(Article appeared in The Start TONIGHT! in Johannesburg on Thursday, January 24, 1991)
The price of recognition, as any usual artist will confirm, is high. Take the cost of putting on a solo exhibition at a reputable commercial gallery, for example.
Firstly, in order to be accepted by a professional gallery, the potential exhibitor has to package the “product” in the most palatable way – often a considerable expense – be it in the form of slides, photographs and a portfolio. Then there is the tortuous process of organising invitations and publicity, paying gallery rental fees, as well as providing opening night refreshments. Not to mention covering the costs of art materials, framing and mounting. That would be a daunting task for the public relations officer of a major company, not to mention a struggling artist.
And all that effort still doesn’t guarantee a place in the art history books, let alone a mention in the morning paper. Moreover, unless the show is a sell-out success, there’s no way the artist can cover costs, let alone make a profit. In short, not-yet-made-it-artists are among the most isolated members of our workforce. And they don’t even have the support of a union.
Of course there are those people who make it their business to help artists market their work, namely art agents and dealers. There are various species of dealers – wheelers, stealers and benevolents, among others.
Maria Etheridge, director of “Creative Heritage” best fits the benevolent category. Etheridge has recently embarked on an innovative scheme to market and exhibit the work of South African artists. She calls it the “Manhattan Method” because it was in that city that she was first introduced to a marketing concept which is widely used in America and Europe.
The first part of the concept involves contacting prospective buyers – both corporate and private – and consulting them on their specific aesthetic preferences. Then, armed with a catalogue comprised of high quality slides and a slide projector (Etheridge is no armchair agent) she visits clients in the comfort of their offices, boardrooms or lounges, and presents an appropriate segment of the Creative Heritage collection.
The next stage involves bringing the actual (chosen) artworks to the environment for which they had been purchased and personally supervising the hanging arrangements.
But it doesn’t end there. Etheridge represents about 30 artists at present, ranging from unschooled illustrators to established painters and sculptors. In addition to marketing their work, she offers them the facility of a gallery attached to her home in the suburb of Jacanlee, Randburg. Artists may use the gallery as a semi-permanent exhibition venue or, if they have a sufficient body of work, as a space in which to hold solo exhibitions.
What differentiates her gallery from most commercial venues, is that Etheridge herself carries most of the exhibition costs. In addition to being an experienced photographer, she is also a picture framer. She photographs all the works for the Creative Heritage catalogue free of charge and frames the artists’ paintings at ‘ridiculously reasonable rates’.
She also offers to organise invitations to exhibitions and covers catering costs for the openings. Artists may use her space free of charge and she deducts a small percentage for sales of works, which varies slightly according to the status of the exhibitor.
Etheridge is confident about the success of her venture. She says: “I don’t claim to be an art expert, and a lot of what I have achieved has been through trial and error. But the response to the “Manhattan Method” has been incredibly positive, as has the response to the exhibitions.”
She emphasises that there are no proscriptions on the kind of art she markets and exhibits. However, when I visited her gallery, there seemed to be a general uniformity in the works on display. Conventional styles and subjects predominate. Did this imply an aversion to more conceptually oriented art? Apparently not! Etheridge emphasises her openness to all types of art, be it mimetic, abstract or avant-garde.
At this point, cynical eyebrows might be raised. Surely this kind of patronage doesn’t come without a hidden price tag? But after visiting Etheridge in her peri-urban gallery, her integrity and enthusiasm seem beyond dispute. She genuinely wants to assist artists. “There is nothing I love more than visiting artists in their studios, seeing how they work, the smell of paints and turpentine … That may sound naïve, romantic even, but I feel inspired by their dedication.”
And judging from the growing response to “Creative Heritage”, artists who place their trust in Maria Etheridge seem equally inspired by the Manhattan Method.