Co-published by the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario, Tactile Desires: The Work of Jack Sures, is sumptuously illustrated with the complete works from the traveling exhibition of the same name, most recently at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery. The book features essays by Sandra Alfoldy, Virginia Eichhorn, Julia Krueger and Matthew Kangas.
Softcover with French flaps, 216 pages, full colour
Everything is priced to sell, with minimum bids verging on on the ridiculous: a Michael Snow for $1500? A lovely Joanne Tod fashion drawing for $2000?
There are the usual suspects, priced in the low five figures and a nice mix of artists you might not necessarily know, reasonably priced, for example this pair of collages by Andrew Owen or a 1980 Charles Ringness with it’s elegant, self-conscious primitiveness.
Steve Ranger has put extra attention into the auction catalogue, which is beautifully designed with substantial texts about each work and artist.
Concrete Contemporary is a thoughtful sampling of contemporary Canadian art, showing both its depth and variety.
Will tonight’s event build momentum in the marketplace? By all rights, it should.
Evaluations of the previous year at the turn of the new year are generally popular, refreshing memory and promoting sober reflection. 2012 was, after a promising start, a miserable year by all accounts, including that of Maxwell Anderson, as expert and independent a thinker on the subject of art museums as one can find in the US of A.
Writing in the December issue of Artforum, Anderson observes an untoward over confidence and release of extravagance after years of measured caution and terrified parsimony brought on by the financial crisis of 2008. Anderson decries the financial short sightedness of museums, whose boards churn through directors while ignoring their fundamental missions and chasing trivial (and largely unattainable) goals like attendance to justify their institutiions.
Anderson usefully lists the criteria by which he believes boards should be evaluating their museums’ work: “the extent to which they care for our cultural heritage past and present and advance research, understanding, and awareness of the value of aesthetic endeavor.”
Anderson spends a lot of column inches on the most sensational news of 2012, how Jeffrey Deitch was challenged after his appointment to the directorship of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art when artists on his board abandoned ship after Deitch sacked veteran curator Paul Schimmel and dumped already scheduled projects for his own. Anderson’s piles on with the others, but his complaints sound shrill. If museums are stuck in various malaise, who better than Deitch, with his outsider status and dealer experience, to throw open the gates of privilege or try to develop more open and interesting relationships between museums and the market?
Acquisitions are another thing that make headlines in the museum world. Anderson notes a few of what he calls marquee art acquisitions, transformative gifts and bequests, including 405 Picasso prints donated to Saskatoon’s civic gallery by the Frank and Ellen Remai Foundation, a gift substantial enough to bring the respectable, regional Mendel Art Gallery (now renamed the Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan) to the attention of the international art world.
Most interesting are Anderson’s compliments to the city of Detroit for instituting tax-based (mill rate) funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts, following a grassroots campaign that argued the extrinsic benefits to the community, including the multiplier economic effect, programs for the disabled and safer streets. Solid municipal support like that is more common here in Canada but needs to be even more universal, and at consistent funding levels.
In conclusion, Anderson appeals for more thoughtful and substantive support for art museums’ intrinsic activities: research, collections care, publishing and conservation. But looking hard at those programs may turn up problems just like the equivocal attitude to museum leadership and the preoccupation with attendance, like the looming collections crisis: vaults over-crowded with indifferent works acquired in boom times, with no room left, or budgets to support, the art being made today, or the on-going problem of donations that look good in annual reports but saddle institutions with costs they can ill-afford, in perpetuity.
Similarly, publishing continues to be fraught with contradictions, as Anderson notes earlier in the article: Why do museums persist in spending lavishly for exhibition catalogues that sell few copies to only the very narrowest segment of museum patrons?
There are answers to that question (e.g. publishing contributes in a fundamental way to the integrity of an institution by manifesting its commitment to, and capacity for, top notch research), and to others that address the core of the museum. Overall, Anderson’s year-end review calls for a refocusing on things that really matter. He has created a useful agenda to guide discussion and work in 2013.
Amy Verner, writing in the December 19th Globe & Mail (What your $700 coffee-table book really says about you), calls attention to the fact that the market for big and beautiful art books is undiminished despite retractions in the economy and the seemingly-ever-collapsing book market. In fact, it may be growing.
Of course, she is talking about the world of international publishing, not our domestic one where even the most sumptuous, prestige art books are rarely if ever priced over $100. After the automatic discounts Amazon applies automatically to even new books, the prices of Canadian art books appear slightly ridiculous. Take just three examples:
Polaroids, a huge (34 x 44 cm), full colour, coffee table book of preparatory pictures taken by the internationally recognized Canadian painter Attila Richard Lukacs, beautifully designed by artist Michael Morris, is available for the preposterously low price of $37.62 from Amazon.ca. Even the publisher’s retail price of $60 is probably less than half what a book of this quality about an artist of Lukacs calibre is worth, and should command in the marketplace.
Another fabulous book, published on the occasion of a museum exhibition of the work of fashion designer Jean Paul Gautier, exquisitely produced (including an amazingly clever, optically vibrating plastic sleeve) by the very talented team at the Musée des beaux-art de Montreal, comes in at under $100 if ordered from Amazon, despite the fact that Gautier is an international celebrity and this was a world-premier event, his very first recognition by the art museum world.
Only when we get into the realm of “historical treasures” does price even begin to reflect value, or investment, e.g. the catalogue raisonée of David Milne is $360.36 on Amazon.ca, discounted egregiously from a still very reasonable $572.00, a price that barely reflects the estimated $1 million invested in this project (which produced, in addition to the catalogue raisonée, a CD version, and a companion biography written by David Silcox).
Are Canadian art books priced so poorly because Canadians are a naïve and unassuming people afraid to stand up and be counted? Or is it because the costs of production are covered by government subsidies regardless of sales? Or is it that Canadian publishers do not have the distribution reach and marketing resources to really compete in the international marketplace?
Canada’s public galleries are using a new service called Catalist for promoting their books. A spin off from Booknet Canada, Catalist allows subscribing publishers to create their own online catalogues. Designed as a shopping tool for retailers and libraries, the site gives an excellent overview of the remarkable art book publishing being done in Canada. Visit the site to see for yourself.
Illustrated at left, a 2012 book about the literary post-punk short movies of Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, a collection of stills, award-winning scripts, creative writings and critical missives by scholars, video legends and animal experts weighing in on why Vey Duke and Batttersby matter. Edited by Mike Hoolboom.
Vision is one of the faculties by which we experience the world. It is increasing in importance as tools for presenting information and representing the world become more powerful. Digital technology in particular has made it as easy, possibly easier, to send a picture as text. We are surrounded everywhere with images, from billboards, to magazines to television, and now of course, the Internet. Learning something without pictures is becoming rare.
The visual arts are, not surprisingly, surging. More people are aware of the visual arts and have a better grasp of what the visual arts are than perhaps ever before in history. The rising popularity of art schools and the corresponding increase in art school graduates has meant that most cities in Canada with a population over 50,000 have at least one university educated artist living and working there. You are as likely to find a work of public art in a small city as a large one. Ask almost anyone if they know of any public art nearby, and they’re likely to give you directions.
This comes at a time when other disciplines are facing serious challenges. Digital media and the efflorescence of rich media it so effortlessly produces, and freely distributes, is challenging the performing arts, music and publishing. But for the visual arts, more visuality has the opposite effect, building literacy and promoting the importance of art as a kind of key to deciphering the world.
Visual art has become the philosophy of the 21st Century.
The visual arts have also been more adept than other media at capitalizing on the opportunities presented by new media, not merely using new technologies but incorporating them fundamentally into how artists conceive of, and produce, art. There is, of course, media art – visual art in the form of film or video (now digital moving images) – but more profoundly, all visual art has become predominantly conceptual. Hardly a painting or drawing today does not declare its idea first, its ironic or historical references from pop-culture comics to the Renaissance, from historical re-enactment to sit com.
Of all the arts disciplines, visual art is easily the most diverse or hybrid. Visual artists combine not merely concepts but also media, crossing boundaries without license, beg, borrow and stealing as they go, appropriating text, moving images and still, three dimensional objects, old and new, manufactured and raw, all with equanimity. A good example of hybrid visual art is this year’s Turner prize winner, Elizabeth Price, whose archive-oriented media artwork can be glimpsed here, at the 3:05 mark: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19793480 …
In this context, it has become almost imperative that other arts disciplines embrace the methodologies of the visual arts. It is not so much a question of whether and how to cross-over conventional boundaries, mix, match, blend, etc. as how to catch the wave of visuality in culture, to multiple the strengths of disciplinary specialization, history and expertise rather than be trapped by them.
Of course, it’s not all La Vie en Rose for the visual arts either: there are challenges, particularly for institutions. With the free flow of images online and throughout culture generally, there is an enormous opportunity for art museums and art galleries to become better known, understood and used. But to capitalize on the zeitgeist, they need to free up their image resources, an argument thoroughly and convincingly made here by Beth Harris & Steven Zucker of the Khan Academy. http://mfeldstein.com/an-open-letter-to-museums-and-libraries-about-images/
It’s great whenever the act of interpretation is acknowledged to be an important part of how we live with art. Still, most links you’ll find for “reading art” will be to Reading, the places in Massachusetts or in the UK, or the university, including its art department: http://artreading.wordpress.com/
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.
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.
More interestingly, many people, artists in particular, are interested in, and discussing, alternatives. For example, this series of discussionsThe 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:
Los Angeles: Self-published, 1971.
35 8 1/2 x 11 pages in tranparent orange folder.
Most people know John Chamberlain for the exquisite crumpled cars parts he produced for over 50 years. I discovered this very unusual, and rare, work of his on the Web entirely by accident about eight years ago, amazed by its conceptual, relational quality. I thought about it again recently in the course of my ongoing research on art + economics, asking whether, if artists worked more “normally” like, and with, the rest of the world, they might be better understood and financially supported. Chamber’s Rand Piece and all it represents about Chamberlain’s participation in the historic L. A. Country Museum’s Art + Technology program suggests otherwise. In fact, it shows just how fraught the place of artists and art can be if they are put in close proximity with the things they want to call as they see.
“The RAND Corporation was considered by many, especially on the left, to be a sinister organization populated by the best deep-thinkers the military industrial complex could buy. It is in this context that Chamberlain’s piece resonates. His approach, which was intentionally confounding, emphasizes the limits of technology and human understanding and thus frames the RAND Corporation’s blandly authoritative intellectualism as hubris.”
Pamela Lee in her book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, [MIT ISBN:
978-0-262-12260-3, now out of print] explains:
“An especially telling case involved John Chamberlain’s residency at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica. Established in 1948, the RAND Corporation was the prototypical postwar think tank: a nonproﬁt organization devoted “to further and promote scientiﬁc, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare and security of the United States.” Following its own bulletin, the Corporation works toward these purposes through an extensive program of research and original investigation in the physical and social sciences. Although the program places special emphasis on interdisciplinary, policy-oriented studies, it includes theoretical research within such diverse ﬁelds as economics, mathematics, geophysics, nuclear physics, electronics, computer science, aeronautics, astronautics, linguistics, sociology, political science, medicine, education and many others. In the past this program has been oriented mainly towards scientiﬁc analysis of important problems of national defense.
“RAND’s collaboration with Chamberlain was unhappy to say the least. Chamberlain was approached by Tuchman as late as 1969, but the artist was eager to participate in the program because, as he reasoned, “I’m initially interested in anything I don’t know about.”
Like many of his peers, Chamberlain’s preliminary meetings with industry proved unproductive. He discussed the possibilities of a ﬁlm project, perhaps with Ampex, RCA or CBS, but when neither these nor other proposals seemed viable (one of which included an “olfactory-stimulus-response” multiple), he was ultimately paired with RAND, then already working with Larry Bell.
“Chamberlain’s project for RAND exhibited little of the high-tech paraphernalia of many other artists involved in LACMA’s program. Granted ofﬁce space and secretarial support by RAND, Chamberlain’s proposals—cutting off the phones for one day, for example, or dissolving the corporation itself—were of a rigorously conceptual (that is to say, unfeasible) bent. Such ideas met with little excitement or, rather, acceptance, by many of RAND’s denizens, and the distaste was reciprocal. As his residency continued, Chamberlain discovered his RAND colleagues to be impossibly ‘uptight’ and ‘very 1953’ and resistant to the line of questioning his proposals suggested. As if to interrogate his own technological sophistication, the artist posed a series of queries in keeping with the concerns of the corporation itself. ‘What do I know about weather modification?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘What do I know about cloud formations? What do I know about the war in Vietnam? What do I know about the psychology of reﬂexes in New York City when faced with a police car?’
Instead of pursuing such topics, Chamberlain saw the use value of exploiting humor in his ‘collaboration,’ tweaking the rituals of bureaucratic culture in the process. For three days he screened his ﬁlm The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez during the company’s lunch hour. With Warhol ‘Superstar’ Ultraviolet and poet Taylor Mead romping about in trees in various states of undress, the movie seemed to conﬁrm for RAND’s employees the worst clichés about artists in general. Following the screening, Chamberlain distributed a cryptic memo to all consultants at RAND in a gesture that at once pays tribute to and lambastes the endless paper trail of the corporate environment (ﬁgure I.4). The mimeographed sheet reads: ‘I’m searching for ANSWERS. Not questions! If you have any, will you please ﬁll in below, and send them to me in Room 1138.’
“The answers spoke volumes to the divide between Chamberlain’s conceptual leanings and RAND’s technological methods. Clearly the exercise had won Chamberlain no supporters; it fact, it produced the exact opposite effect. “The answer is to terminate Chamberlain,” one rejoinder states, and that was the least of it. There was no shortage of vitriolic responses, a partial list of which reads:
While you were up in the Tree in your love scene, you should have STAYED.
Quit Wasting RAND Paper and Time.
The Air Force needs thinkers—where do you ﬁt in?
The world has moved up a level. They now call stag movies “ART.”
GO TO HELL MISTER!!
An artist in residence is a waste of money.”
Above extensively quotes: Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, by Pamela M. Lee, pages 17, 18, 19, now out of print, but fortunately available on Google Books.
Thirty-five loose 8 1/2 x 11″ bond sheets printed offset, recto only, in a translucent fluorescent orange plastic report cover with a blue plastic clamp spine (as issued), no illustrations. “Rand Piece” is the printed form of John Chamberlain’s contribution to the historic 1971 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition “Art and Technology”. It consists of excerpted responses by employees of the noted Southern California think-tank The Rand Corporation to a questionnaire submitted by the artist. The piece was mounted on the walls during the exhibition, with Chamberlain subsequently self-publishing an extremely limited edition of these responses to be distributed to the Rand participants.
For further details, see the catalog “Art and Technology” by Maurice Tuchman. Edition size is not known, but surviving copies are truly rare. A most handsome example of this elusive conceptual document whose plastic binder remains remarkably fresh BOLDLY SIGNED by John Chamberlain in purple ink on the title page at the time of publication. (from Abebooks)
“RAND Piece was mounted on the walls during the LACMA Art and Technology exhibition and Chamberlain subsequently self-published a very small edition of them to be distributed among the RAND participants. Surviving copies are truly rare.” [source]
This is a short review, the first of what I hope will be many, of a beautiful book produced to accompany the retrospective exhibition Tactile Desires: The Work of Jack Sures.
Co-published by the Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan and the Tom Thomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario, the book features essays by Sandra Alfoldy, Virginia Eichhorn, Julia Krueger and Matthew Kangas, and pictures of every work in the exhibition in full colour.
To focus on only one of the essays, Timothy Long’s approaches the everlasting (still) debate about craft vs. art, in an unusual way. Art relies, like religion, he says, on scapegoating, excluding others as non-believers. Art is historically tied to religion, devotion and the experience of the divine in a way that craft never was. So, while the avant gardes have tried to reveal, mock, dismantle, and thereby overcome that religious bigotry – think of Picasso’s goats or Rauchenberg’s – craft, has, to its advantage, never had to force a separation; it is already integrated into daily life, more readily accepted and accepting. For those of us with a soft spot for craft, this could well explain why.
The other essays trace Sures’ career and place his work in historical context, showing how he stands on the cusp between previous generations of arts and craft revivalists inspired by Bernard Leach and the generations Sures himself taught and influenced, who went on to create conceptual and funk ceramics.
Overall, the book is good read, accessible and thoughtful. And it is also beautifully designed, with French flaps, by Adams + Associates.