When it comes to fine art and street art in Austin, the lines get a little blurry.
A sense of vibrant creativity has defined Austin for many years now. The city is best known for its colorful live music scene, filled with artists working in a variety of genres. But more recently, Austin has staked out a reputation for being a place for the advancement and exploration of art.
Austin’s famed Castle Hill Graffiti Park on Baylor Street downtown exemplifies this. The large collection of graffiti and street art is now considered a local destination, something tourists and travelers passing through make a point of seeing before they leave.
Street art, such as that which is on display at the park, has spread throughout Austin. Murals around town, like the University Co-op at the University of Texas campus, serve as examples of street art’s influence.
But as Austin grows and more people bring their business to the city, a new market has emerged for private commissions, pieces tailored more for an individual than for public perusal. Thus began the demand for Austin’s artists to produce fine art.
Jake Bryer of Austin Art Garage sees fine art as being far different from its street cousin.
“There are some defining characteristics separating street art and fine art,” Bryer said. “Street art is more about communicating on a large scale with the general public, while fine art is more about connecting on an individual level.”
This separation makes for some important differences in the actual creation of each piece. While fine art is meant to be owned by an individual and must suit the taste of a buyer, street art can be created free from such concerns. An artist is better able to communicate their own message or push perceived boundaries.
But there are financial issues which must be considered. For all the good a message sent might do, it won’t necessarily put food on the table. And even if an artist does decide to focus on monetary gain, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to sustain themselves.
Rachel Stephens of the Wally Workman Gallery sees many artists who face these kinds of struggles, and attributes some of that difficulty to a customer base that can’t keep up with the number of aspiring creators in town.
“Even today, very few galleries are able to survive because the collector base is still somewhat limited,” Stephens said.
Stephens sees adaptability as key for local artists trying to make a career out of their passion.
“I think that many Austin artists become jacks of all trades, as not many of them have been able to support themselves solely with their fine art,” Stephens said.
Artists may also be helped by having a willingness to expand the breadth of their work. Some residents who have an appreciation for Austin’s reputation for public art displays may wish to see similar works commissioned for themselves, blurring the line between art that is categorized as “fine” or “street.”
“Who really defines fine art? I think the pieces of street art that go beyond self-serving graffiti and intelligently speak to a larger context can be considered fine art,” Stephens said.
While this may be true, Bryer is quick to note that, in his experience working in a gallery, he has found that not everything that works on the side of a brick wall can be expected to sell and generate income for an artist. Even if it isn’t purely self-serving.
“Not everyone wants a skull painting in their kitchen,” Bryer said.
While making it work as an artist and finding the right middle ground between one’s passions and the realities of the art business may be difficult, it can be done. Roshi K works as an artist in Austin and has produced many commissioned pieces for clients, such as Fun Fun Fun Fest and the Victoria Festival. She has found that the key to transitioning from working on the street to being a professional may lie in making the right connections and aggressively pursuing clients.
“(You need to) do well at marketing yourself and putting yourself out there, and you’re working and talking with people, which means you can’t be shy,” Roshi said.
Roshi also emphasizes the importance of striking the right balance between quality and quantity, producing enough to work to create a healthy reputation while also making sure that each piece is up to one’s standards.
And having some talent doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s one of those things where if you’re producing a ton of amazing pieces, of course that’s going to be more likely to catch a lot of people’s attention,” Roshi said.