During the 1960s, dock closures left East London riddled with derelict buildings, which became relatively cheap places for artists to install their studios in. The art scene then began to thrive. A number of galleries opened, attracting dealers, collectors, artists and art students.
Today, London’s East end counts more than 200 art galleries but that is a lot less than there were a couple of years ago. With the recession, the gentrification phenomenon and spiralling property prices, the art scene has progressively moved from the East to the West end of the city. But given the prices of rent, studios, painting materials and with increasing competition which makes finding a gallery more complicated, artists seem to struggle a whole lot more than before.
Christine Watson, 57-year-old artist, gives art classes part time in order to support her paintings. “That way I am not entirely dependent on my art, because the balance of making art and living out of it is a really difficult one,” she says.
When she did her masters in London in 1981 she says she was lucky there where no fees for art school, it was easy to get a part time job and studios were cheap. “Accommodation was particularly cheap in Dalston, I used to have a flat there, which now I could not afford. It’s gotten worse and worse,” she says.
Now she lives away from the city centre and has her art studio in her garden. She also says it is now harder than before to get a gallery to exhibit your work. “There are less opportunities than when I first started. Galleries are playing safe now, there are more cautious than before,” she adds.
Christine Watson explains group exhibitions are a good alternative, allowing artists to share exhibiting costs. “Getting a gallery to exhibit your work is hard, really hard. And hiring a venue is really expensive, unless you go for a group exhibition,” she says.
“Group exhibitions are a good way to get your work out there, easier, spread the costs and you don’t have to always be there to run the gallery. But the danger is being with people that don’t have the same ambition as you,” she says.
Angela Morris-Winmill, 46-year-old artist, also based in London adds that not only is it hard to find a gallery that accepts to show your art, it is also difficult to find one that won’t make you pay a fee for showing your work.
She explains she once had to turn down a gallery that invited her to exhibit her work but that wanted her to pay a fee. She had to decline the offer, because she simply could not afford it. She also was told to never exhibit her art in a gallery that makes charge artists an exhibition fee. “Galleries should be inviting you because they like your work and expect to sell it,” she says.
Angela Morris-Winmill says the costs of being an artist escalate quickly. “You can’t say I’ll sell x paintings and it will cover the costs,” she explains.
To avoid galleries taking high commissions, artists can also hire their own venue and be in charge of exhibiting their own art. But that comes with a cost. In order to finance the expenses of a self-exhibit Angela Morris-Winmill has just launched a crowd-funding page to hire a venue and put on her own art show.
The aim of the campaign is to achieve the goal of raising £1,500, just enough to hire the space, buy the painting materials and print out flyers. “The £1,500 goal was the bare minimum I needed to cover the costs of canvases, ceramic, porcelain, firing, gallery hire, electricity, plaster, clay, drinks for the opening night and flyers,” she says.
Martin Ferniot, 22-year-old Fine Art BA student at Central Saint Martins, says that the price of the art materials he needs to buy amounts to around £600 a year, yet far from the cost of the raw material for an independent artist. But he adds: “What is beautiful in the art is its simplicity. A pencil and sheets can be enough for a year”.
Matthew Theobald, painter in London says it’s not really a struggle to be an artist in the city, but later admits he doesn’t always sell art during exhibitions and, some galleries in London he’s worked with, can take up to 45 per cent commission on the art sold. He even says some places like the Islington Art Factory charge £300 in fees.
However, he argues it is always interesting to get your work out in new places. “Some exhibitions I don’t sell any at all, but the show is still enjoyable and you get the chance to meet interested people at private views,” he says.
In 1993, Christine Watson started to exhibit her work at Gallery K in London, she explains the gallery took a 50% commission but the director was actively selling her art and was definitely worth it.
“People often wonder where the high art prices come from, but with a 50% commission, the price of framing and catalogue it escalates quite quickly,” she says.
If making it as an artist already seems difficult on its own, in terms of talent, recognition, and competition, the situation for artists in London has become even tougher due to the rise of rent prices, the massive competition and the art galleries’ reluctance to take risks.