Young artists chase elusive breakthrough | Arts | DW | 18.04.2013
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Young artists chase elusive breakthrough

On Friday, Germany's oldest art fair, Art Cologne opens its doors. The artists showcased there belong to the world's elite. But for the vast majority, the path to success on the art market is tough and unyielding.

"You won't make it that way!"

That's the type of thing 32-year-old Ismael Dua got used to hearing from his fellow students after applying to be part of a reality TV show to find the next superstar artist.

Artists from France and Germany had the opportunity to apply for the show called "Alles für die Kunst" ("Everything for Art") in fall 2012. Broadcast on the Franco-German cultural network Arte, it offered emerging artists the chance to present their work to a jury of curators and art collectors.

Ismael Dua made the cut and entered the final along with seven other art students.

Artist Ismael Dua

Appearing on reality TV has brought mixed results for artist Ismael Dua

The show was a springboard for the graduate from Munich's Academy for the Visual Arts to get his work seen by a wider audience at an exhibition at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe.

But his appearance on TV hasn't helped Dua find a gallery willing to sell his works. After graduating in Munich, he first moved to Berlin - a magnet for budding artists.

So is a casting show in the style of "Pop Idol" or "The X-Factor" really the right way for an artist to become successful on the art market?

Art school - and then what?

Sören Grammel, director of the Cologne Artists Association, doesn't think so. "What they show on Arte looks good and propagates great liberties, but I think that's rubbish. Hardly any other profession is as tough as that of an artist."

Thomas Rentmeister, a Berlin-based sculptor, also believes that it's the wrong path for an artist: "Much too affirmative," he said.

Affirmation doesn't sit well with young contemporary artists: "They need to be critical and keep their distance from the media, just as from TV," Rentmeister said.

The artist can live from his art - but that wasn't always the case. In the first decade after graduating from art school, he survived by working on the side as a puppet builder. Then at some point, the first buyers began to pay attention to his artworks.

No recipe for success

According to Rentmeister, the art market is completely unpredictable. While the vast majority of artists struggle to make a living, a rare few hit the jackpot.

Paralipomena (obsolete forms of aesthetic difference) by Alfons Knogl

"Paralipomena (obsolete forms of aesthetic difference)" by Alfons Knogl

In 2012 the art market experienced record turnover. In times of financial crisis, artworks are increasingly seen as secure investments - just like blue chip companies.

The vast sums fetched at auction wet the appetites of gold-diggers and budding artists alike.

Sören Grammel can only shake his head: "It's impossible for me to imagine that artists or their works are handled like stocks and shares, that their value rises."

Only a small number of the estimated 19,000 artists in Germany have such luck. In actual fact, 95 percent of them cannot live from their art.

Last year, the average annual income of a visual artist was 13,743 euros ($18,000), according to figures from the Künstlersozialkasse, the state security insurance office for freelance artists and publicists in Germany.

The first hurdles for artist just starting out include finding a gallery that will sell their works at art fairs, online or in their own gallery spaces.

A large number of coaching agencies specialize in offering courses for art students to prepare themselves for survival outside the cocoon of the art academy.

The German government also provides support. Since 2007, the Competence Center for Cultural and Creative Commerce has been offering free advice for artists hoping to establish themselves. The commercial potential of artistic ideas is also assessed there.

Slow-burn careers

Cologne-based artist Alfons Knogl says he would not attend a coaching session or go on a casting show for artists. The techniques of self-marketing and entrepreneurial thinking aren't so important to him. He believes in working in the right environment and not making any comprises in his art.

Alfons Knogl on stage with his band

For Knogl, music is also a form of sculpture

When an artist first enjoys financial success, the pressure to produce works is immense. That's why Knogl - like many of his colleagues - refuses to supplement his income with jobs unrelated to art. His small atelier in the rooms of the Cologne Artists Association is paid for by a grant.

The 36-year-old studied in Dresden and later Cologne. His art is difficult to categorize. He makes sculptures mimicking the forms of interior furnishings and also makes music - for him another form of sculpture.

Alfons Knogl regularly exhibits in small galleries or showrooms and mainly in group shows. He tries not to be influenced by hit lists and records made at auction.

"I look at the exchange that happens when I show my works. It should be productive. That's what I work with, and try to implement my ideas," he explained.

Sometimes he's successful, sometimes he's not. Knogl is convinced that there's no recipe for success.

The artists who have produced truly important works of art will first be revealed retrospectively, a sentiment to which the long history of art can attest.

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