Taking Care of Business
Damien Hirst’s autobiography will be published by Viking Penguin in Autumn 2015. When recently announcing the deal, the publishers promised that Hirst will ‘lay bare the modern art world’. The book will be co-written with James Fox (co-author of Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir, Life) who, in a recent interview with the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz, said: ‘Money and art is the elephant in the room. Damien is certainly going to address that. And the art world is wild and unregulated. You will get the machinery, the machinations, because one of the extraordinary things is that Damien took on his dealers: he got them to reduce commissions; he played them off against each other. He actually changed the rules.’
We will have to wait and see whether Hirst did change any rules. Meanwhile, let us consider whether there are (or were) rules to change and how artists learn about them. In other words, what do artists need to know about the art world and how might they acquire such knowledge?
Artists, like other creative professionals, have many and varied values and criteria by which they measure success. Internally, artists consider the level of personal satisfaction with their working processes and resulting outcomes: that is their own private art world and nobody else’s business. Externally, artists also consider two principal art worlds beyond their studio practice: the market and its level of response to their work; and cultural spectators and their assessment of artistic value of work. But few artists, especially at early stages of their careers, have a working knowledge or understanding of the external art worlds sufficient to navigate their frequently treacherous waters.
Market and cultural values are separate and distinct, though interrelated and interdependent. The sole criterion for establishing market value is not the estimated or asking price but what has already been paid. The market relies strongly on sales prices achieved at public auctions and salerooms (even though private sales represent a substantial chunk of the market). The cultural or canonistic value of artists and their works is far more complex: art-world consensual recognition emerges through a combination of relevant discourses and institutional collection decisions, plus market performance. Vincent van Gogh’s works received little or no cultural or market value during his lifetime, yet decades after his death both were achieved – and are intrinsically interrelated.
A useful primer for artists is US sociologist Howard S Becker’s influential and recently updated 1982 publication Art Worlds, where he examined ‘the cooperative network of suppliers, performers, dealers, critics, and consumers that – along with the artist – produces a work of art’. Becker summarised this interaction of key players as being ‘art as collective action’. Cooperation is not regulation: the former connotes voluntary and therefore unenforceable agreements; the latter requires legally binding agreements and/or legislation. It is widely acknowledged that the art business world is perhaps the least regulated – and most opaque – international industry: no doubt fuelling widespread eager anticipation of Hirst’s insights and revelations.
Illumination of the art world/s to artists could (and many argue should) be provided by art schools as an integral part of degree courses. There is a strong case for teaching aspiring artists not only the techniques and issues involved in and arising from studio practice but also for equipping them with the knowledge and skills to achieve artistic and market place recognition. In the late 1980s Hirst undertook a fine art degree course at the University of London’s Goldsmiths art school, the stated aim of which today is much the same as it was 25 years ago, and is a typical art-based objective: ‘The main purpose of the degree is to teach you how to make art and to evaluate different critical approaches to your own practice, through integrated Studio Practice and Critical Studies courses.’
It is significant that the legendary 1988 ‘Freeze’ selling exhibition was organised by Hirst and fellow students independently from their Goldsmiths course (albeit with strong support from Michael Craig-Martin, their tutor at Goldsmiths). Hirst’s then precocious artistic and art-business talents developed over the next 25 years; he is currently UK’s richest living artist (wealth valued at £210m by the Sunday Times in 2010). Hirst epitomises Andy Warhol’s seminal assertion: ‘Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.’
Like Warhol, Hirst is an exception to the norm: both artists early on in their careers attracted and were soundly supported and guided by a business manager, and established what was pithily described by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale as ‘an assembly line of art workers’. But few artists have the business insight and the money to pay for such support, and consequently many aspire to be represented by a gallery dealership. Artist/gallery representation began in western Europe around 400 years ago and developed by trial and error through to today as a business relationship fundamentally based on mutual trust. The artist trusts that the gallery believes in the work, that sales can be achieved at the right price and that the gallery regards the relationship as being long term, developing both the artist’s market and critical recognition and status. The artist relies on the gallery’s greater knowledge and experience of the art worlds – both market and artistic – that many artists do not have and in some cases actively do not wish to acquire. The gallery trusts that the artist is professionally committed to producing quality work that will achieve sales and critical acclaim, and that their business and artistic advice will be welcomed and acted upon by the artist. For example, artists who do not make traditional unique objects for sale need guidance to find new ways of selling and achieving artistic success.
Artist/gallery agreements are now increasingly recorded in writing. This is partly because younger artists and gallery dealers often have a more professional attitude than earlier generations, but also because of the globalised nature of art business and the strong influence of continental European legal practices (usually requiring business contracts to be written). Gallery dealers need to secure the artists’ services on an exclusive basis – they are artists’ agents and do not operate as their employers. There is no single ideal model contract for good artist/gallery representation contracts – and certainly no ‘rules’ – because each relationship is unique. Operating at their best, such deals allow artists to retain artistic autonomy to create work they believe in and dealers to nurture the careers of artists they believe in: both earn reputational and financial rewards.
‘Do artists really need galleries?’ asked a leading article in the Art Newspaper last month. Here we rejoin Fox’s ‘elephant in the room’. The article debated gallery deals versus self-managed practice, often including the employment of staff, and considered the practices of ‘successful artists, as well as some smart youngsters, [who] are in no rush to secure big-league representation [by gallery dealers]’. But it failed to address what artists actually need to know and how they acquire this knowledge. Surely the best approach for artists would be professional decisions based on active preference and choice, rather than force majeure?
© Henry Lydiate 2014