By Cate Terblanche, Art Curator, Sasol Art Collection


As if the choice of a career in the visual arts is not fraught with challenges and trials, the pandemic was bestowed upon us with apocalyptic vengeance. Two years have passed since the world in a gob smacked moment, fell into a dazed, mind numbing misadventure of sleep walking termed ‘the new normal’. Virtual has become reality, and reality has become virtual. But for visual artists, this has meant virtual devastation. Unlike their counterparts in other creative industries such as music and performance, visual artists are highly dependent on physical platforms to showcase their work, most of which evaporated with lockdown. This begs the question, how relevant is a career in the visual arts, and how does one navigate this ‘new normal’?

For starters, I think that a career in the visual arts will always be relevant, artists and creatives are those who challenge conventional thinking, are innovative, and are often commentators on social issues and archivists of our collective lived experiences. The visual arts sector as a whole also provides several avenues of employment, ranging from creating and teaching, to marketing and selling, and makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s GDP. But it is not a career for the faint hearted. It is a very competitive industry which seeming allows for a lot of diversity but is surprisingly controlled. It’s often said that ‘its not what you know, its who you know’, and in the artworld this saying seems more apt than in other industries. Hooking up with the right gallery or winning a prestigious competition are some of the ways in which an artist’s career can be fast-tracked. But for each award-winning artist breaking into the international arena, there are hundreds which don’t.

In contrast to the opportunities flaunted by the art industry as a whole, the individual artist may find navigating this world fraught with challenges. The reality is that the majority of artists, both emerging and mid-career, often have to juggle several jobs to make ends meet financially. Many of these jobs are contract jobs, paying the lowest rates legally possible, with no additional benefits such as pension fund or medical aid contributions. Adding to the financial burden, the act of producing art is in no way a guarantee of an income, rather it can become an expensive liability, as many artists with hordes of unsold artworks stored in cupboards or garages can attest to. And then, to top it all, the over-worked, exhausted, bleary eyed creative still needs to handle their own marketing as they mostly do not have the resources to contract the relevant experts to aid them. So, they tend to try as best as they can, to promote their work via their own social media platforms, which don’t necessarily reach an audience beyond their own family and friends, and a few existing clients. Add to this a relatively unlegislated environment which leaves the door open for many artists to be exploited, and you have a major challenge for any artist right from the onset of their careers.

Despite this, a career in the visual arts is still actively chosen by many, knowing full well the challenges and difficulties of ‘making’ it in a complex industry. And here I think the support offered by corporates such as Sasol in providing a platform for emerging artists to showcase their work through the Sasol New Signatures Art Competition, is invaluable. It also provides opportunities for dealing with the ‘new normal’, taking into account the decreased availability of physical platforms and the increased potential of virtual platforms. This is especially valuable if the competition is presented in a hybrid format. For this discussion, I do not want to focus on the rewards for the winner, or those in the winner’s circle, as these are quite obvious. I want to rather consider the benefits for those artists who don’t win.

Art competitions are not without challenges, and especially first-time entrants need to be aware of these. Firstly, the effect on the artist’s self confidence when their work is either rejected or loses out to a seemingly ‘better’ work. Art competitions can be brutal, and the rejection may adversely affect the artist’s self-esteem if they are not resilient enough. Unfortunately, rejection is a large part of the art industry. Artists are rejected by learning institutions if they are not ‘good’ or ‘talented’ enough. They are rejected by galleries, they are rejected by buyers, collectors, their exhibition proposals are rejected, and on and on. Rejection by their viewing audience can be particularly harsh. Learning to deal with rejection is a core skill for any artist, but not necessarily the easiest to conquer. But the other side of the coin is that rejection can be a learning experience, showing the artist areas in their own work which may need attention, but also exposing them to different interpretations of the similar themes, quite possibly the same concept their own work deals with. Rejection is not always an indicator of failure but may be a catalyst for change.
Secondly, one of the most underestimated benefits of being included in a competition’s exhibition, is the exposure the artist receives, including artists not part of the winning circle. It is a well-known fact that many galleries, buyers and collectors visit these exhibitions with the specific idea of identifying future artists for their galleries, or to purchase artworks which may have the potential to increase in value as the artist’s standing increases. The exposure also extends to the marketing and public relations input by the sponsor, which accelerates any marketing effort made by the individual artist.

While the debate around the relevance of art competitions will probably continue for a long time, I tend to support the idea that in a world guided by the ‘new normal’, art competitions are uniquely positioned to provide a platform for emerging artists mainly due to the ability to straddle the various challenges faced by artists.

The 2022 Sasol New Signatures exhibition, as well as the solo exhibition by the 2021 winner, Andrea du Plessis, will be open for viewing from 25 August to 2 October 2022 at the Pretoria Art Museum.

Cate Terblanche, Art Curator, Sasol Art Collection

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!