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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Exhibiting in Hard Times - Who Pays?

I'd like to recount my major art 'experience' of the week. As a happy recipient of an Arts Council grant for my current project, I booked a local, well established gallery to exhibit it in spring 2011. The gallery in question had agreed to fund the costs of the show in return for workshops, artist's talks and sales commissions, and had set all this out in a letter to me at the project outset, with exhibition dates pencilled into their diary for finalising at a later date.

All went well with the project for the first few months. As I approached the 6 month mark I asked the gallery to confirm the dates of exhibition so I could begin marketing. This is when things started to feel wrong. I was unable to contact the gallery director, and each successive phonecall and email was answered by a different minion. It seemed noone was speaking to anyone else. Each of my requests for confirmation of dates went unanswered, and I was told "according to our files we have had no confirmation of the exhibition dates. Could you please forward us your grant details." When I queried why this was necessary (my funding was for materials and production of work and not gallery costs) I was told, "we are keen to hear of any support available to hold your exhibition. Can you give details of sponsorships, printing materials and work in kind? I am afraid like all other galleries around the country we are financially stretched..." So the gallery had performed a massive U-turn, going back on its original offer (as set out in a letter to me prior to the project start). Nowhere before had they mentioned that they would be asking me for additional payments from me for the use of their space.

Now I was told "when we wrote you the letter of support in March 2009 we were hopeful that the Arts Council would recognise the role of our gallery in providing premium space for contemporary artists... This funding has not been made available to us and as a result offering marketing and publicity,
technical assistance, invigilation and a prime gallery area is no longer possible... The board... has at a meeting decided that generosity of this kind, which requires staff here to work for little or nothing at all, must be redressed in the interests of future sustainability. Therefore we must ask you to provide some form of support funding... a minimum would be £500."

O.k., fair enough, you're skint, the whole of the country's skint and we're all struggling to survive. But don't you think that it would have been courteous to make me aware of the fact that you had decided to charge me, rather than surprising me with the information 2 1/2 months before the show was scheduled to open?

And the icing on the cake came when I was told by the gallery that the reason they wanted me to pay was because "it seems unlikely that this will be a selling exhibition."

Bearing in mind that I have been making a living from my paintings since 2004 (see gallery) this is a completely unfounded statement, which seems to have the sole purpose of adding insult to injury. If the gallery believes it cannot sell my work, why did they offer me the show in the first place (seeing as they'd take 40% of any sales)? Why do they think that if they tell me they can't sell my work that I will then decide to pay them for my exhibition? It doesn't seem like a wise use of my money to me!

I know times are tough for galleries and artists alike, but surely that's not a reason for going back on an agreement? Galleries requesting that artists pay for their show should make this clear at the outset and not wait until the show is imminent before demanding cash. In general we artists don't have large sums of money lying around; we need to budget for any payments to galleries at the outset of a project. It seems unfair that I'm being penalised by the gallery for not having enough of a grant to distribute around.

So I've decided to cut my losses and to abandon this exhibition. With half a new body of work created I'm going to search for somewhere else, preferably a venue that's prepared to fund my show in order that I can fulfill the Arts Council criteria for the grant I've already received. Otherwise it's back to the drawing board and hoping that David Cameron's right and I can look to private or corporate sponsorship to help me out... Will keep you posted...

1 comment:

Kim Thomson Design said...

That is completely horrendous Ruth and particularly unprofessional on the galleries part. In August this year I received a letter from a gallery I usually show at during their Christmas Selling Exhibitions. It stated how sorry they were they still hadn't paid their artists for their sold work from the previous year. Over 8 months since the end of the show! Luckily I wasn't one of the artists they hadn't paid but this is a show you have to pay an entry fee to so not only had they taken peoples entry fees, they also took money from selling their work then over 8 months down the line still hadn't payed them. They cited 'cash flow problems'. I would call it theft.

Good luck with resolving your issue, I hope it works out, K.