Three Manchester School of Art researchers, Amanda Ravetz, Jack Roberts and Lucy Wright, explain complexities in the relationships between artists’ reputation and remuneration
Complex questions surround artists’ engagement and relationship with galleries. What does gallery representation mean for practising artists? Should those exhibiting in galleries be paid? If so, how much and by whom? Why are some artists prepared to work for nothing? At the same time, contemporary artistic practice is highly diverse: while some artists produce object-based artworks, others engage in so-called socially engaged projects. So what happens if there is no marketable ‘final product’ at the end of an artistic venture? How do those artists who choose to work outside the gallery system gain professional validation for their work and thereby make a living?
Our recent research into the relationships between artists, dealers, galleries and the art market suggests that while most artists want to be paid a reasonable wage, they also have strong opinions about the implications of financial intervention in artistic practice – the danger of ‘the business of art’ overwriting the cultural and symbolic value of their work. Interestingly, this applies not only to those who show in high profile galleries but, for different reasons, to those who make socially engaged, relational, site-based, and public art.
For artists operating mainly outside the world of dealers, auctions and private buyers there may be little interest in the mainstream art world and the art market economy, where art objects are traded on an open market at prices driven high by the demands of collectors and investors. Artists working with communities often make ephemeral, experiential and event-based work involving participation and collaboration with members of the public. Many of the artists we interviewed who work outside major national galleries subscribed to an alternative system of validation than those directly linked to monetary values, with some preferring to focus on gaining support from the communities they work with and winning the respect of their peers. Critical evaluation of their work is very important to artists: Is the work any good? Will its reputation last? Others, meanwhile, recognised the benefits of being affiliated with galleries but felt that such spaces did not represent a ‘good fit’ for their own specific practice.
Many artists working outside galleries – or as part of galleries’ educational programmes – make significant parts of their income from running workshops with members of community groups and the general public. While aspects of this work, or its documentation, may go on display, it is less likely to be showcased in main gallery spaces and is often shown in non-traditional arts venues such as community centres, where it might be promoted for its educational value rather than its artistic merit. Their pay often comes from non-art world funders or from arts councils, by whom they are paid both for the quality of their project and for their ability to work with special interest groups. While a socially engaged art project may be recognised as being of high quality and with high social value, and remunerated accordingly, it is not necessarily intended or understood as an artistic commodity with a saleable value, separated out from its contexts and the parties involved in its making.
What a contrast to the gallery system, you might think, where according to research carried out by Paying Artists, 71% of those who show work in publicly funded galleries do so without being paid. Yet it is important to note that for a certain group of artists being paid for their work might not be their highest priority. Many artists represented by dealers and private galleries have surprisingly little to do with the financial aspects of their careers, including their own income, often entrusting such matters to dealers. For those artists represented by dealers whose aim it is to gain cultural and symbolic – rather than economic – value for their work, the validation offered by museums and public galleries is unrivalled. For many, the display of art objects in museums and public galleries is not seen as income generating, but ensures longevity and respect for their work. Our research shows that artists often view working with public galleries and museums as an opportunity taken at the expense of income-generating projects. But what they do provide is a significant form of symbolic and cultural capital.
As such, money may not be the kind of validation that many artists care most about. But, crucially, this is not at all the same as saying that money doesn’t matter. Being paid a fair wage is vital in so many ways, not least of all because it allows artists to continue making their work and to cover their living costs.
Yet, we have perhaps to recognise that ideology plays a part in what artists are prepared to accept from those who show their work. There appears to be a kind of inversion that operates around economics and critical acclaim: artists who garner higher fees sometimes report that their work is treated as having less aesthetic or moral worth than the work of those shown in public galleries. We should not lose sight, therefore, of the symbolic and cultural values that impact the decisions artists make when deciding how, where and under what conditions they will make and exhibit.
The degree to which the cultural and symbolic value of artwork matters to artists may go some way to explaining why many are prepared to balance multiple workloads while living on very low incomes. Tied up with this is the question of artists’ validation – their esteem and reputation – and the relation this has with the form the work takes, the price commanded by art objects, and the venues in which they are shown. Can we imagine a situation in which artists are judged – and paid – on the basis of the quality of their work and its critical reception by diverse groups, rather than overwritten in one way or another by the market and what it represents?
Amanda Ravetz is Senior Research Fellow at MIRIAD, Manchester School of Art and with Lucy Wright is co-author of Validation Beyond the Gallery, a study of artists and validation commissioned by the charity Axisweb
Lucy Wright is a researcher and artist working outside of the gallery system
Jack Roberts is PhD candidate at MIRIAD, Manchester School of Art, researching the art market and artists’ attitudes to the economic aspects of art practice