Volume 74, 2015 – Issue 3
Lane Relyea (Editor-in-Chief, Art Journal)
Pages 5-7 | Published online: 25 Jan 2016
The Common Field website (www.commonfield.org) went live this September 15.
“Welcome to Common Field,” the homepage announced. “Here are some thoughts
on our vision, philosophy, and plan as we set forth”:
Common Field emerged in response to the need for artist spaces and projects to share ideas and practices, explore ways of working, and discover new ways to collaborate across the arts organizing field. We were inspired by projects like Common Practice UK/ NY/ LA, NAAO (the National Association of Artist Organizations), the Warhol Initiative, NAMAC visual arts leadership retreats, Arts Collaboratory, Cluster, and other networks—observing the ways that these initiatives leverage the shared power of co-ordination and collaboration to gain visibility and support for projects they could never realize on their own.1
We decided to create a network with two major goals: 1) to make the field of arts organizing more visible to the broader art world and world at large, and 2) to provide resources for the field. The resources can be achieved both by opening opportunities for the field to communicate and collaborate—sharing resources, exchanging ideas and practices, leading research, hosting convenings, as well as developing resources for the field through research and advocacy efforts. We imagine what might happen if new spaces and projects might not need to reinvent the wheel in learning the basics, and if established spaces might discover new ways of working.
We imagine connecting arts organizations and organizers across media, perspectives, geography, and approach, and that we might find common visions and practices that can be shared, developed, and expanded. Our dream is to make this incredible field of alternative art spaces and projects, and this practice of arts organizing, ever more clear, accessible, and approachable to artists, funders, and the general public.
Common Field started in much the same way as did its predecessor, the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO), with a directory and a conference. Back then it was the New Artsspace conference sponsored by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art and held at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica in 1978. The publication accompanying that event included a directory of the attendees. There you could find intimate details about now-legendary organizations composing what we might call, in retrospect, Alternative Space Movement 1.0. (112 Greene Street, for example, had managed to double its staff from two to four people between 1976 and 1978, and was receiving 60 percent of its revenue through government support, compared to 21 percent from corporations.) 2 A few years later, in 1982, NAAO formed to give the movement a national face. But only twenty years after that, talk of the movement was being phrased in the past tense; its history was being codified and some were even ready to pronounce it dead. 3 At the very same moment, Alternative Space Movement 2.0 began to take shape, publishing its first directory in 2007 and holding its first conference in 2011. 4
Now the 2.0 version has its own national organization. The voices of a few of the individuals who proved crucial to consolidating this second-wave movement—particularly Abigail Satinsky, Stephanie Sherman, and Shannon Stratton—can be heard in the following pages. Three other founders must be mentioned: Elizabeth Chodros, Executive and Creative Director of the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists’ Residency in Sagatauk, Michigan; Courtney Fink, from 2003 to 2015 the Executive Director of Southern Exposure in San Francisco; and Nat May, Executive Director of Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. Still more joined the discussion around the time of the first conference in 2011 (when the nascent national umbrella group was referred to as the Alliance of Independent Arts Organizers), including James McAnally and Shanai Matteson, also contributors to this issue. I, too, was invited to participate, mainly because of my involvement in Movement 1.0 (for example, I coedited the ten-year-anniversary document for NAAO, titled Organizing Artists, in 1992). 5
If you’re as old as I am, you’ll detect in this issue certain distinctions being drawn between Movements 1.0 and 2.0. The younger generation seems generally uninterested in discussing the relative merits of medium-based disciplines, whereas the championing of performance, video, and installation as cutting edge preoccupies both the 1978 New Artsspace document and NAAO’s 1992 Organizing Artists. There’s a common assumption among today’s DIY organizers about art’s deep roots in everyday life and local community dynamics that will no doubt suggest recent art world trends like social practice and relational aesthetics. But it also points to the fact that much of the activity that kindled Movement 2.0 modeled itself not onearlier alternative spaces but rather on their late-1980s counterparts—that is, on the apartment galleries and other impromptu operations that sprang up in reaction to the bureaucratic morass that so much of Movement 1.0’s organizations succumbed to. In contrast to their elders, today’s small-scale artist-organizers are leery of applying for 501(c)(3) tax status and formally incorporating as nonprofits. Instead they’re prone to retain direct control through sole proprietorships or limited liability arrangements—or by avoiding structure entirely. Even Common Field itself has so far remained organizationally malleable. Paralleling aspects of the Occupy movement, at the most recent conference in Minneapolis in September members debated various management structures and arrived at consensus only over strictly provisional solutions. Debate itself seemed the most trusted structure, as if Common Field should exist performatively, manifesting itself most authentically at the national conventions, as members physically gather and engage in actual face-to-face dialogue with each other.
Favoring organizational spontaneity over rigid institutionalization is not just an expression of the field’s idealism; it is also encouraged by stark realities. The majority of the artist-organizers involved in Common Field receive assistance for their activities less through government and foundation grants, let alone scant, if any, commercial sales, than by turning to each other, surviving on crowd-sourced support volunteered by friends and colleagues. They ad-lib projects in apartments, bars, laundromats—you name it. Even the rare invitation to show at the local contemporary art center will offer these artists little relief, as such venues typically claim to treat art as professional research and thus reward its makers with professional “validation” and “exposure” rather than with adequate cash compensation. Here the joys of community dovetail with the terrors of precarity. Artists who want to exhibit will have to devote as much if not more time to organizing as to artmaking, and the more this is true the more their art will become indistinguishable from all the social labor needed to create its various conditions of existence and visibility. Much economic value does indeed bubble up from such donated labor, only it’s likely to flow into the pockets of business and property owners via gentrification, leaving artists and their communities with only further displacement. (Notice the condo buildings looming over the artist-organizedmass community lunch in the photograph on page 8).
Idealism and realism face off in other ways within Movement 2.0. As did their 1970s and 1980s predecessors, today’s artist-organizers often boast of their efforts as building movements and solidarities. But they also know that, to a certain degree, it’s about professionalization, about institutionalizing a specialized,proprietary domain of knowledge and practice. This was openly acknowledged (and indeed worried over by some) when the name Common Field was itself proposed. For a “field” is precisely what professionals join, what their research contributes to, where they gain status and recognition. 6
These were just a few of several difficult topics that dominated discussion at the Minneapolis conference in September. Yet such important issues, which impact so many artists and cities throughout the United States and beyond,find little if any air-time in major art magazines that make their money from advertising by commercial galleries. It’s thus left to much smaller venues, often precarious nonprofits standing at a distance, geographic and otherwise, from the traditional art centers, to hash it all out (see, for example, James McAnally’s excellent Temporary Art Review at http://www.temporaryartreview.com). This is why it seems particularly incumbent on Art Journal to join with these groups to report on and think through this vast and consequential sector of the country’s art activity. Together they can perhaps be to Movement 2.0 what magazines like Art Papers and Afterimage were to Movement 1.0. This issue should be just a start. We hope to help the discussion continue for a good time to come—in subsequent issues as well as at our online counterpart, Art Journal Open (www.artjournal.collegeart.org). And keep in mind, in the meantime you can always listen in at http://www.commonfield.org.
—Lane Relyea, Editor-in-Chief, Art Journal
My thanks to Abigail Satinsky and Shannon Stratton for all their help in conceptualizing and compiling this issue.
1 “Welcome to Common Field,” at www.commonfield.org/article/, as of November 9, 2015.
2 Bridget Reak-Johnson, ed., The New Artsspace: A Summary of Alternative Visual Arts Organizations Prepared in Conjunction with a Conference April 26–29, 1978(Los Angeles: Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, 1978), 156.
3 See especially Julie Ault, ed., Alternative Art, New York 1965–1985 (University of Minnesota 2002); and Lauren Rosati and Mary Anne Staniszewski, eds., Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces, 1960 to 2010 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
4 The initial directory was Phonebook 2007/2008: An Annual Directory for Alternative Artspaces, ed. Caroline Picard and Shannon Stratton (Green Lantern Press, 2007); for information on and excerpts from the 2015 edition, Phonebook 4, see page 9 of this issue of Art Journal. The conference was Hand-in-Glove, October 20–23, 2011, sponsored by Threewalls at several venues in Chicago
5 Lane Relyea and Penelope Boyer, eds., Organizing Artists: A Document and Directory of the National Association of Artists Organizations (Washington, DC: National Association of Artists Organizations, 1992).
6 For a discussion of this dilemma in relation to the earlier alternative space movement, see Howard Singerman, “Opting Out and Buying In,” LAICA Journal 19 ( June–July 1978): 40–41; and Grant Kester, “Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public,” in Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 103–35.