Cracking the art market
The Australian fine art photography landscape is littered with closed-down galleries, including the Australian Centre for Photography, Blender Gallery, Black Eye Gallery, Stills Gallery, and Edmund Pearce, to name a few. Have COVID-related restrictions reduced this landscape into a wasteland? Or, is what might at first appear like destruction simply be a way of the market reacting and adapting to the changes? Sophia Hawkes reports.
Toby Meagher, director of the Michael Reid Gallery Sydney has a wealth of experience in the field and believes that photographers have every reason to be optimistic. “COVID has presented an opportune time for galleries and artists alike. Our audience have spent all [of 2020] engaging with digital content with an intensity we have never seen before,” he says. The gallery, which also has a presence in Berlin, was established over 20 years ago and represents some of Australasia’s best-known contemporary artists. Meagher calls on photographers to seize the rare possibilities COVID has created. “The opportunities are there for the taking. Find ways to share your images; tell stories through social media platforms, or a compelling website. Your audience is captive. They are stuck at home and waiting to hear from you,” he says.
Tamara Dean, who's represented by Michael Reid, still enjoys regular sales of her prints, despite the effects of the pandemic. “I used the social isolation like I would an artist residency. I was able to try out ideas that have been brewing in my imagination for years, build sets to use as backdrops, and get playful and experimental with my photography.” She adds that winning the 2020 Goulburn Art Award and being selected to launch the inaugural Ngunungulla Southern Highlands Regional Gallery exhibition in 2021 have fuelled her creative energy despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. “I regularly enter art competitions and have had works featured in a number of high-profile exhibitions in the UK and Vienna over the past couple of months,” she says.
For other photographers such Lisa Sorgini, the ripples created by COVID have had a negative effect. “I was offered a solo show at the Australian Centre for Photography for 2021 which would have been a huge career milestone for me, but sadly due to COVID and lack of funding it has now gone into ‘hibernation’ which means the show won't be going ahead,” she says. However, despite this disappointment Sorgini found artistic nourishment during COVID. “2020 was a major turning point for my career and in a lot of ways I'm thankful for the forced challenges that made me look at other ways to create,” Sorgini states. She’s also discovered just how powerful Instagram can be for artists to get their work seen around the globe.
Yet another photographer who has felt the impact of the pandemic when the country went into lockdown was Lisa Tomasetti. She was about to launch two solo exhibitions, at James Makin Gallery in Melbourne and Vermilion Gallery in Sydney when the galleries temporarily closed. “With the closure of the galleries the exhibitions became virtual and relied heavily on social media for exposure,” she says. Tomasetti set out to explore other ways to get her work seen. “With the loss in possible sales, I decided to self-publish a photographic book, The Australian Ballet on the International Stage. The book features photographs taken from the Company's international tours from 2006-2018 to Tokyo, Beijing, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”
Brisbane-based Michael Cook has Bidjara heritage. When he first embarked on a career in fine art photography in 2009, he was driven by a desire to explore issues of identity. Since then, Cook has successfully exhibited his work both nationally and internationally. If everything had gone according to plan, 2020 would have seen Cook’s work exhibited overseas again. “In March, just as I was to book my flights to New York after being accepted to show Livin’ the Dream at Paris Photo NY, the art fair was cancelled.” But border closure and lockdown couldn't stop Cook's momentum. “My representing galleries decided to show the works at This is No Fantasy, in Melbourne, and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, in Brisbane. At that stage the country was in full lockdown so the works were hung and we decided to do a three-dimensional online tour,” he says.
A bright future
Meagher is confident that the future for art photography looks bright. “Contemporary photography is the fastest growing sector of the contemporary art market. The gallery had its most successful photographic exhibition ever in September, both by volume of editions placed with collectors and value – over $650,000,” he says. “It was once the realm of only sophisticated collectors to understand, trust, and acquire editioned multiples, but increasingly there has been a widespread and normal acquisition for the majority of contemporary art collectors who only a decade ago looked only at unique works,” Meagher says.
Cook has also noticed an economic boost after lockdown. “We are lucky in Australia, not only with very low numbers of COVID cases, but also because we live in a rich country presenting lots of opportunities and good incomes. A lot less is being spent on international travel – so why not buy art?” He said the second half of 2020 brought more confidence in the economy which sent auction prices on a high, with some records set, and some of his personal Artist Proofs were auctioned with Deutscher and Hackett.
Sandy Edwards, the founder and creative producer at Arthere, is also optimistic about the market and states that COVID is but one of many factors that have affected galleries, photographers, and collectors over the last few decades. Edwards believes that the changing conditions encourage galleries to be creative in how they present their work online. She mentioned that she was most impressed with how Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival dealt with the situation, moving their entire program online, stating that they had done a “bloody good job”.
Edwards, who’s been a beacon within the art photography world for close to three decades, has had to adapt and progress with the various changes brought on by, for example, lack of funds and technology. In 2008, Edwards started Arthere, having left Sydney’s Stills Gallery after 26 years. A primary focus of the business has been to provide a mentoring service for photo artists wanting visibility in the art world, with the aim of helping photographers exhibit and sell work, and ultimately be equipped to negotiate the art world.
To Edwards, art photography always used to be about printed images. “Fine art photography used to mean editioned black-and-white prints. A photograph was a work on paper, but with digital mediums we suddenly didn't have the object.”
Despite remaining open-minded about the various mediums, Edwards believes it’s difficult for new collectors to make informed decisions if buying work that they’ve only ever seen online. “Anyone buying art online at the moment would have to be a very experienced collector, because you wouldn’t know what you're getting,” she adds.
Landing a big break
What is it then that attracts Meagher to an image and makes him decide who to exhibit? “The artist has to have developed their own visual language. We live in a world where we are swamped by the digital photographic image – we see hundreds, if not thousands, of images a day. If I'm not taken by the freshness of new images from a potential artist, it's very difficult to imagine my collectors will respond any differently.” Meagher also warns against overwhelming a gallery with digital images. “Submitting Dropbox files with hundreds of images in the hope a gallerist will trip over something they like is the wrong approach. Pick five works. Show that you can be critical enough to not present the other 95. Keep it focused,” is Meagher’s advice.
When Tomasetti was starting out, persistence was a central focus of her approach. “After graduating from art school in Adelaide, I spent hours in the studio shooting and developing ideas for an exhibition, which I then showed to local galleries. I persisted and finally got a solo show at Greenaway Art Gallery.”
Hitting the pavement was also how Tamara Dean got her first big break through a rather fortuitous series of events. “After door-knocking various galleries with my newly created Ritualism series [in 2009], I happened to visit Charles Hewitt Gallery to collect some works I was getting framed. The gallery manager, Larry Macdonald, saw something in my work, introduced it to Charles, who exhibited my first solo show within a matter of months,” she explains. Dean also attributes some of her early success to guidance provided by Edwards. “Prior to exhibiting at Charles Hewitt Gallery, I had been included in a group exhibition curated by Sandy Edwards. The experience helped build my confidence,” she says.
Cook’s advice to help increase the chances of your work being exhibited is to listen to yourself and produce work you feel passionate about. “And do the research. The more depth you get within a project, the more people it will reach. Don’t try to answer your own questions within the work – give the viewer space to make their own minds up in terms of how they see and experience it,” he says. “Stay passionate about what you’re trying to achieve – and stay focused on the big picture!”
Sorgini has also learnt that it’s your unique eye and your intent that will ensure the success of a project. “When I first started my career, I thought the equipment/lens/camera were the most important elements. I know now that this is secondary to the idea or intention behind it, and some of my favourite artist use the most simple setups. The importance and significance for me comes from why it’s made, and not necessarily how it’s made.”
Are you an artist?
Although Edwards is passionate about traditional photography, as she names it, she isn’t blind to the fact that art is something that can come from anywhere. “I truly believe people can make art on their mobile phone. I'm not an elitist in regards to equipment or how people do it, but there has to be a serious intent. I think the amazing thing with photography is that it can attract itself to a subject matter, so something really amazing can come from an amateur.”
Early in his career Cook had to make a conscious decision to become an artist. After completing his series, Through My Eyes, Cook went to Sydney and began knocking on gallery doors. “I had considered the idea for a couple of years and finally decided to put the project together. It explored my question, “What if our governments had been able to see from an Indigenous perspective – through Aboriginal eyes?” he says.
Having been unsuccessful in Sydney, Andrew Baker told Cook that his Brisbane gallery would represent him if he gave up all other avenues of photography and just concentrated on making art for the next year. Cook, who at the time was shooting mainly weddings, quickly accepted this offer. “Three weeks later, Andrew invited me to his gallery to meet four curators from the National Gallery of Australia who went on to buy the complete series, and then the next two full bodies of work, Undiscovered (2010, ten large works) and Broken Dreams (2010, ten large works). Two other state institutions also purchased complete sets of all three of these 2010 series.”
Tomasetti articulates the difference between a fine art photograph and other images. “The medium strives to set itself apart from the click/post/delete imaging of the modern era where artistic processes are commodified and automated with tools and filters available on every smartphone. The fine art photographer strives to convey a specific idea/concept which has the power to express many different emotions,” she says.
Galleries are fundamental in the life and careers of exhibiting fine art photographers. It’s very hard to exhibit one’s work without a space dedicated to the showing of artworks. Fine art photographers are not spending years working on images only for them to be viewed on a mobile phone or desktop monitor. Sure, the Internet is ubiquitous and a much cheaper venue to display one’s images, but most view it as a poor substitute to majesty of a large framed print, perfectly lit on a gallery wall.
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