On Thursday (with fellow students Janet & Rob) I attended a workshop at the Cornerhouse Gallery in Manchester. Entitled ‘Do You Really Want to Do This?’, it was presented by Paul Herrmann of the Redeye photography network, and was subtitled ‘Projects and Art Photography’. It was aimed at ‘those who want to make a living from exhibiting or publishing self-generated projects’. There were two guest presenters as well as Paul Herrmann – artist Dinu Li and Lucy Johnston, a gallery manager (whose gallery, the Ceri Hand Gallery, didn’t appear to represent photographers or be that interested in those at the early stage of their career!).
My comments on the day are going to centre on the first session, with Dinu Li, which to my mind was the most enlightening for anyone with a desire pursue contemporary art on a ‘serious’ basis – and certainly for anyone hoping to ‘make a living’, as referred to by the workshop ‘blurb’. Li is a leading Northern based contemporary artist whose work includes film and video as well as photography. His session, part presentation and part Q & A, was particularly interesting because he did genuinely talk about the process of promoting and funding his activities rather than just presenting his projects, which was entirely appropriate for the workshop. I particularly draw out the following points from what he had to say:
· Described as ‘one of the most successful contemporary artists working in the North of England’, or words to that effect, he teaches photography (or art, not entirely sure which) at a College in Chester, runs training courses every summer in Spain, and has recently invested in a restaurant. My impression is that he certainly doesn’t ‘make a living’ from his art, but largely ‘lives’ on the income generated by these other activities.
· That said, he also pointed out that ‘it costs a lot of money to make work’ (note this alongside regular comments from Peter H. on the OCA forums), and made it clear that he doesn’t finance any of his art himself. Through his career he has developed relationships with the Arts Council & other funders that have enabled him to develop his projects.
· He stressed the importance of networking & building relationships to support you – not just financially but emotionally, and through promotional activities etc. He said that he has around ten key contacts and maybe 50-60 other people outside that immediate circle who are important to his work.
· It also seemed clear to me that he has had a personal vision/drive to be a successful artist from the very start – identifying the agencies he needed to work with, not being put off by negative experiences, and having very clear goals of things he wanted to achieve & how he would go about it. He is a single-minded and highly focused individual (though he seemed a thoroughly nice guy as well, I have to say).
· The art he creates is somewhat responsive and eclectic (he more or less said that himself) but his career does not lack direction.
I am struck, not for the first time, by the similarities between the art world and the consultancy environment in which I have been working for the last 20+ years when it comes to the requirements for success. You can have the talent you like, all the ideas and creativity, but it is the clear direction and focus, the single-minded determination, the willingness to get out there and do what is necessary that distinguished the really ‘successful’ (though I put that word in inverted commas because it probably refers to ‘commercial’ success).
Food for thought.