A Bert Gallery Perspective on the Contemporary Artist

A Bert Gallery Perspective on the Contemporary Artist


An Essay by Catherine Little Bert

Complimenting the main exhibit, Who Creates the Art Market
– Museums, Auctions, Curators, Critics, Artists, Collectors or Galleries?
, is a small pocket exhibit of contemporary Rhode Island artists: Frank Gasbarro, Dana Levin, Paula Martiesian, Kenn Speiser and Carmel Vitullo. For the past twenty years, Bert Gallery has exhibited these artists, working hard to promote local talent beyond the state borders. The particular challenges for contemporary artists are addressed in this small installation. A Rhode Island artist or any other contemporary artist from another part of the country faces extraordinary challenges to achieve recognition for their art. Our republic has never been keen on the concept of direct patronage of artists as compared to our European forefathers. Rather America’s capitalistic and practical nature has done little to foster national artistic culture.

By mid 19th century as America grew into an international power, the lack of attention to its cultural development became apparent and an embarrassment. Our design and artistic quality as a nation compared so poorly to other world powers. It became particularly humiliating at the Crystal Palace, or The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Out of sheer competitiveness Americans responded to the challenge and in the United States an era of remarkable growth of art schools, academies and art organizations lead to a maturation of art culture. The late 19th century saw a flurry of development in all the arts areas as Americans embraced the arts even if only sometimes as an “ornament of civilization”. Certainly, with new wealth came a desire to garner personal culture and social position by many. The American artist as a professional status emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not only did the numbers increase there were many levels of professional artists from international notables such as John Singer Sargent, Frank Benson, Mary Cassatt, Cecelia Beaux to regional and local professionals. Just at the Paris Salons alone by 1899 over 5,000 paintings were exhibited yearly, of which a good percentage were by American artists. Locally, Rhode Islanders such as S.R. Burleigh, Clara Maxfield Arnold, George Whitaker were successful and highly regarded professionals in their community who sold and exhibited art their entire careers. Being an American artist was never an easy profession but a profession nonetheless recognized in City Business Directories at the same professional level as teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

_77-firebox-oilcanvas-66-x-66-inches.jpgDuring the twentieth century in the Depression Era, when financial troubles for our nation abound, the WPA employed artists as a professional group to paint murals for public spaces such as libraries, train stations and other municipal locations. Artists were still recognized for their career expertise. It was in Post depression era that we saw a shift in the artist as professional. The pursuit of painting as a career became tied to practical matters, teaching at art schools or for commercial purposes such as illustration and advertising. Art as a moniker of visual, social and political thoughts was being produced by fewer artists and supported by a shrinking audience of museums, critics and a small group of collectors. The artist profession was transformed mindful of practical proclivity of American society.

The late forties saw the emergence stateside of the great talents of Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and with this new generation of artists American visual arts shifted to the importance of the artist as the solitary creator where their paintings and sculptures needed no practical purpose or justification to the public at large. The artist seized the visual arts as their medium to express ideas, thoughts and commentaries pertinent to society. By the 1960’s American artists took the visual stage on the international front and with this transformed the art world and profession. Museums, galleries and the art centers centralized to major cities most notably New York City. Artists evolved from a mundane professional class to individual art celebrities.

Today 6 billion dollars of art is sold at Sotheby’s and Christies with 18% of the sales being contemporary. Contemporary art stars are on the retainers of prominent galleries, bought and sold by hedge fund operators and placed in deep pocket museums. And so it goes… the transcendence of artist as an 18th century colonial era craftsman to a 21st century visionary apostle and “pop star” of the secular world. With this current state of affairs, developing an audience for regional practicing artists is increasingly difficult. If New York art professionals do not pluck them in early career, it is hard for artists to support themselves in their own communities as art professionals creating and selling their art. An added dilemma facing the majority of artists today is that with the abundance of excellent art schools where hundreds of artists are trained per year, to be professionally successful is very limited to the small competitive arenas such as New York, London and Berlin.

While good art is being made in many other communities, such as Rhode Island, the accomplished professional artist needs to work hard to manage their career and develop a collector base. Despite these challenges, the good news is that artists are infinitely “creative” in finding a way to produce good art and jump the hurdles often place before them. The narrative on the American artist for the twenty first century is just beginning to unfold.