ART OF MAKING A LIVING By Colin Cardwell, The Herald 27th Jan 09
ART OF MAKING A LIVING
A good grounding in business can be an essential asset for emerging young artists, say Colin Cardwell
There are two distinct sets of figures that dominate artist Frank To's life- the tenebrous wraith- like bodies that inhabit his canvases and the ones that populate the bottom line of his business. He talks with almost as much energy about the need to weather the economic storm as he does about his painting.
The 26- year- old already has his work hanging in the private collection of actor Patrick Stewart, forever to be known as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek fame, and beside the work of Andy Warhol and Picasso in New York.
Frank grew up in Glasgow and studied at St Ninian's High School where, he developed an interest in art in his teens ("I remember being impressed by Peter Howson's work on CD covers") he was also given lessons in sound business by his Hong Kong born mother, who is a self- employed caterer.
He had, he said decided to make fine art his career at an early stage and Huddersfield University was the only institution at the time that combined his twin interests of fine art and business.
After two years of a BA he took a year out to travel in Europe, which sparked an appreciation for Michelangelo, then took a work placement, returning to Glasgow and a studio in the Merchant City with the kind of serious drive that was beginning to distinguish him from the typical art student.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was applying to galleries which he continued to do during a further year studying for an MA in Fine Arts at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. "It made economic sense; I have a place to work from, free internet access and I was thinking long term," he says.
In 2005, just before completing the Masters, Frank received an offer from the Fairfax Contemporary Art Gallery in London to show his work at the Affordable Art Fair, the showcase for contemporary art priced at under £3000.
"The gallery took all my Masters work," he says. By the end of the three days all but one painting has been sold." This, for a new artist who had never been heard of, was unusual. The gallery hadn't been sure how the audience would react to my work, "says Frank. "I think they were surprised."
He admits that he was surprised too. "But I was very pleased because not only did it allow me to start up in business as a self employed artist but importantly, it allowed my work to be seen by new, emerging and established galleries. Because it sold well, a lot of other galleries started taking notice and I began to get offers.
Wary of making too many commitments, he returned to Glasgow to set up his own studio space, currently at Wasps Artists' Studios in the city's east end- a charitable company that provides studios for more than 750 artists at 17 locations throughout Scotland.
This, unsurprisingly, was no mere chance either. Anticipating the competition for studios, he had begun to search in his second year at Huddersfield.
"By beginning at 20 I knew I was going through the waiting list while I was still studying. Luckily for me, it worked out quite well."
Start- up cash was needed and he contacted the Princes Scottish Youth Business Trust (PSYBT) and Business Gateway. "I started taking commissions and making commitments, "he says. The first year was extremely difficult- probably he concedes, down to his taking on an overload of work, "But I had to get my name known on the art circuit, to get galleries to notice me."
He was also assiduous in keeping the galleries undated with his developments and raising his profile- which was given a boost when Patrick Stewart, who was chancellor of Huddersfield University, came to his BA degree show.
"We had a chat, then I had an email from him saying that he had enjoyed my work. I went to London to see him and he bought two of my paintings."
This engendered more interest among private collectors and his work was seen by Michel Witmer, an art historian and dealer who now has a Frank To in his New York collection, which includes a Picasso and Andy Warhol. "For me to be hung beside guys like that is something major," says Frank.
Influenced by the New Glasgow Boys, including Howson and Ken Currie, Frank describes his oil paintings as being on the boundaries of figurative and conceptual art. His smaller pieces sell for around £1700 and the largest for more than £5000 and the value of his work has, he says, increased significantly in the past three years.
In the meantime, he retains a connection with PSYBT: "I believe in the same things they do, in terms of motivating new business. I plan to be mentoring young artists, I've been asked to be on the committee and I'm always willing to help."
In five years, he says, the only certainty is that he will still be an artist, and still looking after business. "A lot of people think that there are no job prospects in fine art, but it is very much a real job. You have to keep certain hours, you have to do your book- keeping and make sure all your paints and materials are in stock. And in this the current economic climate, where people are in a state of fear, art can be both an inspiration and an investment.