The fine art of craft

Monochrome beakers by Chris Keenan © Michael Harvey

In just two years, London Craft Week (3-7 May) is on its way to becoming an unmissable date in the art and design diary—putting an emphasis on the array of craftsmanship that lies behind a wide range of items, from clothes to knives, from ceramics to candles.
Last year, there were 70 events staged across London. This year, there will be 129, featuring workshops, open studios and special displays. Crafts that visitors will be able to experience include perfume-making, diamond-cutting, porcelain-painting and silverworking.

The programme (supported by Vacheron Constantin and sponsors Grosvenor and Mulberry) embraces the luxury market, with brands such as Chanel, Lalique and Rolls-Royce joining in, and shops including Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason hosting events.
The Royal Opera House and the William Morris Gallery are among institutions opening their doors to show “The Making Behind Buildings”. The British Museum hosts displays of Chinese calligraphy, while fans of Game of Thrones can take a tour of costumier Angels.

At its heart, though, London Craft Week highlights the artistic brilliance and skill of 214 individual makers, from 17 countries. Five participants are interviewed here.

• For more, see

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjY2IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pChris Keenan, potter

Chris Keenan started out as actor, and while he was with a touring company in Sheffield, he met the potter Edmund de Waal. Later, after landing one day’s work in an entire year, he resolved to change direction and wrote to De Waal, asking to be taken on as an apprentice.

Twenty years later, and now aged 56, he says he has never regretted that decision. “The tangibility of my work is hugely important to me. I came from something—acting—that was very ephemeral, to something very material and actual, and that was fantastic,” he says.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjY1IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pHe has always worked in porcelain, using just two Oriental glazes, celadon (which is pale blue to olive green) and the dark, glassy tenmoku. “That very limited palette has not limited what I can do with them,” he says. Despite their appeal to collectors, with many having followed his career, all his pieces are made to be used. “Everything I create will do a job if you want it to. Function can be just something beautiful sitting on a shelf, but I want things to do the best job they possibly can.”

However, Keenan also makes what he calls “extracurricular work”—objects of pure beauty, which ask people to play with them to realise their meaning. He is currently filling Blackwell House in the Lake District with a commission that amounts to an installation of pottery. “I see myself as a craftsman plus,” he says. “This is what I do to make a living. But my prices aren’t art prices—I haven’t made that leap that happens when something is defined as art.”

• Prices: from £30 for an espresso cup to £2,500 for A Bode of Stones, one of the extracurricular works. Where to buy: contact via his website (; at fairs, open studios and exhibitions; or via London Contemporary Ceramics Centre ( or Contemporary Applied Arts (

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Tracey Rowledge, bookbinder

“Like most people who are bookbinders, it was not my first career choice because it is reasonably obscure,” says Tracey Rowledge. It was when she found herself at a loose end after a fine art degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, that she discovered her calling almost by chance. “I felt that it could be a way for me to climb back into my creativity. I thought I could make a living as a bookbinder to support making art. In the end, the bookbinding just took over.”

She had always been interested in the craftsmanship of things, and loved the minutiae of the exacting engineering that bookbinding requires. A two-year diploma course gave her the rudiments, and a Crafts Council grant helped her to set up as a self-employed bookbinder. But she has continued to learn and extend her skills.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjc0IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pHer work now has the delicacy of drawing, with finely tooled gestural lines in gold a speciality. But the 46-year-old works across a broad range, from commissioned book bindings, to restoration, to drawings and panels that are pure art. She is also a founding member of an international bookbinding group called Tomorrow’s Past, which rebinds antiquarian books in need of repair. “We’re creating conservation bindings that are structural and creative responses to the book.”

Her work sells mainly to people who collect books, but its variety means it is hard to pin down. Rowledge doesn’t see a boundary between bookbinding and her other artistic endeavours; one thing tends to lead to another. “I call myself an artist because it’s an umbrella term. It’s easier to digest the breadth of what I do, rather than saying ‘I’m a bookbinder’, but for a lot of the time I’m not working on books.”

• Prices: from £500 to £5,000. Where to buy: contact via her website (, or Contemporary Applied Arts (

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjY4IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pJo Hayes Ward, jeweller

Having completed a degree in metalworking and silversmithing at Camberwell College of Art in London, Jo Hayes Ward looked around for what she might do next. Jewellery-making seemed an obvious career. “It was a mixture of really wanting to make things, and having to have a sustainable business,” she explains.

By 2006, she had pursued that instinct by working with three jewellers and taking an MA in goldsmithing, silversmithing, metalwork and jewellery with the Royal College of Art. She was ready to launch her own business.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjY3IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pHer work, she says, conforms to “quite a specific aesthetic”, using building blocks of precious metals to create intricate and sculptural pieces. “Some of them are very structural, so they have lots of negative space, and some are much more pattern-based. It’s all very tiny.”

Everything is designed using computer programmes, then 3D-printed into wax models, which are cast directly into metal. Now 37, Hayes Ward found that her business took off when she moved away from the craft world into fashion and design. “I’d describe myself as a fine jeweller,” she says. “I fit into the craft world as well as the design world. But the craft scene in the UK is very small and has a very specific amount of money that people are going to spend on you, so I have had to expand out of it into a more high-end market.”

Despite this, she adds: “I think craft has become more in vogue in the past five years. It is not a dirty word any-more—before it was just old ladies knitting. I think people are beginning to appreciate hand-made, and desiring it more, and are willing to pay for it.
“It irks me a bit to be pigeonholed into any one area. It’s a holistic thing. To be a designer or a craftsperson, it is all part of the same thing—a creative business.”

• Prices: from around £700 for a silver ring, to £15,000 for a bespoke piece. Where to buy: contact via her website ( Also selling through stores worldwide, from Paris to South Korea, including Dover Street Market in London and New York

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjczIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pShelley James, artist working in glass

A serious road accident when she was knocked off her bike proved the turning point in Shelley James’s career. She had previously trained in textiles in Paris, and then worked in corporate branding, becoming a specialist in internal communications. “I was looking at the way the outside of the organisation and the inside fit together, and that led to questions of identity and looking in and out,” she says.

A printmaking course in Bristol followed, and she adapted the techniques for working in glass. “What I was trying to achieve was the conversation between internal and external space, between how things feel on the inside and look on the outside.” But it was the scans of her head injury, which she printed on glass, that intrigued her physicians and led to a residency at the Bristol Eye Hospital, where she worked with staff and patients to use glass “to open a conversation about clinical phenomenon”.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjcyIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pFrom these beginnings and a PhD at the Royal College of Art, she has evolved an extraordinary set of collaborations with scientists, using glass that is carved, cast, cut and shaped to make work that is aesthetically beautiful and yet also responds to what they are discovering about vision, illusion and space.

One of her current projects is with the mathematician Roger Penrose on a new generation of mathematical models. Her common ground with the scientists is in “a kind of inquiry, which means we each have a research process where we are asking a question and finding ways of answering that question. By building these objects you add an expressive or poetic dimension, but then the scientists find that the material itself illustrates the kind of principles they are thinking about.”

The specialised nature of the 52-year-old’s work means her pieces are mainly bought by museums, or the collaborators who commissioned them. But some are available for sale. “Each takes a long time to make,” she says. “I take great care that the objects are as beautifully finished as I can make them.”

• Prices: from £150 to £5,000. Where to buy: contact via her website ( and at open studios. Also represented by Sarah Myerscough

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNjcwIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pMichael Eden, maker

His website describes him simply as a maker, but Michael Eden sees his non-functional 3D-printed creations as works of art. His starting point is to take historical ceramic pieces—such as 18th-century Sèvres porcelain—and, in his words, “bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century”. He adds: “I’m exploring themes of the cultural and financial value of objects, and exploring craft and making, new tools and technology.”

Based in Cumbria, Eden spent 25 years making functional pots, supplying shops such as Habitat, but, almost on a whim, decided to learn to code in order to understand websites. He became intrigued by the contrast between soft, malleable clay and the hard-edged, fixed world of coding, and started to investigate 3D-printing techniques. “I thought if I can draw these things on a computer, then I can make anything,” he says. “I am completely free to make the impossible object.”

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In order to develop his ideas, he took an MPhil at the Royal College of Art. His final creation as part of that process was the Wedgwoodn’t Tureen, designed both as a tribute to Josiah Wedgwood, a great British pioneer of pottery manufacturing and a leader of the Industrial Revolution, and as a means of highlighting the new industrial revolution that some people believe 3D-printing represents.

This shift from what might once have been defined as craft to what is more easily called art, means that pieces by 60-year-old Eden are represented in a growing number of museums and galleries. But he is reluctant to place a label on his work. “We live in a time where such titles are becoming very slippery,” he says. “I’m happy to be working in some sort of grey area between art and design, and craft and technology. It gives me complete freedom to go where I want.”

• Prices: from about £3,500 to £16,000. Where to buy: works can be seen on his website ( Represented by Adrian Sassoon, London

Volkswagen: the motor of a global arts network

August Kopisch’s The Pontine Marshes at Sunset (1848)

The unsettling fireball that bleeds red all over August Kopisch’s 1848 painting, The Pontine Marshes at Sunset, first caught Udo Kittelmann’s eye in a museum store in Berlin seven years ago. “I only knew him as an author until then,” says the director of Germany’s National Gallery. “The painting was extraordinary.” Kopisch’s play of colour and light spurred Kittelmann to look into the life of the all but forgotten Prussian artist. Kopisch, he discovered, had produced more boldly pigmented paintings, poems and prose, a portable heater and a “pleorama” that on dry land simulated a boat ride across the Bay of Naples: “An artist full of curiosity and the spirit of invention.” Kittelmann was hooked.

Luckily, it is a habit he has been able to afford for a few years. In 2013, the National Gallery agreed a three-year partnership with the German car manufacturer Volkswagen. “We wanted a partnership that would allow us to look at artists outside the ‘big names’ of the standard canon,” he says. “This kind of partnership meant we could put on exhibitions we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.” Last summer, Kittelmann and Volkswagen Group extended their partnership until late 2018 and announced the first ever Kopisch exhibition, which is on show until mid-July in Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie.

For Volkswagen, the show is an important endorsement of its group-level global arts sponsorship, which began five years ago with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Such a demonstration of cultural engagement is all the more important as the company stands accused of manipulating data on vehicle emissions all over the world. Since 2011, Volkswagen Group’s partnership with top-tier art museums has spread from New York to Berlin and—albeit more briefly—to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai. And the company clearly has an appetite for more. It is looking for more projects in China and will be supporting the “Season of Engineering” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from this month to November, with further projects likely. Unlike other corporate expenses, Volkswagen Group’s arts sponsorship has not been cut in the light of the emissions scandal.

Mutual support

“Our cultural engagement will continue—it’s part of our social responsibility as a company,” says Benita von Maltzahn, head of cultural and social engagement at Volkswagen Group, who works both at corporate headquarters in Wolfsburg and in the company’s representative office in Berlin, walking distance from the Alte Nationalgalerie. “We will continue to support our partners, as indeed our partners continue to support us,” she says. “We have been privileged to support top-flight global art institutions, whether it’s putting on innovative exhibitions or funding educational programmes.”

Such confidence on the one hand reflects the modesty of corporate arts budgets; Volkswagen Group’s annual global arts budget is thought to be in the low single-digit millions, a fraction of what the company spends on football. But it is also a sign of how important corporate arts sponsorship has become. “Twenty years ago, arts sponsorship was short-term and opportunistic, driven by the chief executive—or the CEO’s wife,” says Klaus Siebenhaar, professor at the Institute for Arts and Media Administration at the Free University in Berlin. “Today, companies approach arts sponsorship as a strategic issue.” According to Siebenhaar, Volkswagen is not the only company active in the arts; national rivals BMW and Daimler are both very active. “But I’d say Volkswagen is one of the ones whose professionalism and strategy is exemplary.”

It was corporate strategy that drove Volkswagen Group’s tie-up with MoMA in 2011. That year the company opened a new factory in Tennessee, started a big sales push in the US—and looked at arts sponsorship. “Volkswagen had always sponsored the arts on a local or regional level at Volkswagen production and research sites—the Staatskapelle and Semperoper opera house in Dresden, for example,” says Von Maltzahn. “But with MoMA we wanted to go a step further. We wanted to show that as a global company we have a global responsibility for the arts that we take seriously. It wasn’t just about sponsoring exhibitions or wanting to see our logo on the wall of a museum. We wanted to support the arts in a meaningful way. That quickly led us to the idea of education and arts education.” MoMA, she notes, was founded by a group of educators and museum curators.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNTEwIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pAlongside supporting exhibitions like the headline-grabbing Sigmar Polke show in 2014, Volkswagen supported the introduction of new online courses from 2011 and other education initiatives at MoMA and MoMA PS1. In June 2015, Volkswagen and MoMA announced their third two-year partnership in succession and Volkswagen’s elevation to “lead partner of education”. The company now funds a training programme for curators. “Volkswagen’s deep commitment to education has provided critical support for education programmes at the museum,” says Todd Bishop, MoMA’s senior deputy director of external affairs. Online courses were “serving thousands of students”.

Volkswagen was soon looking to transfer the MoMA model to Germany. In 2012, Von Maltzahn switched from subsidiary Bentley, where she ran marketing and communications in Europe, to become the first in-house head of cultural sponsorship at group level. A paper conservator by trade, Von Maltzahn understood the value of the steady, less ostentatious approach over one that goes for one-off blockbusters. “We want as many people as possible to experience art and culture,” she says. “That also means we have to be committed to showing a wide array of subjects, things that would not otherwise be on view.” Volkswagen’s gaze quickly fell on Berlin and its National Gallery, a largely publicly funded museum (unlike MoMA), spread over six sites in Berlin.

The long haul

The National Gallery’s director liked what he heard. “If you are going to get in the same boat with someone, it’s better to do it for more than one project,” says Kittelmann. With Volkswagen, the gallery has beefed up its education programme. And it has put on shows that might otherwise not have been seen, including a retrospective of the sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Ettore, whose company is now part of Volkswagen Group. Kittelmann calls it “a position beyond the established canon”, which he says has boosted the credibility of both partners. “We’ve been able to develop our own position towards exhibitions. You need some time for that sort of thing.”

The transfer of ideas from New York to Berlin is only one example of Volkswagen’s organic approach to arts sponsorship since 2011. The company is proud of its open, discursive relationship with MoMA, which, for example,led to the Expo 1 exhibition about the environment and global warming at MoMA PS1 in 2013. With Volkswagen’s help, that exhibition went on to Brazil and China, which led to the Yuz Museum in Shanghai installing its own permanent Rain Room installation. Indeed, the “Expo 1 approach” to exhibition-making learned in New York has taken root in Berlin. Both sides are free to suggest ideas for shows, but the museum gets free rein in all curatorial matters.

Alongside the V&A in London, Von Maltzahn’s focus at the moment is on China. Volkswagen is not seeking a long-term partnership with one institution. For the moment, it sees the training of curators as more important. It is a chance to make use of the network of partnerships Von Maltzahn has built. “We’re not into collecting museums. We want to deepen the resources of our network—not so much in our interest as in that of society,” she says. “We took ideas about sponsorship and arts education from New York to Berlin. Why shouldn’t we use our network to help connect cultures by enabling Chinese art students to learn about curating?” Volkswagen wants to give China’s would-be Kittelmanns—perhaps from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts—a chance to help learn their craft in New York, Berlin, Wolfsburg, and now quite possibly London too.

“Volkswagen should be applauded for its long-term commitment to an arts world where we still see a lot of short-term involvement,” says Ben Hartley, the founder of New York-based Orama Consulting, which has advised BMW and the Guggenheim Museum among others about corporate sponsorship and strategic planning. He thinks Volkswagen has evolved “smartly” from a regional and national arts sponsor to a global one, and he doesn’t see this status challenged by the emissions scandal. “Of course, arts organisations are always assessing their partners. But you always have to be mindful of the fact that the arts have long been a friendly port of call for corporate largesse.”

Kittelmann admits he has wondered about the emissions scandal miring his corporate partner, “But that’s no reason to call our partnership into question,” he says. “You could argue that this will encourage Volkswagen to demonstrate even more social responsibility.” It was Kittelmann, says Von Maltzahn, who proposed a Kopisch show last year, at a regular exchange of ideas. She admits she hadn’t heard of the artist until then, but that Kittelmann swayed her. “Kopisch was a person of his time who engaged with what the future might look like. He was a painter, innovator and explorer,” she says. “We liked that idea a lot.” Think of all the people who’ve now seen Pontine Marshes at Sunset, she muses. “All those people who had never heard of a man called August Kopisch.”

• Volkswagen is supporting What Is Art For?, the third in a series of discussions to mark The Art Newspaper’s 25th anniversary, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on 12 May (6.30pm-8pm). For more, see p3

Ai Weiwei’s first feature-length film to focus on refugees

Ai helps Nour Al Khzam, a Syrian pianist, to perform a makeshift concert in a camp. Photo by YANNIS KOLESIDIS © epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy Stock Photo / EPA/YANNIS KOLESIDIS
The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is making his first feature-length film, a documentary about refugees. Ai first visited the Greek island of Lesbos on Christmas day in 2015 and has since moved his studio there. For the past few months he has been documenting the plight of refugees on the island, photographing and recording videos of people arriving from Turkey by boat or already at the Idomeni refugee camp.

The artist has also hired a professional film crew for the first time and, with their help, plans to gather footage over the course of the next year. The editing of the film is expected to take a further six months.

On his Instagram and Twitter accounts, Ai has documented his trips with his film crew to Lebanon and to the Za’atari camp in Jordan, which is home to thousands of Syrian refugees. The artist and his team appear to be travelling against the flow of people fleeing to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

Meanwhile, an exhibition of Ai’s work opens at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens this month. It will feature 25 works, including a new marble sculpture inspired by the institution’s archaeological collection and works made in response to the refugee crisis.

“[Ai] was so shocked by what he saw on Lesbos, he kept extending his stay. Eventually he moved his studio there,” says Aphrodite Gonou, who advises the Cycladic museum on its contemporary art programme. “He’s up at 5am, spending time with people; he practically lives there. It’s completely changed his life.”

• Ai Weiwei at Cycladic, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, 20 May-30 October

Spencer Finch has his head in the clouds for London’s Crossrail

Spencer Finch, A Cloud Index
The New York-based artist Spencer Finch was in London in April for meetings about A Cloud Index, a 120m-long glazed canopy that will span the ticket hall of the new Crossrail station currently under construction at Paddington. The piece, which will feature different types of clouds printed on to its glazed panels, is due to be the first completed work of art for the new £14.8bn train line, which will traverse London from east to west when it opens in late 2018.

Several large-scale pieces of art will be installed in Crossrail stations across the city. Speaking to The Art Newspaper after the opening of his solo show at the Lisson Gallery (until 7 May), Finch said that his canopy is “a fantasy skyscape”, and that the clouds will appear to change according to the light, the position of the sun and the time of day.

The artist was travelling to Germany next, where the clouds are being printed on large-scale sheets of glass by a Bavarian company. The canopy is co-funded by Heathrow Ltd and the City of London Corporation.

• Spencer Finch: the Opposite of Blindness, Lisson Gallery, London, until 7 May

Kerry James Marshall: driven to make a difference

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 2014. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Foundation Gift, Acquisitions Fund and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Gift, 2015.

Kerry James Marshall has worked for the past 35 years with a singular goal in mind: to place the black figure squarely at the centre of the art canon. He has made much headway, as can be seen in his first major painting retrospective, which opened last month at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and will then travel to the Met Breuer in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LA MoCA).

His classically composed pictures are filled exclusively with black subjects, settings, cultural references and artistic allusions, from African sculpture to urban street slang. Introducing powerful images of people of colour into museum galleries normally dominated by European art history, Marshall’s work also resonates with a more diverse community than is usually seen in the white upper echelons of the art world.

The Art Newspaper: Have you been involved in the selection of the works?

Kerry James Marshall: When the show was first proposed, the way Helen Molesworth [chief curator at LA MoCA] put it was: “Are you ready to submit?” If you’re going to have a curator who’s going to do a proper survey, then the curator has to curate. You don’t get to pick the show. The thing is, it’s hard to let somebody else curate a show of your work. Retrospectives are an odd kind of animal.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAzMDEyIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pRight—it’s supposed to be the artist looking back on their career.

But then I would be picking. There are a lot of factors that determine what the shape and scale of a show would be. And the reality is that retrospective shows are kind of a political reckoning as well. You might have collections that have more than one work of yours, and maybe they’ve got four or five things that you really like. But they’re not going to put four or five things from one [collection in the show]. Some institutions won’t lend. At first, Lacma [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art] refused to lend De Style (1993). But now it’s in.

That would have been a big hole. That was your first institutional acquisition, wasn’t it?

Right. So you have to wrestle with these funny things that sometimes you take for granted.

I saw the checklist [the curatorial team] put together. They went on a road trip, kind of to get a look at things in person. I didn’t have any real input into the selection except, towards the end, I said: “I’ve got at least three must-haves.”

What were those?

One of them was the girl on the blanket on the yard [Untitled (Beach Towel), 2014]. As a painter, every time I make a body of work, I’m trying to make it better than the last. That painting, I think, is one of the best paintings I’ve ever made. Another was Vignette (Wishing Well) [from 2010]. And the other was a Lost Boys. I said, “I’ve got to have some of this.”

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAyNTAyIiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pIn New York, you’ll also select works from the Met’s collection to be installed in the Breuer building. How will that work?

We haven’t quite figured it out but it’s the same kind of process [as selecting works for the original exhibition]. There’s about 40% of what you want that you’re able to get. Even though the Met Breuer is an extension of the Met, each department is highly protective of the things in their domain. And museums have contracts with donors that govern the way things can be used or moved or how long they can be sent out. I walked around the museum a couple of times with Ian Alteveer, who’s a curator at the Met. It was like being in a candy store.

So would you like to have the Met’s collection side by side with your own works?

Maybe not so much that you draw direct comparisons but it would be nice to have clusters of things from the Met collection stationed at different places [in the exhibition] so there is a constant return to art history. Then you put people in a frame of mind where you’re oscillating back and forth between things. That’s how I would like to do it because if you isolate the classical works, then it’s like doing two shows. On some level, what’s the point?

In a letter to young artists in the exhibition catalogue, you write: “No one with small ambitions and vague goals ever amounted to much in this game.” Why is that important for an artist?

I think the drive is everything. Because the way I see it, you have two choices: one is that you can feel like you’re driving your position, or you accept that somebody else is driving and you’re simply waiting around for somebody to pick you up. You can’t afford to do that.

Your work doesn’t often come to auction. Is that a deliberate choice?

There’s almost nothing you can do about that. One way of staying a little out of that is to focus on institutional collections first, so you’re not just in the kind of cruel exchange market. But the reality is it costs a lot to [be an artist]. Not only to have a place to do it but to keep buying material and then to have the resources you need to explore. You’ve got to make some money. It’s true. And the art market is out of control and completely irrational and overheated on some levels because there’s a lot of money sloshing around. And if the difference between being able to have some of it or not is that you might have to make more work than you feel comfortable doing—you’ve got to work harder. If you’ve got to work seven days a week, as opposed to taking off a few days, so that you can have something to send to your gallery when they go to an art fair, it makes sense to me to work seven days a week.

Because in the long run, the market on some level determines the value of an artist’s production. If you think you don’t want your work to be traded in those kinds of ways, that’s like saying, I would rather be a sharecropper for the rest of my life, just making enough to get by, as opposed to somebody who has the capacity to produce at your maximum ability—even if sometimes it means you’ve got to work overnight and work every day and not take any vacations…

It’s been work for me to arrive at the moment that I have. Everyone wants to feel like they are equal to those operating at the highest level. And if that means that the work starts to command a price that’s way beyond anything you yourself can even afford, you’re better off trying to be in it at that level than not. When the work started to sell at those kinds of prices, I didn’t get scared. I got busier. My goal was always to be in a museum.

KFt7IklEIjoiMjAxMDk2IiwiUEFSQU0iOiIifV0pDo you feel like you achieved that goal? All those dreams you had as a young man…

I got every one of them. It may not mean anything to a lot of people but I’m not so jaded. And I’m hyper self-conscious about the way I operate in the art world. I got a request for reproduction rights from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They want to put that studio painting [Untitled (Studio), 2014] in their masterworks publication. I’m not too big or proud to say that meant something to me. I have a work that’s in the first show at the Met Breuer, Unfinished [until 4 September]. So now I’m in a show with Leonardo da Vinci. This is why I came into the art world.

• Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (until 25 September), the Met Breuer, New York (25 October-29 January 2017), and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (26 February-25 June 2017)

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