Photo: Simon Bills
Robin Eley is an Adelaide-based artist represented by Hill Smith Gallery. His painting, Bibliography, was a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize. Eley speaks with arts interview about the skills artists need in working with galleries and how to maintain artistic integrity in a commercial art market.
Interview by Heather Jennings
What are the challenges in working with commercial galleries?
There are practical and philosophical challenges. The first is finding a gallery that’s right for you – whose own strengths and ambitions are going to help you pursue yours. Establishing trust is one of the most important things, I have to trust the gallery I’m working with is going to provide more than just a wall to hang my work, I also have to trust their business practice is sound and my work and finances will be treated with respect. In return, I instill in them the trust that I will produce work on time and of a high standard. It’s similar to any business transaction in this respect.
One major challenge, especially in producing paintings for an exhibition, is bridging the financial gap between when you start painting for a show and when you eventually get paid. If selling work privately, you can financially move from painting to painting. But in most cases, working with a gallery means receiving chunks of money separated by long periods of nothing, which for obvious reasons is extremely stressful.
How do you balance personal relationships with business relationships?
You don’t always have to like your gallery owner to have a successful working relationship. But if you get along with your gallery owner, which I do, there’s a very good chance you will become friends. While there’s no problem with that, the area I’m careful with is managing my relationships with people who buy my work. While it’s great to meet and talk to your collectors, I feel there’s a level of respect needed towards a gallery whose client list is the foundation of their business. If a collector contacts me, then I’m more than happy to talk with or meet them, but out of respect to my gallery I don’t actively seek them out. This approach isn’t for everyone, but because I expect the gallery to treat my paintings with care and respect, I do my best to return the consideration.
How do artists balance artistic direction with the expectations of gallery representatives?
The ideal situation is finding a gallery that supports whatever direction you may wish to take your work. But it’s also important to keep in mind galleries are businesses and it’s not uncommon for a gallery to break ties when an artist’s change in direction causes a drop in sales. Personally, I would not want to be with a gallery that didn’t want my work to evolve over time. As an early career artist, it’s vital to show growth or movement in my work – although I do know that slow turns are, at this stage, more efficacious than wild swings.
Essentially it all boils down to individual choice. A gallery’s approach may work for one artist, but destroy another. The only thing you can do as an artist is always be aware of your situation. Have an eye on the future and be constantly assessing the best way to get there. If you have a plan, you are giving yourself time to change direction should you need to.