Silentio Pathologia Installation, 2013. Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva.
Dany Louise reports on the importance for visual artists’ professional career development of forging relationships with galleries and dealers.
The Venice Biennale is taking place and attention is inevitably turning towards what is still the most prestigious of mainstream international art events. To be selected to show in Venice is a highly sought-after prize – one of the biggest and most unique stages for an artist to work on. The world’s most influential curators, museum directors, critics and collectors really do fly in for the first week, and an artist’s international reputation and opportunities can be significantly advanced if their work is seen by the right people.
But with such a volume of artwork and artists, allied to short and very busy visits, this is not necessarily a given. This is territory where it is of considerable advantage to have an excellent, well-connected dealer or gallerist working tirelessly on your behalf. But what if you don’t?
UK-based artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva is representing Macedonia, a small and relatively poor country outside the EU. “Macedonia doesn’t have its own permanent pavilion so a space had to be found, which we have in Santa Croce,” she explains. “Macedonia gave me funding but the money wasn’t enough. I always push the boundaries of what I’m doing and however much money you have you want to try to do more. I’m aware it’s a very big opportunity for me so I’m giving it everything I’ve got.”
Hadzi-Vasileva is making an ambitious, large-scale new work that is installed in four layers, “taking the viewers on a journey inside space through a maze”. Called Silentio Pathologia, it uses 907,000 silkworm cocoons, 700 albino rat skins, 150 square metres of pure woven silk, a massive cone of folded corroded steel – and four live rats.
A successful application to Arts Council England has enabled the ambition of the work. But crucially, this funding has also allowed the artist to employ an advisor (Mark Segal, previously director of ArtSway and now running The Artists Agency) and a PR company to expose her work to that critical mass of curators and collectors who gather during the vernissage (preview) period. But even with this help, she describes her project workload as “a nightmare”.
Emilia Telese for “Michelangelo Pistoletto, Annee’ Un – Le Paradis sur Terre” at the Louvre Museum, Paris, April-September 2013. Performance stills, limited edition print in edition of 20. Courtesy of the Artist
An international dimension
Gaining an international dimension to an artistic practice has long been desirable for artists. For many, it is not necessarily about wanting to be a star artist, but the opportunity for stimulation and input from people and environments that are markedly different to the UK. It can develop thinking and ambition; enable the production of new work, while also providing valuable professional development experience.
There is a huge range of opportunities when the world is your oyster, although, just as in Britain, choosing what to apply for, and why, is an important factor. “I always have the policy that I only respond to opportunities that resonate with my practice and line of enquiry,” says artist Emilia Telese. She has worked in places as diverse as St Petersburg, Dresden, Linz, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Prague, and with festivals such as Ars Electronica.
Telese is currently showing in Paris, having been invited by Arte Povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto “to make a work to be part of his retrospective at the Louvre. It is an incredible opportunity, and very exciting because it’s Pistoletto; I feel such a connection to his work.”
Because of the terms and short notice, Telese self-financed her contribution to the show – a video piece, Life begins at Land’s End, featuring thirteen pregnant women performing at Land’s End, Cornwall. “It was too much of an opportunity not to take it, and it will be worth it because it will be part of the catalogue,” says Telese. “But if I had gallery representation they would probably have stepped in and paid for it.”
Telese has mixed views on the importance of representation when working abroad. “It depends on what your practice is,” she says. “If you sell objects, then a gallery is a very specific need and a desirable thing. My practice is installation and performance with political and social themes, and it doesn’t always produce objects.”
She can, however, see the advantages. “Having representation would allow me to go to the next level. It would change my relations with the art world. They would be getting opportunities for me and negotiating deals, so that financially it worked. But it would need to be the right gallery.”
Emily Speed, Facades/Flats, wood, paper, olive oil, tiles, paint, graphite powder, 2012. Photo: Michele Alberto Serini. Courtesy: Oredaria Gallery, Rome
Good advice and goodwill
Emily Speed has dealt with the contractual and business side of working internationally, an area that could potentially be a minefield, by “frantically learning as I go along”. Making sure that she is not out of pocket is one key aspect. “The other really important thing is having a Loan Agreement [sometimes called a Sale or Return or On consignment form] – I found that out from having one and a gallery losing my work! I’ve used a-n templates as a guide. There’s loads of a-n advice about shipping and it’s completely the first place I go to.”
She has worked with a gallery in Rome, who gave her a three-person show, paying for all the production costs and her visits, as well as including her work in art fairs. The gallery has since become a project space and despite their investment and a good relationship with the staff, this experience didn’t result in representation for Speed.
Speed has done a number of residencies abroad and had “many generous experiences”, all of which have assisted her development and career incrementally. She is about to go to Cape Ann, near Boston, for a month, to work in the house of a curator who has a gallery in Los Angeles. “She invites one artist a year for a month to make new work, then she invites her peers to come and see it. It’s a lot of goodwill.”
For Gill Hedley, independent curator, writer and consultant, there are clear and defined paths that an artist must take in order to further their career internationally. “There is a fairly precise route of commendation that an artist has to try and take,” she says. She charts the local, regional and national stepping-stones, before moving on to the international. “There is the international group show, the solo show internationally. Then you have to be in public and private collections, and be recognised critically.”
None of this, believes Hedley, comes without an artist having the right kind of support. “PR and marketing has an absolutely critical role if you want to climb up the internationally famous ladder. I don’t think the art world differs vis a vis marketing and PR than for any other product.”
Having a close working relationship with a gallery or curator can be crucial, thinks Hedley. “What is good about a dealer is that they put your work in the context of their other artists. Nothing replaces the association with a gallery and being part of a group. But if you are working with a curator, you may not need to work with a dealer. A curator is less likely to get you sales though, and that is what a gallery can do better than anyone else.”
An artist’s track record has a real impact when curatorial decisions are being made and it is important that they demonstrate their career progression. “As a curator, one does note who has been invited where,” says Hedley. “It’s true to say that when I’m looking at CVs, I will always look to see who they’ve showed with. As a curator, that points system, that approbation, is not as important as the work that one sees, but it is important.”
It’s to be hoped that, although still unrepresented, Hadzi-Vasileva will climb up the international artist rankings as a result of her ambitious Venice show for Macedonia. But, without gallery representation, it’s been hard work to both make the commission and manage the project. “It’s about 50:50 admin and making. Even working with Mark, everything has to go through me, so we consult all the time. Half the work is made in Macedonia and half is made here, but I have to deal with everything and everybody.”
Hadzi-Vasileva’s summing up of the process is worth noting by any artist attempting to forge an international reputation without the support of a gallery. “It’s not easy,” she says, “and I have to be very organised.”
This article was first published on a-n News.