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Elizabeth Grant – WNN GlobalARTS

An exhibition of artist Gerald Ferguson's work in the Wynick/Tuck Gallery, January 2009, Toronto, Ontario,

An exhibition of Canadian conceptual artist Gerald Ferguson‘s work in the Wynick/Tuck Gallery, January 2009, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Image: Wynick/Tuck Gallery

(WNN/OD) Kingston, Ontario, CANADA, AMERICAS: Newspapers seem regularly to report on ever-more record-breaking auction sales for blue-chip artists (both dead & alive) and many of the art-stars of today have embraced celebrity culture to such an extent that one might wonder where friendship ends and self-parody begins?

While the art world’s bubble seems to float on, oblivious and impenetrable like some glorious lead balloon, art education is not quite as impervious to the prevailing economic mood. Quite often dependent on a steady stream of government funding to offer the complex and hard-to-define education that art schools and university art departments aspire to provide, the times have not been kind to art education—even in Canada, a country that has managed to avoid recession and maintain an air of stability whilst its neighbors and trading partners have dipped and double-dipped.

In 2011, Queen’s University in Ontario suspended enrollment in its Fine Art program due to a shortage of resources. Ironically, this resource shortage was caused in part by an above-average number of their 2010 offers of a place on the program having been accepted.

This over-extended the department’s budget for that year, which lead to the decision to halt the program entirely, presumably while the school (famous for its engineering and medical faculties) caught its breath. Evidently despite no shortage of people wanting to study art, there was a limit to how many people Queen’s University was willing to entertain on that venture.

The American-born artist Gerald Ferguson, who taught painting in Canada for 38 years once remarked to my class that nobody who is poor goes into art: if you grew up hungry, you wouldn’t be so willing to risk living the rest of your life on the edge of poverty, he told us.

One might wonder at the wisdom of going down such a changing, ill-defined career path, let alone in a time when unemployment is so high that in the UK Costa Coffee received 1,700 applications for 8 positions.

While it may not be so black-and-white for everyone, there is certainly a grain of truth to the idea that the study of fine art takes a lot of faith: faith that you have what Jan Verwoert described as “…something very special inside…”; faith that someone else will recognize this and be able to help it grow; and faith that you and that special thing will one day contribute something meaningful—if not great—to the world.

There is a strong argument to be made that the world—now more than ever—needs people with an artistic vision. In her text “Art is not a career,” said U.K. art critic Louisa Buck adding that art schools “…cannot and should not ‘make’ artists.”

But they should offer a sympathetic space for development, questioning, risk-taking, and play. Indeed, the business world has increasingly taken an interest in the kind of thinking produced by such an education, as was noted by Daniel Pink in his 2005 book “A Whole New Mind.”

I once witnessed an unfortunate attempt by a politician to gain her audience’s trust through candor in the opening remarks she was giving to a group of artists gathered together for a summit to discuss the role of arts in the community. Glancing around the room, the mayor said that as much as she’d like to give the arts more money, she just couldn’t because “…you’re not water & sewage!”

Indeed we’re not, but then how many societies developed their identity and pride through their art and culture well before they implemented water and sewage?

This is asked not to support the idea of it being a game of fiscal rock-paper-scissors, but rather to suggest that from their cultural ubiquity and co-existence with the earliest forms of technology might be inferred in the arts an element of necessity, even if we still struggle to articulate it.

Thinking of Dasha Zhukova’s barge of artist-generated, fake advertisements that trolled the Grand Canal at the 2011 Venice, Italy Biennale, or considering Richard Florida’s 2002 coining of the term ‘the Creative Class’ which put in economic terms what businesses like the Soho House had already identified as an untapped market waiting to be named, one might get the impression that the art world is weathering the world’s economic downturn reasonably well.

Newspapers seem regularly to report on ever-more record-breaking auction sales for blue-chip artists (both dead & alive) and many of the art-stars of today have embraced celebrity culture to such an extent that one might wonder where friendship ends and self-parody begins?

While the art world’s bubble seems to float on, oblivious and impenetrable like some glorious lead balloon, art education is not quite as impervious to the prevailing economic mood.

But even if one has faith that the corporate world really is keen to embrace some of those art school graduates who don’t immediately transition to careers in the art world, the institutions that graduated them are even more in need of our faith.

Art schools vary hugely from one institution to another, but they are alike in being delicate eco-systems that both reflect and contribute to the health of the society in which they’re found.

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‘Market Matters’ is the name of  The New Economy of Art series presented by Artquest which is published by University of the Arts London with the Contemporary Art Society and DACS – Design and Artists Copyright Society. This video is part 5 of 5 videos highlighting the panels  for the conference series that explores the complex and overlapping kinds of art markets’that exists for all artists today. Those involved in arts market can range from commercial galleries to private dealers and auction houses, including art fairs, online selling sites and gift economies. Speakers Louise Buck, Kate MacGarry and Matt Roberts set the scene before an open dialogue with the audience to look at how artistic practice intersects with and creates its own economies.

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Elizabeth Grant is a Canadian painter who recently moved from Berlin to Glasgow, where she is studying for a Masters degree at the Glasgow School of Art. She was a finalist for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition, and has been supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation.

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