BY STACIE McCORMICK
I experienced the start of my career in the same way many young artists do. The excitement of becoming a ‘real’ artist after graduation, having devoted years to study and practice, coincided with feeling adrift and ill-prepared to sustain myself by my work.
Having been lucky to open a solo exhibition with a gallery within six months of graduating – I was faced with the rude awakening to the 50/50 split of sales.
Emerging Artists cover 100 percent of the production costs. The gallery’s brand name and client base surely add value. But the art establishment’s role and strength in artists’ career development is outsized.
I remember having pieces sold, earning a fraction of the profit from works I had invested so much of my creative energy in, thinking, ‘Surely there must be another way?’
The rise of the digital age has changed everything, and the art world has been slow to convert. Today, life online is the reality and technological change is finally reaching the art world. The model is straightforward. Cut out the middleman – galleries – while preserving the network effect so crucial to find buyers in the dispersed art market.
Digital pioneers are currently creating functional online marketplaces and apps to lower the barrier of entry to buy and sell art. This benefits buyers and puts power back in artists’ hands.
Overcoming the art market’s Western bias
The traditional gallery model is not only unfair towards individual artists. It also structurally disadvantages non-Western art. In contrast, a digital art market can be a truly global initiative, affording exposure and recognition to Africa’s artists.
To be sure, African contemporary art is emerging with remarkable speed on the global stage. Sold in world-leading auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and exhibited in blue chip galleries, stellar names like Roméo Mivekannin and Peju Alatise celebrate successes and have gripped the attention of collectors.
Nonetheless, most artists from emerging countries cannot surmount barriers of the traditional art world – a conservative sector where illnesses present in all courses of life often reign unchecked: uneven distribution of chances, nepotism, and prejudice.
Also, many African artists, Nigerian artists being no exception, still leave their homelands to pursue educational and career opportunities in the West. Oftentimes, they are forced to adapt and reshape their practice according to cultural market imperatives.
Foreign galleries representing African artists contribute to the relocation of local talents – and the drain abroad of profits and sales commissions from domestic markets.
While local art communities make enormous efforts building international networks, African governments struggle to support art education, business, institutions – the necessary infrastructure to connect to the art market.
The digital art marketplace model
The digital world’s promise is clear: addressing the center-periphery imbalance of the art world by giving artists and collectors autonomy, circumventing gatekeepers. With Nigeria’s highly digitized population, Fair Art Fair will serve as a tool to open a ‘glocal’ mid-market for local art, giving artists an opportunity to showcase and promote their works on their own terms – to a domestic as well as global audience.
Fair Art Fair is built to enable buyers to find artists easily, contact them directly and buy artworks without commission. The app promotes, catalyzes and encourages buying and selling but never takes a cut from artists’ sales. Instead, the platform is sustained by a digital subscription business model. In charging equal rates to all users – artists, brokers or private buyers – the whole ecosystem costs individuals a fraction of what transacting through traditional galleries would require.
The app gives artists greater visibility and help with administration; while buyers, both seasoned and novice, can discover new artists and ultimately connect and purchase from them directly, fostering a direct and transparent relationship that empowers both artist and collector, opening the hitherto exclusionary art world to a larger percentage of the population. The format is attractive for a new and tech-savvy generation of art collectors, young artists, or in fact anyone wishing to explore the art market.
The influx of money into art markets of emerging countries would be the first step to create a more decentralized and autonomous global marketplace. Adopting these new technological solutions will provide a level playing field – a first for the art world.
African artists – and young artists around the world – need not embrace the model excluding them or forcing them to change their national character in the quest to appeal to gallery grandees. Instead, disrupting the current system, and building their own, is the way forward.
Stacie McCormick, who sent in this piece to Business a.m. from the United Kingdom, is a US-born artist based in the UK; and the founder and chief executive officer of Fair Art Fair, a pioneering art-based digital platform that facilitates relationships between everyone interested in Art in a confident transparent environment, making it possible for artists and art buyers to relate directly.
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