It's been a while. I've been well, thanks.
I recently encountered an esoteric debate on social media. And coupled with artists jamming my whatsapp with pictures of their work at strange hours of the night, it enhanced my belief that most of us practicing in the contemporary art industry do not fully understand our roles, strengths & expectations, and how the rest of the players in the art ecosystem plug into it.
Depending on your academic background or where you went to school, they never teach you this. So how/where do you learn? As artists practicing in the 21st century, I believe our careers are 40% studio practice and 60% 'white collar'. Our unique ability is to create. We are knowledge producers with art production the only thing no one else in this whole art chain can do better than us no matter what. That mainly happens in the confines of our safe spaces. Studios. That is the forty per cent.
Immediately you show the next person your output - be it actual artworks or just images, it gets into the white collar. This is where you start contextualizing your work, explaining the philosophy behind your practice and packaging your art in ways the viewer understands what is paraded before them. Any artist whose practice is more than a year old should have a solid narrative about this and is required to have written documents supporting it. Texts like biographies, artist statements, curriculum vitaes/resumes and profiles accompanied by images/videos/sound are what constitutes a basic artist portfolio. In this age of modern technology; with smart phones and tablets, artists have no reason of not having a power point presentation in their hand held devices. Once you have this done, you will start the journey into understanding your practice more, and knowing how to present your work.
Who do you present your portfolio to? Why is it important to them? And what is your expectation of them?
Once an artist is armed with their folio, in a space as small as Nairobi, you'd be interested in working with a curator, gallery, art merchant or cultural institution. However in the more established international space where the web is bigger and the roles more defined it may include museums, residencies and special projects applications etc. It is prudent to understand everyone's role and if they are a value addition to your practice. The easiest way to achieve this (not cast in stone but it works for me) is to go knock on doors. Every available door.
The power dynamics in the art world are very skewed, and place the artist at the bottom of the food chain (according to Sarah Thornton's 7 days in the art world). And like any relations, the powerful guy sits behind the big desk and the other one has to book an appointment at an appropriate time to seek audience. Most of these spaces don't know you exist. And if they do, they wont come looking for you unless you're extremely brilliant or guarantee them good commissions from sales. Get out of your studio and social media, make that call then drive/walk to the gallery. Find out as much as you can about them by asking them about themselves. Their interests. Their vision. And how they see themselves getting there. If you do this successfully, you will be able to gauge if you're interested in working with them, or them with you. For example, it could be a gallery only interested in wildlife and conservation while you're an artist working on identity and geopolitics and it shall save both of you a lot of time, and possible confrontation from not knowing what you both do, or expect from one another. No matter what you feel about the space, always show them your portfolio and leave them a copy if you can. It is very important for you to make others aware of what you do, even if they wont work with you. That is how the possibility of collaborations and referrals happen.
If you live in a city with, lets say 20 spaces, the 60 percent out of studio practice dictates that you should have visited all of them. They should be aware of your existence, be able to identify your work and would be super if they remember your name. It doesn't happen in a week though. It is a continuous professional relationship. It helps if you're curious and if you're constantly going to see artistic events. Not just the openings where free cocktails are served but that random rainy Wednesday. Also be that pleasant human being. You'll be surprised at how good manners can open doors for you. I know artists who are banned from setting foot in certain art spaces because they are out rightly annoying.
You also have to understand the differences between spaces. In Nairobi for instance the Museum and the Nairobi Gallery are (probably) the only public institutions. They are government funded and are supposedly all-inclusive (terms & conditions definitely apply) and we have a right (whatever that means) to complain/picket if we feel disenfranchised. However how do you navigate within a privately owned gallery? Like any private outfit, the management entirely reserves the right of admission. You have to find clever ways of negotiating this space while understanding that it Is their prerogative to work with whoever they want to. Cultural centers also fall in this category as they have their own agenda. The bottom line however is for an artist to understand what these spaces stand for and what they can offer him/her.
When we do, we will do away with ranting on social media and do the only thing no one else can - make good art. And in the process, know the institutions and personnel than can add substance to whatever we're offering. It is the epitome of understanding and respecting each other’s space and role in our space of operation. Keyboard activism works in certain spheres of life but in contemporary art, you are judged by the relevance of your work and your ability to rationalize your practice. Also, you draw attention for all the wrong reasons. If a curator or gallery has your five-minute attention, let it be looking at your portfolio, not reading uninformed accusations directed at them. Don't be that frustrated artist angry at the world for your lack of trying to do the right thing.
Don't seek sympathy by forcing yourself into a disadvantaged group. Get up, make that call and go engage them. In a respectable way. On your terms but as equal partners. And see how wonderful it is to practice in a space where you understand institutions and personalities supposed to support your practice. You may even find yourself being sympathetic to their handicaps. And that is when as artists we start stepping into other roles - writing, curating, teaching etc to plug the gaps. After all, we're supposed to be batting for the same team. And a strong team is to everyone's benefit.
So if you've drank tea, coffee, wine or beer at a gallery and they've never seen your portfolio, that's a bloody good place to start. Stop hiding in the crowds and punching in the dark and let's see how many doors you can unlock by the end of 2018. You'll be one happy artist when you attain this.