Sunday, February 21, 2010

State of Arts

"Night Light" 2010 Diane Hunt 18 x 24 inches Acrylic on Paper

A few snapshots from the last 1st Friday rounds: we only made the main two exhibitions; Tamara Wilson's "Cup 23" and new works by watercolorist Randy Cheap at Well Street; and the opening of the  "Patterns of Influence" show at the Bear Gallery. That was jurored by Ree Nancarrow, a prominent Alaskan quilter based out of Denali Park. In her statement, she outlined her criteria for selecting works on the basis of "composition, content and how strong a piece was in relation to others," and in addition to "well resolved pieces that would reflect the theme" (Elements of Change).
My personal favorite (after, of course, the piece above, which I was a wee bit biased about) was this acrylic by painter Mark Johnson titled "Instant Messaging." It won 2nd place, and I think it's most notable quality is the humor: the gentle humor arising from the juxtaposition of image + text (painting + title) brings the piece up into a category that's complete. The composition, value and color scheme, use of perspective (linear and atmospheric), fore/mid/background and foreshortened elements all add up to competency, and the style set it apart from any other works in the show, but that last little twist of ironic commentary (and thematic perfection) was what sealed it for me.

Mark Johnson "Instant Messaging"

Turnout was decent, especially given that the field is now significantly narrowed as far as opening options, and it's always good reconnecting with folks in the artsy-fartsy circuit. Plus it was gratifying to have "Peaceable Kingdom: Alaska" be one of the two sales in the latter show. Since the bulk of my work "exists" in digital form, it's always interesting to have that twinge of separation when one hasn't gotten to spend any time with a piece that you've invested some labor over (ie: the creation of a physical object): another kid kicked out the door that you hope winds up in a good home.

Bringing 'Em Up Right: "I want THAT one!"

Superimposed over the festivities was a recent article that had just appeared in last Sunday's newspaper by local reporter Rebecca George, which covered the impact on the Fairbanks community after the recent closure of two of our long-time art galleries. The loss of these respected and well-established businesses sends a few loud messages, and gaging the implications and the reasons for said closures are a bit more complicated than what one article could address. One of the former art matrons of the Interior finished out the article with this quote:
“I don’t think the arts are going to disappear in Fairbanks, or anywhere,” she said. “It’s just going to take a little creativity and innovation on everyone’s part.”
The creativity and innovation will come from artists embracing technology and promoting themselves on-line. That factor wasn't addressed in the article, and is perhaps the most crucial in determining the success of an artist today. Promotion and marketing skills are as vital to an artist as craftmanship in their respective media. Unless one has a representative or agent and is willing to cut them a slice of the already meager profits, it's all up to the individual artist to live up to the implied definition of visual arts: it has to be seen.
More below the fold...

Divvying up the fabulous cash prizes at the Bear Gallery

"There remains a vibrant art scene in Fairbanks..."

As to the matter of many new venues now climbing on the First Friday bandwagon, that isn't necessarily a good thing, as it muddies the water and undercuts the traditional venues with distracting competition. Mind you, seeking alternative and independent spaces to peddle wares is to be encouraged and supported, and is the only option available to many artists. And make no mistake: the overriding concern of a business that baits the First Friday crowd does not have any critical or aesthetic concerns at heart for the health and welfare of art and artists - it's a calculated business strategy to entice customers into shopping at their establishment. And there's the debatable observation that much of these shows display works that wouldn't make it into any halfways respectable gallery. That said, if the it's enjoyable and affordable and sells, really the only people bitter about such populist and commercial catering to the uneducated, nondiscriminatory masses tend to be other artists. 
A notable exception to the circumvention of the "scene" and accompanying gatekeepers of aesthetic standards can be made for the efforts of a few prominent societies and guilds such as the watercolorists, potters and quilters, who have assumed the responsibility of promoting the works of their own respective members at various group shows and setups at craft markets. Here again is that delicate balance between independent efforts versus competing against the very same venues which are traditional outlets (hence the sole representation clause in many contracts with galleries).

Randy Cheap's work at Well Street

And I've ranted here before on the debatable and often dubious merits of a gallery taking upwards of 50% of any sales (note: the Fairbanks Arts Association, being a non-profit funded in part by grants from the state only takes a 25% cut). That either leads to a grossly overvalued piece in an attempt to compensate the creator, or a unpalatable loss of profit. Ostensibly the justification for charging such a high percentage is an exchange of services the artist either doesn't have time, talent or interest to invest in themselves. It can be a healthy and supportive relationship when both parties have a vested interest in a successful exhibition, or it can be abusive and manipulative.
Unfortunately the balanced or default position for an average opening appears to be neutral at best, or put another way, useless. That is to say, nobody comes out ahead, and creating art becomes relegated to the idle pursuit of retired people, a glorified hobby or plaything for the wealthy (as evidenced by the commodification of art purely as an investment). This economic quagmire is equally impacting both the print media and in turn the careers of cartoonists. Then the galleries close, and people buy their wall decorations at a Wal-mArt.

Tamara Wilson's works at Well Street

As a supplement to the above-mentioned article, there's a four-part harmony (okay, more like a mess of strung-together discordant rants) between some other possible factors to consider:

The Art Sucks
Lacking any meaningful connectivity with the community at large, much art seen in contemporary galleries are completely unintelligible, at best wall coverings purchased to match the upholstery or establish somebody's bohemian cred.
Much of the rest are vapid retreads of the same old content - sure, it might have all been done before, but not by you, right? So like I tell students, at least try and do it as well if not better. I'm as guilty as the rest when it comes to plateauing into an established comfort routine with my art, as are most established artists who never deviate from their well-worn personal style, but liker a kid in a creative sandbox I'm happy playing away, at least until it's time to eat.
But by way of contrast, there are the works which attract me for no other reason than unconscious aesthetics - yeah I'm supposed to be an art teacher and continually challenge students to elaborate on their base reactions like the standard cop-out "I like it," but truth be known sometimes that's all the damn reason you need. So what if you can't articulate why, and the same goes for making the art. Leave it up to the Qualified Professionals to interpret, analyze and understand it, all the why, what, when and where. Seriously though - acknowledge and entertain both ends of the spectrum of opinion (informed or otherwise), but in the end, screw justification.

Clueless Artists
I'll confess to not enjoying most ingrown works of narcissistic disengagement: the artwork serving as masturbatory exercises in solipsism (not unlike some bloggers). But in the same breath I'll acknowledge, and encourage, the crucial psychological aspect to making art for purely private reasons, which is the whole essence of the personal development and expression thingy. Lacking patronage, a trust-fund or talent, it'll be a long row to hoe, and a test of one's inner fortitude and faith in perseverance to successfully keep the dream alive.
Pinning hopes on the relatively small fraction of big-ticket cash-cow gigs to keep the art afloat and in the public eye has it's uses, but has also fostered a dependency of false expectations on the accessibility and availability (not to mention legibility) of art.
In many people's eyes, it's gotta be big, be expensive, and even lack any discernible content to qualify as Fine Art. The rest is dismissed and relegated as craft.
I constantly push for exploring licensing opportunities and getting work out there in multiple mediums, for example, in an illustrative sense. But I can't tell you how many artists I've inadvertently offended by saying their piece would look great on a tshirt or a mug: just a little too white-trashy for some tastes. Fact is, the majority of folks will never get anything more than the glossy show card for any exhibit, nevermind an actual piece.

Galleries Fail
As per record industry business model which imploded after losing touch with current events and being clueless on the advent of digital media, the opportunities for artists to interact directly with and take responsibility for attracting and cultivating a support base and network of fans is now on-line. There will always be a role for traditional outlets, and nothing beats viewing works live, but the paradigm has shifted.
Also, besides financial mismanagement, one of the factors killing off galleries is the oppressive overhead: renting space (especially in a plaza or mall) means being extorted insane amounts of money that is too unrealistic to count on through selling art. Hence the supplemental income generated from miscellaneous art-related things like framing, incorporating storefronts with mid-to-low priced ephemera, offering workshops, hosting meeting spaces and studio rentals. But even with all that, it's still not enough, as most owners will confess to after years of plowing their own personal income back into keeping their gallery afloat.

Art Teachers Fail
Part of the job is inspiring and educating the general population (i.e. why it's in the Humanities) that art's not just as a hobby for the idle and elite: you also train prospective future buyers of artwork to appreciate and understand what it means, and why it's worth more than money to own or create. And besides the primary responsibility to teach aspiring talents on how to make it, there's all secondary aspects of making it, ie the business of art.
Then there's coaching involvement with the community by pushing opportunities to participate in the local scene, and not stay enshrined in the ivory tower syndrome. I'm not making a qualitative judgment call by saying all artistic endeavors should always keep one eye on the profit margin, or that a successful career in the visual arts is contingent on success in the commercial realm. It's just frustrating as hell to see firsthand so many students floating in the academic bubble without any basic business background - it's no wonder the odds are grim for graduates to continue making any art after graduation. 
And that's why it's so important to support individual efforts, and continue fostering and cultivating art appreciation at every opportunity.

Tamara Wilson poses with her plushy piece "Log Pile" (axe sold separately)

"Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves." - Brendan Behan

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