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Commercial Art Galleries : Role ,Function and interest served in the Jamaican Fine Art Space

Kingston, Jamaica (McKoy’s News)Commercial Art Galleries: On Saturday,  June 3, 2017, it was the annual final year show for fine art students of Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. As one ponders on the impact of this year artist regarding their connect with the consumers and art connoisseurs, it dawns on me that the creators rarely benefitted.  It has infuriated me at times that like the music industry the work of the creative elements in our society is exploited down the supply chain, more notably by private/commercial galleries.

In Jamaica the modus operandi of commercial art galleries is no different than anywhere except for one undeniable fact – the artists are mostly black Jamaicans but the galleries are owned and controlled by ethnic minorities. Perhaps you are wondering why am I raising that issue. I am merely drawing attention to an odd situation but one which is the result of the colonization experience and partly cultural.  Do not get me wrong, we are not talking race here, rather we will be looking at what these institutions do and their role with respect to power relations in the postcolonial era which defines Jamaica and its culture and socio- economic realities.

In Jamaica many professional artists who seek to sell their works and to make themselves known on the fine art scene engage with the few commercial galleries in the island to display and sell their artistic creations. Jamaica paradoxically in its usual post-colonial and hegemonic mode finds that galleries are owned by the wealthy and ethnically minority. This has been the situation from the 1950’s until now. Nothing has changed and nothing will change for the foreseeable future.  Fine art and its appreciation were initially a fixture of the “cultivated class”- those with social capital and those drawn to Euro culture and galleries earlier served the minority interest.  I guess the masses were more inclined to settle with figurines and lithographs.  One can, therefore, ask,” whose interest do galleries serve?”. In our economic system of free enterprise, the market determines supply and demand and unencumbered by the government the owners of capital such as galleries and attendant financial capital will influence prices of created artwork. Galleries like any other serious business operate in this economic model.

The statistics to date show that in Jamaica there are only two significant  galleries owned by black Jamaicans – Rosie Chung’ Studio 174, downtown Kingston and  Barrington Watson’s gallery, “Gallery Barrington Ltd.”   Rosie is a former department head at Edna Manley College and  Barrington created his own gallery solely for his own work.   Pat Ramsay’s  operated  Mutual Gallery which was the premier commercial gallery is no longer in existence since 2013. These two galleries are also galleries owned by artists- Barrington Watson  ( now deceased) is one of the island’s leading artist /painter and Rosie, a former departmental head at Edna Manley College, the island’s premier fine art and art education institute. While it is not my prerogative to assess why this is so, we cannot push aside people’s  empowerment if an industry in which the creators create while commerce and merchandising are by those who have no input in the creativity and talent expression. And this is the problem. When others own and control the artist’s work do they have the best interest of the creators? I have spoken to many artists and they have complained bitterly that while commercial galleries provide a space they preferred to make their works available to the public by direct marketing. Many have lost works which cannot be accounted for in galleries. I wish to cite an example of a work I bought innocently being not aware that the work was undervalued.

In 1996, Mutual Gallery saw the exit of the greatest promoter of Jamaican  Art, the Hon. Pat Ramsay.  That year the new curator offered me a Christopher Gonzalez work titled “The Three Faces” at  $12,000. About two years later I called Gonzalez  (now deceased) and asked for his advice as to the value of the work. I was shocked when he told me that he was astonished as to the price that was paid for his painting. I could discern that he was “cut up”  at how paintings were valued, actually devalued. Taken aback, I became suspicious from then on of commercial art galleries – they could and would manipulate prices by not only market forces but perhaps with biased delight.  Well, the Gonzalez painting was my gain and someone’s else loss.  I as a mere art consumer had benefitted from what was tantamount to a close out sale because the new face of Mutual Gallery (now defunct)  wanted to rid itself of excess and what it saw as unattractive inventory. It left a bad taste in my mouth however at how commercial art galleries function – effort and promotion l to push some artists works and  No wonder many artists hate these gallery owners. In simple language, the Jamaican art is hustled by enterprising business class. So we are left to our opinions but galleries are the face of capitalism and so sellers, creators, and consumers know what they are getting into.

Artists from a different genre, different backgrounds, and different classes have complained over the years since Jamaican art has become a recognizable national creation of the manipulation of their creation in conspirational economic forces of demand and supply.  The art public will therefore not be able to see numerous pieces of works by some Jamaican artists in a public space  Yes, the National Gallery provides space for all who are worthy producers and even it has its critics.  But this article is focussing on commercial galleries. I have even seen confrontational situations between artists and gallery owners.  So let us look at what these galleries do.

What are the roles and functions of commercial art galleries?

Galleries are the link between artists and art consumers. Their main function is to promote artists and their works. This is done by way of the periodical exhibition, sometimes monthly at which the works of the artist or group of artists are displayed and sold.  Most commercial art galleries charge 30 to 40 percent commission from sales of the artists work. This is heresy to many artists as to charge four tenths of the selling price is seen as exploitative. Unfortunately, galleries do not see it this way- they believe that they are using their social capital, marketing services, and financial capital and networking ability to get the works to the consumers.

New artists dream of exhibiting their artworks at galleries because it is one way to start building their career and gaining exposure.  Art lovers and enthusiasts visit art galleries and examine the exhibited art pieces. If the artwork is good, it will gain recognition and there will be a possibility that the artist will be well known. The examining of artworks is most beneficial for debutant exhibitors.

Artists by exhibiting their works can be exposed to critique and criticism. This coming from those who attend the gallery space is good for the artists.  It allows them to improve their talents and improve their skills. I recall pointing out the flaws in anatomical execution by a well known Linstead based artist at an exhibition in the 1980’s at Mutual Life Gallery. The artist went back home to improve his skills and in the 2000’s I was the beneficiary of one his great creations – an expressionist/surrealist depiction of the flat bridge environment which I subsequently sold and now hangs in Kris An Charles Investment  Co. Ltd as on of their major artwork.

In recent years some galleries have provided the space and time for artists to discuss their works, experience, and techniques to art lovers and art aficionados. Commercial art galleries like Mutual Gallery has to be given credit for this. I am not aware of any others. If they provide this service they are in fact copy cats.

Commercial art galleries in Kingston provide appraisals. Works can be valued and appraised by the galleries and give owners of artwork a formal value of their works.  Of course, there can be subjective involvement but overall galleries do give a fair value for works when contracted by clients.

The last function I want to highlight is that galleries provide a platform for owners of artwork to sell on their behalf. Since galleries are organized and continuous businesses they offer the service of commerce. Works sold on behalf of clients attract a commission and this is in sync with that charged by the galleries for works on exhibition.

Commercial art galleries in our island may not be seen as the best representatives for the creators of contemporary art as a result of existing power relations.  This is a prominent view especially for those of us who are racially sensitive and socio-culturally engaged.  People see through the lens of class, colour and ethnicity in our complex tension filled society, more sensitive in the creative industries. Hegemony in  the Jamaican post-colonial society has placed ownership,  control, power, and influence in a particular segment of the society and galleries served their interest but as a face of Commerce and modern capitalism they assist  the artists in promoting and selling their creations; they offer a platform for exposure, recognition, and appreciation of their works  and they provide income for those whose livelihood depends on artistic talent.  How helpful they are, how negative or positive they depend on which side of the art and socio-cultural spectrum you are.

Contributed by: Winston Donald,   Fine Art columnist and Art collector.

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