Global art festivals and the artists who remain starving

Leonilo Doloricon
Global art festivals and the artists who remain starving
'The art world has become an art market for dealers, galleries, speculators, and money launderers. Artists turn into art workers with no stable income'

There is another war brewing in the world, but without the usual materiel. The world of art has not been spared from the phenomenal free market dictum of the capitalism.

Southeast Asia, for one, is now venturing into global-scale art festivals, like the Art Stage Singapore and the Hong Kong Art Basel. Here, the oeuvres are not limited to Asian masters’ but include those of western masters – all competing, be it the basels type or the biennials type.

The art festivals look like celebrations, where people are all excited to look at an array of visual gymnastics – from the traditional to contemporary art from, from low to high art, from minimalist to complex installations, with prices ranging from very cheap to astronomical.

The art world becomes the art industry, where art production destined to grace the walls of a gallery are promoted by communication experts and publicists, including leading figures from the academe, like curators, researchers, and writers.

Some cultural observers note that the bourgeois nature of the art industry is unsympathetic to artists with working class origins – the poor,  including those from the petty bourgeois class.

There are art merchants who run their galleries like a factory, where starving artists are paid per square inch of canvas, with some consideration for his or her skill and potential for success in the market.

The common sharing between the gallery and the artist in terms of sales is 60-40  to 50-50, depending on their arrangement. But some gallery owners manipulate the price dealings with clients to make it appear to the artists that they gave a discount to the clients even if there was none, thus justifying a smaller share for the artists. 

Most of the time the artists are at the losing end. Although the gallery can provide the artists an exposure to the market, it can also make or break an artist’s career. It can be equated with labor capital relations, where the gallery and art dealer represent the capital, while the artist represents labor. They have different interests to pursue. The gallery is after a return of its investment or the profit, so to speak, while the artist is often content to maintain a hand-to-mouth existence. Very few artists have achieved financial success and become major players in both local and international auctions.

The onslaught of globalization of art in Southeast Asia, through such venues as Art Stage Singapore and the Art Basel in Hong  Kong, offers just a glimpse of the things to come in the Philippines in the not-so-distant future.

Big art festivals are dominated by artists from the United States, England, and Germany, which are major players in the art world market. Countries like Italy, France, Spain, and Japan acting as bit players. The rest of the participants are from emerging art markets like China, India, Brazil, and other Asian countries.

Obviously, the powerful countries still dominate the international art trading scene. For now, Filipino art traders or dealers can just invite a few obscure international artists for our Art Fair Philippines 2015.

For sure, most galleries welcome this development. But local artists who are in a stable contract with the gallery owners are being asked by their dealers to pursue a style that has been tried and tested in the market.

The phenomenal rise of Ronald Ventura in the art auctions both here and abroad has started local art market players speculating, with galleries trying to brand or package artists according to what they think the international market wants. Incidentally, Ventura’s  works were exhibited under a German gallery participating in Art Basel 2015 in Hong Kong.

The art world has become a market for art dealers, galleries, speculators, money launderers, and the like. Artists are turned into art workers with no stable income because everything is contractual. As noted by some sociologists, artists are just like everyone else: they are expendable.

As noted by some scholars, contemporary art has become an economic undertaking that involves art collectors, dealers, and big districts with museums and art fairs. So far, Singapore and Hong Kong are the centers for these big projects in Asia; a decade ago, it was Australia.

The local art world is a reflection of the big trends in the global art market. It is basically about the elite and middle class who are art aficionados, art traders, art patrons (of both starving and auction stars), and the intelligentsia. The people at large are not in touch with whatever art fairs the local elite is initiating, simply because the target audience or market for these events are collectors and art dealers themselves in order to gain profits from trading.

As some observers note, the significance of the contemporary art has become confusing, aesthetics becoming insignificant against this trend of anything-goes in art. The art world has become the escape of art audiences from their disenchantment with everyday reality. But it has also become an arena of contending schools of thought in the face of the realities of globalization and economic crisis. – 

Leonilo Doloricon teaches at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, where he served as dean. He is a recipient of the Thirteen Artists Award of the Cultural Center of the Philippines and of Manila’s Patnubay ng Sining at Kalinangan Award. He is secretary-general of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

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