Marc Ruyters – Artist Seeks Market: and Vice Versa?

How do artists deal with the market? Are art and economics each other’s opponents, as they have traditionally been regarded? Is it a question of a stronger and a weaker sibling? Or can they go hand-in-hand and even sustain each other? In the Low Countries in recent years, there has been a good deal of discussion about the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘money’.

But first: this article focuses on individual artists who work for themselves. They are mainly visual artists and, in smaller numbers, writers. Most other artists – musicians, stage actors, dancers etc. – are in some form of paid employment with an artistic organisation and, as individuals, are less subject to the risks of ‘the market’. This discussion will concentrate on contemporary visual artists.

Art and the Powers That Be

Any discussion of artists and the market in the Low Countries needs to be based on a number of starting points. Until the end of the 1980s, the Netherlands had the Beeldende Kunst Regeling (BKR; Regulations for Visual Arts), a scheme for providing additional employment opportunities in the visual arts. Basically, under this scheme the work of visual artists was automatically bought by the public sector by way of a benefit payment, a form of subsidy that eventually led to overflowing museums, warehouses and other storerooms in virtually every municipality. For many years after the scheme was abolished, the Dutch media was full of stories – some of them hilarious – about what those local authorities and government organisations should do to try and dispose of the tons of ‘superfluous’ artworks.

Today, visual artists in the Netherlands can apply for government subsidies through various channels, including the Fonds voor Beeldende Kunst, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst (Fonds BKVB; Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture) and the Mondriaan Foundation. However, since the abolition of the BKR it has become more difficult for individual artists to qualify for government subsidies, particularly in recent years with the many government cutbacks. In short, artists in the Netherlands seem to have surrendered a great deal financially in recent decades.

In Flanders, to some extent the reverse appears to be true: since the Flemish Community began to award subsidies to artists and artistic institutions in the 1960s, the ‘contemporary visual arts’ sector was always the neglected child. Most of the (scarce) subsidies were allocated to the performing artists and (classical) music, and to the construction of cultural and other art centres. Visual artists could apply for project subsidies and working grants, but the number of ‘lucky ones’ was limited and the sums remained inadequate. The Kunstendecreet (Arts Act) came into effect on 1 January 2006. Under this new Act visual arts will in principle be treated in the same way as other art forms.

Financial measures to redress the balance were successfully launched, but are far from being finalised, and there is still a bone of contention: many artists believe that too much money is going to institutions (museums, art centres, workshops), and too little to the artists themselves. The memorandum on culture policy for 2007, presented by Bert Anciaux, the Flemish Minister for Culture, contains the following shaky but intriguing sentence: ‘The increase in resources for visual-arts organisations must be matched by direct support for visual artists, so that they too can continue their artistic activities in a professional context.’ The increase in resources for the organisations is a fact: since the Arts Act came into effect, support has almost trebled compared with previous years. That ought also to apply to visual artists. However, the same document states that the resources will remain the same until the end of 2009. If more money is to go to the artists themselves, this will have to be at the expense of the organisations.

What are we actually talking about? How serious is the situation? A survey carried out by Kunstenloket, a contact point for artists that is subsidised by the Flemish government, showed that only ten percent of Flemish artists earn more than 10,000 euros net per year (this sum is regarded as the minimum income for a ‘self-employed person’). Sixty percent earn less than 3,000 euros net per year! Obviously, not all artists regard their work as a source of income, or their main source of income, but the figures speak for themselves. It is clear that both the Dutch and the Flemish governments still have a great deal of work to do.

Art in the free market

But is this what those governments really want? Subsidies, even when substantially increased, are only one side of the pecuniary story; the market is also a factor. In the world of the visual arts it is known as the ‘art market’. It only makes the news if work by Jackson Pollock, Gustav Klimt or Pablo Picasso is auctioned in New York for vast amounts. But that is just the spectacular and speculative side of the art market. The essential players in the contemporary art market, certainly in the Low Countries, are the gallery owners, in particular the managers of the ‘promotional galleries’. These are more than a display window or ‘shop’, they select their artists and help them to establish themselves nationally and internationally with catalogues, stands at art fairs, and through international networking. In short, the gallery owner and artist ‘run the course’ together. An artist who finds a good gallery owner (and vice versa), and creates work that is ‘saleable’, has the prospect of an attractive income (the sale price of a work is usually divided fifty-fifty between artist and gallery owner). Museums and arts centres can also provide an income for artists in the form of a fee for taking part in an exhibition, or the purchase of works for museum collections (which is usually done through the galleries). In principle there is even, via the resale right, an income set aside for artists whose work is sold by public auction. Most European countries apply this legislation, but not Britain and the USA – the countries where the most important and most expensive works are auctioned, with no income generated for the artists. The European Community is working towards uniform regulatory measures, with which Britain will eventually have to comply. This is the ‘art market’ that simply plays by the rules of the free market economy and a keen business sense.

But there is another, rather deeper, aspect to the ‘economic’ side of things, namely that artists are increasingly regarded as potential innovators, whose creativity can stimulate economic projects.

Various approaches are evident in this context. And here, too, Ftanders and the Netherlands seem to be developing different ways of thinking. In Flanders, as in the Netherlands, the idea of ‘culture industries’ is taking hold. These are businesses that produce ‘culture’ or ‘entertainment’ with the help of artists and their creativity. Public authorities contribute by giving financial support to those businesses, for example in the form of subordinated loans. Economic principles are beginning to exert a strong influence on – or even dominate – such cultural-economic co-operation.

But some in Flanders think differently. In the book Artists and Entrepreneurs. A New Relationship (Kunstenaars & Ondernemers. Een nieuwe relatie, 2006), I edited the thoughts and ideas of academics, artists and entrepreneurs that were expressed in 2004 and 2005 at eight seminars on the theme ‘Art and economics: we see no difference’. The seminars revealed that the relationship between art and economics takes several forms, from harmonious to discordant. Each seminar dealt with a specific subject, although the discussions sometimes overlapped. Five types of relationship between art and economics were defined. First: art and economics can attract and repel each other like magnets. Economics posits its laws, art demands its artistic freedom. But the economy also benefits from freedom, and art too has its limits. Second: art and economics are like two brothers. The economy – the big brother – is a large and powerful world player, an indispensable force in terms of feeding, clothing and housing people. Art is ‘only’ to feed the spirit, to meet intellectual and aesthetic needs. Yet that too is essential to life. Third: art and economics can face each other as true antagonists. Economics has different priorities and objectives to the arts, and sometimes they get in each other’s way. Four: art and economy join hands, through compromises or otherwise. Art and economics can work side-by-side, with the artist and the entrepreneur each fulfilling their own role. But art and economics can also co-operate on the same project. Five: art and economics are merely parts of a greater whole that transcends a simple division. They fulfil a role, through interaction and sometimes through a compromise with other players such as the market, opinion-makers and the community.

The seminars also clearly showed that in recent decades the relationship between ‘the artist’ and ‘the market’ has been sadly undervalued and all too often seen from a one-sided and antagonistic perspective. The view of quite a number of decision-makers in Flanders is that today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that relationship needs to be celebrated, seen from a new perspective, and deepened. With equal and mutual respect for ‘the artist’ and ‘the market’.

The culture industry

The Dutch view appears to be somewhat harder and has more in common with the Anglo-Saxon model: if you want to earn money you have to work hard and be smart – and that goes for artists too.

In the autumn 2006 issue of Boekman, a Dutch journal for art, culture and related policy, Ryclef Rienstra paraphrases the poet Lucebert: ‘Anything that is resilientis not worthless.’ This periodical, too, has pondered the issue of ‘art and commerce’. Ought the arts sector to become commercialised? How creative are cultural entrepreneurs? Can the production and consumption of culture be left to market forces?

‘Increasingly, art and business are going hand-in hand’, writes editor-in-chief Anita Twaalfhoven. And so it appears: the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn enriched the 2006 celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth with its ‘Night Watch bread from the Golden Age’. The packaging informs us that the dark multi-grain bread is decorated, like a painting, ‘with a rich palette of seeds and grains’. The second Balkenende cabinet attached great importance to creativity and allocated a subsidy of 15.4 million euros to its culture and economy programme. In the Netherlands, too, artists are seen as invaluable if you want to innovate, make progress, establish yourself in the market. That is why, in the Netherlands, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture & Science work together. Money is no longer a dirty word in matters relating to art. The Vincent-van-Gogh image, the artist as philanderer and bohemian, is very definitely a caricature from a distant past.

Yet the question remains whether there is a hidden agenda behind the image of the art world as an industry, ‘creative people as money-makers’. In his policy document A Culture of Enterprise (Een ondernemende cultuur), Rick van der Ploeg, former Secretary of State for Culture, gently advocated the cultural enterprise approach, which focuses on deriving ‘a greater artistic, professional and social return from cultural facilities’. Should artists concentrate on the market for their work? Shouldn’t they be given a good shaking by ‘brokers’ and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’, who force them to consider whether there is a demand for their work? Economists have pondered these questions. More and more studies are appearing on the ‘culture industry’; the main emphasis is of course on the integrity of the artist, but with particular stress also on the unhelpful attitude of the government (cutbacks) and the fact that art is a commodity – to put it in Marxist terms – that has to deliver added value.

The ‘creative industry’ is an economic engine – at least, according to the titles of Flemish as well as Dutch policy documents and advisory reports such as Cultural Industries, Creativity-the Weightless Fuel of the Economy, or Our Creative Assets. One Dutch newspaper stated that people no longer harp on about ‘the social relevance of art. Now its relevance is primarily economic’. Artists should be involved in all public-sector projects. This sharp economic reasoning changes the status of the artist: whereas, in the past, the ‘artist’ was a marginal figure, today he/she is ‘an artist in the service of economic development’. The way in which we think about art is being turned upside down; everything has to change. Artists must focus on the market by producing their work as something to be sold. The ‘creative class’ is a potential job creator and also a revenue generator. People no longer talk in scornful tones of the growing influence of arts management, marketing and market forces in the art world – so we read in the journal of the Boekman Foundation. The debate is no longer about ‘the pernicious influences threatening the high arts’. Artists ought, some people believe, to be more calculating about putting their work on the market ‘in order to secure a solid income in the long run’. Then they will no longer be dependent on subsidies or social-security benefit.

Giep Hagoort, Professor of Art and Economics at the Faculty of Art of the University of Utrecht, has developed a ‘theory of Strategic Artistic Calculation’. His method dispenses with the ‘the indolence, the informality and the gut feelings surrounding the relationship between artisticity and commerciality’. We must adopt a more businesslike approach – and that goes for the arts too. The government should no longer play a central role; there are funds, company initiatives, private sponsors – in short, taxpayers’ money should be spent on other things than art.

Market forces as art

How do artists themselves react to this new, neo-liberal tinted development? Every work of art has within it a certain measure of commitment, which incorporates an element of social criticism. But any artist who wants to make a living from his or her work will be aware that economic strategies are essential to that. There are few artists who take precisely those subtle market mechanics as the subject of their work. We will restrict ourselves to one Flemish and one Dutch example. With his spectacular work (from stained-glass windows with X-ray porn to concrete mixers sculptured in wood, and Cloaca machines with vacuum-packed faeces as commodities) the Flemish artist Wim Delvoye holds up a mirror to an ever more materialistic society. It is even possible to buy shares in Wim Delvoye, with the reassurance that they are an excellent investment in art. In the Netherlands Rob Scholte has for many years played an equally sublime and perfidious Warhol-style game with market forces to draw attention to his work. He copies the work of other masters, staying just within the boundaries of the law, with the aim of raising questions about the value of ‘unique masterpieces’.

Ultimately, the transition to a harder market climate will have to be made. Artists in Flanders and the Netherlands be advised: if there is no demand for your work, that is painful. You will have to take up something else – or depend on your partner’s income.

With thanks to Paul Depondt

Translated by Yvette Mead

Marc Ruyters, Kunstenaars & ondernemers. Een nieuwe relatie. Tielt, 2006.
Boekman 68, Tijdschrift voor kunst, cultuur en beleid, ‘Kunst en commercie’. Autumn 2006 (

TLC, The Low Countries, jaargang 15, 2007. p. 56 − 64
Stichting Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem 2007

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