There is a growing huge problem in Ireland’s visual art community. Right across Ireland we have regional art galleries that have been built with public money and continue to receive public funding. The problem is that they do very little or nothing to help promote local visual artists. Ireland has a very rich contemporary visual arts culture that is crying out to play its part in the country’s economic revival, but in order to do this we need to increase recognition and exposure.
This should start in our regional galleries but the curators in these galleries have no interest in the diverse contemporary art culture that exists around them. This is because they insist they are not interested in “commercial art”. I have to say that in all my time as a sculptor and artist I have never met one artist who would not love to make their living from their art, regardless of the field they work in. The most commercially successful artist of the past fourteen years is Damien Hirst who is a conceptual artist. Damien is estimated to have a personal wealth valued at £215m and employs over 300 people across the UK. This to me sounds like a very considerable commercial company. However, conceptual work like Damien’s is exactable to curators whereas work like mine and my contemporaries is considered provincial and therefore, uninteresting. That said, these galleries have no problem showing commercial films or hosting concerts by commercial singers, bands and stand-up comics who are backed by large companies unlike the local artists they dismiss as commercial. This is a huge double standard. Don’t you think?
The very people who are telling us this are not only employed to further art, which includes not only fostering new talent but also broadening awareness of the arts to the general public. Not to mention, these people get a very nice salary, a lot of them claim expenses too, while at the same time telling us, the artists, that it is somehow distasteful to want to earn money from our work. Another double standard?
I have been to Arts Council meetings where curators have stated that regional galleries are for conceptual artist only and the rest of us should go off and find commercial galleries. This to me is unacceptable. Conceptual art is not the only show in town and to quote Charles Saatchi “This “conceptualised” work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again”. He also went on to say about curators: “They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers”. Both of these statements I wholeheartedly agree with. Conceptual art has its place in a rounded visual arts programme but it should not override all other mediums. No one art form should be allowed to dominate all the others, diversity is one of the most important pillars of a good arts programme.
To me, publicly-funded galleries should have a primary role and a duty to their communities to raise and broaden cultural awareness of the public who, let’s face it, provide the funding. This is very hard to do when you are only offering a very narrow view of visual art that will only ever appeal to a small select and elite group of people.
It is very easy to make public-funded galleries more diverse and supportive to locally-based artists and it would not cost a cent more than is already being spent. All you have to do is to make funding conditional on implementing two policies.
- An open submission policy which would give anyone the opportunity to submit a proposal for an exhibition. At the moment most regional galleries will not accept submissions at all. In fact they don’t even list the staff or curators on their websites so you can’t contact them directly unless you already have inside knowledge.
- They should have a 50/50 policy. This is where 50% of exhibitions held must be from locally-based artists and 50% from national or international ones. Local and international artists should also be shown alongside one another. In this way, the local artist has a chance for their work to achieve greater national recognition. Also, local people who may only come to see local artists will be exposed to international art, helping to broaden their horizons.
These two policies are present in many galleries across Europe, such as the Mostyn gallery in Llandudno, North Wales which has received acclaim from critics, artists, the media and public alike. I don’t see why in Ireland we have decided to be so elitist. We know from history that elitism never works and is counterproductive.
I know it is very unfashionable for artists to think of themselves as small businesses but the simple truth is we are. We contribute to our communities both financially and culturally, which means that even if it’s not recognised by most people we are a very important cog. If we as a society don’t start seeing that and ask for respect no-one will give it to us. There is no reason why we cannot have artists as successful as Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley here in Ireland helping to employ hundreds of people, creating wealth and generating tax. But it is a lot less likely if we continue to allow this elitism to fester at the heart of the art world here in Ireland.
I’m very aware that on the whole politicians don’t know a lot about the art world and in the face of this it is very convenient for them to pass this over to the so called “experts” at the Arts Council. But we, the struggling, working artists in Ireland are the real “experts” here and we are not listened to. I myself will not vote for or support any political party, TD, MEP or councillor who will not publicly call for publicly-funded galleries to implement these two common-sense polices highlighted here. Neither could I support any government in a future election that does not make funding of these galleries conditional on the implementation of such polices. I will encourage my family, friends and colleagues to do likewise.
I hope that you will read this and realise that there is huge potential in the visual art field here; that we are allowing our artists to leave the country and set up their practises abroad. How many times have we heard the same story from creative people from Ireland who had to move away to become successful? Not because of a lack of market or interest for our work but for the lack of recognition and opportunity for our un-established artists to be able to show their work in publicly-funded spaces, thus raising their profile. We have been quiet for far too long while administrators have created more and more wealth and jobs for themselves and side-lined artists.
 Saatchi, Charles (2011) The hideousness of the art world. In The Guardian, 2 December.