To secure footing in the world of museums, galleries and art shows, modern artists must not only create, but also work as their own marketers, promoters and event planners.
For island artists, geography can make the task of industry networking all the more difficult.
With the aim of breaking down natural barriers, the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands brought together Caribbean artists and curators for a rare opportunity to collaborate across borders. The May 21 gathering came with an explicit challenge for artists: to transform creative energy into viable business.
The Business of Art program fostered dialogue and built new avenues for Caribbean art, according to Gallery Director Natalie Urquhart.
“We all work very hard in our own countries in the region, but we can be quite isolated because often there are different levels of infrastructure, government and private funding, even down to access to art education,” she said.
“For us, it was so important to bring this conversation to Cayman and to introduce some of the world-class international curators to our local art community and really connect them directly to the artists. It’s very difficult to get into an international exhibition if you don’t have those connections.”
Marketing creative work
Lisa Hoffman, executive director of the Alliance of Artists Communities, encouraged artists to approach their work strategically and to pursue effective collaborations.
She provided basic marketing tips, including messaging, knowing the intended audience and documenting work, that many artists may not have learned in school.
“We often see artists have a lot of ideas and that’s really what we appreciate about working with artists – that they’re getting their ideas, bringing them forward, expressing themselves creatively, thinking about a creative inquiry,” she said.
“But sometimes with all of those ideas, it’s challenging to distill it all down into one particular line of inquiry or to let it speak to one body of work. I think sometimes the message gets convoluted and big, maybe a little unwieldy. Sometimes artists may forget who they’re speaking to and the messaging that’s required.”
She suggested emerging artists spend time on crafting a thoughtful portfolio and CV that includes images and video of their work in compelling ways. She also encouraged artists to break out of their boxes and avoid the temptation to turn inward.
“It’s not unusual to have some qualities of an introvert and not always feeling comfortable about discussing their work. But I always tell artists that we’re interested in hearing their voice,” she said.
Working with national institutions
Amanda Coulson, director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, suggested artists learn to think of their work from an entrepreneurial perspective.
“Very often, you’re not taught about these things at art school. You’re taught about your practice, which, of course, is the most important thing,” she said.
“Then like any business, there’s a back office. You have to take care of that back office and that is presenting yourself properly, having a portfolio organized properly, documenting your work, learning how to write your CV and an artist’s statement.”
For island artists, she added that national institutions can offer an important first connection to the larger art world.
“If you have a very clear and concise portfolio and you make sure the people working on your behalf have that, it helps us if we meet someone who is curating a show about Caribbean art or about feminist art or whatever. We can say we have an artist who is working in that genre and provide people with tools,” she said.
She encouraged greater networking between Caribbean galleries, which may face similar questions.
“We share a lot of the same problematics so we can rely on each other for advice. We have formed a loose group of museum directors across the region.
“We’re actively trying to break barriers of language and to create a network that’s more pan-Caribbean,” she said. “I think we have quite a good network. It could be better. It would be great if some of our countries could legislate to allow for movement a bit easier of artists and professionals.”
Given the small size of most Caribbean communities, O’Neil Lawrence, senior curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica, reminded artists to be respectful of their local institutions and to approach the curator-artist relationship with an open mind.
“For young artists, the reality is that you need to be flexible. Some think that would be a potentially trite statement, but flexibility is key for an artist because you have to go in and realize your relationship with the gallery or museum is give and take,” he said.
“It cannot be something where either the curator or artist is digging in their heels in terms of a particular vision. Both visions have to find that place where they meet, so it’s the success of both the artist and the show.”
For ideas that may not fit the gallery framework, Jamaican artist Deborah Anzinger reminded creators that they can build their own avenues. As director of an artist-run contemporary art initiative, New Local Space in Kingston, Jamaica, Anzinger has first-hand experience establishing alternative outlets for artists.
“Rather than catering to the market, we actually end up building that market for new ideas,” she said.
“As contemporary artists, it is our responsibility to play with new ideas and develop things that people may not have ever seen or even thought they wanted to see, and raise questions that others may not have realized are problems in our society.”
She described artist-driven shows set up in spare bedrooms, closets and cabinets. The digital world also offers a platform for artists to drive conversation through websites and podcasts, she added.
“Then you find you get curators to visit, institutional and independent. You get writers that want to come in and write about that artist’s work. Then within that process, there is something that happens where museums and galleries want to exhibit that artist’s work,” she said.
For emerging artists, Hoffman added that residencies create an opportunity to establish meaningful inroads.
“There is incredible energy that happens in that residency setting. There is a lot of teaching, learning and sharing. When you eat together, you create together,” she said.