Can art provide artists a lucrative income? Yes, if the right doors open, many would say.
For Wangechi Mutu, the answer is a resounding “yes” and she has a 14-page CV to prove it.
With a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from Yale University School of Art, numerous solo and group exhibitions at venues from Brooklyn to Portugal, and coveted permanent collection placement in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Museum of Modern Art, Kenyan-born, New York-based Mutu seems on top of her world. She has credits in film, radio and television (the BBC, specifically); has lectured at some of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions, including Princeton, Columbia and New York universities; and last year received Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” award. She has authored four books: A Shady Promise, My Dirty Little Heaven, In Whose Image and This You Call Civilization. Five years ago, one of her pieces reportedly sold for $35,000. It’s anyone’s guess what that figure would be today, but “We’re talking blue chip, for sure,” a noted museum insider insists.
How did Mutu reach this far? Raw talent didn’t hurt. “Wangechi Mutu has created a series of beautiful works in a completely unique signature hand,” says Naomi Beckwith, assistant curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “She uses the modern technique of collage with the master technique of painting to create haunting images that are like watercolors — they are appearing and disappearing at the same time.”
Beckwith adds, “Mutu’s works also revolve around these fantasy characters she has created, but the fantasy is closer to a dark Brothers Grimm story. The creatures she paints are monsters, beauty queens, aliens and magicians all rolled up into one.”
Her influences are many — civil war in Sierra Leone; consumerism; politics; even mass media. She focuses on how these affect women. “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body,” Mutu is quoted saying in describing her work.
While themes of feminism, racial objectification of women’s bodies and provocative images of violence, surrealism and seduction have made her works highly sought after in the international art world, Mutu admits that she initially had no interest in exhibiting her watercolor pinups. “My personal views as a feminist, as a woman, as a maker of images, seemed to clash with most of the characteristics of these messed up belles,” she writes in A Shady Promise, referring to models, celebrities and other women who are subject to public scrutiny — pin up girls, if you will. “At the same time, the process was therapeutic and self-indulgent and even a little regressive.”
In those early days, she explains, she was “very nomadic” and used the subway. “I’m not suggesting that it was a direct lift, but I was obsessed with the defacement of posters and celebrities that seems like a cosmetic social contract between a primal, pseudodestructive expression on public space and a convoluted paper doll game,” she says. “I managed to create an image that was saccharine, vindictive, self-deprecating and damaged, yet pleasant to the eye. What I ended up with was a long chorus of female imagery that hacked away at magazine culture, white standards of beauty and the obsession with body augmentation.”
A permanent collection at a major museum is always a huge boost for an art career. Beckwith explains: “It means that the museum deems a work important enough to keep, preserve and care for during the life of the institution and the life of the artwork. It means that the work is held in the public trust in perpetuity and has the chance of being seen by wide audiences for many years, decades or centuries, even, to come. Thus, the artist’s reputation is improved when it is publicly acknowledged that his or her work is strong enough to be of art historical significance.”
At 38 years old, Mutu has eight works in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s permanent collection. Some of the pieces were acquired when she was in residence at the museum, others afterward, “as the museum continued to pay attention to Mutu’s development and noticed that the work continues to grow in ambition, beauty and strength,” Beckwith says.
Acquiring cultural capital
For emerging artists, residency programs, such as the Studio Museum program in which Mutu participated, are important launching pads. “It’s a developmental moment for emerging artists,” says Beckwith.
The programs are competitive and highly selective. Artists who are chosen are given a stipend, space to create, a mentor and a show. After the show, museums often continue to support the artists by purchasing one of their works, or by offering them a spot in the permanent collection. Artists also donate pieces of their work to the museum for which they served as residents.
Artists do not earn any money from exhibitions, but they acquire “cultural capital” which, says Beckwith, may translate into monetary gains in the marketplace. “Museums are non-profit institutions and artists are not at all paid to be shown in a museum. Museums are not part of the art market; that is the work of galleries and auction houses,” she says.
The Deutsche Bank award that Mutu won last year is not a monetary prize. It comes from a joint venture between Deutsche Bank and the Guggenheim Foundation in Germany. “Four or five curators got together and selected me. That you’re nominated is kind of a big secret,” Mutu says.
Aside from the honor it carries, the award is valued because it is firmly anchored in the bank’s art program. That means a selection of Mutu’s works on paper will be acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection and dispersed among its offices worldwide. Mutu was also given “carte blanche” for the production of a large solo show that ran from April last year through June. It kicked off in Berlin and ended in Brussels, Belgium. There was even talk of the show traveling to South Africa and Asia, but to date there has been no further word on that.
Artinfo.com quotes Deutsche Guggenheim curators as saying at an awards luncheon in New York City that their choice of Mutu arose from “a conversation among colleagues about our deepest passions” and that led them to Mutu. “Her body of work is one that is very much engaged with the global image ecology, and her engagement with the archaeology of that ecology is what makes it interesting,” stated Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, a member of Deutsche Bank’s Global Art Advisory Council, and considered one of the most influential curators and theorists in contemporary art.
Although the marriage of art and corporate culture seems an unlikely match, Deutsche Bank has been recognizing artists through the award for some 20 years. On the recommendation of its Global Art Advisory Council, the bank awards a young artist who already has an extensive and impressive body of work. In 2000, African-American artist Kara Walker won the award.
When doors do not open the way they did for Mutu, artists must market themselves aggressively, advises art appraiser and consultant Alan Bamberger of Artbusiness.com. “You have to document yourself and your art. You have to convey the impression that you’re a serious artist. You must produce tangible evidence of your accomplishments that anyone can see, read and understand,” he says. He offers the following tips:
• Join recognized artist organizations; get listed on their membership rosters;
• Find a dealer or gallery to represent you and publish a catalogue of your work that’s at least twelve pages long;
• Get listed in exhibit catalogues and bulletins from museums, art associations, corporate art exhibits, juried and nonjuried shows, and local, regional and statewide shows;
• Get your work reviewed; get featured in newspapers or magazines. Even a one-word mention in a small article at the bottom of the page in the neighborhood newspaper is good;
• Apply for listings in major biographical dictionaries, such as Who’s Who in American Art and other publications that accept applicants on the basis of merit, rather than charge for listings.
Not surprisingly, Mutu is hardly sympathetic to the notion of self-marketing. “I’m not a big advocate of marketing yourself in the arts. Don’t try to convince people that you’re worth looking at. There’s a magical thing to people discovering you,” she says.