Pin It
JR art

How to challenge art world traditions

Choosing an alternative path for their art outside of the gallery arena, these independent artists have found success without selling off their creative freedom

Artists working beyond the confines of the 'white cube' have generally built their careers via unorthodox channels – such mavericks include artists engaged in performance, installation, land art, street art and conceptual or video art. Generally, however, artists who 'eat what they kill' so to speak – those who build their own markets, sell directly to (or barter with) collectors and thus circumvent the traditional gallery paradigm – rarely restrict their creative output to just one art genre or another. They tend to defy categorisation. As Dr. Ana Finel-Honigman, founder of the AFH-Culture Writers Agency and Oxford PhD, says: "Artists who know how to compellingly present the meaning and significance of their work can effectively bypass the gallery system to create their own art world."


Artists working on the fringe of the established art world need another means of communication with their audiences, as the gallery arena is either inaccessible (to them, specifically, for whatever reason) or doesn’t allow for the fullest, purest expression of their work. Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the legendary land artists, exemplify an alternative business model.

To finance their epic installations – Floridian islands outlined in hot pink polypropylene fabric, a curtain of citrine orange traversing a Colorado mountain pass, Berlin’s parliament building wrapped entirely in white cloth – Christo and Jeanne-Claude would sell sketches of their detailed plans to collectors directly as collages, incorporating maps and elevation plans, swatches of fabric and annotated, coloured pencil drawings. From the press release issued by then-Mayor Bloomberg’s governmental perch on the artists’ project for Central Park: “'The Gates' will consist of 7,500 gates bearing hanging saffron-coloured cloth, lining approximately 23 miles of pedestrian paths in Central Park…'The Gates' is financed entirely by the artists, who do not accept sponsorships. The public will bear no expense of any kind.”

In doing so, Jeanne-Claude and Christo ensured that the works which mattered most – the installations that spanned miles were so ambitious they remained 'in process' for decades – were free to evolve as necessary, unencumbered by purse strings attached to special interests (or on deadline). Additionally, they raised money for a cause close to their hearts: “The Conservancy also offered trolley tours of the Park for over 10,000 people and walking tours throughout “The Gates”. These tours raised $158,760 to benefit Central Park.”

Still, few contemporary artists engage in land art to the extent and magnitude of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Their successors have left the countryside and returned to the metropolis, where blank canvases abound in the form of back-alley walls, slum facades and housing projects. Ultimately, these artists are more social and political activists than fine artists, but visual language is their protest vehicle of choice – and it’s a strong language to speak fluently because it resonates across geographical and political borders, regardless of national or religious identity.


JR, the French artist awarded the TED prize for art in 2011, began on the streets, which he’s notoriously referred to as "the biggest art gallery in the world" and now commands serious prices for his works via his blue-chip gallery, Emmanuel Perrotin. Still, he works out of a studio in NYC that was gifted by a moneyed enthusiast who believes more in JR’s message than his market value.

For example, in 2005, JR travelled to the Gaza Strip and photographed Israelis and Palestinians who shared the same occupation. He then pasted these oversized portraits on both sides of the wall. When asked by residents of either side what he was doing, he would explain and invariably be told something along the lines of “you shouldn’t be doing that,” i.e. pasting portraits of the Israelis on the Palestinian side and vice versa. “Well,” he would reply, “which ones should I take down?” No one knew the answer because our religious and political ideologies are not always obvious at face value; they are social constructs, separate from our inherent humanity.


Swoon is another street artist and political activist whose projects are actually conceptual works that she self-funds by selling prints of her work. One such project is “Braddock Tiles”, in which she elicits other artists’ work in order to repair a church and community centre in an economically depressed town just outside of Pittsburgh, which lost 95% of its industry in the recession. In 2014, Swoon had a major retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and was featured in a glowing New York Times article, which quoted her friend and comrade JR saying: “The fact that she does it the way she does, and just struggles her own way allows her complete freedom as an artist”.


Others carving their own wayward paths within the art world road map are installation artists, working in a medium that is by-and-large unsalable and thus difficult for galleries to exhibit. Chiharu Shiota’s early financial support came entirely via grants and stipends, including Japan’s Encouragement Prize for New Artists. She moved to Berlin, a city known for its low cost of living and avant-garde art community, and lived on her stipend for several years, which allowed her to make installation art on an epic scale, like hospital bed frames suspended and cascading from ceilings and multi-storey buildings filled with ethereal cobwebs made of yarn, unencumbered by financial concerns. Museum show after museum show followed, and then the collectors came calling. Last summer she represented Japan in the 2015 Venice Biennale, the most important art exhibition in the world, with a large-scale immersive installation entitled “The Key in the Hand”.

The Guardian’s art critic Laura Cumming selected Chiharu’s pavilion among the top 5 and noted that “the clear winner, by general consent, is the irresistibly beautiful installation of exquisite red nets in the Japanese pavilion, through which thousands of keys from all over the world cascade – some caught, others lost; a simple but concise meditation on memory.” By 'winning' the Venice Biennale, Chiharu has essentially won the art world game, but the prize isn’t money. Rather it’s the ability to realise her creative vision, a 'choose your own adventure' equation. As an artist, it’s precisely this freedom that’s coveted and pursued, and which inherently motivates an individual to follow this particular career path, this lifestyle. The artists mentioned have each explored – whether by necessity, luck or circumstance – alternate routes to the ultimate reward: the ability to do what one desires, and make a living, on one’s own terms.