|IS CONTEMPORARY ART A MATTER OF TASTE? |
Marita Batņa, Culture Theorist
A conversation about the art market in Latvia
In continuation of the ongoing discussion about the development of a contemporary art market, Studija invited some authorities prominent on the Latvian art scene for a chat: Contemporary Art Centre Director/Curator Solvita Krese, gallery owner Ivonna Veiherte and art collector Guntis Belēvičs. The conversation started off with the question of taste. But what does this have to do with contemporary art and promotion of the contemporary art market?|
Studija: I propose that we look at the development of the contemporary art market in terms of cultivating taste. Cultural economists and sociologists have ex¬plained that the consumption of culture and the desire for art is linked to the gaining of experience. The more we get involved and the more we consume, the more we become attracted or even addicted, and our horizons are broadened. This is vital, because contemporary art requires the art consumer to possess knowledge and competence that permits him to appreciate and also value the art.
Guntis Belēvičs: I believe that contemporary art does many things, but it does not cultivate taste! It makes us find out, to expand our horizons, perhaps it annoys us, but I doubt whether it develops taste. What do you mean by the word “taste”?
Studija: For me “taste” is the ability to recognise the value of something. If we have that, we are not afraid to take a risk and enquire further about the nature of con-temporary art.
G.B.: Perhaps in one aspect it does cultivate taste by allowing us to look at classic art through the prism of contemporary art knowledge. From a collector’s viewpoint, it is much harder to collect Latvian contemporary art than classic art, which has stood the test of time and where it is clear as to what the true values are. Contemporary art has not been categorised to the same extent, and there aren’t any opinions on which to base judgements. Gallery owners ought to be my advisers on contemporary art issues, but we are often in the situation where a young and – hopefully – talented artist organises an exhibition in one gallery, then a month later holds another one in a different gallery. The artist has no idea of the huge role that the gallery should play in promoting his art. There are of course other opinion leaders – art historians, critics, gallery owners. But a gallerist spends more time with artworks and therefore deeper impressions may develop, in addition the gallery owner must have a knack for exchanging an artwork for its equivalent in cash.
Solvita Krese: Returning to the original proposition of defining taste, I think this can be applied to the 19th century concept, when beauty was one of the main criteria of art. But what processes have taken place in contemporary art? It has at times consciously tried to be provocative, shameless, to depict things that cause disgust in order to reveal its message. Often art has distanced itself from the object, becoming a situation, a performance or a gesture conceptualising an idea. Art collecting has undoubtedly developed, to the point where even performances are collected. However, I don’t think that this is typical, because throughout the ages collectors have been oriented towards art as a product and the aspect of materiality has been very important to the collector.
Studija: As regards this development it can be seen that over the last decade it has sharply increased throughout the world! Ways of collecting are being sought, and institutional activities and collecting have grown hand in hand. It is sometimes said that the art market has replaced the history of art. At the same time, the person who gets involved in the art market has a huge range of choice, room for manoeuvre and, I would like to say – even creative possibilities.
G.B.: The Latvian art market is characterised by many artists yet very few collectors. Not every art buyer is a collector. The collector educates himself and keeps up with artistic trends. The reason for this is that there was a rup¬ture of 50 years in art collecting during the Soviet era. A national bourgeoisie still hasn’t developed, there isn’t a sufficiently large wealthy class with an interest in art. So that’s why there are very few people who can play the traditional collector’s role of channelling significant resources to create art collections, sponsoring artists and museums and promoting the development of art. But do we have contemporary art in Latvia, and how does it fit into the global context?
Ivonna Veiherte: In the global context, there are definitely some painters deserving international attention, because there really is a lack of genuine collectors in Latvia. Other media are very active, but in reality it is difficult make your mark by being truly original. With regard to taste, naturally contemporary art frequently provokes and creates completely new aesthetic criteria – if by taste we mean some “refined” ability to perceive, an inborn or acquired body of knowledge, ethical notions, a balance between the traditional divisions between good and evil, or the relationship between beauty and ugliness. Another aspect which I personally find perplexing in contemporary art is the prevalence of deficiency in basic professionalism, and the attempts to cover this up with a concept. In Latvia today, it is possible to sell all manner of things with the excuse that it is modern, because people are afraid of being considered “provincial” if they don’t understand some half-baked attempt. This is exactly when it becomes critical to understand what is valuable, and personal taste is of importance if it helps to distinguish these often subtle differences. Of course there aren’t many collectors in Latvia and the same few are cautious, but that doesn’t matter! Galleries too educate collectors and the public. How do we cultivate so-called taste? Cultural traditions are what they are, schools are declining and there is an absence of real personalities. For example, once upon a time we were very proud of our painting. Now the Visual Communications Department at the Art Academy is becoming increasingly more active and interesting. But it takes more than just the choice of expressive form to make something contemporary. For example, in the search for good new painting in the Baltic States we have unexpectedly found an interesting Lithuanian painter, for whom we have exhibited a wonderful video and also some “objects.”
Studija: So, thinking about today and assuming that gallerists, curators and critics shape opinions and knowledge about art – how can we find common ground?
G.B.: In this regard, of course, collectors read reviews and attend exhibitions presented by curators. This all has its significance, but from the collector’s viewpoint, at that moment when he has to make a choice – to buy or not to buy a work – the role of the gallerist is crucial. Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but I think that critics in Latvia have divided up the playing field: each has picked out some artists and then the others are afraid of commenting on them. There is a lack of discussion and I don’t have the opportunity to make a fully informed judgement. No one besides ourselves will buy Latvian art, but if there are galleries capable of taking artworks abroad and comparing how we look in relation to other countries, then such galleries are deserving of esteem and these are the gallery owners whose opinions I take note of.
Studija: There aren’t many galleries like that in Latvia – they are developing, but we need to understand that galleries need a sound base in order to be successful. Perhaps the close cooperation between artists and galleries is also hindered by the absence of a contemporary art tradition. Building this up requires a lot of boldness and initiative, with no guarantee of success. Financial resources are necessary.
G.B.: I have a different view of this: it is possible that gallery owners are reluctant, or perhaps artists aren’t ready to work with galleries on the basis of firm contracts. Nobody is going to invest money into making someone a star if some other gallery is going to reap the rewards.
I.V.: Based on my extensive experience, I have come to the practical conclusion that it’s like being in a family, and the gallerist invests a great deal in the artist. Some of them give me reason to hope that they won’t go off seeking their fortunes elsewhere. The gallery as an agency also has duties: to take the artist’s works to art fairs, to promote them. In reality, for a variety of considerations, there aren’t many artists I would like to “retain” in my gallery. Latvia is not enough for us, so we look further afield – throughout the Baltic States. Working with artists as living, ambitious people is also an intuitive process, requiring both personal and professional maturity. And no contract will ever help us if we cannot work together successfully.
Studija: (to Solvita Krese) What is your assessment of the Latvian gallery landscape and how does it compare with what is going on in artistic trends?
S.K.: Undoubtedly, the institutional and art market environments interact with each other. When I am asked the question “what is contemporary art?”, I tend to answer that it is art as a form of thinking. I am less interested in technical, craftsmanship abilities than in conceptual thought and the ability of art to reflect its time or period. In terms of the gallery sector, I think that the problem is Latvia’s relatively small size. The range of galleries is not as great as in some major European cities, where galleries operate in both traditional and alternative fields. I am pleased by the emergence of a gallery like Supernova which is pursuing a programme previously unseen in Riga’s galleries. On the whole, it seems that galleries have to work extremely hard to enter the international market, especially taking into account that there aren’t many collectors who focus on contemporary art. It must be said that recently Latvian galleries have become more active in this regard.
Studija: Of late “the new” has started appearing in galleries, and this presents certain requirements to develop. Isn’t there a potential risk that Latvia’s most active artists will go out into the international arena? That Latvia will be excluded from these artists being represented at gallery level, and perhaps we may lose them?
G.B.: Any artist that makes it onto the world stage isn’t lost to Latvia, but rather is a huge asset. I would love to purchase a work by every young Latvian artist who has been recognised at international level, even though it may have to be from the gallery abroad with which he or she has a contract.
S.K.: I think that currently far too few Latvian artists are active internationally – there should be a lot more of them. I don’t think that an artist who goes out into the world is a loss to the local market. Each such case heightens Latvia’s visibility. The problem is that occasionally those artists return home and want to show their achieve¬ments, and they can’t do that because of the shortage of suitable exhibition spaces and financial resources.
Studija: Despite the economic crisis, we have good prospects. We can hope to highlight contemporary art as they have done in Vilnius, because in 2014 we have been promised a Contemporary Art Museum, and Riga will be the European Capital of Culture.
G.B.: If only it were to be so. It’s even more important to bring world-class art to Latvia, than to send works by Latvian artists to other countries. We don’t really have a place for the spirit of contemporary art to truly express itself. What’s the point in all of this activity in contemporary art if we don’t have a space to exhibit it? At present this is a huge omission.
I.V.: A museum if definitely needed, but I must em¬phasise that right now galleries are doing what people expect from a museum of art: they are places where people can discover present-day art, which may be more or less contemporary and for all kinds of tastes. These galleries should be valued, because unlike state institutions we present this to the public for free and maintain exhibition halls at our own expense. And we also present Latvian culture abroad. So it would only be normal if the enormous contribution made by galleries was acknowledged.
G.B.: Even if we will have a museum, we will still need suitable gallery spaces to show contemporary art. A museum will have its own policies and path, but even this is too little. World-class works will not be brought here either, if there isn’t a hope that someone will buy them. Our current situation boils down to the fact that there are neither buyers nor spaces to exhibit art.
Studija: Getting back to the issue of taste, we can observe certain trends in society – there is a sense that the creative industries are experiencing “euphoria.” The link with art can be found at the lifestyle level – this is an area where industries are successfully attracting an audience. For example, the White Night is associated with this linkage: can a party as an expression of lifestyle create an environment and processes in which someone can take a deeper interest in art?
S.K.: In preparing the programme for this year’s White Night, we followed the strategy of the Contemporary Art Centre of bringing art closer to what is happening here and now. That’s why we chose the “survival set,” trying to integrate an analytical or even critical function into art. Although this too can be classified as a product of the entertainment industry, I would say that we actually went against the logic of the creative industries, if by this we understand cultural activities that are manufactured and consumable. We tried to show that artists are part of society and that every individual possesses creative potential. Rising to the challenge of the times we live in, we tried to dream up a micro-utopia using minimal resources, working within the limits of the concrete situation, and to positively transform the city for one night.
G.B.: The only problem with the White Night is that there is just the one. There is too little of this sort of fun as regards contemporary art. It is interesting that in England, the home of football, people visit contemporary art galleries in greater numbers than football matches. In England you can get shocked by art every day. We also need to have lots of galleries, and I am pleased whenever a new one opens. Exchanges of views and parties must take place more regularly, in fact non-stop. But you need art around which to base the get-together. Where everyone can go to get shocked and upset: interested viewers, critics, collectors, even those who are indifferent.
I.V.: Actually we cannot complain about the following and interest in art on the part of educated people. It is the gallerist’s job to generate interest. For example, a person who has collected old masters may see a work which he or she cannot initially understand, but once I explain why I have exhibited it, they begin to think. If previously the person has found good things in the gallery which they understand, then maybe this can also be considered to be “something good,” and they can become used to it.
Studija: There are many collections competing for attention from galleries, museums and so on – what does it take to attract your attention (to Guntis Belēvičs)?
G.B.: The fact that there is a good artist involved, and a discussion. You can’t devote time to everything. The opinions of competent people matter to me, and it is important who does the inviting and who is invited. I have a set rank of institutions, for example an exhibition at the National Art Museum is a high priority for me. I also make a point of attending galleries that have proven to be ex¬cellent sources for my collection. There needs to be a good reason for me to make the trip to a fourth or fifth gallery. You can collect contemporary art without money, but you can’t do it without another resource – time! The advantage of collecting contemporary art is that you can meet the artists in person, because they are still alive. You can spend time with them and get to know their art through contact with them. You have to find a golden mean. As far as our young artists are concerned, I must confess that it’s hard to decide. From the standpoint of material investment – and this aspect is always present – it may be better to wait and pay a bit more later on, than to encumber yourself with works which don’t add much to the collection. Because the thrill is not from buying yet another work, but finding the pearl that was missing from the necklace. People who have spent a lot of time with me discussing art, including gallery owners, know what to me is a pearl. They know what I need, and they are my advisors on contemporary art. With regard to a work by a present-day artist, I firstly need to understand his place in the general context of contemporary art. Art collecting is a process of self-education, and it is very expensive in terms of investing time. It is much more difficult to collect contemporary art than classic art because the forms of contemporary art – sound, installations, ready-made objects and spatial creations – must be preserved, and this places particular demands on the collection.
Studija: But the first step in this long process could be supporting art, and we could learn from this.
G.B.: Of course, through collecting you gradually come to the realisation that what matters is the process, not what you personally own. I should think that collectors would be happy to support the formation of a national collection, for example.
Studija: In any event, supporting art is an area where institutions, gallery owners and collectors can cooperate.
I.V.: Support takes various forms. We gallerists do it by holding exhibitions and hence giving artists work. We also make an effort to educate the public and develop its taste, and to show potentially interested parties that they can deepen their understanding and make progress over time in this respect. On the whole, it is the galleries that, using their owners’ resources, maintain the artistic process!
G.B.: There can be a situation where an artist has medical problems, and their health or even life may depend on a certain amount of money. Then you buy their art. You may also pay the expenses for a young artist to hold an exhibition, or publish a catalogue. But there isn’t enough money for everything! We have collectors who support artists who really are artists. Unselfishly. Or only just slightly selfishly!
S.K.: I would like to add that in this sphere we are directly supporting the artistic process. When we invite artists to exhibitions, we find funding so that they can create new works. Afterwards, it gives me great satisfaction if one of these works moves on into the art market, at local or international exhibitions.
Studija: Do you consider that the centre is the first stage in the process of an artist moving out wider afield?
S.K.: It is hard to tell what the first or the last stages are. I think we are more interested in the birth – if we were to take student exhibitions as the “conception”. We constantly watch what the Academy of Art students are doing to see if there are any new stars in the artistic sky, and we’re also interested in very young artists, the ones where we don’t know whether they will succeed or not. Then, if an idea is interesting, we can produce it. I believe that about 20% of those receiving diplomas have what it takes to attract our attention, who we would be prepared to push, investing time and spending money.
G.B.: Whose job is it to teach young artists how to “filter” their work as to what to show to the public? Such a filter has to be innate within the artist.
S.K.: It should be, but it is difficult for artists to be self-critical. They have to see the context in order to understand what their role is, but many artists – and this is typical in Latvia – aren’t interested in this context.
G.B.: Every work also has its price. Naturally, artists must support themselves with their art. At the same time, it is better for a young artist to be hungry – so that he has to work constantly. When setting the price of a work, the artist should keep in mind that the collector has the op¬portunity to choose, and young artists are in competition with the classics: the works by Leo Svempe, Eduards Kalniņš, Boris Bērziņš and suchlike. The important thing in contemporary art is the idea rather than the material, form or technique, and the artist doesn’t have to create the work with his or her own hands. So show me the idea, and let the price compete with what are already established values! Whether it will become valuable or not, I don’t know, but if it does, I’ll buy it in 20 years’ time. Collectors are also affected by the fact that a collection is in constant flux. There are things to which you can say no for the sake of acquiring a good new work of art. The value of art must be fully convertible: I could sell a good work by Pauļuks immediately, and these are the works that the crisis is flushing out – their prices haven’t dropped at all. But try auctioning a work by a young artist today for which you impulsively shelled out 1,000 lats a year ago!
I.V.: Gallery owners also have trouble setting prices. In many cases, artists start asking for too much in the light of some apparent successes.
G.B.: It must be admitted that the prices of works by many artists were inappropriate; now they have fallen – which is a very good thing, in my view. It takes a lot of work to make it internationally, and artists can only achieve this by cooperating with galleries. Or otherwise – to go and study somewhere else, and get a more detached perspective on the “small pond” that is Latvia. I am hoping that the crisis will be a turning point which will open up huge possibilities for everyone and many things will be put into order. I hope that there will be an emergence of “crisis art” in Latvia, and that later art historians will then be able to describe it. Our potential is tremendous.
Solvita Krese – contemporary art projects curator and head of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art since its establishment in 2000. One of her most recent projects was the contemporary culture forum White Night held on 12-19 September, 2009, in collaboration with the Riga City Council.
Ivonna Veiherte – art historian and gallery owner; has been running the Ivonna Veiherte Art Gallery for over a decade, and established Gallery 21 in 2008. On 19-22 August, 2009, the Ivonna Veiherte Art Gallery took part in the India Art Summit (New Delhi) art fair, an event that gained a wide following in the international art market.
Guntis Belēvičs – Doctor of Biology, entrepreneur and a collector of Latvian art for 15 years. An exhibition of the collection Classics of Latvian Art was held from 7 September to 5 October, 2008, at the Latvian National Art Museum, and an exhibition of the other half of the collection – contemporary art – will be held in the Arsenāls exhibition hall in spring 2011.
/Translator into English: Filips Birzulis/