Art

Open air affordable art earns millions

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Joseph Cartoon's Fish for Lunch at Nairobi National Museum on May 1, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

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Summary

  • Rather than scale back on the number and kind of art exhibition that they’ve normally had in the past, the Kenya Museum Society chose to hold two Affordable Art shows.
  • Both the artists and the audiences were delighted to have the opportunity to see and sell affordable Kenyan art out in the open air of Nairobi National Museum’s courtyard.

Rather than scale back on the number and kind of art exhibition that they’ve normally had in the past, the Kenya Museum Society chose to hold two Affordable Art shows during this financial year, not just one.

“The first one was held in October [2020] when we had nearly 500 people attend during the three-day exhibition,” says the show’s coordinator, Dr Marla Stone. The second transpired this past weekend.

“But having two shows in a year is definitely a one-off event. We will go back to having just one annual show after this,” she tells Business Daily.

Two sisters by MOses in KMS'AffoedableArt show@ Nairobi National Museum,1 May 2021

Two Sisters by Moses Nyawanda at Nairobi National Museum on May 1, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Both the artists and the audiences were delighted to have the opportunity to see and sell affordable Kenyan art out in the open air of Nairobi National Museum’s courtyard.

But things were very different, logistically speaking, this year. “We of course followed the Ministry of Health protocols,” says KMS chairperson Patricia Jentz.

“That meant we had to scale everything down according to social distancing guidelines and masks. It also meant that where we previously had up to 500 artworks in a show, this year’s was nearly half that size [or 223],” she adds.

Maasai cucu by Gaia at AFfordable Art show, Kenya National Museum

Contemporary Maasai by Gaia Aggarwal at Nairobi National Museum on May 1, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The biggest change in the Affordable Art Show this time round is that rather than KMS putting out an open call to all artists to bring their art for vetting and possible inclusion in the exhibition, the 139 artists whose paintings were on display had specifically been invited.

“We invited only those artists who had participated in [affordable art] shows in the past, and those whose art had specifically sold,” says Dr. Stone who admits that KMS like most businesses worldwide has been hit hard economically by the pandemic.

“KMS exists specifically to support the Museum, but currently, we need to raise funds just so we can pay our staff,” she adds.

Yet local artists feel just as grateful to have a public venue in which to display and ideally sell their art. Granted, some artists don’t like the constraint that KMS puts on sales since no one can sell their work for more than Sh99,999.

“We also advise artists if they’d like to sell their work, to keep their prices moderate. But they see that for themselves,” Dr Stone adds.

This year, only one artist put a price tag of Sh95,000 on her painting. At the same time, there were other artists who had previously sold their work for several hundred thousand shillings but came down dramatically price-wise.

Affordable art Simon Kayleo (2)

Under the Canopy by Simon Kalweo in Affordable art show, Nairobi National Museum on May 2, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Keeping their price tags down proved to be effective in seeing 20 percent of the exhibition sold on the opening Friday afternoon, April 30.

“We made more than Sh1.5 million that first day, and that was with an audience reduced by the COVID protocols,” says Dr Stone who explained the open day only ran from 3pm to 6pm in one-hour intervals.

“We allowed only 40 people in per hour, and they too attended by invitation only,” she adds. Saturday and Sunday were open days so that people could come in at their leisure and walk around the courtyard where every wall was filled with art.

“We couldn’t have [standing] sculptures this year. But if an artwork could be hung, it was included,” she notes, alluding to metal works by artists like Alex Wainaina and Evans Ngure.

Otherwise, the paintings were grouped according to animals, people, specifically women, the environment, and miscellaneous pieces. The curatorial work was done by Dr. Stone and Wendy Karmali of KMS together with Lydia Galavu, art curator of the Nairobi Museum.

With KMS members being all volunteers, they each have their reasons for sticking with the Society and the Affordable Art show. For Dr Stone, she says she has two main reasons for continuing to serve as the show’s coordinator. One is because the stress on ‘affordability’ is meant to encourage Kenyans to come see and buy the art of their fellow Kenyans.

“It’s also to let them see you don’t need to be a millionaire to own Kenyan art,” she says.

sam njuguna's CityGateway at Affordable art show, Nairobi National Museum, 1 May 2021

City Gateway by Samuel Njuguna Njoroge at Affordable Art show, Nairobi National Museum May 1, 2021. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

The other reason she enjoys spending her time and effort on the show is because it’s meant to give young, largely unknown local artists a chance to expose their work to a wider audience.

“This year we couldn’t do that because we had to meet Ministry of Health’s requirements of identifying who will be in the show. But hopefully, next year we’ll be able to open it up to all young Kenyan artists as we have always done before.”