Since it opened nearly two weeks ago, many of the nation’s foremost critics have weighed in on the successes and failures of Prospect 3: Notes for Now, New Orleans’ third international biennial of contemporary art, curated by Franklin Sirmans. But, as these things go, the jury is always out. Beaten to death in assessments of the most recent “love to hate” Whitney Biennial, were the assertions that the biennial itself is kind of a “tired situation.”[i] As Helen Molesworth pointed out in Artforum, “in today’s hyper-mediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything new.” A successful biennial is something of an oxymoron.
This year’s modest Prospect Biennial slogan, Notes for Now, is meant to imply, as Sirmans toldFlash Art this summer, “transition” and “translation,” and “the idea that I was merely taking notes.” And so P3, one of the only stateside international biennials to operate on a citywide scale, diverges curatorially from the more overtly dramatic thematic tendencies in global biennials, which often operate under the banner of slogans like “All the World’s Futures” or “Burning Down the House.” Some projects in this biennial, which was inspired by the meandering existentialist novel The Moviegoer, do feel akin to a sort of information gathering: Sophie T. Lvoff’s color photographs of street corners, cars, doorways and urban flora mine an idiosyncratic visual language native only to New Orleans neighborhoods. Improbable, harmonious color combinations emerge from humdrum corners of this world amplifying something about the sociology and history of these as purposeful spaces put together with love and care.
Artist Sophie T. Lvoff discusses her work in Prospect 3.
And perhaps this “modesty” is a first move forward in what will be Prospect’s long evolution from its post-Hurricane Katrina origins. As it approaches its first decade, the biennial has traded the specific urgency of Katrina, as Sirmans suggests, for a broader sense of “celebration” considered in relation to complex themes of geography, cultural diversity, “crime and punishment,” the aftermath of slavery and the “brutal legacy” of the South.[ii] Laced throughout the biennial, projects about the New Orleans experience situate a “flagrantly visible”[iii] city within a global patchwork of ideas, traditions and aesthetics. On view at the UNO St. Claude Gallery, The Propeller Group’s film The Living Need Light and the Dead Need Music connects funeral ceremonies of Saigon and New Orleans, both cities of the Global South, through a visually rich narrative following several ambiguous, charismatic protagonists through markets, swamps, rituals and processions. The film is complemented with body of photographs and drawings of brass band musicians shown alongside costumes, and sculptures (film props) of drums and trombones by Christopher Meyers. The entire project, based on the idea of the “butterfly effect” theory of “non-locality whereby two distinct phenomena affect one another across a vast expanse of space and time,”[iv] is ambitious, memorable and deeply affecting.
Above: The Propeller Group, The Living Need Light The Dead Need Music, 2014; Single channel video. Below: Christopher Myers, Echo in the Bones, 2014; Mixed media with funerary instruments.
Within the biennial’s context of “the global” other works move from the syncretic to the poly-cultural and diasporic in modes that range from wrenching to optimistic: Yun Fei Ji’s meticulous water color scroll paintings at the Contemporary Art Center depict Chinese migration and displacement unfolding horizontally in scenes emerging from drawn folds and valleys; David Zink Yi’s two channel video Horror Vacui documents, through vignettes, his Afro-Cuban band’s rehearsal and ritual engagement. Shot from myriad odd spatial perspectives in Havana, the music is presented as the tangible, historically loaded manifestation of particular human relations in a specific time and place; and, elegantly, at the Newcomb Art Gallery, Monir Farmanfarmanaian’s glass and mirror sculptural mosaics “marry traditional Persian design motifs with elements of Western modernism.”[v]
Above: David Zink Yi, Horror Vacui, 2009; Two-channel HD video installation. Below: Monir Farmanfarmaian at the Newcomb Art Gallery.
As I moved through New Orleans on foot, bike, van, and trolley, I observed inimitable Green Bay Packers super-fans infiltrate the city in advance of a Sunday night football game that coincided with the biennial’s opening weekend. As a tourist moving through crowds of green and gold garb (an experience that recalled my own freezing youth as a “cheesehead” growing up in the shadows of Lambeau Field and Vince Lombardi), I couldn’t help but consider how the impact of professional sports in this city’s post-Katrina climb relates to the efforts of the art world.
In an interview, Treme creator David Simon once said simply “New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments.” That this city of Mardis Gras is a generative place, hospitable to sports revelry and the creative chaos of the eponymous Jazz Fest is obvious. One of the biennial’s most essential works addressed the city’s history of festivalism directly. Andrea Fraser’s Not Just a Few of Us, performed in a packed auditorium at the New Orleans Museum of Art, was one-person re-enactment of a “marathon” 1991 New Orleans City Council meeting debating a “proposed ordinance requiring the integration of private clubs and carnival krewes.”[vi] Moving fluidly and subtly across the positions of 19 individuals, Fraser’s incredibly nuanced performance amplified the language of both nuts and bolts policy and familial banter, exposing deeply embedded bias, discomfort and aggression. It was a mesmerizing articulation of economic, social and racial divisions. I loved this as a nod to not only the city but to the biennial itself, which as is been dogged with infighting, politics, and budget woes as recently reported by the Art Newspaper. If in Prospect 1, Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot “could be read at least partially as an allegory for the endless waiting of citizens in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods for federal government help in the aftermath of Katrina,”[vii] Fraser’s deep dive into history of Mardi Gras in relation to city politics provides a similar opportunity for allegorical reading and, in this case, institutional critique.
With over 50 artists, the biennial stretches out over 15 venues. Although I tried, I did not see everything, unfortunately missing both Terry Adkins’ lauded drum sculptures at Dillard University and Tavares Strachan floating neon sculpture You Belong Here, which was allegedly floating up and down the Mississippi River: it was nowhere in sight when I tried to see it during what I thought was a designated time. Do failed attempts make the biennial experience richer, I wondered existentially as I soaked in the warm pink and brown palette of sunset on the Mississippi. Nope.
Fortunately for the weary, time-poor traveler alone, this biennial isn’t as embedded into the neighborhoods as the inaugural version, which was emblematized by Mark Bradford’s monumental ark and Wangechi Mutu’s Miss Sarah’s House installation in the lower 9th ward. It does, however reach from large institutions to small cultural centers, and into public space. As Christine K. Kim asserts in her essay for the catalog, “Instead of two rigid possibilities of, on the one hand, an outsider object’s coming into a mainstream art institution or, on the other, an established artist’s going out into the landscape and creating a site-specific installation, a loosening, obscuring and mixing up of modes, strategies and media is integral to Prospect 3.”[viii] A distinctly less binary, though perhaps not totally hybrid curatorial strategy is felt mobilized in installations such as Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex (c. 1980–2014) at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Mary Ellen Caroll’s, Preparations for Public Utility 2.0 at AIA New Orleans (a long term project poised to bring Internet access to areas of New Orleans neglected by Internet providers) , Kerry James Marshall’s The Manifold Pleasures, and such… window installation of Plexiglas tables and gift boxes, bows and greeting cards at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, and, finally, Lisa Sigal’s Home Court Crawl which sited poetic text culled from a play by Suzan-Lori Parks onto vacant homes throughout New Orleans.
In a move that puzzled or annoyed some critics, Sirmans integrated into the biennial as touchstones the paintings Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri) by Paul Gauguin and igura feminina e pássaros by Tarsila do Amaral. On view in permanent collection galleries at the New Orleans Museum of Art, they required a bit of a hunt—however the deep consideration of “the Other” from the perspective of the colonizer alongside the colonized provided provocative context and an important empathetic lens. Curatorial strategy, however, seemed to disappear elsewhere. For example, I made the journey (which required an epic walk along Greenwood Cemetery and humble jaunt around the periphery of the New Orleans Country Club with my goddamn suitcase in tow) to the impeccable Longue Vue Gardens expecting to find site-specific works that engaged or disrupted the lush, manicured environs. Instead I found fantastic projects shoved into small, almost makeshift galleries. Jose Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa, a selection of artworks realized by inmates in exchange for favors seemed over-stuffed into a small space, and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue video, an exploration of the origin of the world by way of the Smithsonian, screensavers and spoken word, is too curious and wonderful to exist at such a distant margin.
Paul Gauguin, Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri), 1891, Oil on canvas
Left: Antonio Vega Macotela, Selections from the series Time Divisa, 2006-2010, Mixed media. Left: Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, 2013; Video (color, sound).
The pulse of feminism reverberated throughout the biennial, which has been praised for its diversity—for example, it features 44 artists of color, out of 58 total. Performative still portraits by Pushpamela N. made visible “oppressive ideals” projected by representations of polytheistic deities, documentary photography and popular culture” exposing the “patriarchal” “colonial gaze.”[ix] At the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, Carrie Mae Weems’ video installation, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 parts (commissioned for the Feminist and… exhibition at the Mattress Factory) featured holographic characters on a period stage performing difference against a hypnotic backdrop of jazz and sound. Moving through references to boxing, activism, the Playboy bunny and the Kennedy assassination, scenes reveal women briefly in ghostlike hologram, yet they emerge as immense, deeply drawn characters. Also memorable was a video at May Gallery & Residency by Tameka Norris. Meka Jean: How She Got Good, a four channel semi-fictional story of the young artist returning home to New Orleans was flanked in another gallery by documentation of the artist’s process of working with the community. The documentation was illuminating but nonessential—and definitely unnecessary if meant as a preemptive defense against an assertion of artistic parachuting, a common critique of biennialism.
Above: Carrie Mae Weems, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 parts, 2012; Video installation and mixed media, (Commissioned for the exhibition Feminist and…, curated by Hilary Robinson, Ph.D., for the Mattress Factory). Below: Tameka Norris with Garrett Bradley, Meka Jean: How She Got Good, 2014, Four channel video installation.
Finally, some of the most wonderful works were those that slowed you down, that offered a space to reflect or think about histories in the face of potentials.
Lucia Koch’s installation in the Contemporary Art Center, Mood Disorder, featured gradient color printed on Plexiglas and glass placed in the firsts floor gallery along windows and corners. Zarouhie Abdalian intervened throughout the grounds of the New Orleans Museum of African American History and Culture, replacing fence posts and portions of siding with mirrors. Combined with spoken word sound, a man’s voice reciting language related to labor, emanating from deep within the historic plantation structures, the work felt present and directional, guiding the viewer across the property in a heightened state of awareness. Gary Simmons’ large stage, fabricated out of reclaimed wood and speakers, sits within the stark interior of the Treme Market Branch, a former bank in the early stages of renovation. A platform waiting for its party, the humble work is not wholly inert, but also not as compelling in situ as the fantastic structure in which it sits.
Above left: Lucia Koch, Mood Disorder, 2014; Gradient color printed on Plexiglas and glass. Above right: Zarouhie Abdalian, Chanson du ricochet, 2014. Images below: Gary Simmons, Recapturing Memories of the Black Ark, 2014; Plywood inlaid epoxy floor and PA speakers.
Sirmans wrote in his catalog essay that New Orleans has both a “brutal legacy” and a “glorious and celebratory flip side.” In finding works to embody the politics, history, and aesthetics of this contradiction, he was guided by intuition rather than strict methodology—and this is a curatorial strategy I appreciate as much for its moments of triumph as for its moments of failure. Because to expect perfection from a biennial forecloses its status as a site for experimentation, pedagogy, ferment and progress. Fortunately, most of works in this biennial occupy meaningful territory—getting yourself there is the hard part.
Jessica Cochran is a writer and curator in Chicago.
Welcome to this month’s edition of What You Should Have Noticed, a monthly article wherein I try to hit the highlights of art news from the last four days. This month is mostly whining, counter-whining, and regional defensiveness, but what’s new? As for October, the ghosts are out and the weather is finally getting awful: for us with the colorful cuticles, this means less motivation to get to the studio but more motivation to stay once you’re through the worst of it, so enjoy the wash. For now, pour yourself a hot toddy, plug in that dusty space heater, and cuddle up for this month’s What You Should Have Noticed in October.
Ken Johnson vs. Michelle Grabner
On October 23, 2014, Ken Johnson of the New York Times reviewed Michelle Grabner’s latest show at James Cohan Gallery in New York City. The exhibition was Grabner’s first with the gallery and her first major opening following the 2014 Whitney Biennial she co-curated with Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer. It featured several of Grabner’s new works, including her laborious paintings inspired by patterns and pattern making, a hanging sculptural made in collaboration with her husband, Brad Killam, and several paper weavings. Johnson wasn’t impressed, however: in his review, he laments the “unexamined sociological background of the whole”, namely the artist’s modest and comfortable life (as shown in the exhibition’s video by David Robbins called “A Few Minutes With … Michelle Grabner”) wherein she teaches at the School of the Art Institute, paints at her lovely home studio, hosts openings at her backyard gallery space (The Suburban), and hangs out with her kids. Glossing over the artwork, Johnson points out the humorless banality of Grabner’s un-ironic, un-self-fashioned status as a “comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom.”
Within the minor world of Chicago’s art world, Michelle Grabner is something of royalty. More than the obvious alliances and good favor earned here among students and artists she’s placed in exhibitions, Grabner’s multi-directional ambitions – as a writer, a curator, an artist, an educator – have inspired a significant number of this city’s better artists, who, without Grabner as an example of many-hats success, might otherwise have focused their way out of all sorts of contributions to art and culture. Beyond her own accomplishments, Grabner is a role model for those who would participate in serious artistic culture while remaining outside of art’s central spaces.
All of which probably goes to explain why my social media feed caught fire this month from the heated accusations leveled at Ken Johnson over his dismissive, ad hominem, motherfuckery review of Grabner’s exhibition. In her article for Art F City, Corrina Kirsch lambasts Johnson’s narrow vision, which apparently cannot conceive of work that “doesn’t abide by some bad-boy-postmodern-ironic stance,” and which hews closer to the experiences that produced it. In twoarticles for Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, Mary Louise Schumacher champions Grabner’s inspiring place among the DIY art world, while challenging Johnson’s sexist clichés and lack of serious engagement with the work. The most heated response came from artist Amy Sillman, who allegedly wrote a letter to the New York Times criticizing Johnson for his pattern of sexism, racism, and an over-focus on the person of his subject rather than that subject’s artwork in his reviews. Sillman goes on to questions the newspaper for publishing such an insulting review.
Insofar as this author is entitled to make a statement by way of conclusion, I’ll offer this: of course Ken Johnson’s review was a lazy shift of focus away from Michelle Grabner’s artwork (which is either superficially nice or complex and challenging depending on a viewer’s generous curiosity) to the artist’s life as presented in Robbin’s video work. However, the presence of said video makes that shift a little less egregious than when art writers google the sex, race, or background of an artist in order to drag in a cheap insight into the artist’s work. All that middle-class midwestern motherism was in the mix of Grabner’s show from the start. The fact that Michelle Graber was more interesting and offensive than Michelle Grabner’s artwork speaks to Mr. Johnson’s narrow tastes and lack of engagement.
Monika Szewczyk and Dieter Roelstraete Are Curating Documenta 14
Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany, will host the fourteenth Documenta exhibition in 2017, which will be titled “Learning From Athens.” The fair will be directed by Adam Szymczyk, who in an article for Artnews published on October 6th, announced a curatorial team that will include partners and recent Chicago transplants Dieter Roelstraete, who joined the Museum of Contemporary Art as its senior curator in 2011, and Monika Szewczyk, lecturer and visual arts program curator at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts since 2012. Whether and how their participation in Documenta will affect Roelstraete and Szewczyk’s institutional duties is yet to be announced, but Bad at Sports celebrates the news nonetheless.
Who Suck Now: Jerry Saltz, David Byrne, and Richard Prince Suck
Richard Price opened a tired, shitty, sexist show of Instagram photos and Paddy Johnson wrote for Artnet news that it – no, he – sucks. (How’s that for ad-hominem criticism?). Jerry Saltz liked it enough to write 1,400 words praising it, which makes sense because Saltz is another aging dude for whom the utterly pointless nuances of social media promises endless revelation and intellectual curiosity, an observation which dovetails perfectly into my desire to mention the whipped-to-bleeding ladyass Saltz posted to Facebook on October 12, with the tagline, “This is what your critic does to artists who have been very berry bad.” He quickly deleted the post, but Eyebeam’s Arjun Ram Srivatsa archived it for us.
If you’ll permit me another paragraph of petty art world sniping, David Byrne wrote a stunningly out of touch article on October 7, in which the Talking Heads genius (though let’s not neglect to give Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz their two thirds share) complained that the type of art he sees while jogging aroundthe West Endof London is catered to the rich. I could have too much fun with such a ridiculous observation, but Ric Kasini Kadour got to it first in an excellent article for Hyperallergic, wherein the author pointed out the tiny horrible cash-wet corner of the art world that Byrne – and many others – focus on when readily dismissing today’s art. As the abovementioned Dieter Roelstraete wrote for Frieze in 2013, just go already.
Sector 2337 Opens in Logan Square
The wonderful men and women who brought you The Green Lantern (Caroline Picard and Devin King) are back with a gorgeous new space on Milwaukee Avenue called Sector 2337. Functioning as a for-profit business complete with limited liquor license, gorgeous exhibition space with regular programming, and home for Green Lantern Press, Sector 2337 is a welcome addition to the neighborhood’s visual art scene. Read more in Matt Morris’ article for NewCity Magazine.
Yesterday afternoon we took a trip to the new Black Cinema House space on 72nd and Kimbark to see the 1969 film, Putney Swope. The screening featured an introduction by comedian, Wyatt Cenac, who was wearing a knit sweater like you wouldn’t believe. Cenac’s choice for the screening felt uncanny in the gorgeous new home of the Johnson Publishing House archives, including a very 1970’s light up table from their offices.
BCH Program Manager, Penny Duff, introduces the film with Wyatt Cenac.
After the film was over a robust discussion started on the reception of the film when it was originally released, Robert Downey’s dubbing of Arnold Johnson’s voice, blacksploitation films, hip hop history, education and possible proscriptions for current day cultural production.
Cenac was an excellent moderator, letting others direct the conversation. Amongst other insightful contributions, Pemon Rami, Chicago’s first black casting director and the current Director of Educational & Public Programming at the DuSable Museum, discussed his impressions of the film having seen it in ’69 and again Sunday at the Black Cinema House (he mentioned he was fazed by the “buffoonery” on his recent viewing).
Black Cinema House is hosting more great programming at their beautiful brand spanking new space throughout the rest of the year, including hosting experimental filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu on November 14th. Check out their calendar of events here.
Reading is Fundamental
Both On-line and IRL Reads for your Educational Delight.
Chloé Griffin presents Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. Tomorrow night get yourself to Quimby’s to see and hear one of our favorite local writers, Britt Julious discussing the life and legacy of actress, Cookie Mueller, with author Chloé Griffin. Tuesday, 7PM at Quimby’s. Free, our favorite flavor.
Inside Views: Micro Publishing at Spudnik Press. Featuring artists Charlie Megna, Veronica Siehl and April Sheridan and the The Perch, this Wednesday evening event is a no-brainer for lovers of community based art making and publications (like ourselves). We’d be loathe not to mention the world premiere of the short animations of Fred Sasaki’s & Fred Sasaki’s Four Pager Guide to: How to Fix You!. The Sasaki guides are already killer, and the film promises to knock you off your socks (and to fix you, of course!). Don’t forget to RSVP!
Fred Sasaki’s “Table of Value” prep for Wednesday. Stolen from the writer’s instagram account.
We’re pretty sure you know what Mexico-based artist Andrew Birk is talking about in his comment above. But if not, here are the pieces on Grabner and Prince. Talk amongst yourselves.
A Poet on Drake’s Poetics. So you know it must be true. Read Dorothea Lasky’s ode to Drake, where she sings the praises of his direct address on the occasion of the Canadian actor turned something like a rapper’s birthday. We feel you, Dorothea. But if you’re looking for some “real” poetry, check out her killer new book of poems, ROME.
The Weatherman Report
Sunday Thoughts by Clay Hickson from the artist’s tumblr.
Happy Dog Resurrects for Film Release
Video Diary Releases Kangaroo Premiere
Talk about a #tbt. When was the last time you visited Happy Dog? The former SAIC party rocking spot is way cleaner than you remember and the bathrooms have upgraded from their former horror-movie quality. Oh, and they hosted last Saturday night’s extravaganza for the DVD & VHS release of Lindsay Denniberg’s Video Diary of a Lost Girl.
Monica Panzarino’s video installation featuring Erica Gressman. Photo by Mikey McParlane.
The evening started with performances by Denniberg and self-surgery maven Erica Gressman aka Boogita. The space was scattered with video installations by Monica Panzarino on stacks of TV screens throughout. Happy Dog’s head dog, William Amaya Torres, had gigantic inverse prints of what appeared to be sketchbook pages installed throughout the house. We hadn’t seen work from Amaya Torres since our days at SAIC together. His prints were bold and appealing, they also had the benefit of darkening the space for the screening.
Alongside VDoaLG in the program was first year UIC MFA, Jimmy Schaus, with a 16 minute short titled Kangaroo. Schaus is the protagonist in the surreal dream scape of a film, which vacillates between the main character’s boring everyday life and the business casual demons who haunt him. Kangaroo impressively manages to riff on VHS effects and color distortion without being cheesy. We hope to see more from this budding filmmaker in the near future.
The world premiere of Kangaroo by James Schaus.
Video Diary of a Lost Girl looked better than ever Denniberg’s handmade VHS packages. We highly recommend getting your hands one of these beauts, even if, like us, you don’t have a VHS player. Yes, they are that cute. We’re not really sure where they’re available aside from in-person, but the filmmaker’s website is probably a good start.
T around Town
Here’s lookin’ at you, Chicago!
We loved this exhibition by Daniel Arnold in Paris London Hong Kong, that’s the Billy Goat Tavern in the photo!
The current crop of Art Admin MAs at SAIC hosted mural making an other arts & crafts at the Logan Square Comfort Station just outside of the penultimate neighborhood farmer’s market.
Greg Stimac and his coy grin at his Document opening on Friday night. We’re so in to those we’re gun sculptures that look kind of like legs!
Sense of déjà vu overwhelming at photo exhibition.
Artist align under themselves for Germanos exhibition.
We’re not really sure how, but Paul Germanos (the man with the camera and the motorcycle) somehow managed to assemble an impressive array of artists and makers for his exhibition at Antena Gallery in Pilsen last Friday night. Artist sat casually under photos of themselves, and as participators ourselves WTT? couldn’t help by snap a few re-takes.
Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter pose in front of themselves at Antena.
Daviel Shy and Hope Esser creatively interpret their photo on the wall. Cute!
Erik Wenzel does the Wenzel in front of his small likeness in the corner.
Header features an image from Paul Germanos’ opening at Antena Gallery last Saturday night.
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 100 Posterworks, 2009-2013; printed poster; 11 x 17 in.
In a recent review in the New Yorker of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of local art, “Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” Peter Schjeldahl singles out BFAMFAPHD as puncturing the effervescent mood of the exhibition, saying that, “The collective BFAMFAPHD (the initials of academic degrees) spreads a homeopathic wet blanket on the show’s high spirits with statistical documentation of the hard lots of current graduates — the staggering number of artists, debt burdens, iffy prospects. The bonus bummer of a group discussion among veteran local artists, in the show’s catalogue, circles the drain of Topic A in the daily life of art anywhere: real estate.” While I don’t really care too much about the over-celebration of Brooklyn as a creative context, this snarky tidbit has a little bit of truth —- the hard lots of current graduates is indeed a quite epic bummer and not just in the over-capitalized art scenes of New York.
But besides being concerned about the harshing of Schjeldahl’s mellow on the wonders of Bushwick, and I didn’t see the show, the questions around who can afford to be artist in today’s economy and concurrent debt crisis is a central concern to today’s generation of artists. How can we talk about this situation openly, honestly, with some well-deserved finger-pointing around the exploitation of artists by institutional culture and a little self-reflexivity about why artists do indeed deserve to get paid (all artists? for what kinds of services?) and who should pay them?
image via Arts Report Back, BFAMFAPhD, 2014, p. 7
With the recent efforts by collectives BFAMFAPHD asking “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?”, W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator which aims to set standards for artist compensation based on organizational budgets, and from a slightly different angle Brooklyn Commune, “a report on the state of the performing arts from the perspective of artists” (all New York based) providing perspective with some hard numbers to back it up, it’s an exciting time to think about artist-driven efforts to research and fundamentally change the systemic exploitation of artists.
From the opposite coast, in San Francisco where rapid gentrification is significantly and meteorically changing the culture of the city, there have been a number of other efforts to talk through the working economy for cultural producers and how to stop the prevalent culture of working for free. These include illustrator and designer Jessica Hische’s online diagram Should I Work For Free? (which I came to through Christian Frock’s recent article on KQED, which also talks about these efforts), Helena Keefe’s Standard Deviation, which led to a symposium that I also participated in at UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center and an issue of Art Practical on Valuing Labor in the Arts, as well as The Compensation Foundation, a project much like W.A.G.E., which aims to collect data on whether visual artists are compensated for their work, though not as specifically aimed at particular organizations like the WAGE compensation calculator. Who pays artists is also an online aggregation of anecdotes, which I don’t find particularly useful but perhaps is a good place to share anonymous stories, and then in the recent past, Temporary Services put together the great Art Work, a national conversation about art, labor and economics, which also has its own bibliography.
The Compensation Foundation
I should say first that I completely support these efforts and advocate for their proliferation and I work at an organization, Threewalls, which has always had an ethos of paying artists and adheres pretty closely to the WAGE compensation calculator based on our budget size. I believe that non-profits should be fighting tooth and nail to keep artist pay in their budget lines and I am against what seems to be a recent trend by organizations to charge artists for vaguely defined professional development opportunities and networking beyond school. People that can pay, should. But what I’m also excited by is the opportunity to really talk about the “who” in who pays artists. As in, who cares about art? How does this speak to our perceptions of “the market” or “the state” or “the nonprofit sector” and whom do we believe is responsible for our social welfare? and, perhaps most importantly, how do we create a shared ethos rather than a shared professional standard?
Because if we do agree, yes artists should get paid, what then? Who are our choruses directed at? We can change standards in the field (and I mean the field of grassroots to mid-size artist-centric organizations because that’s where I operate from, advocates from the museum world also have to start standing up for this) but how can we create a discourse alongside shifting standards that says why its important to do so. And lets not forget the racial and class dimensions of who gets to be a professional visual artist nowadays. Roberto Ferdman, wrote about BFAMFAPHD recently for The Washington Post blog, “If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white”, that “The thing about racial diversity among working artists in America is that it pretty much doesn’t exist.” Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, in her great piece about the myths and preconceptions of artists as gentrifiers on Createequity, writes much along the same lines, but implicit here is some caution about overly narrowing our definition of who working artists might be,
What Nicodemus is pointing out is that we can widen our scope of artists included in this conversation, and think in terms of solidarities without losing the primary target of fighting against exploitation. Pointing this out does not water down what these initiatives are doing, its just to ask what it means to make art your job and who wants to do so? Because then we can start talking across a spectrum of geography, scale and intent.
What if art is your job in Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, and not in New York? Is it possible to value and not overly romanticize a day job that allows you the freedom to have an artist space in your garage, the kind of space that doesn’t have a website, isn’t a white cube, and believes in a kind of diy punk spirit? And which artists should get paid? Deciding on compensation standards, in the model of CARFAC Canadian Artist Representation, founded in 1968, also demands that artists define themselves along professional lines — exhibition records, institutional affiliations, presentations at prestigious venues. What could be some alternative standards of value that could make this process more interesting, more open, more responsive to the needs of all kinds of working artists?