Seven years ago we set up an Art Trail. The idea was to create a small, local Open Studios trail, run by and for local artists, in a limited area, with quality controls. (We had been unsatisfied by the then enormous, impersonal, top-down, quality-untested Norfolk Open Studios) Our main advantage was the existence of a Gallery in Harleston which could act as home. We obtained some grant to set up, but since then we have been, and aim to be, self-funding.
Have we achieved anything apart from personal satisfaction? Yes. We have encouraged local people to think of the making of art as a natural activity, and they have become used to the idea that it is not so difficult to buy a painting/drawing/sculpture/mosaic/ceramic or whatever; not greatly different as a transaction from buying a pair of shoes, a dress or a settee. A synergy is also created between all kinds of artistic/craft/design activity, so that furnishing, fashion, cookery all benefit – or at least local shops in these areas do.
Here are this year’s results (we opened on three week-ends in the summer).
The total number of visits (including the Gallery, where the taster exhibition took place), was 4,635, and the total sales netted £26,146. There were 35 studios; 14 had under 100 visits, 16 had between 100 and 199, and 5 studios had between 200 and 298. Experience shows that the studios which are conveniently clustered tend to attract more visitors than ones which are out on a limb, so it’s not just a question of objective popularity.
So far as sales are concerned, five studios made less than £100 each, nine made from£100 to £499; 13 made from £500 to £999; five made between £1000 and £1999, and three made upwards of that figure: over £3000 at the top.
Clearly, then, an area can be cultivated into a better environment for working artists by their communal effort. And it is an effort. Some members give a great deal of time and effort to the many things which have to be done, and they are not necessarily the ones who reap the greatest rewards. There is also a social reward – a community of artists replaces the atomised individuals, and this often provides moral and physical support which wouldn’t otherwise be there, (along with its flop-side-the ability to have rows over policy etc).
Something has to be said about limitations. This activity does not produce a living wage – there is a long way to go before we reach £15,000 p.a. (which I suggested in an earlier blog, might be considered a reasonable income). However, some artists run courses, or other activities, and are able to use the Trail event as a recruiting drive, so that it contributes to income- generating activities.
Another limitation is in what you can call the pain barrier – that is to say, the highest figure which most local people would spend to buy a piece of art. An informed guess puts this at about £500 hereabouts. There are always a few people willing to pay more. Fame seems to overcome the barrier: a recent exhibition of Maggie Hambling’s work in the hideous Stables Gallery in Diss (medium sized oil paintings and etchings of waves) bearing prices at two and a half to six and a half thousand for paintings, with etchings in the high hundreds, displayed
red dots on more than three quarters of the list of works. Was some of this purchasing regarded as investment? Anyhow, the money was spent, in spite of the fact that we are in a recession.
Yet another limitation is the legacy of the past. Anyone who watches Antiques Road Show will see good paintings by earlier artists. I generally find the prices quoted surprising, and disappointing – very good paintings, in some cases, going for much less than a contemporary artist would wish to charge for work of the same size: these prices can’t compete with the take from silver goblets, jewellery or Chinese vases.
You can call that the craftsman’s revenge: painting and sculpture nets the contemporary prestige, but the craft community wins out in the long run, and maybe in the short run too. Painting and sculpture, apart from a few stratospheric individuals, are marginal production.
My conclusion remains this hard one. For an artist to earn a reasonable living, say £15.000 p.a. from art alone, he or she would have to sell at least £20,000 worth in a year. Assuming one piece of work per week the unit price would have to be over £380, and all the work produced that year would have to sell, Communal endeavours can improve artist’s incomes, but don’t produce security or the jackpot. I hope this is what they tell Fine Art students in the Art Colleges nowadays.
The Big Draw
Jane and I did the Big Draw at the Guardian again this year, The BD is an annual, national event (held in October) by the Campaign for Drawing. It’s always very enjoyable hard work – kids and parents come in for a morning or an afternoon session, and a bunch of us provide them with exciting drawing activities. We artists /illustrators/cartoonists get our travel expenses, but otherwise we do it for free. You can get the feel of it from http://www.guardian.co.uk/gnmeducationcentre/cartoon-and-art-family-day and from Jane’s blog: janegerman.com. It’s nice to be among honest artists who make a living by drawing. They don’t have time to wait for the Muse to strike – they just get on with it. Our old friend David Austin used to read the papers to take in all the news, and then provide the Guardian with five or six topical cartoons to choose from each day (only one was printed). His gift was the ability to draw a funny line round a funny idea. I envied him that. being as it were, cartoone deaf.