On billboards, online ads, the exterior of the building, and the entrance to the gallery, the larger than life title of the ongoing Edward Hopper exhibition at the Walker Art Center, via the Whitney and the Dallas Museum of Art, Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, informs us that we will witness that process through which Hopper progressed as he made his paintings. The opportunity to see an artist’s process is rare. We do not often see the fits and starts behind the works in galleries and museums unless we seek them out in the artist’s studio or, like Hopper, after the artist is long ensconced on postcards and will safely draw a crowd.
The Walker’s galleries are filled with drawings, sketches, studies, correspondence, photographs, and extensive explanatory text. These other materials are intended to bring the paintings to life, to reveal the technical depth, tremendous labor, and detailed forethought behind the surface of the paintings. They are elevated to the level of paintings; framed, carefully displayed in vitrines, they create a false narrative of a relatively linear progression from experience or idea through studies and sketches to the finished painting. Even in the particular pieces that show a direction Hopper did not ultimately pursue, there is no room for multiplicity in the narrative, no space to consider the failure of a particular sketch to capture the desired lighting within the crafted momentum toward the completed painting.
I have desired failure recently, wanted to see the failure of artists and the art world, the works that do not leave the mind to become reality, the realized projects that are never shown, the disastrous performances we do not record, the social engagement with zero participants. We must understand our failures and shortcomings, the false starts, the flops, the imperfections we cannot help but embody. Only then can we begin to understand and learn from the ways in which failure is defined for us.
Saint Paul is one of the few cities to receive significant arts funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As part of a larger investment in the arts this spring, the Knight Foundation announced that Saint Paul would be the fourth city to host a Knight Arts Challenge, with $4.5 million available over the next three years. The rules for submitting a proposal were open and meant to expand foundation funding to ideas from individual artists. The rules for the Knight Arts Challenge are simple:
- The idea is about arts.
- The project takes place in or benefits Saint Paul.
- You find other funding to match the Knight Foundation grant.
The application was brief. They encouraged individual artists, collectives, and businesses to apply, specifically mentioning that the idea was of primary importance, not the future concerns about funding or sustainability. It was an open call to experiment, to bring forward the best and brightest ideas that will shape Saint Paul for years to come.
$9 million, including the matching funds, is a tremendous amount of money, even for the already generous Minnesota arts funding landscape, and it will inevitably shape the future of the arts in Saint Paul and the Twin Cities generally. That money, of course, will not fund the hundreds of proposals that do not meet the Knight Foundation’s criteria for success.
As a community, we must ask ourselves how we can salvage those alternate futures, the failures we may not have the capacity to realize as millions of dollars and thousands of hours support the selected ideas. We need to capture and bring forward all of the ideas submitted to the Knight Arts Challenge and every other arts funding and exhibition opportunity. They will not all be perfect, but they contain the possibilities for reimagining and remaking the future we need. We can be ready to meet the real and pressing challenges of the future – growing inequality, the effects of climate change, lack of substantive communication between people – but to do so we must first learn together from our failures, from our imperfections, from our very human selves.