Printmaking Today Summer 2018

13/06/18 by Bridget   Views

Businesses open and close all the time for a variety of reasons and I realise my story last summer was not unique. I was joint owner/director of Bath Contemporary, a key proponent of original print in the West Country. We launched our first exhibition of original prints in 2013, featuring work by six RE members: Corinna Button, Howard Jeffs, Jackie Newell, Sumi Perera, Jane Stobart and Francis Tinsley. The show titled ‘RE: Paint and Print’ was well received and over the years I invited more printmakers to join us, many of whom were RE members including Louise Davies, Peter Ford, George Tute and Frans Wesselman. Sadly and without warning, my business partner withdrew his financial investment last year. It forced us into liquidation with surprising speed and I was heartbroken after the years of work I had put in.

Axle Arts rose from the ashes of Bath Contemporary and I chose, like a growing number before me, to restructure our trading model to focus on consultancy with an online e-commerce presence supported by a pop-up exhibition calendar. I believe without a doubt that internet shopping is the future, as it is undeniably convenient for buyers who have strong protection rights. I spoke to a client recently, following a campaign I sent out for a new artist, Lynne Cartlidge, and I was surprised when he told me that he only bought fine art through the internet. However, I am acutely aware that 90% of new online businesses fail within the first four months. It is not easy to establish yourself online and visibility is the hardest hurdle to leap.

Sales for contemporary fine art have been through a tough time recently. Gone are the heady days of the 1990s and early noughties. The financial market crash in 2008 affected many gallery’s trade and I am aware of closures across Bristol and Bath following this. Since then we have had to weather low consumer confidence in a luxury market that is highly sensitive, not only to the financial crash but also to surprising politic movements across the UK and the USA in the last couple of years. Alongside this is the explosion of the internet and its effect on us both personally and professionally, which we are all learning about in real time. We are literally watching history in the making.

I am aware of a lot of galleries struggling more and more to pay overheads with dwindling sales. Bath in particular has extraordinarily high rent and rates. Last summer, four galleries in addition to Bath Contemporary closed in Bath. Our small, independent galleries are being replaced by large, multi-chain galleries with the financial clout to run national advertising campaigns.

Possibly influenced by record sums of money achieved by the large auction houses selling big name investment art, I have seen Giclée prints being sold by one such chain on the strength of the signature from the celebrity who painted the original. I have calculated that the mark up on these posters is somewhere around 1900%. It is a fine art scam, and it damages not only the fine art market but the print market, in particular. Last year, I took a call from a client who wanted to re-sell such a print. They were under the impression it had appreciated in value since they bought it and were understandably shocked when I told them they had effectively been conned. I felt a bit brutal with my advice and suspect they did not believe me anyway.

Everyone in retail is always searching for new markets and galleries are no different. Art fairs and art platforms can potentially give you access but they are expensive to attend. Despite this, there has been an explosion of art fairs across the country in the last few years, but I’m concerned that with this has come a dilution of audience and admission standards. Art platforms are tempting but can cost a similar amount to a modest monthly retail rental. I have found that artists are looking for new markets too and are self-representing in competition with the galleries representing them.

I have decided to pursue neither art fairs nor art platforms. Instead, I am pursuing collaboration. I am a huge believer that in pooling our resources, we strengthen and extend our reach. Axle Arts has teamed up with Tasburgh House, an elegant, five-star boutique hotel in Bath and we have already held our inaugural event, an exhibition of sculpture and ceramics suitable for outdoor siting, on their terraces overlooking Bath. Inside, there was an exhibition of painting and print featuring work by Corinna Button and Sumi Perera. The exhibition ran over the first two weekends of May and we are so thrilled with the attention and support it received, we are holding another exhibition in September. Perhaps this is the way forward?

Online galleries are here to stay but I do not believe they are better or worse than the traditional model. Both have their positives and negatives and both require consistent hard work. It is more about what style suits you better and I am a keen collaborator.

Bridget Sterling

Printmaking Today Summer 2018 Printmaking Today Summer 2018 Printmaking Today Summer 2018 Printmaking Today Summer 2018

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