The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?

Bookmobile book

The book was all about mobility. Bringing knowledge to the people. Today books are available everywhere, yet there remain challenges; not all books are equally popular and some audiences remain stubbornly out of reach.

Enter the Bookmobile.

Projet MOBILIVRE BOOKMOBILE project was a touring exhibition of artists books and zines, housed in a 1959 Airstream trailer, that traveled across the US and Canada from 2001-2005.

Now the founders have regrouped to make a BOOK about the project in true D.I.Y. fashion. They have launched a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to print it. Pre-purchase a copy of The Bookmobile Book for $35 until February 19th!

The Bookmobile Book is being designed by Cecilia Berkovic, edited by three of the project’s co-founders: Courtney Dailey, Onya Hogan-Finlay and Leila Pourtavaf.

I caught up with Onya Hogan-Finlay by Skype from LA and asked her a few questions about the project.

RL: The Bookmobile was a very successful project. What do you hope to accomplish that the original project didn’t already?

OH-F: The motivation behind the Bookmobile was to share the experience of having a real book so it felt consistent now to want to produce a real book. We met people who had been involved in the original project during the art book fair in L.A. and that just re-ignited the passion we felt at the beginning.

RL: Art books struggle in the marketplace, or perhaps it’s better to say that the market is small though dedicated. Won’t the Bookmobile Book be speaking only to this relatively closed art world audience?

OH-F: Sure the art community is insular but the original project broke through a lot of barriers and we are in the process of getting back in touch with schools, community centres, artist-run centres as well as public galleries and museums that the Bookmobile visited in both Canada and the US and the response has been fantastic. A lot of those places were off the beaten track. There’s a lot of excitement. Donations have been wonderful, particularly in the States where people seem to understand better that cultural projects can’t happen without their individual support.

RL: Do you have any thoughts about reviving the Bookmobile?

OH-F: No, it was a moment and the relevance isn’t there now. People access books very differently today.

RL: What about other publishing projects?

OH-F: Today publishing online, for example through blogs, has more currency. My art practice is socially oriented and for a living I am teaching.

The Bookmobile Book will feature essays by Jon Davies, Andy Cornell & Lauren Jade Martin, Isabelle St. Amand and John Hartmann with artwork by Ginger Brooks Takahashi (as seen in the Alien She exhibition). Nostalgic diary entries, hilarious comics and fantastic photographic contributions from the project’s Tour Guides will also be included along with images and selections of bookworks and zines from the BOOKMOBILE’s collections.

 

__

Using Kickstarter to fund a book is a brilliant idea: for years I have been saying that the best (increasingly only) way to publish books is to pre-sell them. If you know your audience and are able to reach them, then they should be willing to put up the money by pre-ordering.

 

The investment, and risk is all in the marketing work instead of in the creation and production work. Maybe that’s not where creators want to put their efforts, maybe the risk/reward equation doesn’t really work there.

 

The new art economy

I’m grateful to James Fowler (@jamesfowler), Social Media Director at aKimbo.ca, for tweeting to ask what the term “new art economy”means. It prompted me to start writing things down that have been swirling around for quite some time now. Here’s what I think the new art economy is and why it has to, and is, coming.

Balancing the red and the black (ink). (apologies to Clyfford Still and the Denver Art Museum)

What is the new art economy?

The new art economy is an open, transparent marketplace in which artists and others working in the arts are recognized and rewarded for their work in ways and proportions that are comparable to other fields. In the new art economy, art circulates freely at all levels of society, is well understood and appreciated, abundantly created and collected, and as a result everyone working in the arts makes a decent living.

Why is this new?

In the “old” art economy, there is room for only a precious few artists to “make it” through to cultural recognition and economic self-sufficiency. They stand at the pinnacle of an edifice shored up by the vast majority of artists, who subsidize their work in myriad ways. This chronic subsidization has adverse consequences: the art world is generally impoverished, artists are chronically poor, but as importantly, tens of thousands of artworks never get to the public for whom they are created. While many people complain about this “system,” about its arbitrariness, hardship and also how opaque it is to real understanding, it is nevertheless widely believed to be inevitable (things must be as they always have been) or, worse, working as it should (true excellence is exceedingly rare, and the sieve must therefore be extremely fine to ensure only the best seeps through).

If the old art economy works so poorly, why do we hang on to it?

This is a good question but one that can divert attention away from finding solutions. Historically and ideologically, there are arguments for and against the status quo in any discipline. As fascinating as such arguments may be, if artists are poor, and it is generally felt that this poverty is a bad thing, then things should change. If analysis and theory are to have a role, it must be to further understanding so things can be designed differently, not to justify and therefor preserve the status quo.

Roughly, my view is that the condition of scarcity – very few art works accessible to very few people – survives because we do not want to let go of antiquated notions of art’s limited availability and how art acquires significance. Historically, few artworks could be produced and access to them was very limited. Many people believe that is still true today when clearly it is not: people are well-educated generally and have access to resources and time. More people understand art better than at any other period in history and moreover have time and the technology to be creative themselves. The mechanics of access, or distribution, are also completely different today. Art is everywhere in public, in museums and private and public buildings of all kinds. Books, magazines and websites abound with information about art and artists.

The artificial condition of scarcity also obviously reinforces historical economic and political divisions by making the control of wealth and power appear legitimate, even necessary. A perhaps clumsy analysis might argue that the patronage of, and association with, art is instrumental, helping elites appear both better educated and more culturally sensitive than the rest, therefor justifying their authority and status. However, the question who should be responsible for identifying and preserving the finest creations of society is complex. It involves layers of expertise and institutions developed over centuries. And there is no question that encapsulating art within the hard shells that money and power can afford to build protects it while promoting its importance to future generations. Still, for publics that are generally more literate and economically more secure than ever before in history, the idea of exclusivity, afforded by the few for the benefit of all, increasingly rings hollow.

Surely somebody is working on this already.

Yes they are. Many people want to see the arts work better economically. However, somewhat too often, since 2008, this conversation pivots on the idea of art’s survival in the “new economy.” Economic survival is taken to mean injecting more money into the existing art world system in the belief that more dollars will mean that artists (and the institutions that support and surround them) will not be poor, or at least poorer than they already are. But analysis shows this is not what happens. More dollars attract more competition and the pie gets split into smaller and smaller pieces.

New art economy, diagram by Abigail Satinsky 2011

More interestingly, many people, artists in particular, are interested in, and discussing, alternatives. For example, this series of discussions The New Economy of Art organized by Artquest, the Contemporary Art Society and DACS in the UK: “Many artist projects and collaborations not only question the ability of established organisations to provide the systems they require; they seek to prototype alternatives to take power back from the perceived gatekeepers of the art world.”

Artists’ efforts on this front are to be lauded but creativity alone will not solve a systemic problem. Everyone with a stake in the game needs to be at the table engaging in open and frank discussion. Profound change won’t be possible until there is a clear understanding, shared throughout the visual arts, of how things are working (and not working) now.

So how do we get from the old art economy to the new one?

The new art economy is not a thing, a pre-imagined solution, but a goal and perhaps a process. The movement from “old” to “new” begins with conversation. All we know so far is that the old art economy isn’t working. We also know it is run by a series of gates, with gatekeepers minding each; passage through the art world is controlled by limited information about, and access to, art, artists, galleries, museums, etc. To cite only two examples: esoteric [unreadable] texts that say more about who will not be allowed to understand art than who can or should; or dealers who will only sell to the most prestigious collectors in order to create economic bubbles that inflate prices.  When a conversation happens that is not about the art, its merit or who owns it, but about the gates, they begin to become transparent, allowing us to see through to other, hitherto secret sides. In time, once everything can been seen, the gates will become obsolete.

__

About the term “new art economy”

The idea of a different art economy has been percolating for many years here. The idea that there is a distinct economy, an economy unique to the arts, was uncovered around 2004 through a book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor, reviewed here. Interest in looking at the arts through the lens of economics grew through the editing of the book Decentre: Concerning artist-run culture, available from YYZBOOKS, in 2008. But the heat was really turned up over the past 14 months or so through many  conversations with artists and dealers, art museums curators and directors, arts councils and foundations, as well as friends, family or just about anyone who’ll stop to listen. Everyone is fascinated to hear about the esoteric but troubled economic conditions within the visual arts, and intrigued and excited (and perhaps a bit relieved) at the idea that things could be different, better.

Most recently, two things led to the crystalization of the actual term “new art economy.” The first was the idea of “living out loud,” which I discovered thanks to a tweet by Geoffrey MacDougall about a pending deadline for applications to the Shuttleworth Foundation. Their use of the term living out loud led me to ask myself whether I am truly living my ideas out loud. I resolved to try, or try harder.

Then, living out loud as it were, with my friend and colleague, artist Jack Butler, he asked, in response to a rather rambling explanation of my preoccupation with how the money works in the art world, “So what is it exactly that you are working on?” It needed a few words, a single phrase, and the title of the elevator pitch was born: “It’s the new art economy Jack.”

p.s. some future posts we are contemplating, about the gates:

The book of the future is not a book.

The university of the future is not a university.

The museum of the future is not a museum.

 

Is your non-profit ready for the new federal and Ontario not-for-profit acts?

All federally-incorporated arts associations and organizations need to check their bylaws to make sure they conform to the new Not-For-Profit Corporations Act and re-file their governing documents. The good news is there’s lots of time; until the fall of 2014. The bad news is there are no exceptions. Failure to file what are called Articles of Continuance will result in your organization ceasing to exist.

For Ontario-incorporated organizations, there is similar new legislation, but it is coming on more quickly, by January 1st, 2013. Fortunately, Ontario organizations are not under threat of extinction; the new Act will be deemed to override any provisions in existing bylaws that are not consistent. That doesn’t mean assuming governing bylaws are fine because they may not be; Ontario non-profits would also benefit from conducting a bylaw review and making changes as needed to comply with the new laws. Some pointers on how to proceed are outlined below.

While the long-promised Ontario transition guide has still not materialized, the federal government has provided the Act and Regulations and a Transition Guide here:

Act available here: http://www.canlii.org/en/ca/laws/stat/sc-2009-c-23/latest/sc-2009-c-23.html
Regulations available at: http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p1/2011/2011-02-26/html/reg7-eng.html
New forms and guidance from Corporations Canada: http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/cd-dgc.nsf/eng/h_cs03925.html

According to Michael Anderson, Executive Director of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, a good process to ensure compliance will:
– Require a strong and dedicated effort
– Involve experienced volunteers and senior staff
– Take longer than expected
– Use agendas carefully crafted to keep the work moving forward
– Quickly capture changes to ensure accuracy
– Review proposed changes at each meeting to ensure consensus
– Regularly brief legal counsel, who are clear about their role as advisors, not leaders of the process.

spreadsheet for not-for-profit bylaw evaluation

Michael Anderson showed this sample of a spreadsheet the CSAE is using to methodically evaluate and modify their bylaws.

Anderson encourages organizations to get started as soon as possible because most organizations will need their members to approve bylaw changes and there is usually but one opportunity a year for that, at the AGM, so members will need one meeting (2013) to discuss proposed bylaw changes, and then another (2014) to approve a final version, in good time for filing of Articles of Continuance by October 17, 2014.

As Anderson noted, this is all pretty daunting, but “hope is not a strategy.” Being pro-active is, and a thorough bylaw review can be a healthy and rewarding experience for any organization.

If you would like help setting up a process or have other questions about the new Acts, please get in touch via our contact page: http://www.readingart.ca/blog/?page_id=75

Kathleen Bartels vs. Bob Rennie: Both right.

Friday dance band at the de Young art museum in San Francisco

Dancing at the de Young: In the future, the exhibition and conservation of art may not be the only, or even the primary function of the art museum.

It is further evidence of the increased public awareness and popularity of the visual arts that the Globe and Mail should publish a cover feature story this past weekend about the effort to get a new building for the Vancouver Art Gallery (The Collector’s Gamble, G & M, August 11, 2012).

There has been talk of a new building for years, with updates periodically about possible locations. It doesn’t appear to be a question whether it is possible to raise the $300 million estimated to be needed given ever more gloomy economic forecasts. Rather, journalist Marsha Lederman sees the hold up in a struggle between gallery director Kathleen Bartels and Vancouver real estate developer and art  collector Bob Rennie, who are not merely vying to determine the best location for a new gallery building but debating matters much more fundamental to the role of the museum today.

According to Lederman, art collector Bob Rennie, who is now running his own art museum, thinks the $300 million would be better spent building eight or ten smaller venues dispersed throughout the city. Bartels disagrees, citing concerns about fractioning the visitor experience, stealing audiences away from local galleries, as well as increased operating costs and program challenges.

They’re both right.

Having recently visited the de Young Museum in San Francisco, a stunning building by Herzog and de Meuron, on a Friday night when the foyer was packed with people dancing to a live jazz band, one would be hard pressed not to favour Bartels viewpoint: without doubt Vancouver could use a piece of international celebrity architecture, even if there’s only a drop of “Bilbao effect” still to be wrung from the global cultural tourism market. People like to know where the action is and to get to it easily, and inner cities need constant reinforcement, all of which support a centralized approach.

Tate St. Ives

One of four Tates, Tate St. Ives looks out on Porthmeor Beach. The others are Tate Britain (the original), Tate Liverpool (1988) and Tate Modern (2000).

Bartels is also indisputably right about the management issues associated with operating multiple venues and running distinct programs in each. According the recent New Yorker profile of Tate director Nicholas Serota, he is an excellent delegator, charging his captains to run the four separate wings of the Tate. Bartels too is reputed to be a good delegator: letting her experienced and expert staff shape the VAG program. But running multiple venues on the scale Rennie is talking about calls for a different scale and type of management altogether; it’s something more like a franchise.

On the other hand, Rennie’s vision is timely as condo building and the real estate frenzy in Vancouver  continues unabated. Each jewel in his museum “necklace” would create a hub for investment, multiplying development opportunities. Rennie knows how museums make great anchors, attracting business and promoting gentrification. They can also be icons around which city and regional marketing campaigns gather momentum.

More fundamentally, the idea of bringing culture to where people are is an important one, hardly new but potentially game changing; Rennie proposes to make real a concept to which many people have been giving lip service for decades.

While many observers say the role of the museum is changing, conveying with some urgency that museums need to be proactively reinventing themselves if they hope to stay relevant, justifying sustained public and private investment, the shape and program of the museum of the future is as yet  unclear.

The art museum will always be an archive of culture, a trove of irreplaceable treasures that embody our history, thought and sensibilities. But the art museum is also, increasingly in our contemporary times, an active supporter of cultural production and arbiter of contemporary taste.

Bartels and Rennie are not vying merely over whether one spectacular jewel is better than a string of smaller gems. At the root is a question about how aggressively to move toward the inevitable future of more democratized, accessible, participatory culture, a future that will be full of unanticipated consequences for art museums and art collectors.

A slightly differently titled and edited version of this article has been cross posted to View on Canadian Art. Thank you to Andrea Carson Barker.

 

Buzz Hargrove or Lee Iococca: the search for business models in the arts.

Creative Enterprise book cover

ISBN-13: 978-1441188205

For decades now, everyone from artists to arts organizations to public and private galleries and arts councils has been under pressure to operate in a more transparent, business-like fashion. When combined with artists parallel creative pushing at the limits of the institutional and discursive frameworks that hold art apart from (and above) audiences, it is hardly surprising if traditional ways of explaining or justifying the arts look less and less convincing.

Two new books step towards the idea that it may be fruitful to start looking at the arts through the same lens as we look at other things people do; cost vs. benefit, profit vs. loss, labour vs. management.
Martha Buskirk’s Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace, is characterized as “[a] dryly skeptical account of the nuanced and complex relationships between artists, museums and the marketplace.” – interview with Martha Buskirk here: http://hyperallergic.com/54766/arts-corrosive-success-an-interview-with-martha-buskirk

Buskirk focuses on roles and methodologies, relationships and institutional frameworks, basically the infrastructure of the arts,  attempting to identify the models that are at work. Among her observations:

  • It is  increasingly difficult to distinguish between art and other forms of commerce or production: Alan Kaprow called himself a “service provider,” a labourer in other words.
  • Artworks today are often iterative, meaning the artist changes them as they move to new venues. It is not a matter of a discrete object being produced in the studio and then sent out for display. It is more like how the marketplace works for other types of products, where design, packaging and promotion  evolve in response to demand. Creating and presenting artwork has always involved “management” – by the artist and by curators and dealers – but today that management is increasingly like management anywhere in the marketplace.
  • The visual art market, particularly since the bubble of the first decade of this century, has been increasingly revealed to be driven by the same things that drive business: profits and tax breaks. The language is shocking, but so is the idea that there might be pretty straight forward business model at work.
  • Artists today are more frequently invited to work in situ, to work withing a gallery context or other setting. They are increasingly seen as people who can be brought in to “fix” any range of institutional or corporate ills, from public profile or office culture. operate like management consultants, except they are paid far less.
  • Institutional critique has become popular even among public galleries, because it is popular with the public who like to see the inner workings of the musuem. The avant garde that once was tied to the ruling elite with a rope of gold (Greenberg) is effectively taking down the velvet
  • The explosion in collections, museums, galleries, no less than the number of art schools and art school  graduates add diversity of points of view and practices that will inevitably change the character of the field.
  • Artists like Murakami are brands, managing processes that have all the attributes of the industrial assembly line. The results are both hi art and low or no art. The gift shop item no less than the one off monumental sculpture being part of a conceptual project that challenges both the meaning of ownership and the value of the art object.

 

Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells book cover

ISBN-13: 978-1844676903

The second book, Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, further stirs the pot by examining the political effectiveness of social or “relational” art practices, provoking a similar kind of questioning of what models exactly are at work.

She looks at “the tensions between quality and equality, singular and collective authorship, and the ongoing struggle to find artistic equivalents for political positions.” http://hyperallergic.com/55068/claire-bishop-artificial-hells/

Bishop takes art practices that seek validity outside of the proper institutions and discourse of art at their word, as if to say, if your  first commitment is to social change, then put up or shut up. Don’t dress up like Buzz Hargrove if all you’re doing in the end is reinforcing the investments of Lee Iococca’s shareholders.

It’s a fair point – how can one champion the working stiff while also protecting the shareholders’ exclusive interest? – but only to the extent that the art falls so strictly along ideological lines, which most art, and most art institutions for that matter, do not.

While we may expect debate to rage now about what exactly Bishop is “for” or “against,” or thinks “better” or “worse,” and whether all that is still rooted in the same modernist cricial traditions it will be more interesting to consider what it means for  a critic of Bishop’s stature to be digging down to look at the foundations of current art practices, or what fresh hell she may excavate.

Bishop has provided an important spur to critical debate, which pretty well everyone has been saying for over a decade has become moribund: “boosterism is the only form of dialogue and lack of hype around an artist suffices for criticism.” Buskirk has similarly expanded the way in which we can speak about and analyze the infrastructure that validates and promotes certain practices and certain artists over others.

Whether looking at art or its context, the search for internal validation for art now seems not so much frustrating, even Quixotic, so much as misdirected. Validation occurs in art, just as in other kinds of human activity, in relatively predictable, but more importantly, knowable, describable ways.

_

This article was first posted on View on Canadian Art. (Thanks to Andrea Carson.)

_

 

 

 

Painting vs. ceramics

“I was studying criticism and poetry, and then started making ceramics as a hobby; there was a whole crew in Santa Barbara getting really into that. I loved it so much that I ended up in Berkeley in 1963, studying with Peter Voulkos in the art department. Of course when I moved to New York I couldn’t get any attention for that kind of work. So I started painting. Everyone in the city hated painting, including me! We thought it was the lamest thing. But by 1972 I was building stretcher bars and really getting into it.”

– Mary Heilmann, Feb. 20, 2012, via artforum.com / 500 words.