Spaces around the world

Through working on Art Licks, I am in regular dialogue with artists in the UK and acutely aware of how local issues effect their practices emotionally, financially and practically. As current political and social issues become uncertain and we find ourselves in unstable times, it is healthy to remind ourselves of cultures outside of our own bubble and be inspired by how artists working across the world deal with daily problems and make their own opportunities. With this in mind, I have considered the lives of artists across three cities very different to London, where I live: Manila, Philippines; Athens, Greece; and Bogotá, Colombia.

I have spoken with friends and colleagues who have a good perspective of how local artists operate and what challenges they face. For each, I asked:

  • What are the local issues artists in this city are facing today?
  • What are the political / social / contextual causes for these?
  • How are artists finding ways around these issues?
  • What types of spaces are artists occupying?
  • What is the gallery structure in the city? Is it predominantly market-led, is there a large artist-led / self-organising scene?
  • How do artists earn money?
  • What key questions should artists be asking?

It was interesting to find issues particular to the social context and culture of a place, and those that are universal; offering both something to learn from and points for shared discussion and exchange.

Manila, Phillippines

Artnet recently reported the top 30 artists across the world that had successfully survived the art world crash and 2008 recession: in nineteenth place was Filipino artist, Jigger Cruz . This exemplifies the transformation of the Filipino arts in recent years, in particular in Manila.

A huge number of commercial galleries have emerged in Manila, which now has a burgeoning art market, and has become a place where artists are finally managing to make a career. However, there are still challenges and issues that its artists face, in particular the insularity of the city, the disparity in wealth, and a lack of government support. I discussed the complexities of the city with artist Pio Abad, who is from Manila and now lives in London.

Pio Abad, COUNTERNARRATIVES, Unique acid dye print on silk twill, 100 x 200 cm, 2017
Pio Abad, COUNTERNARRATIVES, Unique acid dye print on silk twill, 100 x 200 cm, 2017

Manila is often held back by its own internal politics. Artists working in Manila can find it hard to see beyond local conditions, and the work they produce suffers from this: it creates a conservative market and stops the city from feeling energised. Although it hasn’t happened yet, Pio is worried that the increasingly authoritarian government may begin to introduce censorship.

Alongside this, Manila has desperately poor people living in close proximity with those with extreme wealth. This disparity breeds much resentment across society: living in Manila is hard for those without higher than average income levels. Within the arts, there is therefore often a vast economic imbalance between artist and collector: unlike in many other cities around the world, Manila’s established artists aren’t often from relatively privileged backgrounds.

There is also a striking lack of state support for the arts in Manila – in terms of space, amenities, funding ¬– and support usually comes from private money. There is one state-funded grants programme, the National Commission for Culture in the Arts, which works as a reimbursement scheme: you have to have money upfront to carry out your proposed project before being reimbursed on completion. This means that most artists cannot apply for the grant and must rely on private wealth to survive or make work. If you don’t have your own money you are dependent on those who do, mirroring the wider issue of social resentment within Manileño culture, and perhaps limiting artistic expression to those who can get support.

It’s undeniable that there is an economically healthy art market in Manila: the gallery scene is mainly commercial with wealthy families owning the city’s museums and art collections. Alongside this, a strong independent scene has started to grow in the last fifteen years or so, such as the artist-run space Green Papaya. Some universities now have gallery spaces too.

Space in the city is hard to come by. Artists traditionally work from home: there is no history of artists occupying old industrial spaces, for example, as in London. Recently, artists have begun to move to the outskirts of Manila to find affordable space and set up projects. The most successful artists have always had large homes (with studios) out of the centre. But some galleries are now beginning to work in industrial and other spaces in the city centre that have been privately developed.

It is hard to understand how artists are facing these challenges. Innovation in practice tends to be dictated by the market, and so can be risk-averse in what it will support. The younger generation of Filipino artists knows what the market wants, but there is a worry that they merely replicate this formula for success, allowing the commercial market to flourish. It might be difficult to comprehend for artists in the UK, but this replication is not much of a problem in the way people consider this work. As Pio said, ‘Filipinos are really good at mimicking.’ There isn’t a premium on originality.

Due to its growing international presence, there are growing opportunities for Manila-based artists, and more visitors bring more varied conversations. There are good writers and scholars in Manila, but there are no specialist art publications or magazines.

Pio feels that artists should be asking more questions about the structures responsible for Manila’s problems and avoid the more sensationalist stories: a drive towards understanding complexity and a sober understanding of why things happen the way they do in order to make a change in their circumstances.

Manila is a city of high contrast, but it cannot be denied that there is a thriving art scene, now more than ever before, so certain things are clearly working. The non-commercial gallery scene is developing, there is a real ambition to take work out of Manila, and private support does exist. As much as social conditions in the city may feel dystopian, there are people and initiatives that are trying to address things that are holding society back: as Pio explained, ‘that is when art can really be transformative’.

Athens, Greece

To explore the issues that artists practicing in Athens face today, I spoke with artist Sofia Stevi from Athens, who ran a project space in her apartment called Fokidos.

Adriana Ciudad, Where the soul enjoys in eternity, 2018, oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm
Adriana Ciudad, Where the soul enjoys in eternity, 2018, oil on canvas, 120 x 160 cm

Greece suffered terribly from the 2008 crash and subsequent recession, and in more recent times has been caught up in the international refugee crisis. Athens is facing huge change in the way it functions and behaves. Sofia describes how, ‘as an artist, the major issues I face are around the anxieties and violence that has been created by fear, which I witness in a wider context but also in everyday life in the city. This is the result of decades of corrupt governments, of so many years of financial crisis that brought people to their knees, of low-quality populist mass media, and of unhappy citizens.’

Working as a contemporary artist in Athens is challenging: it is a city so aware of its past that it does not give much attention to its present. The state appears only aware of its classical history, and its interest in culture stops there. Like Manila, there is a lack of public funding for the arts in Athens, and the state takes little responsibility for contemporary art. However, there are private institutions that fill some of these gaps, so the arts are again reliant on private wealth and patronage.

The art market in Greece is small and its galleries were hit badly by the financial crisis, but there is a resurgent commercial scene. There is also a large artist-led scene, with many spaces set up during the financial crisis, but these are hard to financially sustain without any public support that could offer better structures and tax exemptions.

‘As an artist, you have to create opportunities for yourself and be positive’, says Sofia, ‘I think many of the challenges that artists are facing here are also universal. Our whole world is going through tough times: we are travelling fast into a very conservative era.’

Like many other European cities, most artists in Athens have set up studios in their homes, or in old industrial or commercial spaces: these are self-organised as there is a lack of formal studio space. Since so many Athenians use Airbnb for income, many artists have had to move out as rents have been put up, catering to visitors and an expanding tourist industry.

If an artist in Athens is lucky, they might get by on occasional sales, family support, and a scarce second job. There are a handful of private organisations that offer some grants but these are very competitive.

In Athens, artists have to find a way for themselves. Through conversation, concentration and cooperation they get things get done, but many try to travel to create a network of support beyond Greece. You have to stay positive and persevere.

Bogotá, Colombia

I have more of a personal relationship with Bogotá as last year I took part in a curatorial residency with FLORA ars + natura. As a result of the residency I produced issue 21 of Art Licks magazine with artists and writers from both Bogotá and Medellín.

In recent years Bogotá has found itself under the media spotlight, presented as the emerging new art city – the place to invest in. However, much of this is not reflective of reality, as José Roca discussed in his interview in Art Licks magazine: ‘I think this so-called boom, is a boom – if anything ¬– of visibility, not a boom of production. So what has happened is that before, people didn’t come here as the country was associated with violence, but now that veil has been lifted, people come and they see a very mature scene that is composed of many layers of artists … if we had had more visibility from the get-go then people would be discovering the younger artists, and Beatriz González and Óscar Muñoz would already be household names. ’ Despite this, the attention Bogotá received has meant that more galleries have opened up in the city and an international dialogue has grown.

For this article, I spoke with artist Adriana Ciudad, and Tatiana Rais, curator from Bogotá who runs the project, Espacio Odeón. It seems that not much has changed since I was in residence, and still the major concerns are around space, finance and state support.

Despite there being more galleries in the city over the last two years, the scene is still fairly conservative and lacks spaces that offer support for artists to really experiment with their work and take risks. Bogotá needs more non-commercial, institutional spaces to directly commission arts projects. There are a few galleries beginning to work with their artists on projects that are not strictly commercial, but this is very limited. Currently, few institutional spaces are creating opportunities for young artists except for NC-arte and Espacio Odeón that both support experimental and explorative practices.

The art scene in Bogotá is predominantly market-led, with a lot of commercial galleries in the city. There are also a few that have established dynamic curatorial programmes, who have more of a dialogue between artists of different generations and disciplines, such as Liberia or Instituto de Visión, and SGR who invite artists to make site-specific work. But the scene is still small, which brings problems of insularity: everybody knows each other and you have to be careful whom you might upset. Public criticism and art writing is uncommon in the city.

The art market in Colombia is conservative. As in many markets, buyers tend not to favour risk-taking, preferring to back proven successes. Experimental practices are unlikely to find support, and although the market is growing, it does mean that some younger artists might compromise their work to fit within what the market appears to demand. However, ARTBO, Bogotá’s annual art fair, runs a section for artists without gallery representation called Artecámara, allowing artists to gain more visibility. There are two residency prizes given to selected participating artists.

There are some state grants, such as Estímulos, and private grants and prizes for artists, such as Premio Luis Caballero, and Colsanita. Self-organised spaces and projects can apply for government and international grants. Grants are competitive, and financial support from private foundations, companies or patrons is difficult for artists to access. A lot of artists therefore apply to international grants and residency programmes. Artists working with an institution or gallery will be paid for commissions and sales, but on the whole it is hard to make a living as an early-career artist in Bogotá.

Colombian artists have always lacked state support: as a result there is an established artist-run and independent scene in the city. Artists have learnt to adapt and be flexible, being producer, curator and gallerist. Historically, this dates back to the 1980s and ’90s, with spaces like El Bodegón, and key contemporary spaces include MIAMI, CARNE, and Más Allá.

There is not much dedicated studio space in the city. Most artists either work from home, or gravitate to studios in San Felipe, but here the studios are in old houses where the spaces are small (13 to 20m2) and cost from 700,000 to 1,000,000 Colombian pesos a month. Adriana explained the difficulties she faced when wanting to work on a larger scale: increasing her canvases would mean investing at least 2,000,000 pesos for a larger studio space. During my residency a lot of the work I saw was on a smaller scale, and media that suits working in smaller spaces were common, such as drawing. It seems that a lack of space is holding artists back from expanding and experimenting with their practices.

Adriana believes that this could be different if artists worked in cooperation and looked for space together to share. In San Felipe, for instance, studios are often situated within one house, rented by its owner, who is clearly profiting from the situation. The rents are too high, the spaces small, and the set-up inappropriate, with usage restrictions on how you can use the space (no marks on the floor, for instance). It seems that many artists prioritise being within San Felipe rather than moving further out of the city to find a better space.

But some artists are beginning to recognise these circumstances and are looking to the suburbs of the city and its industrial areas for solutions. Adriana was able to rent a space in the industrial zone after receiving a grant – far removed from the city centre and the artist community, but gaining in space to develop her work and experiment.

I asked Tatiana what she feels artists should be questioning in the city, she said, ‘I think it is important for artists to push the edges of what is established in the city’s arts scene; to question the spaces that exist and the ways they exist and to try and expand these formats.’

Universal themes

It appears that a lot of the issues that artists share across these three cities are due to the conservative nature of the art market. The market dictates what artists produce, which artists are supported, and how spaces are run. The power dynamics between the hierarchy of collector, gallerist and artist have not changed, contextualised by a lack of state support. If the work of artists was better recognised and publicly acknowledged, they would be able to expand their practices in new ways, and more experimental practices could emerge against the conservative market.

However, despite these challenges, artists are resolute in finding ways to continue to make work, and to make their own space through artist-led, self-organised activity. Artists need to keep questioning: questioning history, conventions, structures, markets, ourselves … Going back to Pio’s point – it is through art that we can better understand society’s behaviours and perhaps consider new ways of being.


About the author

Holly Willats

Holly Willats is an independent curator & writer, and the founder and Director of the arts organisation, Art Licks. Art Licks supports the work of early career artists across the UK and champions artist-led activity and self-organised initiatives. Art Licks launched in 2010 and exists as a website, tours, printed magazine, learning programme, commissioning programme and annual London-wide festival: the Art Licks Weekend.

By Holly Willats
An annual online journal by Artquest that draws together the art world with wider social, economic and cultural issues.

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