In 1880, when Hilma af Klint was 18, she watched her 10-year-old sister Hermina die of the flu. Their father was a Swedish naval commander, and her family had spent the summers exploring the rocky hills of the island of Adelsö on Lake Mälaren, just west of Stockholm. There, Hilma nurtured her interests in botany, mathematics, Darwinism, physics and music. The loss of her sister also opened the door to inquiring into the spirit world.
“Curator,” one of the commonest words in the art vocabulary is hardly mentioned in the art handbooks. According to the Oxford Dictionary it’s derived from the noun ‘curate’ — officially “the assistant to a priest or a clergyman appointed to take charge of a parish during the incapacity or suspension of an incumbent.” In historic law a curator was a guardian of “a minor or a lunatic.” These days it’s the person in charge of a museum or art gallery. In our business we generally think of the curator as the chooser of what’s going to be seen by the public.
A common question is, “Do I need a gallery?” The simple answer is, “No.” Yesterday, Vancouver artist John Ferrie emailed his annual exhibition notice, announcing his latest body of work and explaining himself in his own words: “I have often been viewed as an art rebel, as I have very much side-stepped the gallery system. Often showing in obscure environments such as the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel or doing a huge installation for Vancity at their signature branch in Point Grey, I have discovered what works for me.
In Peter Sims’ book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, we see the value of making lots of small failures as a way to get to large successes. While Peter’s book is mainly aimed at entrepreneurs, it’s also of real value to us regular creative types. These days, cutting-edge gurus are passing the word around: “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.”
The never-quite-satisfactory answer to the question remains what my dad told me long ago: “Keep busy while waiting for something to happen.” And while the old system stands — of visiting galleries in person, getting to know their programming and pursuing a shortlist with excellent images of current work plus support material — a new and remarkable artist’s marketplace is teeming with an active audience of gallerists, curators, agents, consultants, designers, collectors and advocates. You will find it on your phone.
You don’t need an economics degree to understand the pricing strategies of art galleries. One of my former dealers — no longer in the business — noticed that a very high percentage of gallery visitors just came in and went out. Painting sales were so infrequent he had to do something about it. Thinking price was the problem, he introduced a lot of cheaper items into the gallery — ceramics, souvenirs, knick knacks. The number of sales rose but total dollar values declined. The few “anxious wallets” who did come in simply satisfied their need with less expensive items. This situation is called “Collapsing Floor Syndrome.”
“You have a first image,” said Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, when describing his inspiration for his new film, Roma. “You just know that it is always going to be there. You don’t question that.” In Roma, almost every scene is meticulously composed and timed in a wide-angle tableau of human drama and staggering beauty. Drawn exclusively from Cuarón’s childhood memories, the film is shot from the perspective of his beloved nanny, Libo, and tells the story of her inner and outer life as an indigenous Mixtec domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City.
Last week, the most frequent questions jingling my inbox concerned artist’s websites. Fact is, most of them don’t work very well and artists often don’t know why. Some of course contain art that is substandard and any amount of smoke and mirrors won’t make them the dream machines that their owners desire. Having said that, many artist sites are wrongheaded and poorly done. I know this because over a period of several years I’ve had some pretty smart people fine-tuning my own site with an eye to troubleshooting and making it effective.
Robert Ryman was a 22-year-old aspiring jazz musician who moved to New York City in 1953 and took a day job as a vacation-relief security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. There, he encountered the newly acquired Number 10, 1950 by Mark Rothko, part of the museum’s collecting spree of abstract expressionist paintings.
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there,” said the jazz artist Miles Davis. His thought is one of the keys to avoiding the boringly ordinary — “the borinary.” Many works of art are what I call “one-two.” That is, they engage the mind and sensibilities only so far. Putting a half-filled wine glass into a landscape foreground, for example, turns borinary — for better or for worse — into a bit of a conversation piece. It becomes a “one-two-three.”