My assumption was it was a generally accepted positive term, but what I found along the way was that there is a lot more to it than that. It’s a weighty, much debated, loaded term, welcomed and well regarded by some, spurned and intensely disliked by others.
I spoke to gallery directors, art experts, artists and curators from across the spectrum about their thoughts. Some felt it was strictly a useful term, used largely to classify artists as they popped from their art school pods.
The first, most basic layer of feeling pointed to a term helpful to indicate an artist that was perhaps less than ten years out of art school, and working to establish themselves in the art world.
Sarah Hopkinson, director of dealer gallery Hopkinson Mossman, thinks it’s a helpful term, but says it does not necessarily come with a ceiling for age: “Of course artists can emerge later in life.”
She lists Milli Jannides, Oscar Enberg, Nicola Farquhar and Luke Willis Thompson among those recently exhibited, and those considered ‘emerging’ in one way or another.
‘Emerging’ means different things in different contexts, she says. Once an artist has consistently made solo exhibitions, exhibited in public contexts and solo projects at biennales, they may transition to ‘mid-career’.
“Ultimately the label doesn’t really matter – what is important is the work, and the seriousness of the practice.”
Seriousness of practice is something referenced by a number of people I spoke to.
Natasha Matila-Smith exhibited Lonely Island at Te Tuhi last year. She brought to me the idea that ‘emerging’ may have more to do with whether you work as a full-time artist. For her it’s not age focused or about how many shows you’re in, but more to do with committing yourself to art beyond just being a part-time gig.
She sees is as a positive term, and considers herself an emerging multi-disciplinary artist.
There is a freedom to being considered ‘emerging’ that allows a certain level of agency to completely change direction, she says.
Matila-Smith acknowledges in a more general sense that ‘emerging’ is a loaded term.
“I think personally that emerging is particularly associated with being ‘fresh’ or ‘new’, but then I’m not so sure. Maybe it is an age-ist term or something dealer galleries and auction houses gravitate towards because it’s edgy and sellable.”
Te Tuhi Curator at Large, Bruce E. Phillips says all terms are problematic but give some sort of scaffolding to work with. They can help artists form collegiality, particularly if an art form is under represented.
‘Emerging’ can be used in a liberating way, to identify a new movement or change, but it appears the quest to find ‘the next big art thing’ is a far stronger urge. Phillips agrees. He points to the 2009 show by the New Museum, Younger than Jesus, which was tightly focused on young talent from around the world. It was a launch pad for contemporary artist Simon Denny.
“There’s huge cachet to find the next thing, that’s a compulsion we can never help. It’s a form of cultural capital.”
Sorawit Songsataya knows a bit more than most about being pointed to as ‘the next big thing in art’. The Auckland artist won the National Contemporary Art Award for Good Kisser last year, often a marker of one to watch.
We discussed what it was to be considered an emerging artist, and to him it means being on the edge, unsafe and risky – and certainly not guaranteeing a ticket to a bright future, or financial stability. He has chosen to immerse himself in a non-commercial life, including his creative one.
“I don’t pay much attention to labels. All I know is this is a journey I decided to commit myself to years ago, and I simply carry on, one step a day. Success is not to do with being signed by a dealer gallery or getting shown at an international biennale."
“I dislike it when financial success pushes artists into positions where they have to professionalise themselves and just end up with wealth, profit and a comfortable lifestyle. It erases the meaningful process of making art. Emerging has this individualistic notion to it – of wanting to be seen, to become visible. It’s a mind-set that’s different to mine.”
At this point of the journey my ‘little buds of emerging artists’ image becomes shaky.
While acknowledging it might mean fresh from art school or new on the scene, artist Faith Wilson tells me the term ‘emerging artist’ is mainly for those who want to retain the reins, that such terms are useful.
There are those who have a vested interest in maintaining the artistic elite. It seems the label is mostly used, not by the group itself, but by those holding the power.
“To me, it’s just another way for the old art fogies and cronies to think that they’re still the most relevant ones,” Wilson says.For Artspace director Misal Adnan Yildiz, having just completed his three year tenure, labels don’t mean anything.
“It’s just a way you develop a structure for development. But it’s almost like calling a woman artist a woman artist, or a gay artist a gay artist. It’s not useful and it doesn’t have meaning.
"There is always a need for this fresh blood, people who are younger and younger in practice,” he says.
“It’s very vampire-like when you think of it.”
Having heard and absorbed this remark I was forced to reflect on the diverse and sometimes contradictory responses I had received. It was almost exhilarating for me to learn the term had this double life – sweet and innocent on the one hand, and dark and passionately obsessed with the next young conquest on the other.
Like everything in art, ‘emerging artist’ has multiple readings, many meanings and there is no one answer. But what this investigation has left me with is a sense that it drives speculation and forces us to move beyond apathy or fashion to delve just that little bit deeper. Hot or not, emerging or emerged, it is ultimately the viewer that makes the final call.