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Does commercialism in art harm young artists?

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“Shiny objects and beautiful people” the phrase conjures images of an event at one of London’s high end department stores. Or perhaps a flashy cat-walk show or maybe even a Hollywood awards ceremony.

This is how Matti Brunzl describes the opening of the recent and hugely popular Jeff Koon’s A retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in his book In search of a lost avant-garde.

Image by thegirlsny of Balloon Dog by Jeff Koons

Brunzl critiques the increasing tendency of large galleries to put on blockbuster exhibitions which bring in the punters, but fail to showcase and expose lesser known artists to the viewing public. He sees the widespread commercialisation of the art world as the cause of stagnation in cutting edge art. Big modern art galleries seem to prioritise the artists that will make them the most money.

I wanted to find out how commercialisation affects emerging artists inRichie MomentLondon, so I spoke to Richie Moment, a conceptual artist and a MA student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Richie’s work deals with his frustrations of being an emerging artist in an increasingly commercialised scene. ‘Sometimes the best way to subvert something is to run with it,’ he tells me. His latest project is creating a ‘Richie Moment’ fanclub inspired by the cheesy pop aesthetic of the 90s teen magazine Smash Hits. His plan is to undermine what he calls the ‘formalised’ way of promoting work through galleries by asking patrons to engage with him directly by joining his fan club. Members pay an annual subscription charge and in turn will receive a fanzine and a set of limited Richie Moment prints through the post.

He explains that this fun, old-school way of connecting with viewers is not simple parody. ‘I like that feeling of community built around your work with other people. For me it’s very important to have that’. For Richie, starting his own fan club isn’t just a way to make a statement about the rigid nature of the commercial, gallery centred model of promoting work. It’s also a way of him holding onto a personal connection with the people buying his work.

Richie’s take on this issue differs from Brunzl’s. He doesn’t have as much concern about the lack of Avant-garde visual art being brought to new audiences. Instead Richie worried that, as an artist, being too caught up in the commercial way of promoting work could disrupt the natural creative process.
‘There seems to be a one-track, commercial way of doing things’, he tells me ‘Big galleries and big institutions have a lot of residencies. I feel like it’s a kind of national lottery effect in that as soon as you’ve put in a proposal for [a residency] you start dreaming of that being your practice. But that shuts down the work you do in your studio…you start forcing it and thinking of your work in terms of proposals.’

Despite the nature of Richie’s work, he does not completely condemn the commercial way of working. ‘If it works for you it works for you. No one should dictate how you work’ he says, and it seems to be the pressure to conform that Richie takes issue with, ‘there was a tendency before social media to just be in your studio and interact with the art scene around you. Now you can interact with the world wide art scene and I thinks that an insane amount of pressure to put on yourself. There’s no one to advertise another way of doing things and that’s what I try to do in my work.’

Richie also explained to me the benefits that financial backing could have on his work. ‘You could meet someone who ran and gallery who really liked your work and you could negotiate the fact that you had complete freedom within that.’ Richie made it clear that he is not necessarily looking for a massive amount of recognition for his work, but that the financial backing of a gallery would help him to keep producing work.

From hearing Richie’s thoughts on commercial practices in the visual art world, I could see that for less established artists there is a middle ground to navigate between shaping work to fit the trends of commercial galleries and institutions and also using these establishments to benefit work through patronage and constructive partnerships.

Image from RowingTyler Woolcott runs Rowing, a small gallery in North London, and he told me about the benefits of working with larger institutions. ‘Partnerships with larger galleries play an essential part in helping us tap into more established networks, these associations also act as a sort of stamp of approval for us’ As a part public part funded organisation, Rowing has been lucky in being awarded funding from the Arts Council. ‘Our focus now is on building a strong roster of emerging international artists as well as continuing to explore a variety of formats for presenting exhibitions’.

So perhaps there is a trickle down affect from the large commercial arts organisations, through to the smaller galleries that work with them, and then on to the emerging artists who are supported by galleries who enable them to develop their practices and exhibit work. Large galleries in London such as the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain certainly have huge commercial power. Over the past decade they have become brand name. But it is free to visit the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain as it is for many other museums and galleries in London.

Tate Britain

The commercial interests of these organisations may well promote established artists over the up and coming avant-garde. But from the point of view of a gallery goer, being able to view a huge selection of art from around the world at no cost at all is perhaps worth the cost of having to search farther and wider for unknown artists. Indeed, the issue of an increasingly commercialised art scene is not necessarily as simple as Art Good/ Money Bad.

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