Commercial art verses art for art’s sake

As part of an ongoing discussion relating to the development of arts and culture in Cayman, the National Gallery recently held the second in a series of discussion sessions entitled ‘Art as a Product? The commercial arts vs. art for arts sake’. The first in the discussion series (as documented in the Journal over three editions from September to November) resulted in enthusiastic dialogue from both the invited panel and the audience, with some extremely interesting points raised. This latest session was just as informative. Business Editor, Lindsey Turnbull reports in this second of a series.
The discussion panel comprised of artist and teacher David Bridgeman; Patrice Donaldson, dancer and training and development co-ordinator with the Department of Tourism; Shane Aquart, artist and businessman (creator of the iconic Dready character) and Debbie Van Der Bol, artist and owner of Pure Art. National Gallery Deputy Director, Natalie Coleman moderated.

Natalie Coleman: How do you as an artist balance art for the market as opposed to art for art’s sake? Does mass production equate to lost value?

Patrice: I think if you put a frame around work it speaks for itself.   There’s blood, sweat and tears in the piece of work.

Shane: I think there’s a tendency to worry that if you commercialise a piece of artwork that you love, say produce a thousand copies, there will always be at least one person who says it’s crap. It’s easy to fret about a negative reaction.

David: Well, it’s always nice to get a positive feedback but that’s not the reason I make art – I do it for my own reasons. I want to make something that is well constructed and well made. I think in order to do this you do need the basic skills. But I don’t expect everyone to like it; just to give it the recognition and appreciate it for what it is.

Natalie: I think an important point to focus on here is accessibility. When you make copies of your work you are then able to reach a much wider audience. This allows the artist flexibility to create work to meet different types of markets without undervaluing it.

Shane: I happen to think David’s paintings would really suit print because of the colour in the work. My Dready character started out as a doodle – I beam each time I create a new scene – but I’ve managed to turn it into a business and am having a blast. I love new ideas for different mediums in which to reach the audience – print paper, canvas, t-shirts – I really believe in the commercial side of Dready.

Debbie: As an artist I do not paint to sell, but people like my work. For example, my piece on South Sound has had six editions each of a thousand prints and they have all sold out. I don’t think we are here to judge and I don’t think commercialism takes away artistic value as long as the artist’s heart and soul was put into the painting.  Of course the painting has more value if it is an original but we sell more giclées at Pure Art than originals.

Natalie: There is no doubt that artists have now got much more support from local galleries than they have ever received before. Even in the last five years the commercial support received by artists has increased tremendously. But what about art that is not so easily sellable, such as The Maze, created by Aston Ebanks? Are there enough patrons or collectors of this type of art in Cayman?

Aston Ebanks: There needs to be a furthering of understanding of artistic expression and recognition.

Shane: I think there is a lot of free money flowing around town in the financial services industry with charitable funds established so that they make a donation to charity at the end of their lifetime. There are lots of dollars looking for a good home but I wonder if a posh Englishman would have better luck getting funds out of these establishments rather than a young Caymanian artist?

Aston: Working on the business side is time-consuming and does not come so easily to those who aren’t necessarily business-minded. You just have to put forward your proposal and hope that they like what you are doing.

Shane: But these projects need backing and running.

Patrice: It is almost as if there are two people talking two different languages and I believe there is a definite need for an entity to bridge that gap.

Natalie: The National Gallery works hard in this respect, working with both the artists and businesses so that support is given where needed but many artists expect an exhibition of their work and don’t fully appreciate the huge process involved.
We help artists put proposals together and look for alternative ways of funding projects.
It’s an education process from the top downwards but the National Gallery cannot do this alone. It needs to be tackled at a grass roots level. We need a strong artistic environment in which to support our artists, not just to sell their work but also to create space for exhibiting contemporary installations within permanent collections.
The National Gallery is allocated funding by the government for particular exhibitions and workshops but it’s different in the UK where they have an Arts Council which is the national development agency for the arts in England, distributing public money from Government. The Arts Council therefore has direct access to funding which is perhaps a model to which Cayman could look in the future, whereby an Arts Council here could have a more open mandate which would permit furthering exciting contemporary projects, such as Aston’s Maze.

David: It would be great if artists could have the funding required to explore ideas fully and progress beyond showing their art just in Cayman. If the Cayman Islands had an Arts Council more creative work could take place here and abroad.

Natalie: There is certainly a growing desire to explore new mediums and subjects within the arts in Cayman. Artists have benefited from the Artists Away programme which the National Gallery ran a few years ago and have been able to learn new skills and techniques such as bronze work, gyclée and photography.
Shane: I wonder just how badly off we really are as a society with around 160 artists and the public and private funding and support currently available.

Natalie: That’s a timeless question – the arts have developed so rapidly here I think we are actually behind on artistic maturity. That said, I don’t think the process can be rushed. We’ve always been strong in the art of craftwork but we are still young in the areas of paint, sculpture and drawing. But we are on the right track, with young collectors emerging and lots of opportunities for artists. I think it would be useful if we were able to redirect funding towards projects that are not necessarily commercially viable and allow artists to explore new media.

Debbie: I think that there are different ways to approach the issue of funding. For example, I think that when new corporation set up shop here they should not be able to bring in artwork from outside but should support the local art scene instead.

Natalie: There are a good many established corporations who support the arts, as well as the larger hotels who are also great at supporting local artists.
I think the key is to have a proper connection between the three public institutions in Cayman – the National Gallery, the National Museum and the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. There is at present no official cultural policy in Cayman and I think this would go a long way to help the cause. A policy that formalises ties between the three entities would create the necessary structure to allow the arts in Cayman to move forward in a positive and constructive way.