Feature Articles

October Issue 2002

A View From Down Under
On Professional Opinions

by Judith McGrath

Professional, Professionalism what's the difference? According to my dictionary a Professional is "someone who follows an occupation as a means of livelihood or makes a business of something amateurs engage in, eg. sport or art". It goes on to define Professionalism as "the conduct, qualities and character that mark a professional person as distinguished from an amateur".

Many people involved in the visual arts profession call themselves professionals but lack professionalism. I know more then a few artists, galleries, even critics, who earn money in their occupation but their conduct is that of an amateur.

Consider those artists who practice their art full-time but don't earn their living from it, they're either supported by a partner or receive government assistance. You know the types, flaky and mindless or egotistical and thoughtless who call themselves Professional Artists but don't practice professionalism. When invited to take part in a group exhibition they'll present a less then perfect, sometimes old, or so new the paint's still wet, exhibit the day after the final delivery date, minus the paperwork. They rarely have more then two solo shows at any one gallery as no one has the time to chase them up or the energy to deal with their tantrums.

Then there are those who earn their living working part-time as art teachers or in art related organizations and call themselves Professional Artists because somewhere along the line they sold work in exhibition. Let's be honest here, they're professional art workers with paying hobbies. These are the ones who talk about how they could raise their status as artists if they didn't have to work yet keep applying for full-time positions. To illustrate; a local art organization provides grants to emerging artist/curators. They offer funds, practical support and a mentor to each candidate. The recipient makes all the creative decisions for the exhibition while being guided through the paper trail by experienced staff. The concept of the program is great but having attended four different Emerging Curator Exhibitions, I believe the time and money is wasted on Emerging Egos. These exhibitions reveal how, when the participants have real jobs they either drop-out or present unfinished works, electronic or kinetic exhibits don't function and the catalogue, which needs to be prepared in advance, doesn't relate to the exhibition due to last minute changes. Although the paperwork is always acquitted properly by the professional staff, the exhibitions are amateurish. Most recipients and participants have no idea of curatorial or artistic professionalism and they haven't the time to learn.

Yes, there are practicing artists who have to work in a job other then their preferred profession in order to survive but what holds them apart from the amateurs noted above is the level of professionalism they bring to their work, both in and out of the studio. I know one artist who taught painting full-time in a private high school for twenty-five years while supporting his family. During that time he continued to develop his talent and grow in stature as an artist by participating in group shows regularly and presenting a solo show every two or three years. He left teaching when he turned fifty to paint full-time. Ten years later, David is still surprised when his work sells as he considers himself an art teacher. However, many private, public and corporate collectors, along with his peers in the art world, respect him for what he is, A Professional Artist, one who maintains a high degree of professionalism in whatever he does.

Unfortunately a lack of professionalism by artists can adversely effect others. Galleries of course suffer the worst, but consider too the unsuspecting art journalist. Often I'm sent out to write an article about an up and coming exhibition. Last month I was asked by a local weekly to preview a group exhibition of site-specific installations in an historic building by known artists. While they were still setting up their exhibits, I spoke with the artists, discussed the theme, asked about their work and got my copy in on time. As practicing artists they should practice some professionalism, some-where between my deadline and the opening night, the project took a wide sidestep. When the weekly hit the street, you'd think I hadn't seen the exhibition nor been to the venue.

It goes without saying that art writers must practice a high standard of professionalism at all times. Deadlines need to be honoured, objectivity maintained and when personal opinions are provided they be noted as such. The pen is mightier then the sword, it can kill a good reputation or inhibit a career as what is written becomes a form of "truth". Yet many editors don't demand the whole truth or a level of professionalism that extends much beyond meeting deadlines, allowing some professional writers room to skate close to the edge of slander. Should a reader be angered enough to write a letter of complaint, well then both author and editor are vindicated; there is proof the article has been read.

Years ago I applied to a local newspaper for the position of visual art critic. When the editor asked if I was prepared to be controversial, my response was that I was prepared to be honest, informative and hopefully interesting. Naturally I didn't get the position; it went to a professional journalist who is indeed highly controversial. He doesn't critique art, instead he writes glowingly about every exhibition held in his favourite gallery, says nice things about his mates' efforts, is dismissive of female artists, and ignores contributions made by the doyens of art in this town. No one admits to buying the paper yet everyone knows what the critic has to say! He does little harm and no good but what offends most people is his total lack of professionalism. I know one highly respected gallery that forbids him entry for that very reason; they just won't cater to amateurs.

As for galleries, thankfully most do practice a high standard of professionalism. They nurture the talent of artists, provide honest advice to clients, and don't try to poach stabled artists from the competition, at least not too openly. But there are always a few where the professionalism practiced shifts with the wind. I'm aware of one establishment that held the proceeds of sales for over three months after an exhibition closed, before paying the artist. They'd put the money in a short-term deposit and kept the interest earned on the artist's money for themselves. The place closed when artists stopped knocking on their door. Then there's that huge showroom run like a supermarket. Always group exhibitions with no cohesive curatorial concept other then "something for everyone". They even have clearance sales! I actually overheard the manager ask an emerging artist if he could do seascapes, or abstracts with lots of blue and white because "blue and white paintings sell best." But they'll stay in business; there are always amateur artists who need a few good sales before they can call themselves Professional Artists and get a job teaching.

Professional, Professionalism, what's the difference? My professional guess, or should I say "personal opinion" is that a Professional is identified by the job they do, whereas Professionalism is recognised by the attitude shown when doing the work.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writting on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).

A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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