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Doing it for themselves: art, sales and digital agency in the time of Covid 19

As lockdown rules are slowly being lifted in some parts of the world, galleries and small museums prepare to open, cautiously, to a physically art-starved public. Imagine, grabbing a coffee in a paper cup along with a fat-heavy impossible-to-actually-eat-on-the-run baguette, tramping the actual streets to a favourite haunt and getting up and sniffably close to the stuff of art.

There’s nothing like being locked out of visual arts spaces and our autonomous lives as we knew them, to feed the desire for materiality (and disposable gluttony) on-tap. We are all in need of a sensory blowout. The idea of things returning to the way they were may be a distant ungraspable thing, but there is a lot to commend the generous and innovative ways practitioners, in all areas of the art community, have been promoting the art experience online.

The art world with its long history of analogue practices has, until really quite recently, been reticent to embrace the internet as a viable platform for making, or get to grips with the (economic) potential of its presentational possibilities. New-media pioneers in the art field rarely receive the full credit due at the time they design/produce/reveal, and are invariably plagiarised by other commercially focused cultural forms. One only need scratch the surface, look to established artists such as Nam June Paik and Jenny Holzer, to recognise how slow the drip-effect of influence really is through art production. But, as history also informs, in times of emergency innovation is key and tech-growth often exponential.

One of Jenny Holzer's new billboard works commissioned for NYC's Times Square Art Project

Certainly, we’re spoilt for choice right now for screen-time options, as the blue-chip galleries continue to ramp-up their already considerable online presences, creating (often excellent) content from their connections with the great, the good and the infamous. In the socially-distant present, all things virtual-tech are GO, especially in the commercial sector, with many try-before-you-buy VR viewing and sales rooms arriving stealth-style out the marketing ether.

When it comes to maintaining visibility and accessibility, the big museums and public galleries have largely followed suit, offering increasing virtual admission into their collections and the back-office processes that keep them running. Meanwhile, the small- and medium-sized enterprises, the not-for-profits and well really the rest of us, have been mostly just running – to throw our hats, any hat, into the ring.

The circumstances may be unprecedented, but for most of us trying to make a living from art, this is not our first rodeo around the internet as an essential platform for connectivity and engagement – in no small part thanks to social media. While the new-media art mavericks have a hand in shaping the virtual terrain and our use of it, the bread-and-butter substance of our daily interaction with professional practice and its players comes from scrolling through posts.

This is why the #artistsupportpledge has gained such traction. And the fact that its founder, Matthew Burrows, as an artist, curator and educator, is well-placed to understand the needs and strictures of individuals reliant on institutions, gallery contracts, grant processes, not to mention increasingly shaky teaching gigs and other side hustles.

The initiative, with its sales cap of £200, recognises a realistic aim for the wider, cash-concerned support network. But, also, the potential in this time to create an egalitarian system the various nationally (UK) promoted schemes for buying art have yet to achieve at scale, and one that recognises the need for artists to earn outside of/alongside the art world and its requirements. If you’re reading and haven’t come across the Instagram-based hashtag-fuelled project, the basic premise is this. Artists offer works for sale on the platform to a maximum of £200. They are responsible for posting the work to buyers, and once they amass £1,000 in sales, are then obliged to purchase a pledge from another artist.

It’s a beautifully conceived, self-sustaining honour system that encourages artist agency. And one that allows everyday people into the (in this country at least) elite and heavily manipulated business of buying/collecting art. While of course economics plays a large part in the ability to purchase art works, in other European countries, it is perceived as more of an essential than a luxury process, and supported/encouraged accordingly.

To me, as an IG user (and recent recipient of a work), ‘pledging’ appears to be working well. Though I have received a few ‘where are you, have you seen?’ emails from artists who possibly haven’t been selling as they might hope, despite such generous price tags. Of course, the market is as the market does. And while Burrows has done a great job of promoting the initiative to the art community, the media, and interested parties, the success for any individual is also dependent on their ability to work the platform and usher-in a buying crowd beyond the echo chamber of friends and artist peers. Naturally, the works on offer vary hugely in every way, but I defy anyone not to find and seriously covet a considerable amount of the pledges posted.

Collaboration is the cornerstone of StudioK3, the new online initiative of Zurich-based K3 Project Space. Set up by English artist Clare Goodwin and Swiss art historian Sandi Pauçic in 2002, in the city’s industrial quarter, K3 focused on creating links between artists in the UK and Switzerland. Over the years it has built and developed relationships with a wealth of international artists, writers and curators, and garnered serious local support as a bricks-and-mortar space with an event-driven pop-up sensibility – before the term had been invented.

The tenancy for K3 came to an end in 2016 after commercial development of the area, but Goodwin has kept projects running from her studio. This includes the curation of group shows in her adopted country, under the auspices of ‘The Museum of the Unwanted’, which have evolved out of her research as an abstract painter, and maintaining close working links with Coleman Project Space in London.

Recognising the need for artists to maintain visibility and an income during the pandemic, with the ensuing closure of spaces, StudioK3 is now drawing on its connections, inviting artists to show their works online in a series of curated exhibitions. So as not to limit their potential pool of makers, or tread too heavily into gallery territory, the project selects from ‘studio works’: evidence of the schemes, dreams and planning processes intrinsic to everyday development. Artists receive a generous 70% of the sale price, while 10% of the money made goes back into the coffers to support the project’s growth.

And it has serious ambitions to feed. StudioK3 has just secured a new temporary space in Zürich, from May-September 2020, thereby providing an actual, supplementary platform for artists to present existing works and develop new, potentially site-specific projects. Having acknowledged the fact that buyers are wary of investing if they can’t personally engage with art and the social experience of buying it, the space will be carefully organised to allow for the necessary restrictions on visitor engagement as part of ‘the new normal’. The site will feature a permanent curated display of changing works, across the market-price spectrum, as well as commissioned spatial interventions and performances, and the live streaming of artist-studio activities under the event umbrella ‘meet the sketchbook’.

Another artist entering the sales arena, and with the business of benevolence in mind, is New York-based Darren Bader. His new online portal Inventory carries the strapline: ‘a social distancing project for enthusiasts and philanthropes’, pitching his focus on the more meaningful aspects of collecting art, as well as the potential for established makers to directly help those affected by the pandemic.

The project has occupied several guises in Bader’s mind’s eye: from an affordable auction site, to various chance-led incarnations that included the possibility of an online gambling show. He describes the arrival of the pandemic as initiating a ‘cultural audit’, which has led to Inventory finding its current, more essential form.

While designed to support artists in a time of limited or no ability to show works, exhibitors are set to receive 33% of the sale price, while 40% will be given to either to Covid 19-related charities, or a peer of the artist whom they personally deem in need of financial assistance. In addition, 22% will be given to implicated galleries – presuming works sold were made while these artists were on their rosters – with the hope it will help them to keep staff, particularly casual workers, in their employ. Only 5% will be taken by the project, purely to fund its administration.

All works presented on the platform are generally over two years’ old and embody something of the materially open, performative conceptualism of Bader’s sculpture-based practice. Personal favourites from the growing international list include: ceramics by British artist Jesse Wine, which appear to describe the process of painterly motifs emerging out of the frame and into real-life in sculptural form; Canadian artist Barb Choit’s photo-portraits of window views framing intimate human stories; and UK artist Keith Farquhar’s sensitively oil-paint-pimped adaptors.

Meh/cynicism has become a necessary part of the survival kit for managing life in a fractured and unbalanced art-world system (if you’re not already following Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams on IG I suggest you do, we all feature somewhere in his critical, brilliantly observed characterverse). But in recent weeks I’ve witnessed many acts of kindness and offers of help from institutions and professionals: with writing grant applications, for example, or online teaching for students in educational limbo and the production of critical texts, free of change, for those who’ve yet to have their work formally evaluated.

We’re all worried about our people right now, the economic impact of the pandemic on the sector and our ability to survive within it. But, beyond the business of art, there is a baseline sense of goodwill amongst this, if nothing else always curious, community we’ve chosen to move through this working life with.

Images © the artists unless otherwise stated

1. David Risley 'Grill', available through StudioK3

2. Daniel Karrer 'Corona Island Nr. 7', 2020 #artistsupportpledge

3. Keith Farquhar Scream #11, 2018, available through Inventory

4. Matthew Burrows 'Bather' 2017-19

5. Gill Ord ‘Furrow 1’, 2019 #artistsupportpledge

6. Daniel Karrer ‘Corona Island Nr. 9’, 2020 #artistsupportpledge

7. Russell Heron ‘Small Cardboard Portrait’, 2020 #artistsupportpledge

8. Clare Goodwin ‘Untitled’, 2020, available through StudioK3/the arti

9. Martina von Meyenburg ‘FIGMENTS' 4-6’, 2018, available through StudioK3/the artist

10. Gregory Hari ‘Figure 3’, 2020, available through StudioK3/the artist

11. David Risley ‘Jeanette, Blinky, Vesterbrogade’, available through StudioK3/the artist

12. Andrew Bick ‘OGVDS-GW (for Natalie Dower) #2’, 2019-20, available through StudioK3/the artist

13. Darren Bader ‘DB_M20’, 2015 © the artist/Galleria Franco Noero

14. Screenshot

15. Barb Choit Crystal Head #7, 2014, available through Inventory

16. Jesse Wine Relaxing amongst nature with rogue tongue, 2017, available through Inventory

17. Katrin Hanusch 'Ping Pong Ball #19', 2015, recently bought for me via #artistsupportpledge




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