December 21, 2009

Small Pond Blues

Last week-end a high-level art collector was ushered around Washington, D.C. by the Washington Project for the Arts to pick 12 artists who would join WPA’s other selected artists for their annual fund-raising auction. WPA had previously put a call out to member artists to respond if they wanted to have their name included in a group from which 36 artists’ names would be drawn at random. Those 36 artist’s studios would be visited by the collector in a 36-hour whirlwind of studio visits.

The event was well under the radar of the general public, that is until Jessica Dawson’s WAPO piece came out last Friday. In her piece Dawson quoted the collector, Mera Rubell of the well-regarded Rubell Collection in Miami, and her comments on the DC-area art scene have not been well received. Subsequently, there have been several discussion topics generated both about the 36-hour studio marathon and Rubell’s comments about DC on local artists’ Facebook pages and blogs. Rubell’s comments have sparked debate which ranges from why DC artists are so isolated to how DC can build an arts community along the lines of the perceived “professional” art scenes in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.(1)

I am a WPA member but did not get involved in this project because I disagreed with its structure. First, you throw your name “in the hat” for a chance you might be randomly picked for an audience with Rubell. Then, if you were among the 36 artists “lucky” enough to be selected, you just hoped Rubell’s “taste” in art would include your own work. All this to achieve “validation” to be able to donate your work for the March 2010 WPA auction. This amounts to both luck and taste: random luck to get you picked and a “judgment of taste” to get you selected.(2)

One issue being discussed among local artists post-Rubell is competition: competition between artists to get shows and competition between galleries for art collector dollars. It is important to note that WPA's “36 Studios in 36 hours” was a raffle veiled as a putative “opportunity” to show. It was presented as a “chance” for a “break” to get your artwork shown. The fact is that jurors almost exclusively base selections, like Mera Rubell most certainly did, on what they “like,” rarely based on relevance to art history, theory, or a perceptible definition of art.

It is no secret to readers of this blog that I suspect that commerce muddies art production by tempting artists to succumb to art dealer pressure to provide “product.” This suspicion is not viewed favorably by those artists and dealers who already engage in said commerce. Nor is it a favored position among those on the “outside” who are still struggling to get in on “The Art Game.”

The general consensus in DC seems to be that the local art scene needs to develop an interrelated and reciprocal environment of artists, critics, dealers and collectors so we can function as an art “community.” Without being side-tracked by the possibility that the Internet may already have invalidated the idea of “local communities,” one might suppose that a small but influential coterie of artists, critics, dealers and collectors already exists – and if you’re “in” that circle, you know it.

The other aspect to the competition issue, perhaps subliminal, is that an increased competitiveness among artists and galleries has fundamentally resulted from the outset of pluralism in the visual arts. No one seems to want to admit that the trend toward a pluralist approach in visual arts (all “styles” currently “accepted” and marketed whether figurative, conceptual, time-based, or what have you) that has dominated the art world for the past 25 years has diverted the discourse about art’s definition. Thus, competition is not even about “art” but really about how dealers can match a “style” of work to some collector’s “taste.”

This is a more worthy focus for DC: why bother to “compete” with New York, LA and Chicago as a “community” of artists, critics, dealers and collectors if the critical, financial and media muscle is not here? Perhaps a more interesting approach would be to create an environment of support based on DC’s unique situation. We work in a city of multiple museums, foundations and institutions that could provide a stage for us to rigorously explore the idea of art’s definition, the possibilities for what art “does” and how culture is mutually beneficial to both its producers and its consumers. All this could occur within DC without worrying about commerce because we have the opportunity here to view art as a right not a privilege.

Yes, I am talking about “socialized” art, funded and supported by tax dollars with oversight by government and meaningful successes. We have nothing to lose.


1. It was disheartening to learn last week that there are no DC artists among the artists chosen for the 2010 Whitney Biennial which truly confirms DC's “small pond” stature in the art world.

2. I occasionally enter well-represented juried exhibitions like the Janet & Walter Sondheim Prize in Baltimore. In a juried show competition you gamble solely on the juror's “taste” because the competition requires only that you submit application materials, jpegs and entry fee - there is no random drawing involved.

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