Life After Art School

  • The Goodbye Look (overall view), Kate Owens, Sculpture 2008

Our Life After Art School event on 29 June 2011 was an honest, wide-ranging discussion of issues ranging from how to deal with the vagaries of the gallery system to the importance of emotional maturity. Here’s an extract.

The speakers:
Kenny Schachter, collector, art dealer and writer
Martina Schmuecker, performance artist and lecturer
Kit Grover, director, Kit Grover Ltd
Charlotte Schepke, gallery director
Richard Wentworth, artist and head of sculpture, RCA
Sarah Douglas, artist and events manager, FuelRCA

Necessary making

Kit Grover: I needed to make work, and if I didn’t have the money for paint I would have used mustard. I don’t understand the pressure exactly to instantly leave school and be represented and be aiming for this success. I guess I had very humble aspirations. I really only cared about paying my rent, that was the only thing that scared me, I figured that my identity as an artist did not depend on any gallery, any of my friends, anything except what I felt like when I was doing it.

Martina Schmuecker: But that also has something to do with time… Certainly when I graduated, the time pressure of 2005, before the financial crisis, was to present products, to have finished objects, and this place [the RCA] has always tended to be very in favour of the object. From my personal experience in the final show here, I did the same thing and was in the last half year here very much on track with producing products. I produced three products which I then left in the space for the technicians to deal with. I didn’t even pick them up after the show.

Richard Wentworth: So they’re gone?

MS: So they’re gone. Yeah. Exactly.

Build your own infrastructure

Sarah Douglas: Martina, as someone who makes work which is not very commercial, do you feel your identity as an artist depends on any infrastructure?

MS: I definitely need an infrastructure, everybody needs to make money. Everybody needs to pay the rent. But for my work, I discovered a year after I came out of college how interesting and how good these people were I studied with, and how much you can actually do with them, and I was quite surprised to then work with people that I absolutely did not get on with while I was here, who were then brilliant in putting on shows, writing texts, giving me advice. Basically I think I need approval of the quality of my work, definitely, but I think this critique comes from my peer group, which is very important for me in making and showing my work. So in terms of public representation and galleries, I have not really found the space or that gallery that I would like to work with. I always think this is a two way relationship that you can have with somebody who is a collector, a dealer, a gallerist, and this has to work in two [directions]. If it is just this relation with somebody who you fear but who you can’t talk to but maybe they’re from somewhere like White Cube, maybe you want to be there in that glow –

RW: That’s not a glow.

MS: Maybe not any more.

RW: Never.

MS: OK, but I think that as an artist, this will not get you very far, it will not work for you and it will not work for your work. And I think in this time after the financial crisis anyway there is now a certain level of freedom to have a life, I think, as an artist, as well as having success, and I think that’s pretty good. 

SD: What do you mean by a life as an artist?

MS: To have some sense of agency, or mission in a way.

SD: So that it becomes political?

MS: It almost becomes political, although I can’t say that my work is political. I definitely have political interests with it, which I follow, and I think that political side of the work becomes more important in the world. I work on that very much. I don’t know, art is still a product, you make it and you sell it, but there might be more to it now, which I think is really good.

The red herring of youth

SD: I remember going to a talk when I was here when a renowned gallerist said if you haven’t made it four years after you graduate then give up, do something else. 

KS: That’s revolting. I think that’s a ridiculous notion, there are emerging artists that are 80 years old, as well as students right out of school. I think when you talk about the market or what’s creative success, it’s a complicated question. Before the crisis, in 2004 to 2007, very young emerging artists were the rage in the market, and for me it just got boring. I always said I wouldn’t pay historic prices for artists with no history. I’ve seen it on every side, making art, critiquing art, staging exhibitions and selling it, and selling everything from artists first out of school to working with Picasso and Impressionist and modern paintings, and it’s sadly an extraordinarily reductive process that leads towards success. I’ve worked with collectors and worked with curators and worked with institutions but in the hardcore world of the marketplace the thing that drives collectors is really sad. If you really looked into it you’d all change careers and slit your wrists or something, it’s rather horrific. I mean people want to buy the art that’s in the same vein as the art that other people make, and people make 3000 of the same painting for a reason. For instance Vito Acconci, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, he’s not making art any more because he’s done an about-face and he’s doing industrial design and he’s a self-taught architect and this is a person who’s been “emerging” for 50 years. I think Vito Acconci is like a brain with two feet, and he’s not even cognizant of these materialistic forces that drive the entire world, from China to me. At the same time, when you think about making a living in the art world from your work only, to cater to the collectors and the galleries, it’s all a rather sad master/slave relationship but it’s unavoidable. It really is a sheep mentality. Last auction a young kid, 26 years old, had a painting that’s estimated at $50,000 and sells for $300,000 and he’s the soup du jour you know? I found a way to make a living outside of it, I think when you focus too much on the commercial side it soils the whole relationship. The things I love doing most are the things with zero commercial ramifications, to the consternation of my wife, but really that’s what you have to do, of course you can succeed on your own terms in the art world but you have to have alternative means so there’s a safety net. It’s just a very difficult, arduous and long running process.

KG: I wanted to say something that kind of picks up on a combination [of issues] – I know you didn’t mean that thing about artists having a life as a separate thing, but just, a very short personal thing which I think affects a lot of young artists is that when I got picked up when I was 24 –  

KS: By what gallery? 

KG: Holly Solomon. My emotional development as a person with a life was absolutely zero, I was just really good at making stuff, and I was very shocked that people bought it and the speed at which they wanted it replenished, and that was horrific. The problem was the discrepancy between, just for lack of better word, my natural talent and my intellectual growth as just a young person, and they were wildly out of synch, and they never really got into synch in that context, ever with a dealer. So I just think, it’s something you have to be very aware of. Everyone’s hunting for new blood, and I’m sure many of you do things which are drop dead wonderful, and seductive to these voracious collectors and people who have an interest, but it may not be in your best interest. You have to check your own self knowledge… I had this one skill which was way up here and the rest of me was way over there. And I’m sure that maybe some of you share that and if not you may know someone who does. It’s important in this context, with how rough the commercial world is, especially aspiring to these notions of success.

Other people’s patience

MS: But can I say something in defence of the collectors or the buyers? I mean they are a lot of people around that are quite patient and quite interested in things that take a longer time. Also, what I realised after college is that most of my peers who are from London or England, probably had been talking through their BA or through their time before, to people already, whereas I didn’t have that.

RW: You mean talking to collectors?

MS: No, not really talking to collectors but talking to people who were interested in their work, and some of them might have been people who might start to buy stuff or collect stuff, and some of these people are quite good at waiting and at looking what is happening with your work over the years. I only found that out a couple of years after I left here, that this was actually what was happening. Also in working within the art world, you make relations, and some of them are good and some of them aren’t, you learn along the way, and in a way you have to keep a quite open mind of who is good for you and who isn’t.

RW: Is that a description of other people’s patience? Does that run parallel with your own social maturity as you realise that that person who bored you, frightened you, seemed predatory, all the things that people can seem – we meet people all day long and we like them or we don’t like them very quickly and later we change our mind a bit… Is that thing of people being interested in you something to do with you giving off a different temperature?

MS: Probably. I’m not really sure about that because I think the interesting thing I learned in London was how good small talk is, and how useful it is. In Germany you don’t have small talk, if you have small talk you’re complaining, that’s the German version of small talk

KG: It’s not just Germans!

MS: Maybe not, I don’t know. Once I sort of got that, I found it easier to have conversations or to start conversations – still not very easy but – and then you kind of realise that you need people to relax in your presence as well, it’s not only that you need to relax in other people’s presence. They might be scared of you as well which is quite odd. And yeah, it probably has to do with social maturity.