Where have all the artists gone?

A much-extended version of my contribution to the discussion on the various roles of artist run organisations in Perth held at Paper Mountain on Thursday 20 February

The Kurb Gallery submission for the Run Artist Run show at Paper Mountain

The Kurb Gallery submission for the Run Artist Run show at Paper Mountain

Our submission was, of course, an altarpiece but not religious. Instead of a Madonna or Crucifixion, we chose a work from our past, a declaration, from Zizek, that there is nothing for which we are not responsible. The Kurb/Verge Inc has never advocated a particular practice. It therefore it seemed appropriate to begin with a battered but relevant philosophical statement scrawled on a blackboard that has appeared in three collaborative exhibitions over ten years. We have also selected performance photographs to replace the passion, the deeds of the saints and so on. Instead we have images of artists taking responsibility for everything.

The good news is that the recent events apropos the Sydney Biennale suggest that other artists have also begun to take responsibility for everything including the imprisonment and torture of refugees in their name. After twenty years of a hypocritical art world full of boring work, aimed at not frightening creepy corporate zombies and their loathsome lackeys we can see some light.

A) The Artists’ Lost Mojo.

There were a few surprises at the discussion about artists’ run spaces organised by Paper Mountain. For the first time in a while it struck me that there was a serious need amongst artists to participate in the evolution of an active and supportive creative community. The information that Free Range has never had a successful grant application in 14 years was pretty mind blowing. I was even more surprised by how little most participants understood about how Perth got to where it is now; so much bad stuff they took for granted. I found a few disturbing facts about this during my own preparation.

The most significant is that contrary to common belief the overall participation of visual artists in ‘art networks’ and the art community in Perth and WA has been dropping steadily since the early 1990s despite the apparent recent revival of artist run organisations and the grotesquely exploitative increase in the number of Fine Arts graduates. The shit hit the fan in the mid-nineties when most artists lost their confidence.

In 1996, The Verge Incorporated published Situation Vacant, a survey of artist run spaces in Perth. It indicated that there were more such spaces active and viable in the early nineties than there are now. Moreover far more artists were engaged in their development and management. Three years later most of them had vanished.

Also in the mid-nineties, under the direction of Sarah Miller, PICA abandoned any pretense of being an artist-based organisation. PICA had been proposed and created by a small group of senior artists, not art bureaucrats. It inherited an artist-based structure from its predecessor, PRAXIS, which gave up its considerable funding to facilitate PICA. Professor Noel Sheridan, the first director, also a distinguished international artist, maintained PICA as an artist/membership based organisation.

PICA on the Boil

PICA on the Boil

Miller, however, made it clear that she despised the members, alienated the artists, charged for performance art, instituted a pay bar at openings and moved PICA to absolute dependence on local corporate business figures. I remember her farcical performance at each opening night, standing in front of a panel with from 20 to 30 logos on it; she very slowly read out the name of each sponsor as artists walked out the door. PICA was no longer about them. As their role diminished its salary bill grew beyond all reason and has stayed far too large in relation to the benefits it offers to local artists and the community.

The loss of artists’ participation from PICA is the single most significant event in the decline of the role and effectiveness of artists and artist run organisations in Perth. It not only showed that the western suburbs establishment was returning to its habitual if fearful, contempt for art and artists, it denied artists any opportunity to participate and advocate in their own interests.

This set the pattern for the next twenty years.

Around this time the State Gallery ceased to invite artists to its openings; after all the western suburbs has always regarded the gallery as its exclusive party venue. At present there is not one single artist on the Board of the State Gallery and no one has noticed. This is a disgrace.

PICA itself has only two fairly obscure artists on its Board. They are hopelessly outnumbered by well-meaning, but less than well-informed, business people. One member of the Board is directly connected to the DCA. In my view and that of many artists 50% of the PICA board should be distinguished artists of various kinds so as to permit their voices to be clearly heard

In the last two decades, Western Australian artists have not only been marginalised, they have also been thoroughly and completely silenced. Not that long ago, a distinguished member of the Perth art world made an appointment with the Minister for the Arts to discuss the manifest (and continuing) failings of the State Gallery in regard to local art and artists. Surprisingly, the then Director of the State Gallery was present with the Minister; the Director administered what has been reported as a highly abusive dressing down to the artist. This disgraceful conduct would not have been possible or necessary if the community of Perth artists had been appropriately represented on the State Gallery Board.

The radical decline in Western Australian artists’ ability and willingness to participate in their own ‘industry’ developed from the mid 1990s. It was part of a national phenomena, as the distinguished Australian artist David Pledger observed in his remarkable 2013 paper Revaluing the Artist in the New World Order.

Our default setting switched from fun to fear: fear of difference, fear of change, fear of the shadows. Under Howard, Australians lost their mojo. And with that our embrace of risk, individuality and independence, critical values in the ecology of the arts and art-making. (8)

Pledger argues that in the 90s artists tried to resist this ‘ambient fear’ but were betrayed by arts institutions and their managers, much as Sarah Miller betrayed the artist members of PICA. This was not my experience. In Perth artists lined up to show their neo-liberal masters their bums, eager to be led to the corporate abattoir, for what Pledger calls ‘Death by Managerialism’.

Managerialism is an alternative ideology to democracy, capitalism, and communism. Twinned with neo-liberalism it is sometimes called New Managerialism…

In the arts sector, managerialism has bred toxic strains. Partly because it had to adapt to the nature of the arts’ core business, which is making art, an alchemical process which resists concretization. Managerialism sees itself as the antidote to chaos, irrationality, disorder, and incompleteness, essential elements in this alchemy. More like a gas than a mineral, art is hard to contain, process and control. As soon as you have a handle on it, it morphs into something else. So arts agencies mutated various versions of managerialism to inhibit the arts natural processes.(9-10)

By around 1998/9 nearly all the thriving artist run spaces chronicled in Situation Vacant had vanished. Individual artists began to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds. This made their neo-liberal managers very happy. Neo-managerialism is closely allied to the notion that a competitive market is the best way to run everything, even art.

PICA by Night

PICA by Night

PICA by Night (Detail)

PICA by Night (Detail)

Over the next two decades neo-managerialism made immense progress through Western Australian art institutions. Artists slowly gave up on their own ‘industry’. A few have now begun to work in self-managed groups once more, hence the exhibition/conference at Paper Mountain.

Sometime last year, the local ‘art managers’ finally noticed that their ‘creative workers’ were drifting out of control. They even commissioned a survey about it. The cynic in me believes that they suddenly realised, not only that without compliant artists, they have no reason to exist, but also, as in the recent case of Artsource, they would need the good opinion of artists if they were to organise successful crowd-funding. Not that they have changed that much. I have been told that that it was strongly suggested to Artsource employees that they should contribute to its recent funding efforts.

The crisis over the manifest failure of local artists to take any interest looks to be inducing something of a panic in the ‘industry’ — (remember we currently have an art industry with almost no artists).

I was recently asked to write a ‘provocation’ on the subject of Perth artists’ failure to ‘participate’. It gets worse. It seems that Artsource may have received money from the Lotteries Commission to hire a firm of management consultants to find out what kind of art events might succeed in Perth. What an admission of failure. If an artists’ based organisation is so out of touch with its members, and artists in general, that it has to pay consultants a stiff fee to ask other people what it should think, it should seriously consider going out of business. This is death by managerialism with a vengeance.

Only neo-managerialism could so blind an arts organisation to the obscenity of wasting money to save its fairly well paid managers a little thought, while its paying members earn an average of $14,600 a year after twenty years commitment to art. Why not just ask some of the artists what they think might be a good idea and pay them? Better still why not hand Artsource over to the artists to run.

There is a reason. If arts management uses paid, if ignorant, consultants, it is, perversely, confirming its own importance and, once again, disenfranchising and alienating real artists. If artists can do it, why do we need arts managers who earn 4-5 times the earnings of their members and have signally failed to improve their members’ income?

The current group of Perth artist run organisations face several difficult dilemmas about the range of responsibilities they should assume in relation to art and the community

The most important is whether to model themselves in relation to the current requirements of arts management and its networked institutions in the very faint hope of getting a grant. All the evidence suggests that this is unwise, a surrender to the second rate. It is far better to recognise that art has its own irreducible values, which ‘management‘ simply cannot manage.

Artists’ run organisations are always better off working as close to their love of art-making as they can.

A brief look at the origins and paradoxical status of contemporary artists’ run organisations might help explain this.

B) Artists are doing it (for themselves?)

Artists’ run organisations and cooperatives go back a long way. For the most part they are a nineteenth century invention, a response to the increasing role of capital in the successful commercial market for contemporary art from the 1840s onwards. Some may label that period one of ‘market failure’, since the fast developing European gallery system managed to miss most of the best artists in three generations.

I would not. Contrary to popular belief any efficient market will eliminate the innovative and unusual in favour of what it can sell quickly, for most money and least effort. Moreover, as our farmers know only too well, any capitalist market will try to shift all the risk to the primary producers and accrue all profit to itself. This is the fundamental reason that most artists make such a poor living

The current, limited regrowth of artists‘ organisations in Perth is also a response to the effect of a radical shift in the socio-economic status of art and artists, from the mid-1990s onwards. The most prominent commercial galleries in Perth, at present, Linton and Kaye, the Venn and Baratti are dead ringers for the Paris galleries that sold vast acres of Salon painting to fashionable punters in the later 1890s. It’s not that what they show is downright bad, just worthy, pompous, suburban, banal, unadventurous and boring. L and K, don’t forget, host that tedious festival of feeble imagination and financial ambition, the Black Swan Portrait Prize.

Not one of our high profile galleries advocates regularly for our finest artists. Meanwhile those artists have rediscovered their very own equivalent of the garret, pop up galleries, dirty, disused factory units, unlit workspaces at high rent and an average annual income of $14,600.00. As in the nineteenth century, our best artists barely participate in the art market.

They are seriously in need of a revitalised utopian art movement

When Van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him in the Yellow House in Arles he was not just being generous. He hoped to found an artists’ colony in the south, inspired by his reading about communal artists’ groups in Japan, which, he assumed, were responsible for the high quality and widespread appeal of Japanese Art. To join him in this venture he invited a former stockbroker who had abandoned his family in poverty, who was there for whatever he could get. This was not a recipe for success.

The tensions between Van Gogh, utopian, socialist, believer in art as a way of life, and Gauguin, a capitalist, self-reliant to the point of narcissism, a hippy who idolised Buffalo Bill and had worn out his welcome in Paris, provides the perfect trope for all later artists’ organisations.

Until the mid 1990s all artist run organisations were predominantly utopian, in one sense or another, even though they all contained the odd Gauguin.

Artists choose to work together because either:

a) By being together, working together, they could free themselves from the need to repress or postpone their creative work to attend to the demands of capital. Working together freed them from the immediate requirements of the art market, indeed any market.


b) They thought that art practice offered a better model for community life than working for the man (or woman). Over time they hoped to place the values and attitudes offered by art at the heart of all human activity.

These two versions of the artistic utopia, the utopia of the immediate creative moment and the teleological utopia of art as social destiny are not exclusive. Separating them, however, helps to explain why artists’ organisations were able to maintain their marginal status in relation to capital and the market. So long as artists kept their creative mojo working the crunch never came and no one paid any undue dues.

For example, legend has it that during the 1930s Herbert Read, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson chose to wait out most of the depression in a row of miners’ cottages in Yorkshire. This artists’ group was all about the freedom of the creative moment. Later   Moore and Read became dedicated advocates for a life centered on art.

Not far away in the 1970‘s, was Welfare State, an artists‘ commune led by my then colleague John Fox, Their ‘headquarters’ was the circle of caravans where many of them lived. They specialised in animating whole communities, entire towns, with myth, magic, music, art, performance and acting. Once they even co-opted a Royal Navy submarine for a grand finale. Welfare State wanted art everywhere, daily life as a magical mystery tour. The last time I saw them they were doing a benefit for the Yorkshire Miners’ Union.

This raises the role of politics as such in artist run organisations. By and large they have never been narrowly political. Their politics came from the belief that everyone was entitled to a decent life liberated from the pressing demands of capital. That belief came from their practice as artists and their conviction that all successful art was first and foremost an attempt towards a universal, absolute freedom.

This understanding of the primary purpose of art has a long pedigree. Though it has never been the dominant attitude, it was taken for granted in most artist run organizations; I discovered it in Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man, the writings of Baudelaire, and most of all in the work of the Frankfurt School social philosophers Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.

The major problem with corporate sponsorship is that neither corporations nor their vocationally challenged apologists understand that art is at heart a libertarian enterprise; it is not a branch of show business or the media. They do not grasp that art and artists by their very vocation are responsible for everything. Recently on ABC’s Insiders programme ‘journalist’ Nikki Savvas suggested in terms reminiscent of the 1950s that the Sydney Biennale should not have surrendered to a few artist prima donnas having a ‘tanty’. The Board of the Biennale, several of whom are themselves philanthropists of some note, chose not to take money from Transfield because to do so would have compromised their entire cultural enterprise, not because a few artists were having a hissy fit. The neo-managerial attitude to art was bound to lead to this kind of thing one day.

As I outlined above, the emergence and acceptance of neo-managerialism and corporatism as the preferred way of managing art institutions in Perth alienated most significant artists. Only three or four artist groups survived into the early twenty first century. One of them was the space I help organise, The Verge Incorporated which runs the Kurb Gallery. My edited speaking notes about it form the conclusion to this piece.

Before that I will briefly consider the current situation of art in relation to artists and audiences in Perth and elsewhere.

The neo-managerialism of the 90s did not just affect artists. It wiped out almost all public dialogue, debate and criticism and replaced it with the lowest form of marketing. Artworks and exhibitions became commodities and spectacles. I recall the marketing of the Monet and Japan exhibition at the State Gallery — Can Can Girls and Wine Labels featured throughout. The Gallery, which had just abolished its excellent education department in favour of an enhanced marketing unit, made no attempt to provide even a single lecture for the curious public. It also failed to invite me to the opening, which was more than a little discourteous, given my role in the development of the show. My friend the distinguished craft curator Robert Bell was also not invited, despite his magnificent Japanese connections. There were no artists there either, but what can you expect from the western suburbs?

By then PICA had already long abandoned its role as a free venue for open public discussion. For Perth’s artists, now isolated and somewhat cynical, the end of any open public platform was another hint that as far as Perth was concerned they were surplus to requirements. The recent failure of the MOMA project demonstrated that, despite the marketing rhetoric the committed audience for serious art in Perth has contracted radically since the 1990s. What was once a fairly sophisticated, supportive art audience slowly collapsed into a self-regarding opinionated rabble that hasn’t a clue what it likes or why.

Serious support for ambitious contemporary art and artists has always been very thin in Perth. If contemporary art here is ever to recover it will only do so in the context of open debate and criticism. So far no artist run organisation has taken up this problem. The Paper Mountain event was something of a first step but only a first step towards this. We need a great deal more serious thought about the audiences for art, the possibilities for serious critique as opposed to gossipy journalistic ‘snippets’ and open public debate.

Martin Heine, Climate Change

Martin Heine, Climate Change at Paper Mountain

I have appended my notes about the Verge Inc as a coda to these arguments.

How we did it: The Verge Incorporated (1992-2014 )

I am going to indicate some aspects of the work of the Verge Inc and its current gallery The Kurb.

  • First of all the Verge is not an ARI because we do not wish to be one.
  • Neither are we in business, any kind of business, we do not wish to be in business.
  • Finally we are not part of any industry
  • The Verge is a voluntary, not for profit, no one gets paid. It runs an open art gallery and rents studios to the members of the cooperative for the cheapest possible rate.
  • The Verge, was officially founded in 1992, at a time before the internet and long before social media. This obviously affected its character and objectives, however it has performed very well for at least 24 years with same objectives and the same premises.
  • Its basic premise has been that all significant art is about the critical liberation of the person and the community in the broadest sense. As I have indicated I found it in the Frankfurt school writers, Adorno and Marcuse, but you can find it in your backyard if you look.
  • If you do not take this ruthless freedom-seeking position, as an artist, someone else will invent a brand for what you do and you will lose all creative freedom and become a mere creative worker struggling to fulfil orders.
  • You might be thinking this is just another version of the old fashioned ‘art is good for you’ argument, so here again is David Pledger in his 2013 paper, Revaluing The Artist in the New World Order, calling artists to action.

The twenty-first century is our time: when what we do, what we make, and how we work can have the greatest social benefit. We need to work through the ambient fear created by neo-liberalism, push back against the shadow values of managerialism and constitute ourselves as a sustained contradiction. To do this we must fight for fundamentals—industry representation, professional autonomy and financial security. From such a position we will be visible, capable and central to the key conversations about the arts in society, and help to create a society with the arts at its centre. (52, my emphasis)

The Verge has always done some of these things.

It has worked especially hard to remain a small but significant, sustained contradiction

The Verge does not however:

  • select artists for exhibition, anyone can have a show.
  • charge commission
  • network
  • model itself on a commercial or a public space.

Everything changed for artists’ organisations in Perth from the mid 90s. Effectively artists lost their courage and became far too dependent. It is simple to see how the trick was worked. First invent a non-existent arts industry, then add strange funding categories, like emerging artist and finally ARI’s, then cut funding in real terms by over a third and undertake a huge unnecessary increase in overheads.

The spurious and depressing claims of recycled postmodernist theory will carry you along. Finally the internet will help you out by turning artists into workers, by persuading them to think of themselves as employees in an industry. In his remarkable book, Uprising: The Internet’s Unintended Consequences, Marcus Breen calls this process the new proletarianisation.

Certainly Perth’s artists have recently suffered a major creative deskilling, a severe discounting of their unique vocation and their unique ability to inspire the lives of individuals and the community experiences. What kind of industry allows its primary producers to live below the poverty line?

These events really set the scene for the current very difficult situation in which all the arts, particularly the visual arts are over managed and hopelessly corporatised. This is something that all artists’ organisation should consider. ‘Artists now appear to be at the edge of everywhere and centre of nothing’. They should think a great deal more about their future in a highly contested social universe and a global landscape.

The Verge/Kurb survived through all this by sheer skepticism and indifference

The sheer number of our exhibitions and events (500 in ten years) is staggering, and about ten percent of them were a milestone in the artist’s development.

Our long-term survival has allowed many artists time to develop. We know that they can take a decade or more to develop confidence. We have been able to give about ten artists long term security to develop to the point where they all have or have had widespread international careers.

Some advice for artists’ organizations:

  1. Do not become a service organisation stick to art-making. (Abandon managerialism and managerial metaphors, avoid corporatism of all sorts).
  2. Campaign for representation of artists by artists on all arts institutions
  3. Advocate for a living wage — ‘art for the dole’. The current artists income is $14.700.00 pa. According to David Throsby and Peter Shergold, direct funding for the arts has fallen over a third since the 1990s. In real terms artists earn less from their practice than they did twenty years ago.
  4. Organise your own accommodation. Don’t let Artsource do it.
  5. Develop and campaign for a high level of criticism – organise writing classes
  6. Develop your own acute curatorial kills. You may need to ‘argue’ with a curator one day.
  7. Avoid people with arts management degrees, they do not have your best interests at heart.
  8. Organise an artists’ strike every year.
Martin Heine, Climate Change

Martin Heine, Climate Change at Paper Mountain

Photos (C) Pippa Tandy & David Bromfield

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