I moved to Chicago from Syracuse, New York in 1985. At the time I was not an artist in the most traditional sense of the word, meaning that although I knew ‘how’ with some level of skill, I did not paint, draw or sculpt very much. I was a poet (again of some level of skill but at least degreed) and a performance artist. Even so, I had little to show for it. I was connected to a cooperative of artists, Artisera, in Syracuse, but aside from a couple readings and one large-scale performance, I was a working stiff with a young family to support. I worked nights, the wife worked days, and I slept evenings.
The move was somewhat of a return home for me. I had not lived in Chicago before, however many of my college friends lived there and we picked up much where we had left off some years before. A few of those friends were artists.
By the time we moved, I had designed a couple of sets for my performances and had gotten it into my head to try my hand at sculpture. So, instead of seeking out a group of writers I knew, I spent a good deal of time with my good friend who was a painter, and he introduced me to a group of artists.
I relate all of this as a prelude to a theme, and, for the moment, I will remain in 1985.
My friend lived on the near west side of the city, in a 3,000 square-foot loft in a building with twelve such live/work spaces. Several other artists lived in the building, and many more had similar arrangements in this industrial ‘neighborhood’. A good number of these artists were abstract painters of one ilk or another and had formed a discussion group of sorts, in which on a weekly basis they took turns meeting at each others’ studios to look at and talk about the art in progress, plus discuss any other ideas that arose.
While I was not a painter, the group was not exclusive. In fact, sculptors attended and presented, and even someone’s latest paramour sometimes sat in. And though I was just a budding sculptor, I was well-versed in philosophical thought, and the fact that names like Wittgenstein and Baudrillard were bantered about, I was doubly interested in attending. And I was welcomed.
We met on Thursdays for two hours. As I wrote above, we would look at the work, discuss issues of composition, move on to ideas, and eventually, inevitably, end the night bemoaning the lack of appreciation the collectors, galleries or museums had for local artists, or more to the point in some cases, the neglect one felt for one’s own work. Even those who had gallery representation were dissatisfied if their work did not sell out. Mind you, not everybody bitched and moaned. Just a few. But everyone recognized that there was some substance to the complaints, so we began to discuss ideas about how to get more exposure. Before long, that’s all we talked about. Sad to say, the group met for less than a year.
It is common knowledge among practicing, dedicated artists that there are a helluva lot more of us than there are opportunities for exhibitions, let alone sales. The lucky few who make a living solely from their art are out-numbered by those who teach while making art (college level teaching positions in art often have 300 applicants), and these numbers are overwhelmed by artists who work at any job they can get to pay rent and buy art supplies. Very few of the latter two categories sell enough art to actually pay for their art making. And art schools are popping out new graduates like puppy-milled Labradoodles. (Not that more than ten percent of those graduates will be making art in five years’ time. Notions, idealism and even passions fade.) To speak of an art market is almost ludicrous, for the supply far outweighs a demand.
Artists who wish to continue to make art therefore have to find other sources of funding; whether it come from grants or a generous relative, some form of patronage is necessary. But even here we are talking about a very small number of artists who benefit. Ultimately, if one still makes art despite all of these obstacles, with little or no financial benefit, there is something else motivatinging that person. More than likely they are driven to make art and cannot conceive of a life in which they don’t make art.
And still, Keynesian notions fail to provide a benefit to the majority of those who endure.
Last night I went to a presentation organized by Jeff Jahn, a Portland curator, writer, historian and artist. Jeff is a dynamo and an asset to the art community. His latest curatorial project is at PNCA. Entitled “M5”, it is a collection of artists who work in what may be described as minimal gestures. In conjunction with the exhibit and expanding the concept to include reductive and perceptual artists into the mix, Jeff gathered a group of local artists to show pieces of their work while giving a short presentation of their ideas behind the work. As I don’t know much about Minimalism, let alone know how to talk about it, I was excited to attend and learn.
And learn I did. Many of the presentations, though brief, were concise and informative. I was surprised to hear many of the same considerations that I use expressed for a genre that initially seems to use another language, if much language at all. I learned that the line is not so thickly drawn that it entirely separates minimal and content-laden art.
After the presentations, and after a brief summation of his notes, Jeff opened the floor to questions and discussion. In mere seconds the topic was put aside and replaced rather insistently by the alienation and lack of appreciation that comes with making art, or more precisely, making a living as an artist. And off-topic did we go a-wandering.
Thankfully, the rest of the evening did not become purely a bitch session, even though we did not successfully return to the presentation. Instead, we engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about how to disseminate one’s work, the value of social media in that endeavor, and eventually, what it means to be an artist, including who can be considered an artist in the digital age. Even so, the subtext remained: How do we make money as artists so that we may continue doing what we feel compelled to do? This is the sore tooth to which the tongue is readily drawn.
There are no easy answers. And even the question itself is rife with problems for it suggests a certain sense of entitlement. Subsidies? An educational system that predisposes a society to have more appreciation for the arts and therefore potential for more benefactors? Answers as questions. It exhausts me.
I have been making art of one kind or another since high school. My exhibition record before moving to Oregon was not paltry, yet it remained largely confined to Chicago area galleries. I had street cred. Yet, I have only sold two pieces: a drawing in 1972 and a small, mixed media sculpture in 1998. (I have given away and/or thrown out hundreds of drawings and sculpture.) Those two sales amount to a few hundred dollars. I have made considerably more from grants and working as an arts administrator and writer, but rarely has it been enough to sustain me. And even though my wife and I ran a critically successful gallery for a couple years, we sold precious few works, which forced us to abandon the project. My point is that I know how tough it is, and I used to get pissed about it, but not so much anymore. It goes nowhere except down the road of assured disappointment and depression.
Instead, I just continue to make art. Like many others, I feel like I have no choice. Money remains an issue and I don’t expect that to change, for me or the vast majority of other artists, regardless of chosen form(s) of expression. I am inspired to question, to find answers, and to share that experience through my art and in conversation with others of my ilk. This is of small pragmatic comfort, perhaps, but I know of no other options. And I know few greater joys.
After I returned home, I wrote Jeff a short note on his facebook post where he had announced the presentation. For those of you who do not have access to that, here are the pertinent parts of our correspondence:
Me- Jeff, thanks for organizing this. As one who has not had much of an occasion to participate in discussions about tonight's topics, I was happy to hear artists who work with those strategies share their thoughts.
I am also grateful to Victor for introducing me to a bunch of new people. As I drive 120 miles for these events, it is difficult to feel like I have much of a community, so let me say that if I met you tonight, feel free to add me as a fb friend so that we might continue a dialogue.
Now that I have ingratiated myself, let me ask an uncomfortable question. How is it that when we are gathered together to talk about a specific topic, the conversation gets hijacked to the old saw about dissemination/monetization? (And yes, I'll be blogging about this.)
Jeff - because there is a patronage problem in the usa... There are no more Panzas or Dwans and that is an issue. In a way it isn’t a Hijack either... minimalistic work is very demanding on high level patronage so it's a real issue. (And this morning): still the education of patrons is on the artists not the museums.... so if there's a problem with patronage the artists aren't being convincing enough.
Although Jeff’s initial response begins to address the problem, after some additional thought on the subject, I believe he sees that at some point, an artist must demonstrate some merit to his pudding. I was not aware of any arts patrons or museum personnel at the presentation last night. I suspect there were none, even though Jeff had done a good job of getting the word out. That leaves the artists to talk to each other, and what better setting to discuss and hone one’s ideas about the creative process than among others similarly engaged?
Since emerging from the farm and back into a community of artists, I have been fortunate to meet what seems to be a core group of the most active in Portland. They are intelligent, inspired and motivated artists, curators and writers. I love getting together with them to suss out ideas for our work, and much of that conversation also includes ideas to get the work seen, read and shared. Folks in the art world are public relations experts. They have to be. Yet, there comes a point where that old adage rings true: If your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt it. Don’t whine; don’t construct elaborate conspiratorial or persecutorial (sic?) systems that are responsible for holding you back as a successful, paid artist; or if you do so, make that your ‘art’. Then I will gladly join the discussion.
(I know that I have barely begun, and perhaps done little justice to a much larger conversation. If so inclined, let us continue it in the comments.)