A Declaration of DIY Independence
C.2009 by Hazel Dooney
I figured out early in my life that if I wanted something, I had to make it happen myself.
I was raised in a feminist household. I was given the same freedom as boys my age but I had to shoulder the same responsibilities and be equally strong and capable. In the fairy tales I was read, princesses rescued themselves and didn't aspire to marry the first man who offered them a crystal slipper.
The DIY ethic has always been deeply ingrained in me as an artist. I produced my first, very successful exhibition myself but later, I allowed myself to sucked in to an increasingly archaic and inflexible commercial gallery system. Over time, I became dependent on it, despite a decreasing number of sales.
I lost personal contact with collectors, curators and critics, as well as my reasons for wanting to be an artist. When I complained of this isolation to the gallerist, I was told, "The last thing you want iseveryone interested in your work" – as if ubiquity and accessibility were anathema to art. I was offered one, two-week exhibition a year,"subject to availability of space", for which I paid the gallery 50 percent of gross sales as commission, plus expenses. Among the expenses were thousands spent on advertising and promotion in which the gallery featured more prominently than my art.
When the exhibition was over, it was almost impossible for collectors to find out about what I might be working on next, let alone when I might be showing again in the future. The gallery was too busy selling the next artist (who might prove to be a better meal ticket) to be bothered with either unsold inventory or works they had yet to see.
Dealing with institutional or public galleries wasn't – isn't – much better. In their cloistered world, entirely dependent on public funding and big-money private patronage (oh, and gift shop sales), even the best-known living 'fine artists' are discouraged from curating their own work. Large-scale exhibitions materialise despite, not because of, academic prejudices, croneyism and turf wars, and are hide-bound by bureaucratic constraints. So much rides on these institutional shows that they can only pay off if they're hyped as 'events' and living artists are usually a lot less bankable than dead ones.
Now, thanks to the web and a plethora of social network tools, a younger generation of artists has been able to regain control of their work and their careers and nurture a direct, one-on-one relationship with everyone interested in their work. They no longer have to rely on traditional bricks-and-mortar spaces to exhibit and they can use a combination of new and old media to to distribute awareness and understanding of their work. They can also network with artists and entrepreneurs outside their own home towns to create multiple opportunities to collaborate or connect with new audiences.
Even better, they get to keep the lion's share of whatever revenue they generate.
DIY has been embraced as an mainstream ethos, devoid of any taint of dilettantism. A recent edition of the UK newspaper, The Independent describes electro-poet/musician George Pringle as Britain's most exciting new talent. She has set up her own label, through which she is releasing her self-produced debut album. It's available to download on Amazon, Tunecore and 7Digital. "Girls don't challenge themselves enough," she told the newspaper. "It's like being a damsel in distress – waiting for a knight in armour to sweep you up and take you to a recording studio."
The power of the web has forced even the lumbering dinosaurs that are large record companies to concede more creative control and a bigger cut of the action to the artists they want to work with. But small, independent labels have been doing it for years. Tummy Touch Records released a limited edition of just 100 Pilfershire Lane Box Sets, a multimedia work that was also a 'debut album' by musician, Tara Busch. Curated and designed by Busch and collaborator Maf Lewis, it blurs any boundaries between conceptual art, music and self-promotion.
In order to wrest back their freedom from an archaic system, visual artists have to become as innovative, adaptive and willing to experiment as artists in other disciplines. They need to re-think not only how they exhibit their work – and increasingly 'exhibition' sounds as anachronistic as 'videotape' or 'hardback edition' – but also how they can control and increase access to themselves, a key to making their work more coherent, cohesive – and commercially viable.
Commercial is a not a dirty word among artists anymore ( it was always a snotty, 19th century, Romantic prejudice that deserves to be disposed of ruthlessly by 'next generation' artists). After all, true independence requires self-financing. And yeah, that means goodbye gallery advances and government grants.
I've been accused, within the comments of this blog, of 'loving money'. But this criticism doesn't recognise the difference between greed and acquiring the resources needed to be able to do what I want, when and where I want, with my work.
I still use commercial gallery spaces for my own, self-produced events but the income I generate and my self-funded and self-organised logistics and communications – my studio's own mailing list numbers over 7,500 entries and I have personal contact with a couple of hundred collectors – allow me to maintain a high degree of control and creative direction.
By not relinquishing my involvement in the sometimes awkward business side of my art, I have little or no dependence on middle-men. As a result, they have no leverage they can use to constrain or direct me. My increased earnings are invested in the means to create new work and produce future shows. I can afford a small, well-trained crew to ensure that my unmediated (and undliuted) self and my work are distributed as widely as possible. Having something to say is one thing, having someone to see, read or hear it is just as important.
A direct connnection with everyone who's interested in my art, especially interested enough to buy it, is key. Collectors don't just buy the work. They buy into the wider scope of the artist's vision. Their support enables me to create more art and at the same time, encourages me to take more and greater risks, something that commercial gallerists, who rarely have a clear idea about what collectors are really interested in (mainly because galleries are too busy gazing longingly at their wallets to listen closely to them), actively discourage in their artists.
Nevertheless, I am also realistic that many of my collectors are looking for a good return on their investment and so I assume some responsibility for ensuring the value of my work continues to rise.
Having regard for the role money plays in the art is hardly new among artists: Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, and Damien Hirsthave all kept a close eye on the hundreds-of-million dollars their art and 'brands' have generated. And it's not just a 20th or 21st century phenomenon: Michelangelo left a 16th century estate worth many millions in modern-day dollars, which included a palatial villa overlooking Florence: even in his early career, he was infamous for his 'push-it-to-the-limit-and-stick-it-to-em' demands on powerful Church and aristocratic patrons.
Independence costs money – but dependence costs freedom. The first, DIY steps towards independence can be hellishly difficult but this is infinitely more preferable to naïve, self-negating surrender to the mercy of a creaky, unproductive, discouraging and isolating commercial gallery system that is, in its present form, doomed.
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