Greetings MyArtSpace readers. Guest blogger Nathaniel Stern here. You can learn more about me via nathanielstern.com, the implicit art blog, or my MyArtSpace interview. Brian asked me to be part of his new Artist Essay series, and so I may be doing some occasional postings or re-blogs from time to time.
It was Brian's post on Art and Recession that sparked my wanting to participate now, given that I am one of the emerging artists he alludes to there: I've had two important shows for my career indefinitely postponed due to the current financial crisis. So I wanted to take this opportunity to think and write about who might be affected by the situation, how, and what they (we) can do about it.
I have the privilege of being both an experimental and an emerging artist. On the one hand, much of my work is conceptually-, digitally- and/or installation-based. I also make more sell-able work, but that leads me to my other hand: I'm no Art Star. Unfortunately, I'd say both of these things are working against me right now.
Experimental artists tend not to show at commercial galleries so much; the work is generally harder to sell (sometimes nigh impossible), and so I often rely on my own funds, grants, commissions, experimental galleries and museum spaces to create and exhibit my work. People like me often have full-time day jobs and live off writing or academia or the like. Given the monetary crisis, the number of people looking for these kinds of funds and art-related jobs will increase, while the amount of them will stall and/or dwindle.
Number 2: commercial galleries are less likely to take "risks" with lesser-known or unsigned artists. Bear in mind that this isn't just about making money in the short-term. Galleries understand that it can take time before they get a return on their investments, and not every show, even for mid-career artists, necessarily turns a profit right away. Part of their job is to see where that investment is worthwhile, look for talent and drive and professionalism in the field of emerging artists. But right now, unless you are signed with said gallery, it's not in their best interest to think long-term investment with new artists. You may decide to go to another field, sign with another gallery, or make work that is non-commercially based and thus insupportable. You may simply never "make it" - and the number of artists such galleries can take risks with is getting lower by the day. Remember: an average NYC / Chelsea gallery has overheads of around $20,000 a month. Nobody benefits from them needing to close down after taking too many risks. If they are going to lose money on a given show, they are better off doing it with an artist who they are absolutely sure they will still be working with in the future, when the money comes back.
But fret not. This is not permanent. And I believe it will work itself out for the aforementioned talented and emerging and professional artists in the long run.
Picture this: around the time of the Clinton years and the dotcom boom (not to mention new taxes for imported art works in London), young artists (Young British Artists - YBA - to be more precise) like Damien Hirst began playing the system and becoming Sensations overnight. This helped start the trend where artists were being snagged right out of grad school - Matthew Barney being one example (his Yale and familial connections didn't hurt). But such quick success stories weren't always the way, and I think they may have had their day. At present, young artists seem to think that if you don't "make it" by the time you're 30, you're screwed. In the "old days," young 'uns were told to come back when they were more refined, had time to hone their practice and skills and engagement with discourse. If you had a solo show by the time you were in your mid-forties, you were in good shape.
Perhaps we won't go back to quite that system, but the kind of carefulness you're seeing from galleries again - where they don't necessarily want to risk a hot new or sensationalist artist for a quick buck, where they want to spend time on group shows or long-term investments to make sure they can meet their overheads - is the same attitude pretty much all commercial galleries had in the pre-YBA years. I think we may see a shift towards older artists again in the near future. And if you are a young or emerging artist now, by the time the crisis ends - assuming you carry on showing and making at whatever pace - you will be a much better artist, and ready for that mid-career snag.
So what do you do?
Use this time to hone those skills. Go to grad school. Get an apprenticeship. Look for the few grants that are left. Do some writing. Take risks in your art while the galleries are not doing so in their shows. Don't show art, just make it, lots of it. (The best work happens when you don't have a gallery in mind.) Get a job that inspires or at least does not exhaust you, and make art as much as you can - more experimentally rather than less. It's true that this'll mean less time in your studio, "just making." But honestly, have you ever met an artist who felt like they have enough time in the studio? I complained about it just as much when I was a full-time artist as I do now, with a full-time job.
We're again in a thoughtful and reflective moment of art, where the most prized works are a wonderful composition of the conceptual and the material, context and visuality. Explore that in depth and add to the art discourse, and when we're out of the hole, curators and gallerists will have no choice but to find you.
In other words, now more than ever is the time to be more artist than careerist. It's the best thing for Art to move forward, and probably the most pragmatic move for your personal career.