK artist-led spaces, the legendary Transmission is oft cited a role-model for many other artist-led spaces. A key factor in its longevity has been the management of the gallery by a changing committee of six artists that is replenished every two years. Clearly a tried-and-tested management, but is its staying power at the expense of its consistency? Does an ever-changing committee actually create a more nebulous identity? Furthermore, does curation by committee prevent a single curatorial vision? As hundreds of artists leaping to its defence would agree, theres significantly more to Transmission than its gallery output. Transmission represents all that is good about artist-led activity the pro-active approach to working, the co-operative and non-hierarchical structure, a stable place for artists to simply gather and talk.
A significant aspect of the artist profession is gaining the means to self-management. On graduation, Lucy Panesar aspired to be a practising artist and part-time college lecturer, but also needed paid employment in the short-term. Having worked as a waitress through college, Lucy was made restaurant manager at a local farmers market. What began as a temporary job unrelated to the art world became two years of valuable management experience. Lucy also exploited her position at the market by organising a series of monthly solo exhibitions, performances and discussions for local emerging artists in the market space. It was a huge local success, and by exhibiting her own work she confirmed her position within the art world as a practitioner as well as project manager. It takes diligence, a lateral approach and willingness to create exhibiting opportunities within ones current work situation.
Artist-led activity is characterised by the desire to control ones artistic career and obtain a certain level of autonomy that wouldnt necessarily translate into other equivalent creative professions. This often requires gaining new skills, some of which are general (like marketing), others are highly specialised (eg gilding). Although he feels that the progression of his career has been steady, David Kefford cites one of the challenges of being an artist as the pressure of being in a continual state of learning, which is at times precarious and unpredictable. Kefford identifies pivotal developments of his practice that led to a full-time career as an artist, such as giving up his part-time job, renting a more expensive studio, becoming freelance; and admits that at the time they seemed like giant hurdles.
Nicky Hodge also faced a giant hurdle when escalating studio rent prices compelled her to find alternative premises. Her solution to was to erect a self-build studio in her garden. Most importantly it has provided me with a space that I have access to twenty-four hours a day ... I have more time to devote to my work and spend less time worrying about travelling and all the other distractions that seem to arise when your studio is at a distance.
Along with self-management, dialogue is an integral aspect of an artists practice. As Jane Watt observes in the a-n Collection: Reflections on networking, it allows critical reflection and peer discussion that is focused on the very subject of the artists professional career their work. The artist network serves this purpose, and can range from the longest-standing establishment to the most informal, fleeting and/or casual exchange. It also prevents the sense of isolation that is commonly felt by artists (and not just those based rurally) for whom a large part of their practice is solitary. Working from her purpose-built studio at home in London, Nicky Hodge felt an isolation that being in a communal studio group might have otherwise prevented, so she joined the Lounge Artist Forum, which provided her with peer feedback and support. This group meets once a month at Lounge Gallery in Shacklewell Lane, London. There are many similar meetings organised by artists around the UK (as well as online forums), which offer potentially great benefits for those willing to contribute.
Where a network doesnt exist, or doesnt suit your purpose, the proposal to initiate one is often met with astonishing readiness by eager artists. After a period of exhibiting across the UK, Tanya Axford realised that there was an established local art scene in her hometown Newcastle that at the time didnt really feel part of. She found it difficult to gain a clear understanding of the opportunities available to her. This was a feeling shared by fellow artist Cath Campbell and together they founded the organisation Chew and Show, which initiated unique exhibitions and events in non-gallery settings. This work has led Axford to recognise that one opportunity often leads to another, and that being as visible as possible and sheer hard work and determination adds to this process.
International scope and the market
Beyond ones peers and friends is a vast potential audience of viewers, collectors and curators. Artists are increasingly reaching out to these markets, observing the methods of larger more established galleries and cribbing the best bits for themselves, often with a degree of irony, subversion or just plain DIY-ness. This can be seen at international and commercial art fairs, where its acknowledged even among the artworld dignitaries that the (often artist-led) fringe aspect is becoming as relevant as the main programme.
As ever, artist groups tend to adopt their own rules for working in this environment. no.w.here is a not-for-profit organisation with no immediate plans to commercially represent artists. At Zoo, their first art fair, it did not sell artists work; instead it represent[ed] ideas. Similarly, Moot does not represent artists or refer to itself as a commercial gallery, but it does repeatedly work with certain artists at art fairs. Their approach is to present a curated group exhibition that acknowledges both the artistic and commercial contexts. As in most UK cities, Manchester had no relevant existing infrastructure of its own for artist groups to engage with international art market, so the International 3 decided to apply to participate in a targeted list of art fairs, including Zoo and Preview Berlin.
The trend over the last decade for artists to take control of the production and presentation of their work has been significant. It has become the norm for artists to proactively place their work in the public domain. Such activity whether by artists individually or collectively empowers those who seek an alternative to handing over control of promotion and presentation of their work. These entrepreneurial types take responsibility for creating platforms for presenting work, and with that the freedom to control how their work is seen and by whom.
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First published: a-n.co.uk March 2008
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