Es Baluard, Palma. 1 June 2018
Contribution to a round table discussion with Nekane Aramburu and Tomeu Simonet.
I’m going to attempt to make a contribution from a personal perspective in order to try and understand what’s happening with non-standardised good practices in the contemporary art sector. I’m going to speak out from down in the trenches, which is where we artists are, doing the hard grind, often using alternative or peripheral workplaces and mechanisms. The issue of good practices in the art world is of great concern to me and has led me to become directly involved in the now-defunct AAVC (Association of Visual Artists of Catalonia) and more recently with the PAAC (Assembly Platform of Artists of Catalonia). So, yet again, I’m going to discuss good practices, as if time had stood still; a déjà vu situation if you will.
Why do I express it in these terms? Well, because last week this comment was posted on an artist’s Facebook wall: “I love professional galleries that ask for €1,000 to bring two artworks to a second-rate fair. We’re going wrong somewhere.”
There’s clearly something that we’re not getting right as artists. Perhaps it’s to do with not having a clear idea of what our work involves, of what our responsibility or mission is in the context of culture. Initiatives such as those implemented by the gallery in question are examples of liberal behaviour within the practice of contemporary art.
Exercising good practices is about ethics, professionalism, feelings or good will but also respect. Ambition often stifles good manners and fosters bad ones, since many of the promoters of bad practices are in fact the artists themselves.
My interest is in sharing the broad and general idea of what good professional practices are in the context of art. And this is related to the professionalism of agents in the field of culture, whether in a major public or private institution, a civic centre or a little town that employs a cultural technician to manage local exhibition venues. All culture professionals should work within a framework of good practices since otherwise they won’t be doing their job properly. However, artists (including newcomers) should also know what good professional practices are and stop believing in the “We’re going to give you visibility” cliché as an excuse to breach all sorts of rules in the artistic community.
To become competent in the art field it’s first of all necessary to understand its framework, ranging from what’s involved in the work of the museum director, the manager, the person in charge of activities, the curator, the educator, etc. to the tasks of a small-scale cultural agent, such as the culture technician of a small local council, an independent curator, a service provider or a freelance artist.
A quote displayed on several art platforms reads as follows:
Artists have sufficient competencies to produce their works or projects with means for their execution and with the capacity to manage the aforementioned productions. Without these qualities it would be impossible for them to carry out their creative work and it would be very difficult for them to enter a framework of good relations with other agents and mediators, institutions, galleries or other art venues.
This is a way of understanding art or the artist as a professional figure in the arts sector. But the arts sector is very broad and organic, composed of a wide diversity of artists. This means that the definition doesn’t work for everyone, but it does work for those who’ve decided to approach art professionally rather than on a non-vocational basis or in combination with other work.
A popular meme on social networks reads thus:
I am an artist. This does not mean I will work for free. I have bills just like you. Thank you for understanding.
And just as we’re perfectly aware of what paying bills means, we also need to be very clear about what “paying for the work” of an artist means. Many artists don’t understand what “fees” mean or the concept of charging fees. There’s a lot of disinformation about this issue and we artists are partly responsible, even if we find it a difficult issue to grasp and a rather dull one. This information is rarely provided in the academic training offered by fine arts faculties or art schools. This may be because art mediators are not particularly interested in taking responsibility for the professionalisation of artists, which doesn’t tend to be a priority in the political sector. Perhaps there’s a reluctance to have well informed artists who demand the upholding of their rights. It’s also true that the artists themselves find a lack of knowledge of such matters more convenient and easier to deal with.
Bad practices do not only involve the failure to pay artists for their work but also the breach of their right to freedom of expression. Censorship continues to occur in the art world. Just recently the MACBA (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) censored an artwork by the Austrian artist Ines Doujak that formed part of the exhibition La bestia y el soberano (The Beast and the Sovereign), curated by Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, Paul B. Preciado and Valentín Roma. This led to the resignation of Paul B. Preciado and Valentín Roma, who formed part of the MACBA team, and the departure of the museum director, Bartomeu Marí.
Meanwhile, it’s very saddening and hard to accept that one is surrounded by artists who foster, allow and take part in bad practices, creating a chaotic situation and an almost unworkable cultural fabric. There’s not a lot of coherence in this respect and I have no scruples about saying so out loud: those who interfere the most in my work are artists who are permissive of bad practices. I would like to remind them that an agreement was reached in 2008 between the various sectors of the contemporary art world (associations of museum and art centre managers, galleries, critics and the Union of Associations of Visual Artists) and the Ministry of Culture within the framework of the document on good practices in museums and art centres (31 January 2007).
Since then, we’ve drifted into unthinkable territory with walls of silence and a general lack of professionalism that have fostered the deactivation of good practices. However, in order to know and recall them we have the manual of good practices in the visual arts to refer to, which is free of charge to download.
This manual contains a list of ten best practices that can be summed up in the following three points:
- Payment of the artist for the work carried out or services provided.
- Respect of copyright.
- Standardised use of a written contract.
I recently collaborated with the PAAC (Assembly Platform of Artists of Catalonia) as team coordinator for the creation of the Observatory of Good Practices. The mission of the observatory is to diagnose and monitor the status of good practices across Catalonia. It also aims to implement actions and services related to the dissemination and protection of artists’ good professional practices.
Visitors to the website of the platform (www.paac.cat) can read about the observatory’s work, download the manual, view notifications regarding good and bad practices and gain access to standard professional documents for artists (forms for contracts, collaboration agreements, image rights assignment, purchase and sale of artworks, etc.). This highly practical information pack helps artists to clear up doubts, understand what fees are, find out about the legal framework, etc. A long list FAQs clearly set out the artist’s professional status and help with decision making in our field of work.
It also includes the following list of ten best practices:
- Respect for freedom of creation and expression.
- Upholding of the artist’s moral rights.
- Trust, loyalty and transparency.
- Dissemination of the artist’s work.
- Professional relations must be regulated by a written contract.
- Upholding of the artist’s economic rights.
- Relationship between artist and gallery.
- Payment of the artist.
- Artistic production and support for research.
The reason why I’m labouring this point is that we need to reflect more on the artistic work context, on how we work, where we’re coming from and who we’re addressing in order to make the best decisions with the goal of adopting an appropriate position in the sector and fostering a healthy framework of coexistence. As such, all contemporary art professionals are responsible for not allowing bad practices and for reporting the situations that foster them. But above all we need to be coherent, understand what the role of culture is and what it contributes in our context in order to establish a decent work space in which dialogue replaces fear or discomfort when it comes to discussing these issues.