At the end of every semester in the professional practices course I teach, one student will inevitably ask some version of this question: “What if you don’t want your work to go over the sofa?”
This is a huge issue not just for newly emerging artists, but for artists at any stage in their careers. We want to sell. We don’t want to sell out. So beyond that specific piece of furniture, "the sofa" becomes a metaphor for any commercial transaction we feel will debase our work.
Let me ask you this: What makes a corporate atrium any different from the space above a private collector’s sofa? The work will be appreciated by some, ignored by others. I think of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, those passionate packrats who acquired so much art it was not just over the sofa but in the entryway of their modest Manhattan apartment, in the kitchen, in the bedroom and in the bathroom. They loved what they had, and they put out as much as possible so that they could live with it and enjoy it. Recently they donated their collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. --and then began to collect more!
At the other end of the scale are private collectors who acquire so much, so specifically--and often, so large--that they need to move the work into storage. Some mega-collectors acquire and rehab warehouses, which they turn into private museums. If you’ve been to Miami during the art fairs, you’ve probably visited collections belonging to the Rubell Family, Martin Margulies, the Cisneros-Fontanals Art Foundation and others. (I don't think most artists have a problem with their art being acquired by a museum, so that's not part of today's discussion.)
Still, “the sofa” looms for many artists
If that's the case, consider alternatives to the commercial gallery. Some artists include them as part of their exhibition strategy as a matter of course:
. Local or regional non-profits (guilds, societies, associations and other .org institutions) are focused on bringing culture to their constituents. They’re funded by state or federal funds—or perhaps by private donation. Advertising, a catalog and the occasional review may be part of the package here.
. Academic galleries serve the institution while providing artists a respected venue in which to exhibit. The mandate of this kind of venue is to provide educational opportunities for its constituents—the educational community, perhaps the community at large. Some such galleries draw big-name artists as well as provide opportunities for emerging artists to build their resumes. A visiting-artist gig may be part of the package here, as well as advertising, a catalog and reviews. Many academic institutions cover shipping to and from, and some offer a stipend to the artist. (A post on academic galleries is coming soon.)
. Libraries and historical associations provide an appropriately dignified setting for work. Some of these institutions have designated exhibition spaces, though many are unlikely to have curators or directors the way an institution like the New York Public Library has. If you’re enterprising, you might explore exhibition possibilities in a local library to create not only a show for yourself but a gig developing or curating small exhibitions there. A salary is unlikely, but the opportunity to become part of your art community in a curatorial way would give you experience and access that most artists don’t have.
. Co-op galleries allow the artist, who is in fact a cooperating owner of the venue, to retain a high degree of control over every aspect of the exhibition. If you choose not to sell, that's an acceptable option.
Of course you’ll need deep pockets to fund your career without selling. But maybe a 9-5 job or a teaching gig is a more appealing choice than “the sofa.” That’s fine. And, if you get good at the application process, you could conceivably support yourself in large measure through grants and residencies.
One thing is certain: Pursuing alternatives to “the sofa” requires that you be the very opposite of a couch potato. And I'm curious: What do you have hanging over your sofa?
Image from Atlas Sofas