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Opinion: Blank canvas for ‘mid-career’ artists

Sadly for New Zealand artists, reaching the so-called ‘mid-career’ status is penalising and punishable.

Mid-career artists are facing quarantine, a state of enforced isolation. I should know, because I’m one of them.

This is where the dealer gallery, the artist’s commercial partner, precisely loses interest. It’s a rather shocking evolution. And mid-career artists are waking up to the fact that they are on a slippery slope.

Mid-career artists are facing sudden and bewildering change in their status with the art and wider world. Those of us on the mid-career timeline need to find an alternative commercial model – and fast.

Surely dealer galleries that sell art are just shop fronts? There is nothing ‘magical’ about their space. I’m suggesting that dealer galleries are no longer the ‘gatekeepers’.

I’m sure you will agree that reaching mid-career status in any mode of gainful employment is an achievement. Picture visiting a mid-career doctor or lawyer. No doubt you would feel assured. Why should it be any different for a mid-career artist?

A reputable gallery in Parnell (who preferred not to be named) confirmed my suspicions about mid-career artists being left behind.

This gallery is an upmarket, contemporary, and focused space. They admitted: “We receive at least five applications a week from mid-career artists and most, if not all, are turned away.”

What’s that all about? I put it down to the fact that mid-career artists are no longer perceived as ‘exciting’, ‘edgy’ or ‘ bankable’ to the dealer gallery. Simply not worth investing in.

Mid-career artist Virginia Leonard and co-owner of The Vivian gallery in Matakana says, “its very true, it’s the mid-career artists that have the problem.

“Im a mid-career artist, absolutely. I’m a funny one, I have a big profile out there but that is because I’ve driven it myself.”

Seductions of the ‘new’ will always capture a market. Leonard recalls the instant success she had at her first solo exhibition at the Oedipus Rex Gallery. Freshly graduated with a Master’s degree, Leonard was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and her exhibition was a sell-out.

Leonard says “its really hard to keep that momentum when you are a ‘mid-career’ artist”. The ‘new’ and the ‘established’ looks like a full-proof commercial model and the mid-career artist – nothing short of un-bankable.

Leonard explains that auction houses have a lot to do with the hierarchy, saying, “the auction houses drive the bright stars”.

The mid-career artist awkwardly straddles the timeline sitting somewhere between the ‘new’ and the ‘established’. “In fact, you are a mid career artist for the bulk of your career.  It’s pretty depressing if you think about it like that by the way,” Leonard muses.

Given this, the sticky issue is sustainability. Can the mid-career artist afford to hang on? I’m scrambling to recall my own last successful exhibition in a dealer gallery. Most of my recent sales I’ve actually engineered myself.

Leonard confirms similar experiences, her mid-career artist colleagues recently got together: “We were all trying to think of the last time we all had a successful exhibition in Auckland at dealer galleries,” she says.

I believe it’s time for mid-career artists to cultivate new pathways for themselves.

Interestingly, Leonard says being realistic about prices is paramount for the mid-career artist. Too many, in Leonard’s opinion, are over-pricing their work and limiting their chance of sales success.

“Because I’m on the other side, I’m an owner of a gallery they often over price their work. If you go around Australia, their work is so much less expensive than our mid-career artists,” says Leonard.

I dare you to look objectively at the dealer gallery model – it’s rather unattractive. Galleries offer dated commission models that present artists with poor value propositions.

Leonard agrees with the over-inflated commission model, saying, “My god, you had better be working hard for that artist if you are taking a 50 per cent commission.”

Needless to say, gallery commissions don’t stack up. In the business world, sales commissions vary anything from 2-30 per cent. This highlights how cheeky the whole arrangement is.

American author Daniel Pink wrote a provocative think-tank article asking the question: “Is an MFA the new MBA?” Pink’s article, ‘Leadership in Business and Innovation’ claims artists are tenacious, critical thinkers, collaborators and above all -creative. He says “arts graduates are plucky and understand how to use their creative skills in a variety of settings.

“Is Art School the next B – School? Hardly, though artists often possess the skills and temperament that business leaders regularly say are in short supply: creativity, resiliency, flexibility, high tolerance for risk and ambiguity, as well as courage to fail.”

There is no doubt that Leonard is ‘plucky’, she fits Pink’s thinking beautifully. When her dealer told her “not to expect to make much money in your shows” and “she would need to get a part-time job to support her painting”, Leonard cut the ties.

She is resolute in this, saying, “I knew I could do it better than most”. And her artist home-based studio in Matakana proved to be a success. Sure, it’s a different model, but it’s worked.

Leonard says she “needed an audience so I decided to create my own audience. It was more money than I ever made, it was extremely successful” adding “lots of artists do sell from home and I really think they do ok”.

Leonard’s business acumen and enjoyment for the “business side of business” reaps success. She adds: “I enjoy it and I realised I could do it myself”.

I would have to agree that artists can do it for themselves. In fact, I stepped out into similar terrain. As an artist and teacher, I left full-time secondary school art teaching a decade ago and created my own art school – tripling my job satisfaction, not to mention my income.

Leonard similarly shares her home-based vision really worked. “I made a really good living more than most average artists. I controlled what I did, when I did it, but it’s a double-edged sword. The dealer galleries dislike that, and it’s really hard to get back in,” she says.

She goes on to say her home-based artist studio “really increased my profile”. Cleverly, Leonard made sure the studio functioned as a gallery and was visible, particularly for the Matakana tourist trail.

Leonard has since gone on to spearhead The Vivian, a community-focused gallery. She runs The Vivian a bit like a public art gallery with her partner Ollie King and colleague Helen Crosby.

The Vivian goes out of it’s way to support the work of ‘mid-career’ artists and is attracting attention from locals and Aucklanders’. Some dealer galleries are also starting to take notice.

For now the ‘personal-capacity’ model is the best one for mid-career artists. Being a professional in all that you do can’t hurt either. Mid-career artists need more than ever, a raft of virtues that include: Marketing, good social skills, clear and pleasant communication, and a flair for all things business.

Perhaps Pink is right, the artist has the capacity to be a consummate business professional. I say let’s work together as like-minded colleagues, set up our own artist stables and develop concepts that open doors, create new opportunities and continued exposure.

Listen to the full interview below:

Keren Cook
Keren is currently working as a casual presenter at NZME and freelancing as a journalist and Director and voice over-artist. She recently project-managed New Zealand's Jewish Online Museum, and co-hosts a regular show at Planet FM.
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