Visual Art 10-23-2015

A Tale of Two Art Worlds

Curator Mary Coyne weighs in on disparities in the art world, between alternative and institutional art spaces, patrons, funders, and artists, and wonders: How can we work to mend these divisions and work together to make a truly common field?

1World map by Michael Tompsett

In the opening panel for last month’s Hand in Glove gathering, Sam Gould, founder of Red76 clarified, “art and culture illustrate divides — this is not something to avoid.” It was a powerful statement, and important in retrospect, since even as much of the conference’s script was dedicated to building community and finding collaboration, its participants never all agreed on what it would mean to do so, how to enact these goals, and to what ends. On the other hand, as actors in the sphere of alternative arts — artists, curators, cultural workers, or however we choose to define ourselves and our practices — we found it easy to agree that developing, or even sustaining, ourselves and our practices under the current conditions is too often a near insurmountable challenge. There was consensus that finding work which pays a living wage, securing and maintaining housing, studio or creative space (not to mention necessities like health and childcare) are struggles we share, to some extent or another. And a feeling of solidarity against these forces smoothed over many of the other differences discernible in the specifics of our responses to those challenges.

Of course, the world of art and culture extends beyond the community represented by those who  attend conferences like Hand in Glove. The polar extremes of this larger arts community were evident in my Instagram and Twitter feeds, which abounded with pithy quotes from my fellow Hand-In-Glove attendees juxtaposed with giddy snapshots of light-filled galleries and invaluable examples of canonized American art from the opening weekend of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Representing the opposite poles of what we loosely call the “art world” were the artists and organizations gathered in Minneapolis and Edythe and Eli Broad, billionaire real estate developers turned philanthropists. Or prey and predator, in abridged terms.

Following decades of Broad’s very public alliances and subsequent disagreements with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (whose contemporary art building bears his name) and MOCA (to which he offered the commercial expertise of gallerist/impresario Jeffrey Deitch), he decided against gifting his world-class collection of iconic post-war art to an existing public institution. Instead he built his own vanity museum, directly across the street from MOCA and beside the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (the 2003 construction of which depended heavily on Broad’s financial contributions). In so doing, Broad claimed perennial ownership, not only of his collection but of the city’s cultural identity. He has made no secret about his goal to establish a downtown “cultural district,” on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill, enacting the sort of hyper-gentrification happening in formerly undefined areas of cities nationwide.

Established along the lines of a 19th- and early 20th-century model of arts philanthropy, the Broad’s mission is worded with an intention to make the collection accessible to the “widest possible audience”  — presumably wider than if the work had been acquired by one of the two major art institutions in Los Angeles. But Broad’s new museum is a concerning reaction to the lack of public arts funding that once fostered the development of museums as well as individual artists.  In the vacuum of public support for the arts, the visual art object and, increasingly, even performance and temporal work, have become more visibly in control of a minute assembly of wealthy individuals or corporations (often a combination of the two, as in Broad’s case). The reality of having to move beyond public systems unable to meet the developing needs of artists and institutions has resulted, according to scholar Nizan Shaked, in a “corporatization of museums” and the re-emergence of a Victorian-era collector’s model of cultural patronage.

It is easy enough to ignore that other, moneyed art world, to make work for and around a community that supports us. But we are artists in that wider world all the same; our communities are not isolated islands but interconnected, multi-directional networks.

This excessive power inequality, not only between the working artist and the institution, but now between the working artist and the consumer of the product,  is a sobering reality that has prevailed in the face of a robust history of emerging alternative models for art’s display, dialogue and contextualization. Marcia Tucker, in founding the New Museum in a small gallery at New School in downtown Manhattan, sought such a path: an institution which defied the goals of museums as previously defined. Although the New Museum, today, has lost most traces of this scrappy beginning but, even so, in its focus, not on collecting work but presenting exhibitions of living artists, the New Museum still fosters dialogue and engagement rather than aggrandizement.

It is easy enough to ignore that other, moneyed art world, to make work for and around a community that supports us. But we are artists in that wider world all the same; our communities are not isolated islands but interconnected, multi-directional networks.

In Brooklyn, where I ran a non-commercial art space for just over a year, the struggles of artists and cultural workers are largely, in life and in work, battles over real estate. New York landlords, historically the figureheads for unethical practices, have seized the present, unparalleled demand for space in New York City to inflict record-high rent hikes; forcing evictions or allowing buildings to fall into such states of disrepair are their tactics for finding naive or wealthier tenants. In major cities such as Los Angeles and New York, the right to work is inextricably tied to the right to hold a stake on the property in which to do one’s work. And it’s a battle artists are tragically failing, pushed farther and farther from city centers, all the while conscious of the wave of gentrification they’ve inadvertently left in their wake. Ryan Dennis’s remarks at the Hand in Glove convening, on the recent desirability of Houston’s Third Ward, home of the Project Row Houses, is a somber reminder of the dual-edged strength of successful arts programming.

Broad’s gestural claim — not only to the site of his new museum but, in effect, to the entire Bunker Hill neighborhood, the whole cultural landscape of Los Angeles — is, without doubt, a threatening checkmate to the city’s ability to foster space for the artists who actually live and work there. It is hard to image a contribution to art and culture that illustrates these divides more.

So, how can this not be something to avoid? How can we mend these divisions and foster new creative practices?

Art spaces and programs that can sustain themselves  — like Nat May’s SPACE Gallery in Portland, which exists on renting low market studio space to artists while maintaining a programming space in the building — could be one viable solution worth exploring by collectives in New York and beyond. Yet even a multi-purposed space can be contested when faced with developers’ determination that any space, once claimed, can be untethered from those purposes. Rosten Woo, an independent curator and designer from Los Angeles, also hinted at a solution: his practice has no permanent space; his work is largely completed by paid commission via city and leadership boards who recognize artists’ ability to rethink current systems and infrastructures, changing the ways spaces are accessed and negotiated. As liberating as this mode of practice appears  — promising a viable model for artists whose work aligns with Woo’s affinity for the shifting site  —  it simultaneously suggests that artists do not deserve the stability afforded to professionals in most other careers.

Symbiotic relationships between alternative spaces and existing institutions who share adjoining missions and umbrella infrastructures offer still another way forward. These “child” organizations, who typically operate independently from their adoptive parents, allow the university, museum, or art center to connect with new communities and develop smaller, responsive programs while fostering artists’ own organizations. Ox-Bow’s relationship with Northwestern, New Inc. and the New Museum, STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon and even the Walker Art Center’s support of Mn Artists exemplify the myriad possibilities these mutually supportive collaborations can foster.

Should we create a new system? Yes, we are artists and thinkers. That’s what we do.In his Hand in Glove panel, “Advocating for the Alternative,” Paul Bonin-Rodriguez emphasized the ways artists already function as policy makers in what they do. But we would be as delusional as Mr. Broad to believe progress might be made in a vacuum. Our work is defined by the communities, whether spatially organized or not, with which we work. Maybe our task should not be about forging new ground, creating new space, or staking a claim in hopes the community will change. Policy is created, not only by continually working and hoping for change, but through direct engagement with the institutions and groups already in power. Let’s not be pioneers without first trying to utilize the resources we already have. As Sheila Smith put it, “get the hell out of your box, finding a common interest with a disparate group is powerful.”

Related links and information: Hand in Glove 2015 (#HIG2015) will take place September 17 – 20 at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. For more information on topics, sessions, and related events, visit the convening’s Stream all the conference sessions online: Find more information here about Common Field.

Mary Coyne

Mary Coyne is a curator and writer based in Minneapolis where she is the Cunningham Research Fellow at the Walker Art Center. Mary has curated exhibitions in Los Angeles and New York and is the founder of Pseudo Empire, a non-commercial exhibition space in Brooklyn. She holds an M.A in Art (Curatorial Studies) from California State University Long Beach and an B.A in Art History from the University of Southern California. …   read more