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Axisweb is 21: Need for Patronage in Contemporary Art as Relevant as Ever in Digital Age

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Cast your mind back to 1991, when Axis began. John Major was Prime Minister, Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams topped the charts and people working in the visual arts 'organised' exhibitions; they certainly didn't 'curate' them.

Communication was a clunky business by today's standards; fax machines were the height of technology. In this pre-internet age, it was also very hard to get hold of information about artists, at a time when public art and artists-in-residence were increasingly in demand.

That's where Axis came in. Following research the Arts Council established the 'Visual Arts Exchange and Information Service' as a one-stop shop for information about contemporary artists in the UK. The organisation's name was subsequently shortened to Axis.

In its early stages the Axis artists' register was a slide index held centrally at the Axis office in Leeds. Essentially Axis offered a match-making service, a means by which buyers and commissioners could locate artists for their projects. Whatever you wanted - a painting for the office, sculpture for a public place or someone to run a workshop - Axis could point you in the right direction.

The next incarnation of Axis was a series of computer terminals called Axis Points in places as far apart as Inverness, Brighton and even Tokyo, with the database available on accompanying CD Rom. Then, of course, the internet revolutionised everything. In 1999 Axis went online and the rest is history... well, not quite.

Twenty-one years on, we offer many new services and curated elements alongside the artists' directory, including plenty of film and magazine-style content to keep you informed about the contemporary art scene, and specially commissioned features about emergent and established artists across the UK.

The artists, curators and commentators who write for Axis work the length and breadth of the country, providing an essential radar service for new developments and a welcome antidote to the metropolitan focus of most other magazines and websites about contemporary art.

Behind the scenes, we have a trading company which makes money from digital services in order to supplement our grant from Arts Council England. Last year our iPhone app for Art in Yorkshire - supported by Tate reached the dizzy heights of 'What's hot' in iTunes.

We are always on the lookout for new ways of promoting the 2,500 artists on our directory, such as our recent exhibition for Great Ormond Street Hospital and our newly launched retail space on Culture Label.

Surely most artists now have their own websites, people sometimes ask? Yes, of course they do, and so they should. But individual websites are like the proverbial needle in a haystack - nobody will find you unless they already know your name.

Type 'UK contemporary art' into Google, however, and Axis is right up there. The sophistication of our filtering mechanisms makes it easy to browse the site and search for all kinds of work in any UK location. You can contact artists directly through the site. Our audience is growing all the time and becoming increasingly international.

Above all, we know that the brokerage still works. We process several thousand opportunities and enquiries each year, many from curators, collectors and commissioners in other countries. With more than 30% of visits to the website coming from outside the UK, you could say we're an exporter of home-grown contemporary art.

David McFadden, Chief Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, used Axis to help find artists for a recent exhibition: "I have used the site to discover artists working in unexpected and non-traditional materials."

Four Axis artists - Catherine Bertola, Paul Hazelton, Stephen Livingstone and Julie Parker went on to exhibit in Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design at the Museum of Arts and Design earlier this year. Without the shop-window that Axis provides, this might not have happened.

For curators like David, it's reassuring that the site offers guaranteed access to innovative work and an easy means of browsing images and refining searches. The web is a crowded place these days and users want instant access to authoritative information.

It's also what makes Axis valuable to artists. In the internet age, a validated showcase, well respected by people who want to research, exhibit and commission new art, is a vitally useful promotional tool.

Twenty-first birthdays traditionally represent a coming of age, a moment for nostalgic stock-taking and excited speculation about the future. Who knows what the next stage of our existence will bring? No doubt plenty of challenges and just as many opportunities too.

One thing is certain though: we're here to help artists and the people who want to enjoy their work. Artists have always needed patronage and that won't change.