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.
On Edge: Alternative Spaces Today
Art in America, November 1998, pp. 57-61
Last winter I received two startling missives from alternative spaces: An invitation to discuss Franklin Furnace’s revised mission as a virtual organization on February 4 and a press release announcing the demise of Randolph Street Gallery on February 13. The news about Randolph St. Gallery was personally saddening. I’d worked with the Chicago space on its production of Muntadas’s File Room (1994), the pioneering online archive of social and cultural censorship. Franklin Furnace’s situation is more ambiguous. The meeting to which I was invited was called to discuss the New York organization’s new cyber-orientation–visionary or elitist? Although a healthy debate ensued, I left concerned that this well-intentioned group of middle-aged arts professionals hadn’t a clue about creating opportunities for twenty-something artists.
Pondering some recent developments in alternative-space history, my concerns mounted: NAME (in Chicago) and WPA (Washington Projects for the Arts) went bankrupt in 1996. (The latter was absorbed by the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) San Francisco’s Capp Street Project is closing its space, in part because founder Ann Hatch’s philanthropic priorities have shifted. (Its residency program is being incorporated into California College of Arts and Crafts’ exhibition program.) The Alternative Museum in New York hasn’t paid employee-salaries since last fall, according to its founder, Geno Rodriguez, who termed the past year “our worst time ever.” Roberto Bedoya, head of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), the alternative spaces’ lobbying organization in Washington, commented that “There’s a kind of malnutrition or fading away. Many organizations are doing far less programming than they used to and some like COCA [Seattle’s Center On Contemporary Art], LACPS [Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies] and LACE [Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions] are really stressed.” Although spaces like Hartford’s Real Art Ways and New York’s Artists Space are thriving, en masse, the alternative art scene is in crisis. As Peter Taub, the former Executive Director of Randolph Street Gallery, put it: “It’s desperate out there. The field is currently defined by adversity.” Has an era already ended?
The adversity identified by Taub assumes at least three forms: Generational change, the Culture Wars, and a decade of public disinvestment and ill-considered foundation mandates. Only the first of the three could have been anticipated nearly three decades ago when alternatve spaces emerged as a new phenomenon. The first of these small non-profit organizations initiated by and for visual artists appeared in New York in 1969 and 1970 with the founding of 98 Greene Street, Apple and 112 Workshop (a/k/a 112 Greene Street and now White Columns.) For many of us baby boomers, at least, the term alternative space remains synonymous with the network of seemingly institutionalized spaces such as San Francisco’s New Langton Arts, Houston’s DiverseWorks, Buffalo’s Hall Walls, Atlanta’s Nexus Contemporary Art Center, New York’s Kitchen, and San Diego’s Sushi, to mention only a few.
Some came into being with a little help from friends within the “establishment.” New Langton Arts (then 80 Langton St.) in San Francisco, for instance, was founded in 1975 and originally funded by the local Art Dealers’ Association, and Artists Space in New York opened its doors in 1973 as a project of the New York State Council on the Arts. For artists of the seventies, the new alternative spaces offered virtually the only venues for the development of conceptually oriented, non-commercial forms such as video, installations and actions (the term performance art wasn’t coined until the late seventies.) This conceptualist bent separated alternative spaces from artists’ cooperative galleries, usually commercial spaces where artists banded together to exhibit traditional-format work and collectively pay the rent. Non-traditional curatorial practices also characterized the new alternative spaces: Most relied on artists to curate shows, rather than professional curators. And, most radical of all, artists received fees for exhibiting.
Not every space fits this general model and sometimes appearances can deceive. The Drawing Center in Soho, for example, presents an annual historical show, and boasts an elegant loft-space and a well-heeled board of directors. It may not look like an alternative space, but, according to executive director Ann Philbin, it is. “The majority of our shows are artist-curated and we pay fees.” Other organizations, like PS1 and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, have evolved into full-fledged kunsthalles, that is contemporary art museums, which don’t collect. The NAAO roster now lists more than 700 full- and associate- members that range widely from established institutions (such as Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop) and publications (Atlanta’s Art Papers), to their far smaller counterparts (such as Los Angeles’ VIVA! Lesbian and Gay Latino Artists and Art FBI or Artists For a Better Image, Jeff Gates’s publication-oriented, artist-advocacy operation.) Requirements for NAAO membership essentially demand only that organizations be non-profits devoted to contemporary art and committed to guaranteeing artists both policy-making roles and fees for presenting their work. Today, an artists’ organization may be as much a mind-set as anything else; and not necessarily an alternative space.
* * *
Since the original flowering of alternative spaces in the seventies, much has changed. During the first half of the eighties, East Village artists rejected both the non-profit and conceptualist orientations of the generation that preceded them and founded their own galleries including Civilian Warfare and Gracie Mansion. (Although this was largely a New York phenomenon based on a then-thriving market for emerging art, it mirrored an international revival of painting and blunted the razor-sharp divide that once separated commercial galleries from alternative spaces.) Other venues began to enter what had been exclusive alternative-space turf. Object-making artists such as Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo first showed their work at Hall Walls, in Buffalo, and Artists Space, and then moved with Artists Space director Helene Winer to Metro Pictures, the high-profile, commercial gallery she opened (with Janelle Reiring) in 1980. Museums also got into the act by establishing project-type programs, which showcased contemporary art in varied media not necessarily by renowned artists.
The second generation of alternative spaces–including Newark’s Aljira and San Francisco’s Artists Television Access, which were both founded in 1983–were more diverse than their predecessors. The former tends to focus on traditional-format work, the latter on work in non-traditional formats and distribution systems including cable television. The new norm of the eighties and nineties simply came to mean assisting artists working in all forms by providing exhibition or performance venues. The term artists’ organization began to seem more appropriate, if far less precise, than alternative space.
Alas, the salad days of such organizations would prove to be short-lived. The elimination in 1981 of both NEA grants for critics (a group alleged to be overly politicized by Hilton Kramer and his ilk) and the Neighborhood Arts Program (a component of CETA, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act), were harbingers of the Culture Wars to come. That NAAO was the only organization-plaintiff in the so-called NEA Four trial over the Congressionally mandated “decency” standards for the awarding of grants to artists, is a reminder that the majority of the cultural warriors’ organization-targets have been alternative spaces. To put it bluntly, the Radical Right has triumphed in this and virtually every other engagement of the Culture Wars. The NEA long ago gutted its operational support for many alternative spaces; one of the causes of WPA’s bankruptcy was the reduction of annual NEA support from $200,000 to $10,000–a ninety-five percent cut.
The Radical Right’s continuing scrutiny of the NEA has been extended to the state and municipal levels. Programming about the flag, multicultural identities (especially queer ones) and sexuality (even plain old nudity) is likely to invite protest. Numerous alternative spaces have been defunded and some funding programs–such as Cobb County, Georgia’s–have been eliminated entirely in order to abolish support for venues that feature such work. If stories like these no longer hit front pages with the frequency they used to, it’s not because artists have purified their work. The mass media has little attention span for news that no longer seems new, and the administrators of publicly-funded exhibition spaces now have a financial interest in avoiding controversy.
* * *
Ironically, Randolph Street Gallery-offerings were never a magnet for censors; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago tended to be the arena in which Chicago scandals of the past decade erupted. Nor was Randolph Street Gallery totally abandoned by the NEA, it received a $30,000 programming grant for its final series of exhibitions and performances, the racial-identity-oriented T-Race, organized by Kerry James Marshall and Jane M. Saks, which ran from October-December, 1997. But in most other regards its demise seems all-too-typical.
Founded by a small group of artists in 1979, Randolph Street Gallery moved from its Randolph-Street storefront to its present location on North Milwaukee Avenue in 1982. The capacious loft encompassed an exhibition gallery, black-box performance space for time-based arts, and a project space. (The organization acquired the space in 1993.) More than a thousand artists and performers have presented their work there, including Xu Bing, Robert Blanchon, Leon Golub, Eve Andrée Laramee, Lauren Lesko, James Luna, Rosy Martin, Muntadas, Esther Parada, Carolee Schneemann, Andres Serrano, Spiderwoman Theatre, and Rikrit Tiravanija. Randolph Street Gallery administered a re-granting program for regional artists that distributed close to $200,000 between 1989 and 1996, and also produced forty-four issues of P-Form, a savvy, quarterly journal devoted to performance and interdisciplinary art between 1986 and 1997. Remarkably, all of these activities were coordinated by five volunteer committees of artists. But despite the exemplary efforts of volunteers, staff and operating expenses increased dramatically, from one part-time staffer in 1986 to five full-time staffers a decade later administering a budget of $450,000.
A turning point for the organization came in 1995, when Peter Taub, its longtime executive director (and current Director of Performance Programs at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), resigned. “I didn’t have any energy left from trying to keep it [Randolph Street Gallery] afloat…I also believed the organization needed a radical change and that it would work better with a new executive director,” he recalled. According to Paul Brenner, Randolph Street Gallery’s former program director, the problems didn’t surface until after Taub’s departure. “There wasn’t enough long-term planning. Grants didn’t come in and nobody wants to fund operating expenses anymore.” By the end of 1995, ten percent across-the-board programming cuts were made; quickly increasing to twenty- and then thirty-percent cuts, because much of the budget was committed to operating expenses. At this point the staff included two full-time development directors, a business/office manager, but no executive director. “The lack of an ED [executive director] was a problem,” Brenner observed. “Nobody could do it for the $30,000 we offered and not having an ED hurt us with private funders.”
In January 1997, Randolph Street Gallery took a nine-month hiatus from public programing to consider its options. Its board and staff organized round-tables with educators, representatives of larger institutions like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and peer organizations. Despite few concrete measures of support, RSG decided to give it one more shot. But things did not improve. T-race closed on December 13, 1997 and the gallery shuttered its operations exactly two months later. Randolph Street Gallery’s nineteen-year history embodies the vital roles that many effective alternative spaces have played: Serving artists as research-and-development facilities, while serving audiences as facilitators and bellwethers of American cultural discourse.
In essence, Randolph Street Gallery was bedevilled with two seemingly intractable problems inherent to alternative spaces today: How to attact an executive director with the MBA-skills necessary to run the Kennedy Center for a modest salary, and how to increase earned income when the audience is largely made up of low-income artists and students. With radical reductions in public funding, alternative spaces are now chiefly at the mercy of private funders, rather than the public funding that subsidized their initial growth. According to Brenner, one Randolph Street Gallery board member went to Chicago’s richly-endowed MacArthur foundation seeking additional funding to pay an executive director. What it received instead was a handsomely paid consultant who earned $25,000 for a short report asserting that since Randolph Street Gallery was not likely to generate much earned income, it might as well close. “We would have laughed, if we hadn’t felt like crying,” commented Brenner.
The problem with such foundation-world thinking is that it proceeds from the arguable (and very American) notion that cultural institutions are businesses and need to adopt corporate models in order to survive. Arts-fund-raiser Jeff Jones, author of 2200 successful grant applications for progressive organizations such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Women’s Philharmonic Orchestra, is a veritable one-man history of funding developments of the past decades. “Artists with good artistic sense could start organizations but that’s no longer enough. Now you have to be a financial expert who understands marketing and personnel issues; the MBA-skills-bar is impossibly high but you need these skills in order to talk the language funders want to hear,” he said. “Every one of the five biggest arts funders in the Bay Area–where I live–encourage administrative-heavy and art-light organizations. The problem is that these corporate models are fine for large museums and big-budget opera companies, but they have no relevance at all for artist-run organizations. They’re a consultant’s dream.”
Robert Crane, President of the Joyce Merz Gilmore Foundation in New York, concurs that financial accountability and market models are de rigeuramong private foundations, while providing much needed operating support is unfashionable. “This [lack of operating support] has hurt small organizations especially. Alternative institutions must feel that they’ve taken a beating at every level,” he said. “Because the work they present isn’t immediately popular they particularly need support. Most art organizations can’t really open a gift shop and increase earned income.” The Joyce Merz Gilmore Foundation, whose founder is a dance patron, recently made its last grants in the visual arts, preferring instead to focus its limited resources on dance and theater.
* * *
In the past decade, the notion that organizations of all kinds need to locate and develop alternative streams of income has gained currency among funders. Most alternative spaces have considered such ideas, and more than a few have implemented them. Real Art Ways in Hartford, for instance, opened a screening room for independent and foreign films in 1996. The cinema generated $80,000 in ticket sales its first year, and the next phase of RAW’s $1.4 million expansion includes a cafe, performing arts theater and a second screening room. (This will be funded in part by $550,000 in state and city funds.) Aljira opened a graphic design studio in 1996 with a $50,000 grant from The Arts Challenge Fund, a consortium headed by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; it has yet to turn a profit. Holly Block, executive director of Art in General, noted that her organization provides daytime and after-school education programs for K-12 students and at-risk youths. “This would be earned income if we could charge the Board of Ed a fee for each student,” she said. “But we would have had to have negotiated their bureaucracy twenty years ago. We do these programs because we’re not in Soho and need to reach a wider audience. So they pay for themselves and help us meet other goals.” Programs like Art in General’s and RAW’s at least support their organizations’ missions of investigating visual culture and serving audiences.
Perhaps the boldest recent experiment in earned-income initiatives was that of Art Matters, the New York-based foundation. Although not an alternative space Art Matters attempted to generate substantial earnings by developing a mail-order catalog of artist-designed products in order to increase funding to artists after the NEA eliminated grants to individual artists. The first catalog appeared in fall, 1995 and by all the standards of direct-marketing was an unqualified success: Two percent of catalogue recipients made purchases and these purchases exceeded, on average, those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue-customers. When it came time to up the ante and expand operations, Art Matters asked the same foundations who constantly preach entrepreneurship to arts organizations to invest $2.5 million. Art Matters received not a dime. As Cee Scott Brown, former executive vice-president of Art Matters, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “that was just lip service, just buzz words….They [program officers] don’t have the ability to convince the boards to follow them.” If a sophisticated foundation can’t, in Jeff Jones’s words, talk the language funders want to hear, what success is the typical artist-run organization likely to have?
But perhaps there are larger, philosophical issues at play. Should an alternative space want to become a major wholesaler of tchotchkes? Or as Holly Block put it, “we thought of doing a printing business. But I’m not a printing expert and I don’t want to be. One full-time job is enough.” Happily, Art in General is in no danger of failing, although Block (among anonymous others) cautioned that the financial problems facing alternative spaces are far worse than I think, noting that “people are not very open about their finances.”
* * *
What’s at stake if dozens of alternative spaces fail over the next few years? Plenty, if you regard the art world as an ecosystem. Such an outlook implies that the withering away of alternative spaces not only limits diversity–that is, the range of artistic visions presented to audiences–but impairs the vast majority of future artists who might develop their crafts at these art making laboratories. As Robert Crane observed, “The entire ecology needs to be supported. The collapse of small organizations will have an effect, but probably not an immediate one. Everybody, funders included, have short visions when we need ten-to-twenty year horizons.”
Are there solutions? Might newer alternative spaces spring up to take the places of those established in the eighties and nineties? Many of the new storefront/garage galleries started by artists throughout the country (like Pierogi in New York) utilize many of the curatorial practices pioneered by alternative spaces. But because their founders are not interested in the onerous task of building and running non-profit institutions, their access to funds is extremely limited.
The biggest problem may be that “the issue of a crisis in the field gets talked about, but mostly within the field,” says Anne Pasternak, head of Creative Time. “You never read about it in the New York Times.” Jeff Jones believes that the field’s first order of business is to challenge the Darwinian proposition that only the well-funded organizations deserve to survive. “Values matter, the Right Wing taught us that.” Jones commented. “Cultural equity demands that everybody–artists and audiences alike–has access to cultural resources. Nobody expects the opera to turn a profit, the conversation never begins there.” Or as Will K. Wilkins, executive director of Real Art Ways, observed upon returning from a NAAO conference in Chicago in May, “The aftermath of the demise of Randolph Street and NAME wasn’t really talked about in official sessions there. I was puzzled….Aren’t the failures are as instructive as the successes?”
Posted by Abigail Satinsky on February 3, 2016 at 9:08 AM
I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder
—excerpt from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I Am Waiting”
In a recent discussion about the launch of Common Field, the new national network of artist-run spaces and visual arts organizations, someone said (I don’t know if it was them or us, we were all sitting in a big circle to be nonhierarchical), “This is a movement!”1 I instantly felt myself recoiling. Us, a movement? Does arts administration really constitute viable social transformation? Yet what else do we think we’re doing? Is carrying the torch for an independent, noncommercial, experimental, and challenging field of artist-organizing and artist-centric nonprofits not a lofty and worthy goal? As a field of spaces, projects, and various platforms for the distribution and proliferation of contemporary art driven by artists voices and practices, we are post–alternative-space-movement with its cultural cachet, post–Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) with its funding for artists to work as artists, post–National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO) with its advocacy for artist fees and governmental support, post–Culture Wars with the scrutiny of the field on a national stage, on the margins of new funding paradigm Creative Placemaking, stewing over the meaning of it all in the special projects and nonprofit section of the art fair, wagging our fingers over valuing the small and the local, and bemoaning the rise of the artist-as-entrepreneur. In other words, what are our demands now? Does calling oneself a movement summon one into being?
Mess Hall, Ten-Point Statement poster, 2007 (artwork © Mess Hall) Mess Hall was an experimental cultural center based in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, 2003–13. Operated by a group of keyholders, Mess Hall hosted exhibitions, discussions, film screenings, workshops, concerts, campaigns and meetings, as well as a place for radical politics, visual art, applied ecological design and creative urban planning in a rent free space donated by the landlord, enabling Mess Hall to be a completely free resource for the local community, one of the fundamental principles on which it was founded.
Formerly a radical idea, artist organizations were born in the era of 1960s and 1970s social-movement culture in the United States, forming an oppositional bloc to the rarefied worlds of museums and commercial galleries in the spirit of communalism, multiculturalism, and decentralization. While certainly not bound by a shared worldview, the politics of self-organizing was key to the movement. Today, small to mid-size visual arts organizations struggle to survive as viable centers that are responsive platforms for working artists, both in navigating fundraising and institutional advancement, but also because our community is fragmented regionally, professionally, and theoretically. While many previous iterations of the alternative space movements have tread and retread similar ground, the threads between histories of such activity and current manifestations seem farther apart than ever. Taking stock of where we stand today requires excavating and assessing shared histories and asking core questions about those to whom this field is relevant.
Who are the artists that consider themselves part of contemporary artist-run culture? To conceive of contemporary artists today requires looking at economic barriers to education, the systemic problem of debt accumulation, and the dismantling of public universities, which drastically narrows the number of artists who conceive of themselves as having a professional trajectory in the contemporary visual arts. Graduate school credentials still dominate as an entry-point to discourse, though who can afford it? Yet this is only the first in a series of hurdles. According to the recent study by the collective BFAMFAPhD, which asks, “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?,” only 8 percent of arts graduates in the United States surveyed by the US Census Bureau from 2009 to 2011 make a living as artists.2 While these findings are not self-evident—in other words, one does not have to be employed as an artist or need an art degree to actually be an artist—it clearly points to a narrowing of access to the field. And this is not to mention the field’s already narrow definition of itself, given that, art-historically, artist-run culture and alternative spaces are umbrella terms that tend to refer to contemporary art-focused spaces initiated by trained artists with BFAs or MFAs who consider themselves as belonging to a separate disciplinary category from community arts and community-focused artist spaces. A broader dialogue across the spectrum would make for a much more interesting and relevant set of conversations, but requires navigating and celebrating those differences, without ignoring power and privilege dynamics.
What is the public purpose for our work? Today’s funding trends such as Creative Place-making, made possible through partnership enterprises among foundation, governmental, and financial-sector support, such as ArtPlace America, are concentrated on giving art and artists opportunities in diverse communities yet also require artists and arts organizations to think through an entrepreneurial frame by integrating their initiatives into their community’s economic development and community revitalization strategies and having the potential to attract additional private and public support of the community.3 Is this a worthy challenge of contemporary arts insularity or does it discount subversive and against-the-grain art production, made by and for art communities, including that which is made within and by these same diverse communities that are being targeted by new funding initiatives as in need of help in the form of artistic interventions?
How are we organized? For those working within small to mid-size visual arts nonprofit organizations, what are the organizational and administrative practices that are implicit to the way we work? The nonprofit model relies on continued growth and capacity building through public and foundation funding, as well as private patronage as a measure of success, requiring a continuing professionalization of the field, for better or for worse. These pragmatic concerns can obfuscate addressing equity in our own organizations, thinking outside of nonprofit logics, and the deep questioning of adopting entrepreneurial strategies. This is not to mention non-non-profits or those operating at the grass-roots level, who have strategies and politics around sustainability or ephemerality, think deeply about emerging forms of production and distribution, and have much to teach more established organizations so as not to replicate traditional administrative strategies as the only course of action.
Making Demands and Making Do
Renny Pritikin, a founding director of San Francisco’s New Langton Arts, has written that the wave of artists’ organizations which started in the 1970s and from which the alternative art space movement is often attributed to initially adopted many of the goals outlined and summarized in the Students for a Democratic Society’s Port Huron Statement from 1962, including participatory democracy and consensus models in decision-making, respect and interest in a multicultural and pluralistic outlook on what art could be, the freedom of ideas not subject to market or corporate influence, and the decentralization of production and dissemination, as artists communities across the country determined their own value without having to look towards New York or other traditional centers for validation. Pritikin writes, “Artists took this rhetoric, originally intended to address disenfranchisement from political decision-making processes, and applied it to the microcosm of an art world that had effectively placed artists in a passive and victimized role, identifying that condition as a political one. As an alternative to such a condition, artists proposed to create their own ground for displaying their works both for their peers and any interested audience.”4 As Pritikin goes on to say, this self-determination impulse took the form of artists acting as curators, cutting out professional gatekeepers and middlemen, establishing parallel economies, including championing paying artists for their work, and acting as decision-makers within the administration of these organizations.
The influence of social movements of the time took hold in the East Coast art world through politically oriented collectives and action committees such as Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam in 1965, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition from 1968 to 1969, and El Taller Boricua, El Museo del Barrio, Art Workers Coalition, and Women Artists in Revolution in 1969, to name just a few, and first generation of alternative spaces such as 112 Greene Street (later known as White Columns), The Kitchen, and A.I.R Gallery opened in the early 1970s.5 On the West Coast, community anarchists like the Diggers were creating mini-societies free of money and capitalism by creating street-theater alongside the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children and other like-minded social programs. At the same time the Museum of Conceptual Art, a large-scale social work of art by Tom Marioni, opened in 1970 with its own claim to be the first alternative space in the United States, while initiatives like Galeria de la Raza began storefront exhibitions of the work of Chicano artists in San Francisco’s Mission District that same year.6
Jerzy Kucinski and Lynne Warren, “History of Alternative Spaces” diagram, 1984, from Lynne Warren, “Chicago’s Alternatives,” in Alternative Spaces: A History in Chicago, exh. cat. (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984) (diagram © Lynne Warren.
In Chicago in the early 1970s, we had our own third and best-known generation of alternative spaces (each city can claim its own artist-run history, probably with a fair share of boosterism thrown in), such as ARC, Artemisia (both were feminist galleries formed from West-East Bag, a nationwide network of women artists), and N.A.M.E., with the much-heralded Randolph Street Gallery opening in 1979.7 This is not to mention still-running artist-driven efforts such as the Hyde Park Art Center, founded in 1948, and the South Side Community Art Center, the only surviving Federal Arts Center from the WPA era and the oldest African American art center in the country, famously dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt on opening day in 1940.
Artists in Chicago, like elsewhere, were making demands. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2015, is one example of a group of experimental artists operating under the principles of a do-it-yourself mentality, grounded in a radical, collectivized rhetoric of the Black Arts Movement, as well as black power and civil rights, and inspiring artists to organize their own infrastructures in Chicago today. The AACM’s first manifesto asserts its principles of self-reliance and doing for the community:
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organization of staunch individuals, determined to further the art of being of service to themselves, their families and their communities. . . . We are like the stranded particle, the isolated island of the whole, which refuses to expire in the midst of the normal confused plane which must exist—in order that we may, but with which we are constantly at war. We are trying to balance an unbalanced system that is prevalent in this society.8
The AACM, with the mission of “Great Black Music,” conceived of unique public concerts and touring programs at outdoor venues and public sites such as the Wall of Respect on the South Side of Chicago, created an educational program from which new members of the organization emerged, and overall created an association of communality and solidarity for the support of new art forms. As the scholar Romi Crawford writes, this mentality had a broad impact on the “DIY-inflected art making in Chicago”; citing the influence on artists such as Theaster Gates, known for combining urban planning and art practices to build new cultural spaces and infrastructure, as well as Chicago’s proliferation of apartment galleries, alternative pedagogical experiments and collective production. Crawford continues, “As early as 1965 the AACM espoused sophisticated community and dialogic methods. Its practices of experimentation—which included grassroots organizing, social networking, practicing self-reliance, using alternative venues, collectivizing and collaboration, teaching, and more—helped to construct, at the very least, the present Chicago art agenda with its DIY cred, its apartment galleries, its poor art forms, its artist-organizers, and its regionalist aesthetic bent.”9
Randolph Street Gallery staff, members of board of directors, and artists of the Opening New Doors exhibition, October–November 1982 (photograph © Studio GO, provided by the Randolph Street Gallery Archives, John M. Flaxman Library, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) From left right, top row: Hudson, Mary Min, David Helm, Jessica Swift, Cynde Schaupe, Suzi Kunz, Bruce Clearfield, Paul Maurice, Greg Green; middle row: Greg Knight, J Morgan Puett, Nancy Forest Brown, Gary Justis, Dennis Kowalski, L. J. Douglas; bottom row: Steve Mose, Story Mann, Lynette Mohill, Frank Garvey, Jennifer Hereth, Marc Giordano, Ted Lowitz, Sarah Schwartz, Robert Pollack, Stephen Lapthisophon, Ron Cohen, Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Hoskins, Lannie Johnston, J. Joseph Little, David Cloud
Other influential artist-organizing of the time took the art institutions as their target to protest the Vietnam War, the marginalization of women and people of color through exclusionary practices, and the linkages between arts patronage and proponents of United States imperialism, among other things. To take one example, the Guerrilla Art Action Group (formed in 1969 by Jon Hendricks, Poppy Johnson, Silvianna, Joanne Stamerra, Virginia Toche, and Jean Toche as an offshoot of the Art Workers Coalition), issued a manifesto stating, “We demand that the Museum of Modern Art decentralise its power structure to a point of communalisation. Art, to have any relevance at all today, must be taken out of the hands of the elite and returned to the people,” going on to say, “It is no longer a time for artists to sit as puppets or ‘chosen representatives of’ at the feet of an art elite, rather it is the time for a true communalisation where anyone, regardless of condition or race, can become involved in the actual policy-making and control of the museum.”10
These moments of protest, on the one hand the AACM’s formation as a functional, self-sustaining infrastructure to support radical consciousness and radical forms outside the mainstream, and on the other, a social movement of artists in New York City working to make art institutions more accountable and transparent, less racist, and more relevant, represent struggles we can identify with today. If Theaster Gates is just one example of the continuing Chicago spirit, though now with considerable resources to work with and thus navigating and maneuvering amongst the spheres and demands of radical forms of art, the commercial art world and urban development simultaneously, an effort like Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), a New York–based activist organization focusing on regulating the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions, and establishing a sustainable labor relation between artists and the institutions that subcontract their labor, carries forward the legacy of the Art Workers Coalition and other like-minded groups. Gates continues to make infrastructure his art form through enterprises such as the Stony Island Arts Bank, Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, and the Rebuild Foundation, among many others, and W.A.G.E. advances a sector-wide minimum standard for compensation, as well as a clear set of standards for a national certification program: these are the kinds of artist-organizing efforts that both articulate the challenges of the present and press the field to respond.11
Building an Infrastructure, or Radical Hippies Join with the Government to Make Institutions
By the mid-1970s, the aforementioned new wave of formalized artist organizations, grounded in the principles of artists’ self-determination, experimental platforms for new artmaking, and self-organization, were beginning to coalesce into a national network. In 1978, the New Arts Space conference, organized by the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, included spaces such as 80 Langton St. (later New Langton Arts) and Southern Exposure in San Francisco, and/or gallery in Seattle, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, CEPA and Hallwalls in Buffalo, and fledging alternatives Creative Time and the New Museum, seeking to define the territory of these new organizational models. As artist and cofounder of the artist-run 80 Langton Street, James Pomeroy duly noted some “gross generalizations” that help distinguish museums and new art spaces, articulating the structures of power that these new spaces were seeking to define themselves against (though ruefully acknowledging that all sides involve “nice dedicated people”):
Museum New Art Space
acquisition, collection rotation
(marriage) (one night stand)
climate control may have heat
segregated restrooms may have restrooms
restaurant definitely box lunch12
As Pomeroy points out, new art spaces were nothing new themselves, citing the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and the Armory Show in 1913, both of which were curated by artists in alternative spaces, as the most pivotal exhibitions of the last one hundred fifty years. Yet whatever alternative legacy the fledgling 1970s organizations may have claimed, quickly they also had to grapple with their own institutionality. Fortified by a newly created funding category, Short Term Activities, the National Endowment for the Arts made grants to several artist-run organizations in 1972. In 1973 the NEA initiated a Workshops subheading of its Public Art Program to facilitate funding “alternative spaces,” and in 1977 the NEA created the Workshops/Artists Spaces program, “designed to encourage artists to devise modes of working together and to test new ideas.”13 In 1973 further capacity was built for these spaces under the umbrella of a separate federal program, the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), a work training program that started under the Nixon Administration, “providing federal public employment to chronically unemployed groups including artists.” CETA provided artists with stipends and also created opportunities for artists to hold paid positions in the new organizations, with salaries starting at $10,000 per year.
The San Francisco Art Commission was the first municipal agency to use CETA funds to employ artists in service to the city. When the commission announced 113 positions, 3,500 artists applied. One of the first beneficiaries was Peter Coyote, a founding member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the radical street-theater company (still performing) from which he and others evolved into the Diggers, which in turn made common cause in a larger “Free Family” that included the Diggers, Black Panthers, Provos, Mission Rebels, and various communes establishing services for free food, free healthcare, free education, and free money. After being employed for two years, Coyote was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Council on the Arts and served from 1975 to 1983, during which time the council’s overhead expenses dropped from 50 percent to 15 percent, the lowest of any state agency, and the arts council annual budget rose from $1 million to $14.14 One of Coyote’s most important contributions included the State-Local Partnership, crafted with fellow council member Luis Valdez (pioneer of the Chicano movement, playwright of Zoot Suit, and founder of El Teatro Campesino), which established local control for arts funding, introduced the idea of artists as “creative problem solvers,” and integrated artists into the budgets of state agencies like Education, Health, Welfare, and Corrections, to protect the arts from being first to be cut in difficult budget times.15 Coyote later wrote of his time on the council, “At my last hearing before the State Senate Finance Committee, eight years after I was sworn in as a member, the crusty senators who had tried to abolish the arts council multiple times during its early years—several of whom had gone on record condemning me personally—donned hippie headbands and applauded me. The gesture moved me, and I accepted it as my passing grade in civilian life, an indication that my years in the wind had been put to good use.”16
By 1978, CETA, whose annual budget reached $75 million, funded over one hundred thousand artists and over six hundred projects in two hundred locations worldwide.17 A new nonprofit, membership organization, the National Association of Artists Organizations (NAAO), was founded in 1982 “as a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to serving and promoting artist-run organizations: the primary supporters, presenters, and makers of new and emerging work in the visual, performing, media, literary and interdisciplinary arts.” Notably, NAAO introduced a telling list of requirements for members: that “Full Member Organizations must be non-profit, further establishing that artist organizations must organize themselves in a formalized capacity in order to work with and be eligible for governmental and foundation monies”; that “artists must maintain a central policy and decision-making role in Full Member Organizations,” a quality that was much easier to maintain with CETA-funded employment opportunities for artists; and that “Full Member Organizations guarantee artists full control of the presentation of their work and are committed to paying equitable artists’ fees for presenting and exhibiting work.” And reiterated one more time in NAAO’s mission statement, “Full Member Organizations are committed to paying equitable artists’ fees.”18
ARC Gallery, poster for Exhibit Two: Group Exhibit, 1974, offset photography on paper, 8 x 14 inches (artwork © ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation)
Many of these conditions, especially that membership organizations needed to be nonprofits, were hotly debated at the time. Yet a committee, drawing from the New Arts Space national conferences, including Joe Celli of Real Art Ways, Al Nodal of the Washington Project for the Arts, Lyn Blumenthal of the Video Data Bank, Robert Gaylor of Center for Contemporary Arts Santa Fe, and Renny Pritikin of New Langton Arts, among others, met to draw up a constitution presented at a subsequent national conference in Washington, DC, which included the provision and also divided the country into seven regions, one of which was, notably, New York City by itself. As Pritikin put it, “My most lasting memory was a blisteringly hot DC summer day with no air, and the whole field in the room, and I asked for each district to stand up in turn when I called their name, and people were in tears. It was so moving that our little underfunded movement had emerged united and powerful and national and broadly representative. What a triumphal moment in my career and life. Each district sent someone to the national board, which met on a quarterly basis with NEA money to support the travel. And that was it, soon setting up an office and hiring a director.”19 NAAO services included a directory of member organizations and other publications on the field, an annual conference, access to arts advocacy information, participation in a multisite collaborations program, and other organizational support. It supported the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, which was conceived by a group of artists and arts activists in 1989 following the series of controversies about the right to free artistic expression and public support for the arts, later known as the Culture Wars.
Artist organizations went through much soul-searching and organizational redevelopment in the 1980s under the Reagan Administration, with funding changing significantly and self-censorship on the rise. To take one example, in 1981, the NEA’s Art Critics funding category, under fire because of “Marxist” tendencies, was suspended by NEA staff in response to the Reagan administration’s proposed 50 percent cut in funding.20 The cultural advocates Arlene Goldfarb and Don Adams write of the period as one of retrenchment and self-censorship, as resonant and relevant today for those working in the nonprofit sector. In their contribution to Organizing Artists, a publication commissioned by NAAO in 1994, they write:
More visible and just as significant is the standardization of organizational management that has occurred among arts groups over the past 10 years—a major departure from the emphasis on diversity and creativity that characterized the movement in the ’70s. As a class, both public and private arts funders tend to be organizational technocrats. They treat management structures and techniques as handy, value-neutral tools for making things happen. You don’t encounter a lot of debate in funding circles about alternative models of organizing—collective or cooperatives, for instance, in which responsibility and authority are shared; or even proprietorships or partnerships, to borrow entrepreneurial models from the business world. That’s because a key assumption is deeply embedded in funders’ consciousness: as surely as the sun will rise in the East, the high-powered executive and board-led corporation—the archetypical American business structure—is the best tool for getting any job done.21
NAAO fell victim to the Culture Wars after throwing its resources into supporting the NEA Four artists (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes), who won their case, National Endowment for the Arts vs. Finley, at the district and appeals court levels, but lost at the Supreme Court in 1998, which led the NEA to stop funding individual artists. NAAO initially folded as an organization in 2001, after which, a group of invested board members attempted to resuscitate it, legally moving its offices to Minneapolis in 2005 and after serving as the fiscal sponsor for the Critical Art Ensemble’s legal defense fund for artist Steve Kurtz, ultimately ceased all operations in 2009. Its history is largely unwritten and unknown to a younger generation of arts administrators and arts activists, many of whom could scarcely imagine that at one point there was a national body of arts organizations championing equitable artist fees and artist power within the decision-making of organizations.
Changes in the Landscape
In the wake of such large-scale challenges, foundations such as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts stepped in with major support through the Warhol Initiative, an invitational funding program launched in the fall of 1999 to support small contemporary visual arts organizations around the country. Many of the identified organizations had been founded in the 1970s and 1980s, when governmental support was more available, and were now struggling for sustainability in the years following the Culture Wars. In the wake of the transformation and dismantling of support for individual artists and the artist organizations that were the base of artists’ activities, the Warhol Foundation identified “artist-centered” groups as critical supporters of artists on the ground in local communities, stating, “Often more regional than national in their orientation, these groups keep in close touch with the artists in their communities, discovering them, presenting them, providing them with many essential supports, from professional development services to first critical assessments. The organizations become gathering places for artists, exhibit work that inspires them, connect them with other artists and with audiences. In short, in carrying out their mission of presenting contemporary art, they are also, essentially, artist service organizations, and end up as the source of much of the support that is available to American artists.”22
These organizations, which numbered seventy-four by the time the initiative concluded in 2011, received capacity-building grants of about $100,000 each over multiple years, along with consulting services to help them maximize the grants’ benefits; each sent its director or board members to convene on a national level every three years. Threewalls in Chicago, where I worked until this year, received funding through the Initiative in 2008 and was able to create cash reserves and take steps toward long-term financial planning. The support was crucial for a financially struggling organization, not only providing stability but also creating a sense of national community and peer support for the work of Threewalls and creating collegial relationships with other founding members of Common Field.
In 1999, the same year that the initiative was founded, the Warhol Foundation provided a seed gift of $1.2 million to the Creative Capital Foundation, a new model for artist-focused philanthropy, which revamped the NEA’s discarded individual artist fellowships, seen as no longer politically tenable. Creative Capital worked on a venture-capital model in which artist projects were seen as long-term partnerships with the possibility of monetary return. As Paul Bonin-Rodriguez writes in Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century, “The new artist paradigm being proposed is tempered by a radical pragmatism. Reflective of the nation’s capitalist economy, the market becomes both the institutional medium and its validating destination. The burden of public purpose, which is now and newly being defined as market readiness in 1999, falls squarely on artists who are not standing alone.”23 The notion that artists would literally have to pay the foundation back was subsequently discarded; Creative Capital stated in 2005 that “paying back was now understood as giving back,” meaning continued participation in the foundation’s efforts through fundraising and artist programs.24 As it was one of the most visible funders of individual artists in the United States, Creative Capital’s use of venture-capital principles in its granting model represented a sea change, as professional and project development services were emphasized as much as actual grant monies, reflective of a funding landscape in which professional artists are expected not only to produce their creative project but also to build an infrastructure around their work to maximize impact and leverage future support.
Continuing in this new paradigm of “radical pragmatism,” in 2009 the NEA established its Creative Placemaking program, in which “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, a town, a city, or a region around arts and cultural activities.”25 Conceived by Rocco Landesman, then the NEA chair, whose background was in producing commercial theater, and senior deputy chair Joan Shigekawa, former associate director for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she had commissioned the Arts and Community Indicator Project (focusing on the role that artists play in communities), Creative Placemaking marks a transformative moment, according to Bonin-Rodriguez, for NEA funding. Melding urban policy trends to revitalize “creative cities” and encouraging partnerships among business associations, governmental agencies, and foundations, the NEA formed ArtPlace in 2009 and OurTown Grants in 2011, funded by major foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation; by federal partnerships with the US departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Transportation, and Agriculture, along with the White House’s Domestic Policy Council; and by the financial institutions Chase Bank, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Citibank, MetLife, and Deutsche Bank.26 Creative Placemaking grants represent considerable grant amounts that must be spent in a relatively short period, with artists and organizations eligible for grants of $50,000 to $500,000 to be used over eighteen months, and Community Development Investments of up to $3 million for “place-based NGOs” for up to three years.
Critical perspectives on the Creative Placemaking funding have been voiced by arts advocates, who charge that the metrics established by ArtPlace and OurTown grants to measure outcomes include “fuzzy” logic and concepts such as “liveability” and “vibrancy.”27 Not to mention the potential problematics and fears around Creative Placemakers, and the considerable resources attached, discovering and remaking communities, resulting in gentrification and displacement and in the process instrumentalizing art and artists to achieve those goals. Regardless of where one falls on the merits or drawbacks of the notion itself, and the question of who benefits looms large, this new matrix of arts funding has, as Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (who coauthored the original Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA with Ann Markusen) has written, achieved unprecedented support around national cultural policy adoption as well as widespread attention and legitimacy in record time through a broad range of stakeholders inside and outside the arts, which differentiates it from past local and regional efforts.28
Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), “Any Payment,” from W.A.G.E. Survey Report Summary, 2012, at http://www.wageforwork.com/resources/4/w.a.g.e.-survey-report-summary, downloadable poster designed by Common Space (artwork © W.A.G.E.)
In this way, and for better or worse, this paradigm shift has had a broad impact on artist-organizers and small to mid-size artist-centric organizations, and it raises soul-searching issues about audiences, place, long-term investment, and whether we should be in the business of producing projects with measurable civic and social impact. This emphasis also requires a new skill set for artists, rewarding those who are adept at navigating bureaucracy, and potentially derailing or redirecting political action and community organizing toward preapproved or time-specific activity. As Bonin-Rodriguez points out, “For artists as producers, placemaking points to the disciplinary distances and occupational locations such projects travel in ‘partnership’ building, acquiring ‘financing’ and ‘clearing regulatory hurdles.’ Given the practices and partnerships required of artists, placemaking tacitly calls for new forms of organizational rehearsal running concurrent with artistic production processes.”29
As artists and organizations are rewarded for partnering with local business associations to consider economic revitalization and neighborhood “vibrancy,” somewhere a little fairy stops flapping its wings and drops dead. Of course, the alternative isn’t to swing the pendulum the other way and champion artists for abdicating social responsibility; rather, it means recognizing a historical continuum of arts funding in which the previous arguments for art as a public good in and of itself and artists as special beings with privileged access to social truths is no longer operational. And this fact necessitates that, as a field, we make new arguments as to why and how to champion that important and vital kind of art production not supported by the market or large institutions. Grant Kester assessed this problem in his 1993 essay “Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public,” remarking that participants in the alternative arts sector pre-Culture Wars were too caught up with the romantic rhetoric of their own autonomy and the ethos of experimentation, born in the spirit of social movements and floating in the bubble of government largesse, and thus caught off guard when put under a public magnifying glass and asked to justify themselves in a conservative climate antithetical to their values. Kester writes, “Within the rhetoric of the artist space movement, artists seemed to believe that by rejecting market values they would effortlessly shed their own cultural privilege and operate in a utopian, state-funded, minipublic sphere, founded on ‘sweat equity’ and collectivity. But the withdrawal from the elitist market into a nonprofit enclave doesn’t necessarily bring the artist any closer to various segments of the non-art public—nor does it allow artists to transcend their own class and cultural privilege.”30 While Kester rightly points out that righteous privilege and exclusionary access must always be challenged and that arts administrators need to take the actual concerns of the public seriously, we can also celebrate the freaks, weirdos, and visionaries who came before and didn’t exactly know which audiences or demographics their work was capable of reaching—artists who through their creative impulses sometimes produced searing social critique. Today you could make the argument that we need more of that utopian collective vision that encompasses a politics we can work toward. Why aren’t we having more critical conversations about entrepreneurial value systems and market realities and the pressures they place on under-resourced small to mid-size arts organizations? Or, from within the field itself, the very real and important charge for nonprofit arts organizations to structurally change their norms and practices, which have often resulted, consciously or not, in exclusionary spaces and unequal access? The intentions of the proponents of Creative Placemaking—to address socioeconomic inequities through institutional partnerships via creativity—result in sizeable support of many worthy projects, but they also create a demand to keep space for the small, the countercultural the experimental, even for driving against capitalist logics, which could potentially infiltrate upward and outwards. There is the perennial issue that artists and arts organizations are forced to gear the work to what’s on offer from corporate, governmental, and foundation priorities but we can also be agents in shifting the terms for participation.
If our struggles are nothing new, at least we can say we’re trying. Some recent efforts to articulate our own values include initiatives like Common Practice, London, founded in 2009 by Afterall, Chisenhale Gallery, Electra, Gasworks, LUX, Matt’s Gallery, Mute Publishing, The Showroom and Studio Voltaire. It is an advocacy group working for the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London and has inspired chapters in New York City (2012) and Los Angeles (2013). At Threewalls, we founded the Hand-in-Glove conference in 2011 as a way to start a national conversation on creative activity happening outside traditional institutions, building on Phonebook, Threewalls’ national directory of artist-run spaces and organizations that we’ve compiled every few years since 2006. Hand-in-Glove became an itinerant model hosted by different organizations and partners (including Press Street in New Orleans in 2013 and Works Progress and the Soap Factory in Minneapolis in 2015), promoting critical dialogue and innovative organizing models and under-the-radar opportunities that could be useful to artists and organizers and this year including the launch of Common Field. Other efforts include artist initiatives such as the aforementioned W.A.G.E. and BFAMFAPHD; artists making community infrastructure such as Theaster Gates in Chicago and Rick Lowe and his staff at Project Row Houses in Houston; the collective decision in May 2015 of the entire University of Southern California first-year MFA class to protest its dean’s curricular changes by “dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded community at large”;31and recent conferences such as “Valuing Labor in the Arts” at the Arts Research Center of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2014, and “The Artist as Debtor” at Cooper Union in New York in 2015. Common Field will be adding its voice by promoting national conversations and connections, and building resources for practitioners at work in the field.
Issues of student debt, racial justice, and equity, the systemic and institutionalized police violence against people of color and poor communities, and the dismantling of public universities are key struggles of our time. It is the responsibility of art and artists to respond to them as much as the general public. Whether artist-run spaces and nonprofit arts organizations can be worthy allies, and equitable and responsive partners, to artists, grass-roots coalitions, and communities on the ground level is our challenge today. Perhaps we can start as publicly wary, debating the terms in light of contemporary contexts, celebrating our radical legacies while not romanticizing the alternative space movement, or past governmental support like CETA and previous iterations of the NEA, and recognizing that we will have to figure out collective ways to articulate and prove our worth to communities inside and outside the art world. In writing about the AACM, Romi Crawford uses the term “serious sociality,” in which a committed society of dedicated readers and viewers “evolved among persons receptive to the free (and often unresolved) forms of artwork that aligned with a particular political sensibility and social agenda.”32 This serious form of collaboration, geared to social change and experimentation, can guide a methodology going forward but requires commitment to being open-ended and accepting that some failures will occur. Should artists and organizations learn to play by the rules, getting inside the system and moving toward change? Or should we count on this field to present a reliable opposition, to always reject the terms that are offered? Developing a shared political sensibility and social agenda is a deep challenge and needs much hammering out. These questions will have to be worked out in public, through practice.
This article was originally published in College Art Association’s Art Journal, Fall 2015 issue and received the 2015 Art journal Award.
The epigraph is an excerpt from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I Am Waiting, in A Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions, 1958), copyright ©1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
- Common Field was founded by Elizabeth Chodos (Ox-Bow School of Art, Saugatuck, MI), Courtney Fink (formerly of Southern Exposure, San Francisco, CA, now independent), Nat May (SPACES, Portland, ME), myself (Threewalls, Chicago, IL), Stephanie Sherman (Elsewhere, Greensboro, NC, now a student based at UC San Diego), and Shannon Stratton (formerly of Threewalls, mow at Museum of Art and Design), along with twenty-five founding members of other arts organizations and artist-run initiatives across the United States. It has received major support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Hemera Foundation. Common Field launched a public website in fall 2015 at the Hand-in-Glove conference in Minneapolis, September 17–20, 2015, produced in partnership with Works Progress Studio and the Soap Factory. In April 2015, the founding leaders, known as the Cabinet, led a feedback discussion on Common Field at the Open Engagement conference in Pittsburgh, PA.
- Susan Jahoda, Blair Murphy, Vicky Virgin, and Caroline Woolard, “Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists,” at http://bfamfaphd.com/, as of June 7, 2015. The authors are members of BFAMFAPhD. Concerned about the impact of debt, rent, and precarity on the lives of creative people, BFAMFAPhD makes media and connects viewers to existing organizing work. For another recent artist-initiated study of the field, see the Brooklyn Commune’s 2014 report “The View from Here: A Report on the State of the Performing Arts from the Perspective of Artists,” at http://brooklyncommune.org/the-bkcp-report, as of September 4, 2015. Results of other artist-initiated research has been presented by the Compensation Foundation in the Bay area; at recent conferences including “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” 2014, at the Arts Research Center at University of California Berkeley, organized by Shannon Jackson and Helena Keefee, and presented in a subsequent issue of Art Practical, at http://www.artpractical.com/issue/valuing-labor-in-the-arts, as of September 4, 2015; and at the 2014 charge practicum of Art League Houston, at http://www.artleaguehouston.org/charge-practicum, as of September 4, 2015.
- “ArtPlace Invitation for Letter of Inquiry: ArtPlace America 2014 Innovation Grants Program,” formerly at artplaceamerica.org/about—no longer online, but quoted in Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 154.
- Renny Pritikin, “The Port Huron Statement and the Origin of Artists Organizations,” in New Writing in Arts Criticism: 1986 Journal, ed. Anne Marie MacDonald, Kathy Brew, Peter Saidel, and Maureen Keefe (San Francisco: San Francisco Artspace, 1988), 37.
- Julie Ault, ed. Alternative Art New York, 1965–1985: A Cultural Politics Book for the Social Text Collective (New York: Drawing Center and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 17–26.
- See Kathan Brown, “Tom Marioni: Biography,” at http://www.tommarioni.com/about, as of June 1, 2015; and Vince Leo, “Nobody Remembers Everything: Timetable Project,” in Organizing Artists: A Document and Directory of the National Association of Artists Organizations, ed. Lane Relyea and Penelope Boyer, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: National Association of Artists Organizations, 1992).
- See Lynne Warren, “Chicago’s Alternative,” in Alternative Spaces: A History in Chicago(Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 6–23, rep. in Support Networks, ed. Abigail Satinsky, Chicago Social Practice History Series, ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller (Chicago: School of the Art Institute of Chicago, dist. University of Chicago Press, 2014), 33.
- Maurice McIntyre, “The A.A.C.M.,” New Regime 1, no. 1 (1968), quoted in George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 191.
- Romi Crawford, “Do for Self: The AACM and the Chicago Style,” in Support Networks, 43.
- Guerilla Art Action Group, “Manifesto for the Guerrilla Art Action Group” (1969), rep. Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, ed. Will Bradley and Charles Esche (London: Tate Publishing in assoc. with Afterall, 2007), 175.
- W.A.G.E. Certification is a program initiated and operated by Working Artists and the Greater Economy that publicly recognizes nonprofit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard. It works much like the artist fee structure of Canadian Artists Representation (CARFAC, founded in 1967 still operational), which determines artist pay based on the operating budget of the organization hosting the project and factors such as the number of artists in the exhibition. For definitions and requirements, see http://www.wageforwork.com/certification/1/about-certification, as of September 2, 2015.
- James Pomeroy, “Viewing the Museum: The Tail Wagging the Dog,” in The New Artsspace: A Summary of Alternative Visual Arts Organizations Prepared in Conjunction with a Conference April 26–29, 1978, ed. Bridget Reak-Johnson (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, 1978).
- Leo, page 91, 95.
- See “Peter Coyote: Biography” at http://www.petercoyote.com/biography.html, as of May 15, 2015.
- Peter Coyote, Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998), 341.
- Ibid., 345.
- See Leo, page 96.
- Organizing Artists: A Document and Directory of the National Association of Artists Organizations, ed. Lane Relyea and Penelope Boyer, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: National Association of Artists Organizations, 1992), 241.
- Renny Pritikin, e-mail interview with the author, June 2015.
- Leo, page 100.
- Don Adams and Arlene Goldfarb, “Lost and Found: Artists Organizations in the 1980s,” inOrganizing Artists, 40–41.
- Susan Kenny Stevens, LarsonAllen Public Service Group, and Sophia Padnos, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Warhol Initiative: Capacity-Building in the Visual Arts, (New York: Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 2005), 1.
- Bonin-Rodriguez, 72.
- Ibid., 83.
- Jason Schupbach, “Defining Creative Placemaking: A Talk with Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus,” at NEA Arts Magazine, http://arts.gov/NEARTS/2012v3-arts-and-culture-core/defining-creative-placemaking, as of May 5, 2015.
- The term “creative cities” is often attributed to Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2012). The Social Impact of the Arts Project, a research group started in 1994 at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Policy and Practice, Philadelphia, and led by Susan Stiefert and Mark Stern, positions its approach as diverging from Florida. Its studies include “Culture Builds Community, 1996–2001,” for the William Penn Foundation, at http://impact.sp2.upenn.edu/siap/completed_projects/culture_builds_community.html, as of September 2, 2015; and “Culture and Community Revitalization: A Collaboration, 2006–2008,” for the Rockefeller Foundation, at http://impact.sp2.upenn.edu/siap/completed_projects/culture_and_community_revitalization.html, as of September 2, 2015. Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, in “Fuzzy Vibrancy: Creative Placemaking as Ascendant US Cultural Policy,” Cultural Trends 24, no. 3–4 (September–December 2013): 213–22, cites two landmark studies: Douglas DeNatale and Gregory H. Wassall, “The Creative Economy: A New Definition” (Boston: New England Foundation for the Arts, 2007), at http://www.nefa.org/sites/default/files/ResearchCreativeEconReport2007.pdf, as of September 2, 2015; and Ann Markusen, Gregory H. Wassall, Douglas DeNatale, and Randy Cohen, “Defining the Creative Economy: Industry and Occupational Approaches,” Economic Development Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2008): 24–45.
- See Roberto Bedoya, “Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging,” GIA Reader 24, no. 1 (Winter 2013), at http://www.giarts.org/article/placemaking-and-politics-belonging-and-dis-belonging, as of September 2, 2015; Ian David Moss, “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem,” Createequity blog, May 9, 2012, at http://createquity.com/2012/05/creative-placemaking-has-an-outcomes-problem/, as of September 2, 2015; Kyle Gaffin and Brie McGuire, “A Placemaking Reading List,” in “Placemakers and Placetakers,” special issue, Lumpen Magazine 125 (June 2015), at http://www.lumpenmagazine.org/a-placemaking-reading-list/, as of September 2, 2015; and Sean M. Starowitz and Julia Cole, “Thoughts on Creative Placemaking,” in ibid., at http://www.lumpenmagazine.org/thoughts-on-creative-placetaking/, as of September 2, 2015. See also the response from Jamie Bennett, executive director of ArtPlace America, “Creative Placemaking? What Is It that You Do?” ArtPlace America blog, July 23, 2015, at http://www.artplaceamerica.org/blog/creative-placemaking-what-it-you-do, as of September 2, 2015.
- See Nicodemus, “Fuzzy Vibrancy.”
- Bonin-Rodriguez, 134–35.
- Grant H. Kester, “Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public,” in Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, ed. Kester (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 119.
- Group statement in “Entire USC First-Year MFA Class Is Dropping Out,” Arts and Education, at http://www.artandeducation.net/school_watch/entire-usc-mfa-1st-year-class-is-dropping-out/, as of September 2, 2015.
- Crawford, 43.