Saturday 31 October 2020

Ajueshi's plans for young professionals in art management skills

Jeff Ajueshi, Founder/Artistic Director of Thought Pyramid Art Centre Abuja and Lagos. Pic: c/o Thought Pyramid.

ART galleries in Nigeria, like most parts of the world, are the fountains from which the passions of artists, collectors, curators and other professionals in the visual culture economy get watered. 

In Nigeria’s history of art gallery business, which is less than 60 years old, so much efforts have gone through the system that is still pulsating the commercial value of artists’ works. One of the country’s second generation professionals in art management, JEFF AJUESHI, Founder/Artistic Director of Thought Pyramid Art Centre Abuja and Lagos shared his experience with Tajudeen Sowole while responding to many issues woven around the business in Nigeria. 

Galleries across the world, in the past few years, have been taking advantage of increasing art fairs in Europe, U.S and the Middle East to project local artists into global space. It appeared Nigeria-based art galleries have not been as active in that area. Ajueshi agreed that participating in international art fairs creates opportunities for artists and galleries representing them. For most galleries, however, he noted that funding has been the real issue. "My galleries have over the years participated in a couple of fairs, from New York to Dubai and Miami." 
Yes, quite a number of Nigerian artists have been shown at top level international art fairs. But given the volume of artists and depth of creative contents produced in art from Nigeria, the output on the international space does not represent that numerical strength. Ajueshi noted this much, saying "I acknowledge that the numbers of participating galleries are only a minimal percentage." But he insisted that "the biggest reason for that is funding." 
Representing artists has always been a complex venture for most galleries in Nigeria. It's an issue as old as art business, even in some parts of art hub economies across the world. It becomes more challenging in the age of the internet as artists get easy connection to self-market their works. "The dynamics involved in representing artists in this present day is a whole lot more complicated than it was 15 years ago," Ajueshi who started his art management career nearly 20 years ago agreed. Despite the widening window of self-marketing for artists in the digital age, representation by gallery, Ajueshi argued, is still important. "Still, I strongly believe artists need that professional representation from galleries as we provide the environment for proper dialogue and correct presentation of the artist and their works."  
Perhaps, artist representation is broader than the regular mode of operation, so explained Ajueshi whose experience cuts across three generations of Nigerian artists. "For the past 10 years, Thought Pyramid Art Centre has represented over 400 artists directly and indirectly, helping them with promotion, presentation, preservation and sales." 
One of the major scores for art management in Nigeria was the formation of the country's first union for professionals in art gallery business. Known as Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), it was founded in 2008. Between then and currently, AGAN, in collaboration with National Gallery of Art (NGA), organised three editions of Art Expo in Lagos. From that yearly event, more art galleries were exposed to the public space under AGAN, led by its then president, Chief Frank Okonta (1939-2019). In nearly 10 years, AGAN has not been heard to be active, even long before Okonta died. "I cannot categorically say what happened to AGAN, but the focus should be about going forward," Ajueshi said. 
In a country like Nigeria where government supports for the creative industry is almost non-existence, individual art gallery's survival becomes more of priority than collective approach. "It is extremely tasking on all of us to stay afloat." Whoever owns or manages art business facility in Nigeria, he argued, "must be celebrated because it isn’t easy in our social and financial environment." 
For collective approach under a group of common interest, he "strongly believe that there is need for a union." He urged gallery owners in Nigeria to come together for "dialogue as ways to create more conducive environments as well as how we can get the government involved in what we do."
Thought Pyramid Art Centre, Ikoyi, Lagos. Pic: c/o Thought Pyramid.
Beyond being privately owned businesses, art galleries, he explained "are preserving and promoting our culture here." 
It's been established, many times, that whenever government at either state or federal level had anything to do with the creative industry, the visual arts professionals always struggled to get attention. For example, visual artists were not represented in the list of committee released by the Ministry of Information and Culture for support of the creative industry after the Covid-19 lockdown. It took an outcry for the list to be amended, which eventually had Oliver Enwonwu, President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) on the committee. It seemed the economic value of art was not clear to government. Perhaps, placing the Nigerian art economy in digit worth may attract government's attention beyond its major role of preserving cultural heritage. What is the worth of art economy in Nigeria per year? 
"The visual arts sector has continually been looked down upon," Ajueshi noted, but accused policy makers in government of lacking "proper education on art," as an industry on its own. In economic valuation, Ajueshi puts an estimated figure. "The Nigerian visual arts sector is a billion dollar industry waiting to be harnessed." 
However, getting the attention of government to support art, he noted, requires more efforts from the private sector. "Just like the music and movie sectors, it is going to take a lot of sacrifice from pioneers and the private sector before we attract attention of government." He cited the differential value of art between Africa and the global space to support his argument. "Once an art piece leaves the shores of Nigeria, its value triples, that is to tell you how valuable African, and Nigerian art in particular, is to the rest of the world." While government is more about policy, he advised that private investors should invest in African art. "Presently the eyes of the international art business is focused on Africa and Nigeria," making now "the right time to invest in our art."
Most artists who come from formal training background into full or part-time studio practice hardly have mentorship background or pre-exposure into art entrepreneurial skills. It's been argued at different art fora that individual art gallery owner or manager should be sharing experience with the academia from where artists are incubated.  
However, it does appear that most art galleries are either not interested in that area of mentorship or the academia end doesn't accommodate it. 
“Over the past few years, there has been exchange of knowledge between academics and gallerists,” Ajueshi recalled few instances. He noted, for example how Thought Pyramid Galleries, specifically, has its methodology. He explained how the galleries have captured students into the mentorship net "by involving them in discussions and talks as well as getting participants involved in certain aspects of gallery work to further expand their knowledge in art management." His experience, Ajueshi admitted, did not involve the academia. And going forward, there is another plan in engaging the schools. "Our plan is to start with, at least, donation of art books and exhibition catalogues to institutions as a way of kick-starting knowledge exchange and then we see how it goes from there."
Curatorial practice is still slowly growing in Nigeria. Young and independent curators who do not want to be employed by state-owned museums and private galleries are also on the increase. However, the commercial art gallery spaces hardly engage independent     curators, thereby shrinking the opportunities available for curatorial practice. What's Thought Pyramid's plans for such young independent curators? "This is why in my previous answer I mentioned that the visual arts is a sector on its own. There are a lot of skills and expertise needed in the visual arts industry and curating sits at the top."

Contrary to perceptions of some artists in Nigeria, Ajueshi who has acquired art management skills from quite a number of international programmes argued that "curators are the custodians and interpreters of culture and arts." For emphasis, he disclosed: "At Thought Pyramid, we have a strong belief in grooming and exposing young professionals interested in taking curating as a profession. We expose them to international programs and events to groom them while also getting them totally involved in curating works and exhibitions in the gallery."
Thought Pyramid organises the yearly Next of Kin art competition for young artists. It seemed there are two other new yearly shows on the way in the proposed showing of another set of 12 artists from the contemporary masters, as well as five in Ajorin exhibition of metal artists. How would Thought Pyramid handle three major art exhibitions, particularly in an economy just recovering from the Covid-19 lockdown?

Jeff Ajueshi. Pic: c/o Thought Pyramid.
"Not enough," he exclaimed confidently. "Looking at the large pool of talents across the country, I would say three aren't enough at all." He explained that the Nigerian art business environment "needs to give as much people as possible opportunities." The galleries' investment, he said, "isn’t for us, it is for the future; as the artists find more creative forms and medium to express themselves, it is our job to also give them the platform to be seen." In fact, he assured that more major shows are in the works." 
In 2007, Ajueshi founded Thought Pyramid Art Centre, as a foremost cultural space in Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, In 2017, the Centre opened another space in Ikoyi, Lagos to commemorate its 10th anniversary. 
In his career as a curator, Ajueshi has attended various leadership art business and curatorial programmes in London, New York, Marrakesh, Venice and Vienna, among others. 
 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art writer and Art Advisor. 

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