Arriving in Perugia I was met off the train by the artist Arthur Duff. He has been living in Italy since the age of nine. His studio and family life are in Vicenza though five days each month he works at Accademia Belle Arti Perugia, running the sculpture department for the 1st 2nd and 3rd years. His colleague and fellow artist, Nicola Renzi, oversees the painting department and the MFA programme. Between them, with the understanding of their director, they are bringing the fine art department out into the social, cultural and economic fabric of the city. The Fine art department is keen to work with local businesses and has a gallery space in the city (a glass fronted former shop) were 3rd year students are encouraged to present new work. Close by the train station there is a digital printers workshop/production space, set up by former students, where both students and paying customers can produce any number of forms, structures and bit parts. They have five machines available for this as well as a studio space, and a technical drawing and planning area.
My intention in visiting Arthur was to again get an insight into the professional situation of artists in Italy. And again it would seem that it is much the same as elsewhere. There is a limited and small market for art amongst collectors and institutions in Italy. Arthur did presented a text based laser work during the Venice Biennale in 2013 and does have the good fortune of the occasional collector buying his work. However, if you have a family to support, rent to pay and your practice involves – for example – text based laser projections, it is never going to be easy. This isn’t a sob story, simply reality. If you are bringing up a family and not part of the 0.7%, you will know this already.
The thing that made the biggest impression on me during this part of the trip, was the recognition, from both Arthur and Nicola, that this “chance visit” could be beneficial, not only for the students and the academy but also for the visiting artist.
I had an informal discussion with MFA students, on the subtleties and practicalities of my work. In addition I was greeted with warmth by the administrative staff and given encouraging nods from the fine art principle while Arthur explained who I was and how I could perhaps come back and produce an installation for their soon to be completed project space/ auditorium, the basilica of San Francesco al Prato. A typical cross shaped church dating back to the 13th century and now devoid of any religious markers, it has a floor space 100m long with a height clearance of 20m.
It is difficult not to contrast the academic warmth and enthusiasm in Perugia with that of my former post graduate year at Edinburgh College of Art all those years ago. Common sense is telling me not to open that can of worms, but the albatross round my neck keeps tugging. Therefore, it is worth reflecting a little on my own student days as they have determined my career choices ever since.
Back in 1993, I had been headhunted by Edinburgh College of Art to join their two year MFA in Sculpture. Some months into the course I attended a Sol Le Witt opening at the Fruitmarket Gallery. Although Edinburgh is my home town, I knew no-one at the opening except my appointed professor, standing with his all male department colleagues. Naively, I thought to join them and say good evening etc. The first words of my professor were “ Look at the rear end on that sculpture there”. Slightly confused as to what he was referring to, my uncertainty turn to visible disgust as, after his fourth repeat of that phrase, I realised his persistent interest was directed towards the young woman (probably an inter) walking around the exhibition with a complimentary tray of wine.
Come the following June, my MFA had been cut short with no forewarning and I was dismissed as “not a serious artist”. The fact that my horror had been visibly present in the Fruitmarket Gallery may have played some part in my academic demise as, no doubt, did my subsequent inability to fain respect for my superiors. Out in the cold, I spent the next four years on my studio practice (proving to myself that I was a serious artist?) while my career went nowhere. Back in those pre-internet days, any opportunities that arose for artists in the Edinburgh area would be coveted by Edinburgh College of Art.
A residency in Norway in 1998 meant that I was suddenly being treated as a professional by my peers – in Norway at least. I made several subsequent trips there for residencies and exhibitions and from that time on I never looked back. Over the past twenty years I have worked and exhibited in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, The Czech Republic, Portugal, Canada, The USA, South Africa, Iran, India, Thailand and Japan. In many of these countries I have exhibited multiple times. My 14th solo exhibition in Japan will take place in May-June 2018.
Without international opportunities I may very well have fallen out of the sky many years ago. With an uncertain future and the very real possibility of the UK becoming culturally isolated, now is the time for visual artists to forge or strengthen links to mainland Europe. I suspect that it won’t be so easy after the 29th March 2019. As an example: a non EU citizen, being paid for work in Italy, is currently subject to a 30% Italian income tax for non EU domiciles – the 30% deducted at source. Obviously, this does not apply if you legally reside in Europe and can therefore prove that you pay income tax in your European country of residence. From the 30th March 2019, if you are based in the UK, you will also be subject to HMRC’s 20% income tax on the profit you have left after your paid work in Italy.
Not known for my “glass is half full” outlook on life I will try and end here on a high note:
Brexit – the gift that keeps on giving.