VAN GOGH would feel for the postgraduates who try to catch the eye of dealers, collectors and critics scouting for talent at their degree shows this month. Although some students from the class of '92 will sell themselves and some of their work, most will be dismantling their display with not even a dealer's business card to show for it.
With an art market in recession, graduates are finding opportunities to climb even the first rung to success more limited. Galleries have closed and dealers still trading are often wary of taking risks with unknown talents, particularly with experimental or installation works that do not sell easily.
A postgraduate at one London college said last week that few dealers were even bothering to come. Annely Juda, a leading contemporary art dealer, who in the past has taken on a number of students on the strengths of their degree shows, senses a desperation among young artists.
However, Glynn Williams, the sculptor and a professor at the Royal College of Art, said increased difficulties had encouraged a sense of camaraderie - a move away from the intensely competitive atmosphere of the past decade when degree shows were seen as make-or-break events and artists such as Damien Hirst and Ian Davenport were snapped up by leading dealers within minutes of graduating.
Professor Williams said that students were 'generally facing the future with their peers', swapping details on possible galleries and working spaces. They were channelling some of their creative skills into finding ways to exhibit together, and chasing sponsorship. Rather than setting their sights too sharply on the market place and a fast buck, young artists were giving themselves time to experiment and make mistakes.
Although the recession has led to a large number of vacant offices and warehouses becoming available as studio and exhibition space, in a Catch-22 situation many artists find they can barely afford the time to work in them. Overheads are high. Apart from the rent, some need to hire transportation for their work and pay for framing.
The traditional way for artists to supplement incomes used to be part- time teaching in art schools: Professor Williams recalls that when he graduated, there was an 'enormous amount' of teaching work available. 'If you were willing to move around, you could do a day here, a day there.' But cuts in art school funding have meant that there are few opportunities. Nick De Ville, head of visual arts at Goldsmith's College of Art, south-east London, says graduates are seeking part-time work in art-related jobs.
Goldsmith's is particularly renowned for its students' professionalism in marketing themselves - though most of the students doing MA courses have already proven themselves with dealers. Mr De Ville encourages students to be seen at private views, to get to know dealers and their 'specialities'. But it is a slow process: he advises them 'not to make a pitch in the first five minutes. Become known and be seen to be enthusiastic about their programme'. Dragging a portfolio from one gallery to another is regarded as unprofessional. Dealers rely on recommendations and tip-offs from their network of contacts. Ms Juda said: 'It's usually the ones that approach you who are not the ones you want.' Galleries do not respond kindly to blanket mailing by students who are not au fait with their specialities.
Because exposure is so important, and the prospect of being snapped up by a dealer unlikely, a competition for art school graduates will no doubt come as welcome news. The Royal Society of British Sculptors, with funding from National Westminster Life Assurance, is today launching one. The prize is to sculpt a commissioned work. For the winner, such exposure may take him or her to the second rung of the ladder.
The rest must be patient. Professor Williams said he knew of people getting depressed, feeling neglected, and cynicism setting in.
'Anger is a terrific creative emotion. Self-pity is death,' he said. Van Gogh would have understood.
Goldsmith's College is a school of the University of London and not a college of art as it was described in an article on 14 September.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content