Submission No More!
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Once in a while an article surfaces on the internet. Usually it's written by obscure experts claiming to have cracked the code of $ucce$$ in art, usually listing a number of deadly sins artists are committing against their own sorry selves. They are delivered in a patronizing way, talking at artists for not trying hard enough to appease their potential audience, their potential curators, their potential critics. While "you're doing it wrong" advice columns show up in our facebook feeds almost every week, an article addressing misdeeds of the curators and gallery owners is yet to surface. Magically it seems like the question of how to cultivate a RESPECTFUL relationships with artists doesn't need to be asked. The reason for that is painfully obvious. There is only a limited number of galleries out there with the extreme surplus of artists. It is a situation of imbalance. The artists have no choice but to bend backwards to the wishes of the gallery owners and curators who select them with a snap of a finger. Due to the perpetual myth of scarcity, the artists will never say 'no' to a gallery cause "it's rough out there!" and "you are lucky to even be represented by a gallery at all!"
Today I decided to flip the script and list a few common mistakes curators and gallery owners are guilty of. They are never addressed simply because it never occurs to anyone that the relationships between artists and galleries should be fair and equal.
1. Laziness in research.
Curators and gallery owners keep complaining about how inconsistent artists’ presentations are, how unkempt, how un-laminated, how rude! They expect artists to deliver a neat, easy to digest and consistent portfolio on a tray, tied up with a pretty ribbon. It leads to a world where the portfolio preparation becomes an art form in itself! In reality art making is messy. There is only a small percentage of artists who establish a consistent creative strategy for a long period of time, but even then they usually have very good reasons to do so and monetary gain rarely becomes one of those reasons. Examining the idea of a rectangle for over 30 years might be important but it’s not for everybody. Most often art is a work in progress. It’s unpredictable, impossible to package, varied and rarely finished. Most artists are always willing to surprise their own selves. How does the consistency and predictability principle fit into that! Artists' job is to keep experimenting, to mess things up, to try things out. Self conscious self packaging takes away from this vital creative process. And now a shocker of all shockers: It is not the job of the artist to curate their work. "Who’s job is it, then?", you might ask. You have one guess...
2. Laziness in selection.
Following the most common denominators in taste. Easy listening radio stations are… easy. Their playlists are created by an algorithm that follows the preferences of the widest demographic of listeners. No wonder Tom Waits, Nina Hagen or The Clash are never included in the Magic 106.7 hit selection! They appeal to niche audiences and the thing about niches is that they are not profitable. The main incentive in our ultra capitalist reality is to survive. Sadly it also applies in the art world. To survive financially we must focus on the common denominators in taste. That means adding too much spice to the soup will appease only those who like it spicy and therefore controversy and risk must be avoided. The result? Chicken salad sandwich on white bread with too much mayo and not enough seasoning: regressive, bland and uncontroversial.
3. Money glasses.
Focusing on the monetary gain only and pressuring artists do do the same. This one ties in to the previous mistake. Appeasing the widest possible audiences is not enough. The focus has to become slightly more specific because it must be established what type of audience is most likely to spend money on what type of art. The result: galleries filled with lures for tourists.
4. Avoiding risks.
And the dominoes keep falling. Trying to be financially safe is followed by rejection of growth and progress that can be reached only through challenge and sometimes controversy. If the boundaries aren’t pushed, lazy audience emerges. Lazy audience creates the demand for lazy artists. To be clear the laziness is not in the workload but in thinking. A lazy artist can still work like a mule from dawn to dusk but without strong vision they might as well be breaking rocks in a hot sun... Only through challenge and open minds, art reception and art making can evolve side by side. Safety means no growth.
5. Maintaining the myth of scarcity.
Because the galleries and curators establish very specific preferences based on aforementioned principles, only a very narrow group of artists is willing to accept the terms and conditions of the game and bend backwards to meet the requirements. It still makes for an immensely overgrown crowd of willing candidates because, well... there is simply a HUGE number of artists out there. The rate of rejection will always be crushingly larger than the rate of acceptance. It creates a basis for the myth of scarcity. In order to maintain it, the galleries create the illusion of exclusivity in which being rejected by a gallery feels like an ultimate failure. The motivation to focus on the work alone and on first building the audience locally and then expanding the exposure disappears completely. The illusion of failure caused by the myth of scarcity discourages most artists from pursuing their love of art making. They feel stuck and they just stop.
The myth of scarcity, on the other hand, works to the advantage of the galleries. Among other things it lets them get away with taking a ridiculously and unfairly large cut from the sales.
6. Creating false hopes.
Many curators and gallery owners present “submission guidelines” on their websites but still end up with artists they found through various other channels not without some favoritism and nepotism. They never add "fresh blood" to the limited group of artists they are already working with but the submission guidelines are still serving as a lure.
Why opening up for submissions then?
It creates the illusion of demand and further fuels the myth of scarcity.
“You don’t like your job? I can fill out your spot in thirty seconds!”, used to be a common threat to discourage disgruntled workers from forming unions and going on strikes in XIX century Victorian England! It still works like a charm in the gallery/artist relations in XXI century. Fool me once?
7. The illusion of infallibility. “There is no such thing as an undiscovered artist. All good artists have been discovered”. How many times have we heard that line! Yet the art history is brimming with artists who have been ignored for decades because they were female or black or simply didn’t match the current trends. We only know about them because they’ve been (barely) noticed and appreciated either late in life or posthumously.
It would be impossible to think there aren’t (weren’t) impressive artists who will never enjoy the spotlight. Saying otherwise makes artists fell like they must rely on taste makers and gate keepers to make their art known to the public and that is exactly what galleries want.
Short conclusion. Every artist is an independent and unique individual capable of taking their career in any direction they please. It largely depends on what kind of art they create and what type of audience it attracts. There is no one cookie cutter type for an artist as there is no one cookie cutter type for an audience to fit in. Everything beyond that is smoke and mirrors set in place by greed of those who seek gain from the work of others.