Is There a Future for Visual Artists? (A local perspective) Parts 1 and 2

Over the course of the last several months, I have written a long form essay entitled, Is There a Future for Visual Artists?  (A local perspective).  I’ve taken a hard look at the reality of the Indianapolis visual art scene from a conceptual and sustainable point of view.  There is not a lot of support for visual artists in Indianapolis in the form of patronage and collecting local art.  This needs to change if Indianapolis, a city of significant size, will continue to host a high quality visual art scene.

I will present the essay in a series – below are parts 1 and 2.

Is There a Future for Visual Artists?  (A local perspective)

Ron Kern
February 28, 2017

Part 1

Visual artists work is seen everywhere, at local art fairs, at competitions, at local and regional art organizations, at libraries and on and on.  There certainly does not seem to be a shortage of supply.  Yet, we must admit that the quality and relevance of a high percentage of this art is not of high caliber.

But, there are artists that are dedicating themselves to making work that is excellent and which merits attention, contemplation, acknowledgment, and dare I say, deserves patronage.

Obviously, there are levels of the art world that exist to which this essay will not pertain – such as, the upper echelon of art fairs and galleries where art is bought by the affluent, at prices that defy reality, as a futures commodity that is not that different from trading in stock and precious metals futures.  For that discussion I point you to a post of dbfree, “The Ullage of Luxury: the economics of the art fair,” at this link.

Within the culture of today’s society, where does the visual artist stand within the scope of the public’s desire to experience and subsequently purchase art?  The answer to this question is, I fear, not one that I want to know.

The public’s investment into culture is declining.  This can easily be seen in the near collapse of music sales, which are the lowest since Nielson began keeping track in 1991.  One bright spot is the sale of vinyl records, although in the scheme of things, the sales are minuscule.  The top selling vinyl album in 2016 sold under 50,000 copies.

Other examples – symphony orchestras across the world face deficits that endanger their existence, attendance at art museums has been declining since 2000, high profile musicians that had sold albums in great numbers are forced to be on the road and tour to make any money, etc.

One bright spot for a few artists, is the concert business.  Super high ticket prices have become the norm, which is a result of the artists no longer having income from music sales or royalties.  Since many fans are being priced out, many concerts have become entertainment options for the wealthy rather than a cultural experience.

Are the cultural declines, which are very real, a result of the lack of interest, or is it a product of the wholesale shift of our society to a digital world?  This issue has been written about many times and the answer seems obvious.  Music is now essentially considered to be free to the consumer.  Streaming services charge a nominal fee to listen to an unheard of catalog of music, on demand.  No longer does one have to spend a lifetime accumulating a collection of records or CDs to have access to music.  With immediate access to anything, no longer is a listener required to curate their tastes and learn about the music and the artists that make it.  Click on a link, and if the music doesn’t immediately appeal to them, they can instantly click to another selection.  The same thing happens with photography  on the web.  A view can blaze through hundreds and hundreds of photographs in just a couple of moments, never stopping to actually see and contemplate a photograph.  This phenomenon develops a mentality of instant gratification with no basis for appreciation.  Add in Netflix, etc., which instantly gives access to an unbelievable selection of films for a pittance, and now consumers have a good amount of the arts available at nearly no cost.  While this is an excellent deal, it has developed the attitude that art is cheap and therefore requires little or no investment (YouTube) in anything that would actually pay the artists that dedicate their lives to create what consumers have as a part of their lives every day.

So, how does all of this relate to visual artists, especially those that are local/regional?  It has been interesting watching and experiencing the local visual art scene here in Indianapolis for many years.  It has evolved into is a reflection of the economic times as well as the societal change into a digital world.

End, Part 1

Part 2

What is lacking in the local scene is patronage, that is, actual monetary support for many artists making serious work.  Sure, this is not just a local problem, but the way the scene exists is making it nearly impossible for artists to generate any interest in their work to the point of developing patronage.  What am I talking about?  Essentially, galleries dedicated to the sale of local/regional art have closed in Indianapolis.  For a city of this size, that is not a good thing.  In 2012, an excellent gallery located in Zionsville, Watts Fine Art closed its doors because of lack of sales after three years of heavy marketing and presenting fine art.  They felt that there was no market in the Indianapolis area and they did not see it changing.

Sports permeates the psyche of Indianapolis, not to mention that sports raids public funds to a huge degree.  The City of Indianapolis only supports the arts with the paltry sum of $2,000,000.00 and most of that money goes to arts administrators for operating and programming costs.

What is the artist that makes serious art, who wants to sell it to support making more art, left with?  Not much.  The outdoor art fair circuit does not lend itself to providing an artist that sells work for thousands of dollars a venue.  Add in the risk associated with weather that could ruin a year’s work, and the art fair is just not an option.  What a local/regional artist is presented with to sell their work in Indianapolis is IDADA’s (Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association) First Friday Art Tour.

The First Friday Art Tour is the monthly opening/exhibition for artists and galleries across downtown Indianapolis.  While an admirable endeavor, it is a ridiculously impossible situation.  There are so many events that it is impossible to see everything.  The official time of the event is six to nine p.m.  In May of 2016, there were 27 different exhibitions to see plus many open artist studios which, without travel time, allowed 6.67 minutes to view each exhibition.  Like I said, it is an impossible situation.  Artists that get to be in a feature exhibit in Indianapolis only once per year, or maybe even once every two years, are easily overlooked and therefore continue to work in obscurity.  A scene like this severely limits an artist in developing any kind of relationship with a prospective patron.  Boom, the show is done; and if a prospective patron could not make it out on First Friday, then, potentially, all is lost.  This is just not conducive for serious art appreciation and subsequent collecting.  To top it off, there is very little visual arts coverage in the local press.  Space is limited, therefore only a very few shows are reviewed in NUVO, and the Indianapolis Star’s occasional coverage is typically limited to photographs of events.  NUVO does work hard to present feature stories on local artists.

Another aspect to the First Friday art tour issue is that most of the highly attended gallery events are not tooled to the sale of art.  The largely attended shows at the not for profit galleries are, in actuality, exhibitions.  Sure, there are a few exceptions when it comes to sales, but largely these shows are social events where friends meet up, the gallery gives them their Friday night out location and the art is part of their evening’s entertainment, which perfectly melds with the fact, as previously discussed, that art has actual little monetary value in today’s society.

The First Friday art tour has been co-opted by many entities that are not associated with IDADA.  Restaurants fare very well on First Friday.  With the short three hour span of the First Friday art tour, there is just not enough time to eat dinner and attend a number of shows.  Recently a First Friday food truck fair has established itself at the Murat Theater’s parking lot.  Again, this is not associated with IDADA and definitely pulls people away from the art tour.  There are many many more examples like this.  The fact is that First Friday is now an event unto itself and the artists are just a part of the entertainment instead of being the reason for the event, as was originally intended.  This has been going on for years, and as deeply as it is established, First Friday not going to change.

I remember when a situation very similar to this when, in the 1990s, the monthly gallery tour hit critical mass in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I happened to be in town when the galleries announced that there would be no more multiple openings on the First Friday of every month.  The galleries gathered together and proclaimed that the focus was no longer on the art, rather the first Friday of every month had become about making the scene.  It was killing sales and not offering the galleries meaningful engagement with prospective patrons.  Galleries agreed that they would do their own thing and have openings as they saw fit.

End, Part 2



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