Moving to a new town is disorienting. The streets do not yet make sense. The grocery store has strange foods. The restaurant chains arrange themselves differently. The art world shifts and morphs, revealing new opportunities, expansive possibilities, and gaps to be filled.
I recently moved from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am adjusting to the differences in climate and landscape. I am discovering the differences in the art scenes between the two cities, reframing my understanding of what the art world is in Chattanooga and its relation to other cities I know. Every city has its advantages – an established collector base, commercial and independent art spaces, funding for the arts and artists, less commuting time, cheaper rent, lower cost of living, nicer weather. No city has everything. The established notions we have about the art world and its centers of power seem unshakeable. New York City exerts a magnetic pull on artists, collectors, arts appreciators, and people looking for the newest trends; Los Angeles has a different yet very present attraction.
Artists are more mobile now than ever, moving between cities, traveling to make and show work. The boundaries between cities and regions of the country are fluid. This mobility reveals the privilege of the people who can move within it, and it opens opportunities for reexamining the hierarchies we have created and reinforce. What happens when a small town in Arkansas opens a lavish museum? Do the art fairs in Miami attract artists to live there year round? Is Austin a major contemporary art center because of the other cultural activity that happens there? Will artists seek out Asheville when they no longer remember Black Mountain?
Andy Sturdevant’s interactive performance seminar, U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings, investigates the notion that the art world is static and unchanging and questions what we value in contemporary art and how we prioritize it. Andy visited Chattanooga in January to ask students, artists, and community members to rank the top 125 metropolitan statistical areas into five tiers – Major and Secondary National Contemporary Art Centers, Major and Secondary Regional Art Centers, and Important Local Contemporary Art Centers. The exercise of making these rankings explicit and public revealed much about how we form opinions and how Chattanooga fits into conversations within the regional and national art world.
Before cities can be ranked, the conversation begins by establishing the criteria for an attractive contemporary art city. The criteria for the crowd in Chattanooga was similar to other city’s criteria and included: a significant number of artists, art schools, economic opportunities for artists, arts infrastructure, and press coverage of the arts.
Starting in the middle of the list, we worked down, debating which cities fit on each tier. The definitions of what constitutes the tiers developed slowly, as the lower tiers accrued meaning and complexity with each new town. Individual voices prevailed. Participants shared their experiences at Virginia Beach or Eugene, and their recounting of great galleries or vibrant artist run spaces easily swayed the votes.
Working up from the middle, placing the cities became increasingly complex. The looming specter of the top cities by population (New York and Los Angeles) weighed over discussions as the second and third tiers filled with Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore. The debate grew increasingly heated as Detroit and Miami were both placed in the second tier before we ended with LA and New York and the final list. I did not agree with all of the decisions – the heartbreak of democracy. I wanted a deeper discussion of potential top sub tiers (1A, 1B…), but that conversation and others about the relative locations of other cities will continue to happen here. The power of Andy’s performance seminar lies in the conversations it generates, in the room and long after. The iterative nature of the list making keeps the debate alive, allowing differences to develop and for the list to shift over time.
Chattanooga was Andy’s seventh and smallest city to create its own Rankings. As he says, “The discussions of the city’s place in relation to neighboring cities of equivalent size were very interesting, and quite unlike discussions in, say, New York or Chicago. It felt very much like the sorts of casual, bar-based conversations people have about their various towns and scenes outside the large art centers. Which is how the project began in the first place.”
We live in a rapidly changing world. The internet and easy travel have dismantled the hierarchies we thought we knew. We do not expect all flowers to grow in the same soil. We need sun and shade, the right balance of moisture, and careful pruning to cultivate many blossoms. The art world needs and already has that diversity; we must look in and beyond the assumed centers to find it. We should not mistake the most visible or assumed conditions for a thriving contemporary art center for the ideal conditions for every location.
Moving to a new place is not a final judgment about access to and participation in the global art world. The perceptions and assumptions about those places are malleable. U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings has transformed the way I think about the art world, my place within it, my new home, and how mutable that list truly is. We are all agents of transformation, and our towns move up and down the formal and mental lists of contemporary art centers based on our actions, our words, our ability to demonstrate that art and artists thrive in different circumstances and different conditions. Chattanooga’s conversation will continue in bars, at openings, in the streets, as we make the art center we envision, as we prepare the soil, sun, and water we need to thrive.