Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Keep The Conversation Going

On Sunday afternoon, February 17, 2008, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis hosted “The Repair of the Provincial Art Environment,“ a public forum organized by Matthew Strauss, Founder & Director of White Flag Projects.

The panel was comprised of:
Carmon Colangelo, Dean, Sam Fox School of Visual Arts, Washington University; Charlotte Eyerman, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Saint Louis Art Museum; Jim Schmidt, Gallerist, Schmidt Contemporary Art; Matthew Strauss, Founder & Director, White Flag Projects; and Roseann Weiss, Director of Community Art Programs & Public Art Initiatives, Regional Arts Commission.

The audience included artists, art students, gallery owners & curators, representatives from funding agencies, museum curators, non-profit art gallery administrators, art writers & critics, art patrons & collectors, and others with a vested interest in the local art community. Many in the audience were of dual citizenship, so to speak (or better yet, multiple hat wearers): artist/non-profit art organization administrator; non-profit art administrator/former for-profit gallery director; artist/art professor; art writer/artist; artist/art patrons; artist/art collector; artist/private art collection curator; and so on and so forth.

The forum was lively and many important ideas were expressed, valid statements made, and vital needs established. But with only two hours, there wasn't nearly enough time to cover all the items on the agenda.

As a way to continue the dialogue and explore some of the forum's topics in greater depth, Art Saint Louis seeks responses for posting on this blog, Art Saint Louis/
Art Dialogue. Even if you didn't attend the event, you may very well have definite ideas, responses, questions, and even some answers to contribute to the conversation. We want to hear what you have to say.

We encourage you to
keep the conversation going and invite you share your thoughts with us. Please select a couple topics from the agenda posted below and express yourself by e-mail to robin@artstlouis.org, or you can use the comments section of this posting (please, no profanity or mean-spirited rants). We welcome your contribution to this dialogue.

Agenda reprinted with permission from White Flag Projects

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WHEREAS
White Flag Projects, believing negligent provincial art galleries operate with undue pretense, and abuse their inflated authority to routinely betray the good will of their patrons by exhibiting art they know to be compromised, by misrepresenting their motives and expertise, by effectively defrauding both their artists and clients, and by generally diminishing the environment for meaningful contemporary art as a result of their perverse curatorial behavior, and further believing that every exhibitor of contemporary art should be held accountable for the quality and relevance of the artwork they display…

White Flag P.G.S.
(Provincial Gallery Simulator)
urges all interested and affected parties to participate in a

PUBLIC FORUM

to be held Sunday afternoon, February 17 at 2 o’clock
at The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

on the topic of

THE REPAIR OF THE PROVINCIAL ART ENVIRONMENT

to include matters of…

THE REALITIES OF THE SMALLER CITY:
CAN a smaller city ever be a viable center for progressive visual art?
MUST all smaller cities necessarily be provincial?
IS provinciality defined by geography or philosophy?
ARE all art galleries in smaller cities necessarily provincial?
WHAT are the systemic problems that hinder every small city art environment?

THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF COMMERCIAL ART GALLERIES:
IS an art gallery merely a business like any other?
WHAT are the functions of a commercial art gallery?
DO commercial art galleries have any cultural responsibilities?
HOW do economic factors dictate gallery policy and practice?
SHOULD commercial galleries, which determine a significant percentage of the art exhibited in their city, be held accountable for the quality and relevance of those exhibitions?

THE PLIGHT OF LOCAL ARTISTS:
WHY are local artists eager to be represented by galleries that do the absolute minimum to earn their commissions?
WHAT functions does a more effective commercial gallery perform that the provincial gallery does not?
DOES the provincial gallery advertise, publish catalogues, travel to important art fairs, cooperate with other galleries, or do anything else to expand awareness of their artists beyond the province itself?
HOW are local artists of otherwise good judgment cowed by their limited alternatives?
IS being represented by a provincial gallery more harmful than helpful to the career of a local artist?

THE ROLE OF LOCAL COLLECTORS:
WHAT are the qualities of a selective buyer of contemporary art?
WHAT is the difference between purchasing art from a provincial gallery or a cosmopolitan gallery?
SHOULD the payment of significant commissions to galleries assure buyers that all due measures are being taken to adequately promote and protect the art and artists in which they have invested?

THE EFFECT OF INSTITUTIONS:
HOW do indiscriminant donors and misguided not-for-profits squander their city’s limited resources?
CAN the education efforts of local museums produce a genuinely astute and sophisticated audience for contemporary art?
HOW do the hiring and retention practices of universities affect the quality of the local art environment?

THE DETERMINATION OF REAL-WORLD LEGITIMACY:
WHO determines art world legitimacy?
WHAT factors determine a gallery’s legitimacy within the larger art world?
DO provincial galleries strive for actual legitimacy or merely the appearance of legitimacy?
DOES the provincial gallerist demonstrate any particular taste, discernment, foresight, intelligence or energy that would lead a credible authority to place any value in their endorsement?

THE CASE FOR URGENT CHANGE:
ARE there any objective standards of relevance in contemporary art?
WHO are the individuals & institutions responsible for the provincial philosophy’s persistence?
IS anyone in a position to improve the provincial art environment?
WHAT can an individual do to earn a better art environment for their city?
CAN the provincial gallerist be persuaded to amend his or her practices?
CAN the mercenary endeavors of a few individuals overshadow the intellectual, aesthetic, and artistic well-being of an entire community?
MUST we risk that higher standards resulting in less art and fewer galleries in the short term will beckon better art and more galleries in the long term?

WWW.WHITEFLAGPROJECTS.ORG

Reprinted with permission from White Flag Projects

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RESPONSES


From St. Louis artist Jennifer Weigel:

"It seems to me that we need to celebrate diversity and raise awareness within the community of the art scene that we have in order to foster it. Often it seems that there are perceived divisions, either among the artists or the institutions, that can hinder communication and collaboration. There are so many more opportunities and support here for the arts and yet it seems that there is still a sense of competition that can cripple our passions for making new things happen.

One such division exists in questioning whether galleries and institutions should support local versus national/international artists. A lot of local artists feel underrepresented within some of the larger institutions here in town. But many of these institutions feel the need to bring in artists from outside of the city in order to educate people here about what is happening in the arts both nationally and internationally and to spawn new dialogues within the arts here in St. Louis, and a lot of their programming is geared towards these ends. However, that does not mean that they don't support the local art scene, just that their support is guided in another direction. It also does not mean that they will never showcase works by local artists or that they do not realize that local art needs to also be well represented in order strengthen the arts community. It is up to the local institutions and local artists to together come up with programs geared towards promoting and showcasing local art as well as national/international art and to support these programs on both ends.

Commercial galleries need to be balanced by non-profits, museums and alternative spaces/events in order to showcase as many different and diverse types of art as possible. We need art that speaks to the public and matches people's sofas as much as we need art that responds to past movements and speaks of other things happening nationally and internationally or art that is otherwise challenging and provocative. Many people without an educational background in art have difficulty understanding or appreciating modern and contemporary art and feel alienated by it. These people then can become apathetic - they do not even want to try to learn about what is going on in the arts and thusly do not feel a huge need to support the arts or arts education (in either politics or patronage). So we need to have venues that the casual observer feels that they can go in and find something that they like without feeling confronted in order to encourage support for the arts within the community as a whole. In the meantime, we also need art that builds upon past works/movements and/or challenges people to see things in new ways in order to educate and raise awareness within the arts community.

Artists also need to support one another and not just see one another as rivals. There will always be competition between artists but there needs to be a sense of collaboration as well. Some artists realize this and support one another while others do not. It is important that we, as artists, expose ourselves to as much art as possible in order to raise our awareness of what else is going on (both locally and nationally/internationally) and to support one another within the arts community, not just for networking purposes. I feel it is also good that we as artists expose ourselves to as many different kinds of art as possible whether or not we necessarily agree with it in order to raise our awareness and to challenge ourselves and our own artmaking.

The art scene should be a celebration of diversity more than anything in my opinion, and anyone should be able to find something that appeals to and/or challenges them, whether that be a local or international artist, a piece that matches their sofa or an artwork that represents a growing trend or something raises their awareness of an issue. The arts community should encourage and foster all sorts of growth while doing as much as possible to raise the community's awareness of what is actually going on in the arts because all too often events can go unnoticed.

I am predominantly responding to the topics that were focused on primarily in the forum, "The Responsibilities of Commercial Art Galleries", "The Plight of Local Artists" and "The Effect of Institutions". The manifesto provides, in my opinion, a rather biased selection of questions that encourage confrontation, one implication of which is that we should strive to create a quality art environment by fostering programs that get St. Louis recognized as being relevant on a national scale so that we might appear in Art News, Art Forum or the like and that we should hold the arts community (commercial galleries, artists, collectors, institutions...) accountable for shortcomings in this regard, but it is rather likely that this is just my misinterpretation of the key ideas presented based on the debate that ensued at the forum itself.

I will not deny the importance of this task (acquiring a national/international presence) but I do not think that it alone will lend itself to a thriving arts community because it does not address the need for better support, outreach and publicity within the community as a whole. Many of the truly thriving arts communities that I have traveled to are as inclusive as possible and encourage both local and non-local artists working in a wide variety of media and with a wide range of concepts by providing a variety of polished and alternative exhibition spaces and by well-publicizing arts events that occur. Some such arts communities are significantly smaller than our own and yet are stronger than one might otherwise expect, perhaps not so much in regards to being noted in Art News but more so in regards to community support and diversity within the arts exhibited. I will cite Springfield, MO and Carbondale, IL as some such examples. And many larger cities, such as Chicago, foster growth and development in multiple levels of art, offering opportunities to local and non-local artists alike while simultaneously educating the public and encouraging their involvement in the arts.

While I cannot deny the importance of programming designed to raise awareness within the community of the scope of the art world beyond the local scene, I fear that to restrict our views solely to becoming acclaimed in the national/international art world may actually serve to further alienate the public as a whole, the casual observers who do not necessarily understand or appreciate modern art movements and feel confronted by contemporary art. We need to recognize the importance of diversity in the local art scene and provide a wide range of opportunities for local artists if we want to encourage artists to come here from other parts of the world and, even more importantly, if we want them to stay."

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From St. Louis artist & art educator David Lang:

"These are complex issues raised by the public forum and I wish Matthew Strauss had framed the discussion a little more cohesively, however, it is the complexity and fluidity of the discussion that makes it interesting.

So far the bulk of the questions and discussion has revolved around the marketing of art as a commodity. The idea of creating a more active/vibrant/supported contemporary art scene in St. Louis is a compelling one, but if the focus is on St. Louis as a marketplace, it necessarily limits what Art can be.

The question we should be asking is whether the marketplace should be the driving force in the contemporary art world, here in St. Louis, or anywhere. In my mind, the marketplace tends toward lowest common denominators, and the examples of the development of the film and music industries can serve as vivid cautionary tales for visual artists. One can see how difficult it is for truly innovative musicians or filmmakers to get a foothold in the marketplace.

Nato Thompson said at a recent event at the Contemporary, our society is pursuing a war on meaning, and the primary agent of that war is the marketplace. Anything and everything is co-opted for commercial purposes. Regardless of whether you believe this is a bad thing, the continuing commodification of Art necessarily destroys its meaning and limits its expression. If the marketplace is the only driving force in St. Louis, then the most the art scene can aspire to is the provincial (in an
unsophisticated or narrow-minded sense).

As an artist, I have no illusions about the kind of artwork I am interested in producing. I never had an interest in marketing my work for sale and therefore I choose teaching as a way to both support myself and allow me to make Art. As an educator, I have seen the level and quality of art education.

By any objective measure, most art classes operate at an extremely low level of critical thinking (“Students, here is an example, now you make something that looks like this”) and one could argue that this is the result of any society that so heavily commodifies life. A look at the public discourse that follows any controversial art exhibit should make it clear that most people do not have the ability to intelligently discuss Art.

I find the solution to this proffered by Jennifer Weigel in her commentary puzzling: “So we need to have venues that the casual observer feels that they can go in and find something that they like without feeling confronted in order to encourage support for the arts within the community as a whole.” I would argue that this is the exact opposite of what we need. We need to promote and foster art appreciation. The casual viewer will never become more interested in Art when it is does not challenge them to think (and if they do, are they really the audience you want?).

At the same time, work that is more complex and relies on art historical dialogue will frustrate the casual viewer. If you have ever asked a child to do something well beyond their ability, you quickly see how they shut down. Does this mean we should not ask more of the casual viewer? On the contrary, it means that we need ask more and at the same time to give them the tools they need to appreciate and understand artwork that is increasingly complex and challenging. I don’t ask that everyone like a given artist, but instead appreciate what they brings to the dialectic that is Art, or even just recognize that Art is a dialectic.

So now the question becomes: what is the best way to educate the masses? The obvious answers are in developing progressive educational programs and increased public support of Art. Our government makes choices all the time about what behaviors, attitudes, and inclinations it should foster in the public, and Art should be a part of that. A heightened focus on public funding could successfully develop art appreciation among the general public.

However, we also need to find ways to directly engaged the public and demystify Art. At my school I am treated like a Shaman. I have powers that allow me to penetrate the ethereal veil that shrouds Art. Artists need to have conversations with the public that elucidate Art. The reality is that the public has a sense that artists are laughing AT them and not with them.

This has to change before more people will become engaged in an art scene, local or otherwise.

As far as big ideas go...what about a Manhattan Project for Art, take all the best and brightest artists, put them in a work camp in Los Alamos and make them create a singular catastrophic work of art.

That’s my two cents anyway."

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From St. Louis artist & gallery owner Philip Hitchcock, PHD Gallery:

"At first, I felt completely alienated by Strauss' indictment of the "commercial" gallery scene in St. Louis. As a relative newcomer to the scene I thought. "Who is this guy anyway?" I guess as far as the art scene goes, he's king of the castle. So why does he keep peeing on the carpet?, I asked myself.

To be fair, I have to admit that I personalized his attack. As a new commercial gallery owner, it was hard not to: He used words like "negligent," "provincial," "abuse," betray," "compromised," "defrauding." Yikes.

As troubling as his remarks were to me, Strauss is right about one thing. One way or another, the exhibition of art is about money. Whether the exhibit is for sale or made possible by a generous donation from your mother, it costs money to show and promote art. And for someone like myself who has invested thousands and thousands of dollars into the exhibition of art in St. Louis, it's been a bumpy ride. Let's be clear: If the operating costs of PHD Gallery are fifty thousand dollars a year, that means it must sell $100 thousand dollars in art just to break even, as 50% of all sales are paid to artists- more if the gallery takes a cut in its` commission. I'm not doing this for the money. Nor am I doing the absolute minimum to earn my commission. I spend a sizable sum on marketing and have had good luck getting coverage in the local press.

I returned to St. Louis because I saw something really positive happening in the city. It wasn't just spin for a press release, it was the truth. I wanted to be part of what I saw as a Cultural Renaissance in my hometown. But again, Strauss is right. Many galleries may not be here this time next year. The realities of the commercial marketplace are unforgiving.

Running an art gallery is a balancing act at best. I only speak for myself, but when I look at an artist, I evaluate him or her on three levels.

1) Do I like the artist? Do I like the work? (I'd rather work with nice people than assholes and it's my gallery so it's my aesthetic.)
2) Do I think the work is important or groundbreaking or otherwise challenging?
3) Do I think I can SELL the work.

Unfortunately, it's that third one that often is a deal breaker, but not always. PHD has made a point of showcasing local artists ( some in solo exhibits) including Joe Chesla, Ken Konchel, Rebecca Eilering, David Lancaster, Metra Mitchell, Leslie Holt , and Stan Trampe. And I see no dearth of talent here. I would show more local artists, but guess what? They don't submit work. 90% of the unsolicited submissions I receive are from out of state.

Interested artists visit http://phdstl.com/submissions.html

Philip Hitchcock
PHD Gallery

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