The image of the Australian Council for the Arts' latest program supporting 'new, emerging artists.'
When exhibitions, galleries and editors herald a new emerging artist, what are the few criteria triggered from this ambiguous label? Presumably an art graduate, 18-30 years old, with a little critical acclaim beyond the veneration of their tutors and peers. Does it refer to beckoning recognition or the infancy of artistic prowess? How do you know when you've 'made it' and why should you care how you're labelled?
The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) defines an emerging artist as one that "will have practised as a professional artist continually for less than 5 years." If the emerging artist chooses to apply for grants and subsidies from the Australia Council Young and Emerging Artists Initiative, then they must be "in the early stages of their careers," although "some grants have age specifications."
There is a gaping difference between the "early stages" of an artist's career and their emergence. Whilst the "early stages" is the period in which the artist is undiscovered, emergence implies that fellow artists and experts are becoming aware of the artist’s presence in the industry. So at what age and stage of their career is the artist the perfect combination: neither anonymous nor overexposed? And how may they benefit from this?
After painting for over six decades, Carmen Herrera sold her first piece of artwork in 2004 at the age of 89. By 2009, her career had jettisoned and she was awarded an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award: "At the end of my life, I'm getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure," Herrera told The New York Times
Herrera's six undiscovered decades logically account for the "early stages" of her career. Yet during the first five years of critical acclaim, would Herrera have been considered a publicly emerging artist? Unlikely, but this late recognition reveals that the "emerging" label is only relevant when the artist reaches the public eye. So, emergence refers to the time an artist spends establishing a reputation. Clearly posthumous professionals such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Allan Poe never became emerging artists, so is the label necessary?
It is predominantly age limit, not financial or environmental circumstances, that is the deciding factor when grants and subsidies are up for grabs. The Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship for Emerging Artists and the Art & Australia/Credit Suisse Private Banking Contemporary Art Award both identify 30 as the age after which artists are considered beyond the "early stages." The "early stages" of an artist's career ought to be judged by the professional development of their work, not the useless data of their age.
But how does NAVA differentiate the young, emerging artist who is a practising, if unseasoned, professional, from the definitive professional artist? NAVA declares a professional artist as one whom, whilst selling and exhibiting work, is "seeking to build a reputation as a professional artist." This statement is remarkably similar to NAVA's emerging definition: both positions seek to establish a reputation. Therefore there is little difference between the title of a professional and emerging artist.
They become basically indiscernible from one another, so why compare the two or care for the label? Because there are disadvantages and advantages to being labelled an emerging artist. There is often a buzz of originality surrounding those who are still emerging; they are yet to establish their role, medium, predictability. Of course, this does mean that the artist may not have 'made it' yet. An emerging artist’s innovation often raises their word-of-mouth popularity in the industry. A lower price bracket is attached to their work, but emerging artists are supported with their eligibility for grants.
Pro or con, the emerging artist is constantly subjected to the definitions others pin on them. More often than not, it’s because labels relate to the bureaucracy of money. For example, the reasonably priced work of an emerging artist in comparison to that of Damien Hirst. The Australian Tax Office defines a professional artist as "persons who carry on activities as either... an author; a performing artist; or a production associate". It appears that for the sake of taxes, the definition between the emerging and professional is pretty irrelevant.
So the emerging artist label remains at the disposal of curators, art dealers and professors amidst public scrutiny. But if an artist’s work can uphold the tax placed upon the flogged price tags – irrelevant of what stage they are at in their career – then this self-sustained livelihood surely provides the artist with some entitlement to declare themselves as a professional. And if it's your own prerogative to call yourself a professional, isn't this how you know you've 'made it'?