Beyond art school and into the art world, the aphorism “in it to win it” is oft-repeated. But through the many applications funded on last dollars, I’ve realized that there’s something else at play.
It’s six weeks before your graduation and they introduce the Professional Practice class. You are asked to put together a mock Artist CV based on the kind that you’ve been collecting at exhibition openings since your sophomore year. They sit you through slide shows that detail exactly how to put an exhibition proposal together. Professional photographs of your artworks are a must with a caption that reads:
The message pervading these classes, as you cram for the last exam and do the last edit of your thesis, is that you have to be in it to win it. And they are right, to a certain degree.
Now you have graduated. You were lucky to get a place in a small group show, thanks to the post-graduate exhibition your art school put on. Being a finalist in a regional prize or two along the way has given your optimism a healthy boost too. So with your last fifty bucks, you apply for an art prize. It stings a little when you don’t get in, but that’s part of trying to make it, right?
A few colleagues you graduated with invite you to be part of a group show. You meet every week, sometimes twice, putting together a killer proposal. Your Artist Statement hits all the pretentious marks (though you’ll never admit it, not even to yourself) and it becomes a source of irate pride that the language you use to describe you art is academic and … incomprehensible. Now comes the part they conveniently glazed over in Professional Practice: it’s time to dig into your pockets to put on the show. The grants you cleverly applied for months in advance have fallen through and renting the gallery, plus the dozen bottles of wine for the opening night, has put you back a couple of grand. But that’s part of trying to make it, right?
The gallery volunteers who are supposed to mind the space during the week don’t turn up, so you and your fellow artists are forced to put together a roster of your availability. You sold one artwork at the show and you chase the gallery for months for the payment. They give a dozen excuses, and it isn’t until you turn up to the next opening and have a friendly chat with the new artists exhibiting that the money finally makes its way into your bank account.
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You’ve been out of art school for a year now, two years, three years. The amount of money that you have put into making applications for art prizes begins to make you think. Suddenly you realize that the big cash draw for that one lucky artist is being funded not by the Council or art collectors putting on the prize, but by the hundreds, maybe thousands of artists who have applied, many of whom have been turned away. You keep putting on group shows, collecting them all for your Artist CV, but it’s getting tiring to see the same drunks and art students turning up to the openings for the free booze.
You have to be in it to win it, of course, but it doesn’t feel quite right that you are paying the gallery to exhibit your works. Much less so for the fact that, other than a few regular patrons they call up for the opening, they don’t do much to earn the 50% commission on the few artworks sold.
Just try talking to a fellow artist about it. “You have to be in it to win it,” they’ll say. But you begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, it’s all a ruse to make you feel like you’re doing something about putting your artwork out there. That perhaps an industry has been built on the narcissism, poor self-worth, and ardent love of creativity that makes up many artists. It’s all a very clever con. You would never dream of saying that, of course, much less opening up the topic for debate in a public forum. Who could be willing to threaten that feeble ray of hope?
And now, the question that just begs the asking goes something like this: Is this industry veritably the engorged tick that it seems to be? Does it latch itself onto the jugular vein of the flea-ridden dog that has become the neglected artist? You will, of course, want to lay the blame at its feet but first consider this – are artists not somewhat willful bystanders, a little too bent on outdoing each other to be rooting for the bettering of a common cause? Either way, there seems to be a crucial downfall within the visual arts industry.