Is this the rise of art as a viable source of income?

A painting of pelicans by Joseph Ntesibe. Photo by Eddie Chicco

What you need to know:

Art for cash: A few years ago, art was just, art. Today, many artists have reaped cash from the canvass.

With art exhibitions and art galleries increasing, it just might be that the steadily growing numbers of artists have come to reclaim art and turn it into a profitable venture. The musicians had their time to raise music from an obscure career for drop-outs and gangstas to become a well-paying respected career. Could this be the artists turn?

Prices for oil/acrylic on canvas painting at the recently held Alliance Francaise signature art exhibition at Kabira Country Club were anything from $300 (Shs900,000) to $3,000 (Shs9 million). The Chartis art exhibition back in July also carried some work with hefty price tags.

At Afriart gallery in Bukoto, the fastest moving art works range between $200 (Shs600,000) to $500 (Shs1.5 million). Daudu Karungi the proprietor, says quite a number of artists live off art. “They display their art in various galleries and every once hold solo exhibitions. Either way their work is always being seen and they make sales,” he told Arts & Culture.

A growing number of art enthusiasts and collectors made up of both Ugandans and expatriates might have a lot, if not everything, to do with the rise of art as a source of income and the relegation of the ‘starving artist’ notion to a thing of the past.

Ishmael Kateregga, a Makerere Fine Arts graduate I found at the Alliance Francaise signature art exhibition has been earning a living from painting since he graduated in 2005. “Art sales are seasonal in nature. I can go for up to six months without making a sale then make enough money to last me a year in one week’s sales,” he says, adding that to sustain a lifestyle from this kind of on-and-off income, one just has to know how to plan for their money. “An artist has to make sure they produce good work and are consistent enough to make a living off their talent.”

Of the common assumption that art is expensive, Kateregga thinks it is just that, an assumption. “We artists know that art is necessary and other people albeit slowly are beginning to appreciate that fact. People buy electronics like Plasma screen TV’s worth millions that will be obsolete in a few years, thus it is not that they can’t afford art works whose value increases with age, but that it is not on their priority list,” he says.

Still he is thankful this is changing, making it possible for him and others like him to reap from their labor of love. Aside from the expatriate market, Kateregga knows about 10 Ugandans who are ardent art collectors and have bought his paintings, among them Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi and Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka.

He says while the material he uses are not expensive, the technical and spiritual input that goes in each of his work justifies the price that ranges between $500 (Shs1.5 million )to $1,000 (Shs1 million).
“The most expensive painting I ever sold was $3,000 (Shs9 million),” he intimates.

If anyone should know whether an artist can make a living solely from his talent, it is Joseph Ntensibe who has painted his way through most of his 34 years. Except for a stint teaching art in secondary schools, he has made a living from his work and built a clientele. “I have most of my exhibitions abroad and none of my works go for less than $3,000 (Shs9 million),” he says. Ntensibe got his first break to exhibit his work outside Uganda in 1984 when he made friends with some expatriates.

“Back then things were harder for an artist, nowadays the attitude towards art is improving and all an artist needs is persistence and a love for it to make it,” he says, adding that he thinks the new crop of artists have immense talent and lots of energy and have a good chance at making it if they manage to escape the all too easy temptation of losing the articulacy of their work in pursuit of sales.

Among those who most recently bought his work are Tullow Oil Uganda and the self-styled patron of Ugandan artists, Gen Elly Tumwine.