Marketing Kenyan Art revolutionized by Social Media
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Published May 24, 2012
Business Daily, Nairobi
Marketing of Kenyan contemporary art has historically been the weakest link in the chain of the Kenya’s creative economy as far as visual culture is concerned.
For years marketing has been dominated by Asian curio dealers or expatriate gallery owners who have kept indigenous Kenyans out of the loop connecting the patron or client to the product, the work of art itself.
“Asians art dealers used to tell clients the African artist had either moved out of town or died rather than tell the buyer where to find the artist,” recalled Patrick Kinuthia who exhibits and markets his art through various channels today, including Banana Hill Art Gallery, an art center owned by an indigenous Kenyan artist and businessman, Shine Tani.
Chinese visitor Liu at Banana Hill Art Gallery. Art on panels by Chilonga Haji. Pix: Qi Lin
Kinuthia also has a relative overseas who sells his paintings as prints to a market hungry to see more of African popular artistry. But he is still a rarity in the international art realm, since up until very recently, indigenous Kenyan artists were cut off from the global art market, either due to their isolation, lack of information or low level of entrepreneurial savvy.
Meanwhile, expatriates gallery owner-managers like the late Ruth Schaffner of Gallery Watatu used to buy African art on the cheap and sell it for exponentially higher prices, cutting out the artist from the financial equation altogether. That practice continues today, be it in the realm of African so-called artifacts (such as Turkana headrests which get shipped abroad illegally and in bulk by expatriate ‘culture vultures’) or artworks sold on commission by the gallery that still keeps the Kenyan artist in the dark as to who exactly his or her clients are.
Adrian Nduma uses Facebook to market his colorufl abstract expressionist paintings. Pix: Qi Lin
But today the marketing scene is changing rapidly with the arrival of social media. Artists using Facebook, Twitter, email, and or text messaging all have instantaneous means of cutting out the middle man or woman and making their work known both locally and globally.
Nonetheless, it is still the case that some artists still market their art the old fashioned way, either by word of mouth, printed invitation sent out by snail mail, and/or posters that get put up around town, at central cultural locations such as Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute or GoDown Art Centre.
Geraldine Robarts still prints colorful invitations, many of which go by snail mail or get hand delivered to promote her Village Market exhibition which opened May 30th in Nairobi. Pix: Mike Fairhead.
Others still rely on the public exhibitions of their art, leaving it to the gallery or art center to do the publicizing of their solo or group shows. That can be effective, especially if those art venues employ social media to let their clients, friends and followers know about upcoming exhibitions.
Some artists find that having private showings at the homes of serious art clients can be quite an effective means of marketing their art and making sales. But those artists tend to be a minority. For instance, in March, William Wambugu showed his artwork at the private home of Samantha Ripa di Meana in Westlands. In April, Peter Mburu cultivated an American client who kindly introduced him to her friends in private settings. Both women have also taken the artists under their wing and sponsored public exhibitions for them: Wambugu’s at Ripa di Meana’s Contemporary Roots Gallery in Brussels, Mburu’s at the Nairobi National Museum.
But not too many Kenyan artists have such special relationships with their clients. Ripa di Meana is one of the few expatriates who sees herself as an “agent” working exclusively to advance Wambugu’s artistic career.
Otherwise, William Ndwiga, founder-director of the Little Art Gallery believes that “Kenya’s creative economy is not yet advanced to the stage where we can easily have agents managing artists’ careers. Artists can’t yet afford to confine themselves to business ties with just one agent,” he said.
Gallery Watatu’s acting director Osei Kofi differs a bit with Ndwiga on this point however. He is hoping, after relocating Gallery Watatu from Nairobi’s City Center to Spring Valley by the end of this year, to establish exclusive agent-artist relations with a number of Kenyan artists.
Kofi has tried this style of operating before with a host of Kenyan artists, but very few have stuck to the verbal agreement made with the Ghanaian-born former Weekly Review journalist-turned-galleriest.
The closest thing to a successful agent-artist relationship is happening at OneOff Gallery where the former co-director of the now defunct RaMoMa Museum, Carol Lees, has well established yet loose relations with a range of what she considers first-tier Kenyan artists, such as Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia, Beatrice Njoroge, Timothy Brooke and Peterson Kamwathi.
One of the first galleries in Nairobi to use social media in the form of email and Facebook, OneOff’s success can also be attributed to Lees’ longstanding track record. She opened her gallery in 1993. And even during the years when she managed and curated RaMoMa (her co-founder/director was the well-known Kenyan artist Mary Collis), she kept One Off on the back burner. That way, when she left RaMoMa in late 2009, she had a vast online international client network which had expanded over time.
Meanwhile, what increasing numbers of local artists have chosen to do instead is practice a kind of ‘open door policy’ out of their home studios. This is what has been happening with artists such as Peterson Kamwathi, Richard Kimathi, Anthony Okello, and even Peter Kenyanya, who have moved out of Kuona Trust to establish their own solo studios where they welcome clients who either casually drop by or call first and make an appointment.
Some of those who have moved out of Kuona Trust have also established new art centers of their own. Patricia Njeri Ndungu did it when she set up Kilele Arts in Ruaka two years ago. Michael Wafula also did it when he set up Kijiji Arts Studio around the same time in Kayole.
Adrian Nduma never associated directly with any of the local art centers before he opened his studio-gallery to visitors and prospective clients. Instead, he actually came from a banking background. He got his first university degree in Art Education from Kenyatta, taught briefly, but then recognized the wisdom of learning more about business, preparing (either consciously or unconsciously) to apply that knowledge (with MBA studies as well) to the business of marketing his own art.
Now Nduma also operates his own Bonzo Art Gallery as well as exhibiting at local venues, such as the Nairobi National Museum (where he had a one-man show earlier this month), the Osteria in Karen and the Talisman Restaurant where he is currently holding a show of his colorful abstract expressionist paintings.
Like an increasing number of Kenyan artists, Nduma is using social media to market his art. He uses everything from text messaging to email to Facebook. He doesn’t have his own website, like a few local artists do, including Kamwathi (www.kamwathi.com) and Peter Kenyanya (www.sculpturekenya.co.ke). But he does have his own Facebook page for his Bonzo gallery.
One of the most innovative art marketing strategies using Facebook devised by a Kenyan artist is Michael Soi’s. Even before he shifted from Kuona Trust to the GoDown Art Center, Soi was putting his partially painted works of art on Facebook practically every day.
Our privilege as his Facebook friends was to watch a painting progress day by day. Engaging his audience in the process by so doing, Soi has helped teach his public, be they local or global, about what’s involved in painting a work of art.
It doesn’t hurt that his paintings tend to be slightly titillating at the same time as they are storytelling about Nairobi night life. But by familiarizing his audience with a work over time, he enhances the prospect of someone also wanting to buy his finished work of art.
So what social media is frankly doing is enabling Kenyan artists to control the marketing of their art, to increasingly eliminate the middle man and gain their independence as art marketers.
Artists are increasingly able to address both global and local art markets without waiting for a third party to promote their work or maybe not.
“Social media has revolutionized art marketing,” said Shine Tani, director of Banana Hill Art Gallery, who primarily relies on email to inform more than 2000 of the gallery’s friends and prospective patrons about upcoming exhibitions.
A Kenyan artist cum entrepreneur who has been painting since the 1980s when his first patron was Ruth Schaffner, Shine had felt the pain of being subject to middle men’s (and women’s) manipulation to the point where self-reliance has been his goal as an art dealer/marketer for many years.
Shine and his wife Rahab started Banana Hill Art Studio out of their home in the early 1990s, registered as a legal entity in 1994, and were doing okay till they got some donor funding early in the 2000s. The Studio almost died due to internal strife and external interference. Fortunately, what saved the art center was its becoming a more business-like operation. “We started to see art as a business, not as a project to be funded by a foreign donor [for pennies].” Shine said.
Another Kenyan who sees art as an ‘industry’, part of the up-and-coming Kenyan creative economy, is William Ndwiga. He defines himself not an artist, but explicitly as an art marketer, someone who works with a wide cross-section of local artists, not as an agent, but as an advocate and promoter.
Ironically, one of Ndwiga’s most effective marketing strategies is the old fashioned word-of-mouth, networking style of communicating with prospective patrons of East African art on a one-on-one basis.
Aiming to break into a still largely untapped market niche of middle class Kenyans, Ndwiga has made it his marketing ‘mission’ to create awareness of not only the investment value of art, but also its functionality in their homes and their “need” (albeit possibly not yet recognized) to include art in their newly acquired middle class lifestyle.
Admitting his work is a slow process, Ndwiga says his marketing strategy is multifaceted and doesn’t simply involve the quick fix of texting, phoning or emailing his fellow Kenyans. Instead, he takes Kenyan contemporary art into indigenous Kenyans’ homes for what he calls ‘An Afternoon of Art with a Small Circle of Friends’. By so doing, he aims to gradually introduce African art to Kenyans who may know nothing about it, but among friends, don’t feel uncomfortable about exploring what it means.
His goal he says is nothing less than raising their awareness that spending tens or even hundreds of thousands on one work of art is a smart idea. Thus far, he has been quite successful in the process. Among the artists whose works he has sold are those of Peterson Kamwathi, Peter Elungat, Patrick Kamwathi, Beatrice Njoroge, Emily Odongo and Wanyu Brush among others.
So while there is little doubt that social media is transforming the art marketing landscape for Kenyans, creating a far more global market range for them to throw their hats into, artists still face challenges in marketing their work.
Often, one will find online that foreign agents who have bought Kenyan artworks for peanuts are on the internet marketing their art just as Ruth Schaffner used to do, for astronomical prices, not a penny of which comes back to the local artist.
But an art entrepreneur like Shine Tani is philosophical about such practices. It may be that Todd Schaffer (www.insideafricanart.com) is making money off of Kenyan artworks in America or Ed Cross (www.edcrossfineart.com) is doing the same marketing Kamwathi in the UK and Michel van Helsdingen (www.nzuriart.com) the same in the Netherlands. But each of them in their own way is promoting Kenyan contemporary art, and that is good for the locals both in the short and long run, Shine says.