NAIROBI, KENYA: Art pays, or so we can judge from the stories of paintings being auctioned for millions of shillings around the world. Yet we are not quite sure how its value is quantified. To add to the mystery is the story of starving artists. Although art apparently sells for a fortune, choosing a career in this field looks like choosing a life of poverty.
To help us make sense of the niche art market, Danda Jaroljmek, founder of Circle Art Gallery, talks to Hustle about a world that she has been part of for almost a quarter century and knows like the back of her hand.
How did Circle Art Gallery come to be?
In the beginning we were Circle Art Agency. We had a viewing room and an annual auction but we didn’t have an exhibition space. What we did was have pop-up exhibitions around Nairobi at old abandoned houses and places like those. It was fantastic but we couldn’t show enough art on a regular basis so in 2015, we opened the gallery. We have had about 15 exhibitions here in the last three years.
How did you get started in art?
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That is a long story. I have a degree in public art and after that I worked for an organisation called the Triangle Arts Trust, which networked artists across the world. I travelled widely around Africa connecting artists, setting up workshops and residencies. This is really important for artists in areas where there isn’t enough of an art infrastructure. After that I ran Kuona Trust here in Nairobi for eight years and when I had done that for long enough, I set up Circle Art. Kuona provided artists with training and studio space but I felt that artists needed an organisation that focused on building audiences as well as assisting and advising the audience. That’s what we do here. In the past, the art-buying community was international but that has changed dramatically in the last few years and I believe that we have had a lot to do with that.
Why is it important for people to collect art?
I think there are many reasons. First, it is important for people to collect their heritage and their culture. Because there is very little art in schools here, people grow up with very little art knowledge and awareness. Creativity is important in everybody’s life, whether you are a banker, an accountant or an artist. It’s important to support the local art community because artists are always the first people to tell us about our society. They are the ones who put themselves out on a limb. They are the ones who take risks to document what is going on in our lives. People often think of art as mere decoration but it’s much more powerful than that. Young artists in Nairobi are making really interesting commentary about life. It is no longer about rural landscapes.
What is it specifically that Circle Art does for artists?
We don’t formally represent artists. We work with a wide range of them because our collectors like to see variety. We give artists solo shows and we also have group exhibitions usually with some sort of concept or theme. The exhibitions run for about three to four weeks. We produce a brochure and catalogue for each exhibition, everything goes up on our website and social media pages and in this way, we raise a huge amount of awareness for these shows. We also guide clients and help them with their collections. We will even hang the work for people if they want us to come to their homes or offices and do that for them. We also do about three to five international art fairs every year where we showcase Kenyan art outside the country. The places we go to include South Africa, London and Paris. Art has value and I work with artists and collectors to ensure that the prices are fair.
Have Kenyans reached a place where they are making art that can be viewed as an investment?
Definitely. I have seen the value of artists’ work increase very much over the last 10 years. We would never advise that you buy art simply as an investment but we can definitely show the increase in value of an artist’s work. Particularly the older artists and those who have become very successful.
Can being an artist, therefore, be a viable career path?
We have a very large group of artists here in Nairobi who are full-time practicing artists. They manage to survive on the making of art. In other countries, artists can supplement their income by teaching or from grants and art councils but here that doesn’t really exist. For artists to survive here they have to sell enough art to make ends meet, and they do. Artists like Michael Soi have been clever enough to make a range of merchandise that has been very successful and are works of art in themselves that are more affordable for people to buy.
How much does art sell for in Kenya?
It depends. Smaller works that are on paper or limited edition prints could cost anywhere from Sh15,000 to Sh80,000. For a good painting, you will be charged Sh80,000 to Sh300,000. For the senior artists, successful artists who can command an international market and some of the modern masters who are deceased, prices go up to Sh1.8 million.
How much commission does the gallery charge artists?
We take 40 per cent, which is lower than the international norm which is 50 per cent. We spend a lot of money to host an exhibition. We do the catalogues, we contact the press and our collectors, we send out portfolios and so the behind-the-scenes work is enormous. It’s more than just putting art up on the wall.
What are some of the success stories you have had?
The most resounding success for us was the annual art auction. It has now been rebranded as the Art Auction East Africa and happens once a year. We are on our fifth edition and usually have 50 art works or lots from East Africa. This year we shall have a few pieces from Nigeria and Mozambique as well. The Kenyan community has really enjoyed the auction. It is a very traditional and transparent way of selling art. We list all the auction prices on our website the night of the auction.
I think people like the competition and bidding against each other. Knowing other people are bidding for the same work makes buyers confident in their purchases.
That has been a real success story because there was no auction in this region and this has raised awareness internationally about art from East Africa. Nobody really knew much about East African art except for Tinga Tinga and some of the Sudanese artists, but that’s changing. There is a curiosity about what is happening here. One of the things I am, however, most proud of is the gallery and the exhibition space that we have here. Artists have risen to the challenge to make really exciting work for us to show. We draw 200 to 300 people per exhibition and I remember 20 years ago when I first started, you would be lucky to have 30 people. Now it’s something that people look forward to.