Holding onto Water with an Open Hand, Part II - Bubblegum Club

Holding onto Water with an Open Hand, Part II

Pay me what you owe me

Galleries, which are too often looked at as a solution, are not going to share the methods that work with artists they do not represent, the ‘competition’. They are baby corps and businesses. This is not to say that all artists need a gallery; representation, however, means that an artist has been selected, and there has been a winnowing process that makes that individual unique. Galleries also have a somewhat reliable audience, they are not casual lurkers, but actual buyers.

But representation by a gallery does not guarantee access or success. However, nothing else will provide the same credibility, except maybe academia or other institutional placements. Though not impossible, these placements are difficult to acquire without some form of representation. “I just have […] my collective and like my friends and you know[…] I don’t have a specific mentor, that’s one person. I sort of rely on my community like that.” Independent artists are always steps behind. Much of the value in art and artists is dependent on third parties; a hierarchy of opinions directly tied to the art world’s power structures.

Usually, artists are not paid for participating in exhibitions; they only make money in sales. “I’ve never actually been paid to take part in an exhibition. Only once, It was an international exhibition.” Depending on where they exhibit, if they sell, they lose half of that money. Galleries and representational management take their own cut. Artists spend money, producing, framing and prepping for sales and usually, the work comes back. Occasionally production or travel fees may be provided or reimbursed, but that is a rare occurrence. “This is the first one. Where costs are being covered […] my transportation […] Before that, [no].

Puleng Mongale, Bophelo lo bonolo. Courtesy of the artist.

For a while, I did step away from exhibitions and group shows. Work […] wouldn’t sell […] sometimes even not being able to retrieve the work back from the galleries because[…] they paid for production costs, it didn’t sell, now your work is held hostage.” Emerging artists especially, get clout and exposure as payment. But attention does not pay bills. The balance of power would be completely upended if all an artist needed was attention to make it. The artists provide work to make content for an exhibition. They should be paid for it. The work brings in traffic, not the walls, or the floor, galleries are rarely architecturally interesting. Potential buyers if they do not buy one work; may buy someone else’s.

In other creative industries payment issues are being reevaluated, residuals, royalties and suitable salaries. The visual arts have not begun to tackle any of that. “Creating is expensive[…] capital is required. And because nothing is set in stone, I can’t just say […] it’s trial and error. […] So how are you doing that when you’re constantly throwing money at something and it’s not giving money back”

Some artists have acquired a reputation, with names that carry some weight; they are not early career artists (easily exploitable). They are offered payment. “The little that does come manages to supplement me […] shows that I’ve participated in have paid me an artist fee locally. […] if it’s an international project […] the income is a lot more. […] I was also fortunate to have worked with people that introduced me to that kind of culture.” But even then, fees or sales are not guaranteed for various reasons “It’s incredibly hard, especially if it’s not figurative. […] I don’t know if it has to do with gender [too] I find myself in positions where I’ve had to negotiate down the prices of my work, no one takes into consideration or takes into value [of] this craft. […] the kind of work that I make as a woman, [of] a particular kind of race.”

Artists can sometimes get work outside their practice within the industry; on one hand, they get experience that will help maintain their careers, and they gain a skill set, and access to connections. “The kind of work I want to create[…] just being more deliberate about what I am doing […] that also calls for a pause sometimes.” But there is a higher chance of losing that precious emerging period, that space for experimentation, the time to build the bones of the practice itself. “[ I don’t make] enough to live on. This is why I have a full-time job [but it takes] time away from developing my art”. Even an outside job may be difficult to come by given the abysmal state of employment available. “I’ve but I’ve just never been lucky […] I’ve gone through internships, and they never materialize into a permanent position. […] I do get invited to teach. [By] luck, by chance, by friends.”

This is why funding can be significant; institutional patronage can aid artists in making creative and innovative work. Allowing artists to make work without desperation. When art is produced by people who push out pieces between side hustles and traditional work placements, when it is made by people who cannot afford to sit with and ferment ideas, that is a cultural loss. “I’ve also been applying [to] art awards geared towards research as a way of underpinning the work. […] the commercial aspect […] dismisses a lot of that underpinning, whereas these awards and funding uplift the artist in search of that.”

Unfortunately, this means artistic production ends up depending solely on funds from European cultural agencies and corporations. This funding, is limited, and has conditions and agendas, “It’s encouraged for women to join the arts […] it’s very […] male dominant. There’s encouragement for more women to be active. But […] I think it just comes […] just because you’re a woman.” and is often used as the cure-all to account for the mishaps and optics of those organizations. The funding has no concern for long-term investment locally.

Needed, is a serious accounting of the policies and infrastructure that umbrella today’s artistic practices. Charity will not fix what public policies are meant to address. “[We need] more policies on inclusion […] we can’t have the same illustrator commissioned for the same gig for […] three years […] for the next 10 years […] the same Black face […]” and this includes, “hiring the right people, [who] know what they’re doing, who are practitioners, people who understand, but corruption.”

Open hand
Image courtesy of Nukwase Tembo

This article was produced in the context of the David Koloane Award Mentorship Programme 2023 on behalf of the Bag Factory. The 2023 David Koloane Award was kindly funded by the National Arts Council, in support of Johannesburg-based aspiring critical arts writers (aged 21-35) working in the fields of exhibition curating, journalism and creative writing.

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