The exterior facade of the Royal British Society of Sculptors in west London when playing host to Facelift, a site-specific work by Swedish artist Michael Johansson (2015) photo: A K Purkiss
Established in 1904, The Royal British Society of Sculptors (RBS) is a registered charity dedicated to promoting excellence in the art and practice of sculpture. More than 600 members enjoy resources to further their careers as professional sculptors, while the Society ensures their work and skills meet the highest standards. For those who champion quality, mastery of this craft is part and parcel.
The following reflections on the practice of sculpture in London today are based on an interview with the Director of RBS, Anne Rawcliffe-King. Our conversation took place at the institution’s headquarters on Old Brompton Road, a stone’s throw from the V&A, the Museum of Natural History, Royal Albert Hall and other cultural cornerstones that recollect an era of industry and expansion fuelled by the Victorians’ commitment to applied art and science.
PSC: What in your view is preventing the democratisation of art practice?
Anne Rawcliffe-King: Money and opportunities. Simply put an emerging sculptor needs opportunities to make work. Actually, this is what every artist needs throughout their career, though at different levels and in different structures. They need places to make their work and they need to be able to make their work available to a public so they can receive feedback. All of that involves a lot of money and time, both of which are hard to secure if you’re a first-year college student and you have to eat.
If you’re talking about artists that make bigger work or work for the public realm, well, this is different from, say, carving the head of your daughter in the privacy of your bedroom. To be a professional artist you need to acquire a track record, somehow or another, as you need people backing you, and this goes up in little bits. So, for instance, Alex Chinneck MRBS had to win a couple of big commissions, including the house in Folkestone, before he landed the Covent Garden commission. You need a reputation.
There are few professional artists because it’s a very tough life actually making a living in this way. There are all kinds of sacrifices attached but also huge benefits, in that you do something that you love. In many ways being a professional sculptor is rather like being a professional sportsman, there are millions and millions of people who enjoy playing the odd game at the weekend, and for whom sport is a wonderful thing, but it’s not the same as making your living out of it. You’ve got to be bloody obsessed and determined as well. Luck does help but you need to work at it. The odds of making it are tall.
PSC: Speaking of ‘working at it’, could you comment on deskilling in art schools and what might be done to rectify this; assuming, that is, you agree this is a problem.
ARK: Well, they’re not art schools anymore, are they. They’re universities and they’re therefore subject to a different regime, a completely different set of requirements and expectations. I heard a fascinating talk from someone who had just got a place on a PhD programme. They didn’t discuss the work or the process, it was more about the academic approach and that really made me think quite carefully about how you deal with that. Personally, I think that art colleges were better. I think there is a type of training where you need engagement with the physical materiality of things as well as with other disciplines. I think the rarification of the academic thrust isn’t helping. I don’t think it’s wrong, people learn considerable amounts from analysing work in that particular way or looking at the history of something or the development of a particular idea, but the making of art doesn’t seem to me to be an academic pursuit. I think there’s a difference, and that trying to force art into that box is partly responsible for the change in the perception of artistic skills. You were once taught to weld or carve or cast and you’d be making things and you had a chance to see if they stood up and worked or if they didn’t. There are lots and lots of ideas but actually how you translate that into a reality is quite a challenge and it’s not one that’s easily stuck in an academic environment.
PSC: You mentioned carving, casting, welding, which historically have all been sculptural techniques. What kinds of trends in the development of sculpture are you observing?
ARK: There’s a clear shift towards a re-engagement with the materiality of things. There’s much more of an interest now, amongst the younger sculptors, in ‘stuff’, what you can do with it and how it responds. I think there is less fear about approaching traditional skills as well. It’s much more acceptable to say that you’re going to carve in marble than it might once have been. Only ten years ago, some people would have thought that was a very, very odd thing to do.
At the same time, I think there’s a huge expansion and exploration in to digital reality. That is another area where you’re getting a crossover between performance, installation, event and sculptural activity. Those two trends, object-based and digital-based, although they are very different, are both going ahead dramatically and at the same time, and both are very interesting.
Performance sculpture is still young. Moving image is growing up, and there is more really good digital work now. There is real skill in operating that technology and whereas at first a lot of the work was often poorly made, it has developed not just for the use of narrative and storytelling but as a genuine artistic use in its own right.
PSC: It’s intriguing to think how the digital and the material feed each other.
ARK: It may be that audiences had had enough of digital reality and that therefore something you could grasp onto became very appealing. Certainly this was the case during the crash, around 2008. When things went really bad it was much more about the security of things you could touch and things that weren’t going to change any second, you know that they are not going to desert you and run away or disappoint you in some way. As a result there was a move at the time into something more tangible, more permanent, and ultimately more reliable. How people react with the world does change the art that’s produced and that interests us, but it’s not a straightforward or linear progression it’s more of an exchange with the climate that influences it. So, there is more of an interest in the object because of the predominance of the concept in the last few decades. We are swinging gradually back to the contribution of traditional skills, but we are also contending with a new digital reality. When I started my working life there were no computers and now you can coordinate events at the touch of the button. We are still adjusting to that and artists are at the frontier of this whilst simultaneously re-establishing the value of the real and the solid.
The third trend to mention relates to collectives, which I’ve certainly noticed that we’re seeing more of these days. This is something that I feel strongly about as I actually presented a collective show for my degree exhibition, and I then went on to work in the film and television industry, which is also very collaborative.
PSC: Do you think institutions and organisations are evolving with this trend? Because historically they have struggled to accommodate co-authorial practices.
ARK: The RBS accepts collectives as an individual artist. You may have two people sharing a subscription, as if they work solidly together they are one artist in that sense, so that’s how we deal with it. I can see it gives headaches but anyone who works with artists is going to encounter the unusual.
PSC: Our next question relates to artistic development. This is something that’s very mysterious, especially for the uninitiated. Of course, it varies a great deal from one practitioner to the next, but are there benchmarks you’ve observed in this process? We’ve been thinking, for instance, about the importance of securing a solo show, with this being tangible evidence of accomplishment.
ARK: Yes and winning awards helps too. Of course being nominated and winning the Turner Prize is a landmark in someone’s career but it’s incredibly difficult. As we discussed earlier, success relies on exposure and opportunity. Today I think it’s about being seen to make a contribution, so this is how it’s judged now. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life and his solo shows were all after he was dead. Was he an emerging artist at any point? How did he make it?
PSC: That’s fascinating in light of current emphasis on, as you say, exposure and opportunity.
ARK: It’s opportunity to fail as well as opportunity to succeed. It’s very dangerous for artists to get completely pigeon-holed into something that’s successful and then get stuck there. Later on you need opportunity to fail as well as opportunity to do something different and that will come through in the practice. Going back to Van Gogh’s posthumous recognition, at the time there was a huge social revolution and the world was in turmoil. It’s possible he didn’t get recognised because he was too far off the scale. The scale now is different, we are accustomed to more diversity; there’s a huge range and so it may be easier to get a place, sooner. People are always re-valued, history is the only real test of that, that and the influence you have on other artists.
PSC: It’s interesting to consider this with reference to Oscar Murillo. He speaks about coming from nowhere; though of course, he’s now doing very well in the art market. But he hasn’t been around long enough to know if he’ll make it into art history.
ARK: That’s a market question. It’s not my area of expertise, and frankly, I’m not interested. I’m interested in the artists and the creation side of art. As I said previously in the end, it’s history and other artists who decide whether you are saying something of enduring value. In relation to the art market it will be interesting to see how we evaluate documented performance in 100 years time and how this will change.
PSC: Speaking of change, we’re trying to understand what implications that so-called ‘projectisation’ is having for all of us. So there’s been a shift from practice to projects as a kind of base unit. This tracks with the rampant short-termism that characterises culture as we know it.
ARK: Yes, there have been changes. But I’m not sure that it’s that profoundly different from artists working in collaboration with architects, or jewellers or designers, etc. Artists have always worked in collaboration on projects. So in principle I don’t see anything radically different. But what’s slipped away is continuous patronage. The Pope would have had six or seven artists who would be fighting over who had the dominant position. He would support their practices so they’d have a large amount of time to develop organically. Patronage has changed and is now more project-based because it comes from the developers–or at least this is the case in London. Royalty doesn’t patronize the arts in quite the way that it used to. It isn’t the main means of giving prominence and delivering messages that it used to be. For example, there isn’t a big Damien Hirst stuck outside Buckingham Palace to indicate a degree of taste and wealth, which would be different, wouldn’t it!
PSC: [Laughs] That’s a vision, alright.
ARK: The patronage that is happening now is much more corporate and therefore more task orientated and thus less continuous.
PSC: It’s good to be chatting about this because we’ve just started thinking of new models of patronage.
ARK: I’ve been talking to a major collector who is interested in becoming the patron of a number of selected young artists. I think there are opportunities but they’re still likely to be time limited. Though they could be three to five years and this could give someone a realistic stab at it. It’s also an opportunity to develop without necessarily having the burden of an exhibition or an outcome. It’s something that we’ve looked at in terms of the RBS’s Brian Mercer residencies. The three months is actually enough time to cause a break in your existing pattern but not a lot of time to develop something else. You get a chance for a fresh look and fresh set of challenges but you don’t get time to ingest that and let it settle or rattle around your head and let it come out in your practice. It would be nice to make it longer but the residencies nevertheless deliver a very valuable and intense opportunity. There are things that can and should happen with new models of patronage but the key is more time and fewer demands.
PSC: We interviewed Donald Smith of Chelsea Space and the Chelsea Arts Club Trust and he spoke about Julian Wild receiving The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea; Chelsea Arts club Trust Studio Bursary from 2009-2012. This gave him a purpose-built studio for three years. We discussed this being key to an artist’s development, enabling time to focus on his or her practice, as this time and space is invaluable.
ARK: I completely agree. I did try and persuade the borough to give me a few of those studios as they wanted to attract young artists to this area which is the single most expensive borough in London. I assured them I’d have no problem finding them artists but they insisted on the commercial rent, which is £20k a year for one of those studios. Well, no wonder they only have established watercolourists. There is nothing, of course, wrong with established watercolourists but if that’s not the group you want to service or attract, you’re going the wrong way.
PSC: It’s a shame that boroughs can’t see the non-financial value that offsets subsidised studio space.
ARK: I suppose we were asking Kensington and Chelsea at the point when their budgets were all being cut and they have to defend why they are putting up their rates to fund a selection of artists, and the arts aren’t easy to defend at the moment. Everyone looks at hospitals and they don’t seem a good place to cut either but look what’s happened to the arts budget over the last few years. We’ve lost 40% of ACE. We’re so lucky that Kensington and Chelsea still have an arts service, even if it’s not well funded.
You often hear the argument that art is a luxury that can be dispensed with in difficult times. So art comes back and says, but we contribute to well-being, and we contribute to regeneration. At the end of the day, I remember sitting in one focus group with the council and asking if anyone had ever thought of the argument that art is important for its own sake? Can we have a bit of art for art’s sake, even if it’s just a bit? Actually, art is a huge contribution to humanity and this needs to be reasserted at this time.
PSC: We completely agree. In this spirit of meeting needs, the RBS is a membership organisation and as such, it has to cater to a great range of practitioners. Could you talk about how you’ve chosen to prioritise services that provide the most value?
ARK: Well as you know, we’re a registered charity and this means that we’re outward facing and part of our charitable status is about demystification, access and education to sculpture. So when you talk about members and the services we offer, it is useful to remember that we’re not solely focused on membership services because we have a charitable purpose. This is very often misunderstood. The second point is that in terms of the services, we don’t act as agents or representatives. We don’t take the position of a gallery. We can’t represent all our 600 members and so we can’t represent any of them, and so that shapes the nature of the relationship.
That said, we’re frequently asked to comment on or make short lists or long lists. We are constantly trolling through the membership list to put people forward for consideration for consultants or organisations who want somebody for something, and that presents some challenges because not everyone will be suitable for every opportunity.
In terms of the services, it’s our view that opportunities and exposure are key to an artist’s development all the way through their practice and therefore, we provide opportunities. We try and collect all the information on these and aim to ensure that every member knows what these are. This is a priority.
We also prioritise our members’ profiles on the website because this exposure is important, unless you already have a household name. We’re getting to the position that people are using our site as an index. If you’re looking for a sculptor, you may well come to us. So we’re providing exposure and access. Those are two core services, if you want to call them that. There’s also the opportunity to exhibit, either with the RBS or with our partners. And we do try and engage artists in our educational activities, so we’re introducing artists into schools. This encourages a sense of connection and this can help artists to gain workshop experience, which they can then use to help them fund their careers. They’ll get fees for doing these sorts of things but they won’t necessarily need to produce anything at that point and so it’s one way of making a living and supporting their practice.
PSC: Is exposure more important at certain times in an artist’s development?
ARK: It’s important to establish yourself and move on. It’s not just establishing yourself at the beginning. You need to get to the point that you feel validated by the artistic community or critics or whatever it is that’s important to you. You need exposure to get there and then, you need the opportunities to go further, to develop your practice and to try more and different things. And you need it every time you want to make a leap. It’s not necessarily continuous but you can’t easily trade on exposure from five years ago.
PSC: Do established artists continue applying for RBS opportunities?
ARK: When you’ve reached a certain point, you’re probably represented and so your gallery is creating opportunities and providing publicity. If we’re doing a big commission, established artists might well be interested, but most of our commissions are relatively small in financial terms and so established artists are likely beyond that.
The mid-career artists are always looking for opportunities and help. There are opportunities for the young and emerging and then when you get to the other end of the scale and you’re collected by MOMA and everyone else, well, chances are you’re in a good place. But there’s a gap in the middle, and that’s partly what the Brian Mercer Residences are about and what First@108 is about, in that it provides the opportunity to move into the public realm from a studio-based or workshop practice. If you’re not represented, RBS is also trying to present opportunities for you to build partnerships with the gallery system through Spotlight. Everyone needs opportunities because once you’ve lost the new-and-shiny label you’ve got to find something else. When you’ve left college (if you went to one) and you’ve decided after three to four years that you still want to be an artist, we are very much part of a ladder of opportunities until you’re collected by the likes of MOMA, at which point we hope you’ll stay and help support the others. That’s the model we have in operation.