Archive for the Decline of art Category

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.

–Ernst Fischer

As the TC Daily Planet just announced a few hours ago, the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (or VACUM), a group I founded in 2002 (and led until 2005), has just announced it is disbanding.

For a sense of the history VACUM, as well as some insight into my feelings on its accomplishments, posted below is the letter I wrote to the group on reading the announcement.

Dear (now soon-to-be-ex-)VACUMers,

As this group’s original (some might say evil) step-parent, its namer, logo-maker, and its erstwhile co-founder (along with Jennifer Amie), I thought it might be appropriate at this point to say a few words of retrospection about it.

In 2002, after kicking around a few curatorial project ideas with several working critics in town, Jennifer and I took the plunge of calling as many visual arts writers as we could find at the time to the conference room of the Bell Museum, where she worked, on an unseasonably warm February weekend afternoon. Making a point of excluding no one and remaining open to everyone’s ideas, our intent was to investigate creating a critical cooperative of some sort, a banding together and pooling of resources and information that might help foster critical activity in town and act as a representative body for all critics. All in attendance seemed somewhat jazzed about these ideas, and some brought their own ideas, so we agreed to meet again and in time a group was formed.

The idea to start a critic’s association had been on my mind for several months in late 2001 and early 2002, during which I talked to similar groups (like CACA in Chicago and AICA in NY) and I searched my conscience to be sure I really wanted to take on such a chore. I recall sitting with Jennifer over a winter dinner, explaining my reluctance to add any more work to my busy schedule — because I assumed (correctly) that the bulk of the org’s work would fall on its nominal leader and also I assumed (again correctly) that that leader would probably be reluctant me. But, sure the cause was worthy, I assuaged my fears by making Jennifer promise that if we did this thing she would stick with it as co-leader/organizer (or whatever) and not abandon me. Jennifer lasted for about a year’s worth of meetings before she stopped attending and eventually gave up writing for publication.

Of the ten or twelve people who attended the meeting, fully half have fallen away through the years. Some have moved on to other towns. Some have given up writing. Some I’ve lost track of. Other people have come and used the group as they’ve needed to, then stayed or gone off to other things. A few rare others have stuck around through the lean and in-between, right up to the very end.

At its peak, real membership in the group (as opposed to the Yahoo group count) has hovered just above thirty, though meetings have never seemed to grow beyond the number of attendees at the first meeting. I myself gave up the leadership position of VACUM (I ended up disliking the term “president,” since we never had any formal standing as a body), in the spring of 2005. I was burned out and ready to become emeritus, though, because I truly cared about our efforts and about members of the group, I had to use the pretext of a move to Pittsburgh to extract myself.

In its first three-plus years, as was stated in the final meeting’s minutes, VACUM was remarkably successful. We gave each other mutual support; we mentored a number of young writers; we shared clips and critical information; and we met and mingled with artist groups in town (who, it turns out, were always happy to meet an organized group of critics). Then there were the programs we created from nothing and with nothing more than our collective effort. Sometime after the first year, we set up a lasting relationship with the MAEP through the “Trialogue” program of lectures on each of their shows. A year or so after that, we established the VACUM Attachment in the Rain Taxi. Further, it has also been suggested that VACUM’s greatest role has been providing connection and friendship between critics, who were formally not known for their tendency to mingle with each other. Significant relationships and passing dalliances, important mentorships and ongoing partnerships (as well as the opposite of each of these) are all part of VACUM’s legacy.

What I recognize now about VACUM is it came about during, and contributed to, a golden age of criticism in the Twin Cities. To list some examples of this: At the time of its founding and during its early years, Mason Riddle and Thomas O’Sullivan (two VAC-members) wrote art reviews as stringers for the Pioneer Press, and Judy Arginteanu (another member, though one who’s never attended a meeting as far as I know) and Matt Peiken (FoV) published regular art features for the paper. The Star Tribune of course had, and likely always will have, Mary Abbe, but it also published, back then, reviews by early VACUM member Doug Hanson. MPR had a weekly arts magazine with three dedicated arts reporters: FoVs Marianne Combs and Euan Kerr, as well as Chris Roberts. The City Pages regularly used to publish lengthy pieces on visual art (hard to believe, I know)—including reviews, features, and investigative reports by me, Patricia Briggs, and several other writers. Jennifer Amie wrote a regular column reviewing art shows on Mpls-St. Paul’s website. The Daily Minnesotan still had its vaunted weekly A&E section, and some alumni became VACUM members. The Pulse of the Twin Cities published, every single week, short art reviews by VACUM’s Valerie Valentine and by other writers. South Side Pride published pieces by VACUM’s Clea Felien, and the odd newsprint publication (Skyway News, etc) published the random arts writer, some of whom entered orbit around VACUM. Of course, there were also a constant cycle of well-meaning, short-lived, one-name publications — Object, Push, Ache, and several others that I no longer remember the name of — founded by idealistic 20-somethings who seemed sure they were going to singlehandedly revolutionize the art world; these, before they inevitably blinked out, published occasional member writings and contributed occasional VACUM members. Nationally, if you had interest, there were lots of publications to write for — including New Art Examiner out of Chicago, Dialogue out of Ohio, Art Issues out of L.A. — and some VACUM members did just that. Finally, when mnartists kicked off in 2002, right around the time VACUM was formed, for a time and up until recently the website published a wide range, and a significant number each month, of critical pieces. Many of the site’s visual arts writers have been VACUM members; some were steered to the site by their connection to VACUM. And some came to VACUM through mnartists.

What’s truly remarkable about all of this activity — some of you may have noted — is that, in the intervening seven years, it has all pretty much gone away. VACUM has proven unsuccessful in the face of all the insurmountable cultural forces chipping away at the perceived need for critical writing. And while a few venues have tried to fill in this gap — minnpost, a few blogs and web efforts (many focused more on marketing than fair and balanced writing), and, last but not least, ARP — the arts criticism cup now seems more empty to me than full.

Of course, we’re not alone in facing this constriction. Newspapers and magazines, publishers and writers are struggling all over the country. Just yesterday, one of the nation’s longest-employed newspaper critics, Alan Artner of the Chicago Tribune, was unceremoniously laid off. (He would not have been shocked; when I spoke to him last in the spring of 2006, he knew that his time would eventually run short, even though he’d been at it for nearly 30 years.) As I wrote in January of 2008 for mnartists:

“It’s easy to imagine a future time when there is no more art criticism. After all, daily newspaper art coverage, these days, is going the way of the mighty Wurlitzer, while new art magazines come and go more quickly than new iPod models. And the digital media replacing these old analog communication forms has turned out to be much more fickle and impermanent and generally incomprehensible than what once was….”

While I’m proud of VACUM’s successes, and I’m thankful for the sheer amount of dedication and effort that so many people have given to VACUM’s projects, at this point seven years later I realize I completely failed to accomplish my initial mission for VACUM: To bring about more and better art criticism in this town of ours. I have failed in particular in the goals of mutual support, of fostering critical efforts, of bringing people together. And, most egregiously, I have failed over time to make a clear case, to those in a position to help support us, in favor of criticism and in favor of VACUM.

I missed the meeting last week due to a prior commitment. If I had been in attendance at the meeting, I would have abstained from voting to scuttle VACUM, but I would have understood the reasons why people voted as they did. I can’t say I’m not disappointed in how this turned out, and in where we are culturally these days, but I don’t know how it could have turned out any differently.

In the aftermath, in the empty hole now left after VACUM, I only hope that a few people, at least, thought some of this was worth it. I wish you all well and hope to see you at a future Art Happy Hour, every 2nd Wednesday at the Bedlam Theatre, where we can at least continue the mission of getting shit-faced together in the name of art (www.arthappyhour.com; admin@arthappyhour.com; on FACEBOOK: “Art HappyHour”).

Yours,
Michael Fallon

Hope, that all too scarce commodity of late, made a brief, mild resurgence earlier this month, only to suffer setbacks to late-November fear and panic. (November is just that way, or so I surmise in my latest piece on the Thousandth Word.)

But hope, as we all know, even if it often gets beaten down and left for dead never goes away. (I remarked on this tendency too, in two recent pieces on the local arts, again for the Thousandth Word.)

But you don’t have to take my word about hope. One of my favorite recent arts commentaries—a piece from the Art Newspaper earlier this month called “Tough Times Will Provide Opportunities“—suggests too that hope springs eternal, even in a collapsed economy, even in a bottomed-out market, even in the dismal contemporary art world. “So what’s next? Is the future of the art market that bleak?” the article asks.

No, this will be a market for new opportunities. Major collectors are waiting for prices to come down 30% to 40% from their peak, a correction that was already evident in the latest round of auctions in London in October… Further pressure on prices is expected, and it will take some time before the market has reached equilibrium… Now the question is: which artists will survive the adjustment? We all know what the last crash in 1991 did to hotshot artists such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Francisco Clemente and Sandro Chia. Their markets took 15 years to recover, and in real terms (adjusted for inflation) are still considerably below their peak, but at least their markets survived… The primary market is also likely to regain the balance of power compared with the auctions. The auction houses have dented their credibility as money-making machines, and would-be sellers are realising that the liquidity is quickly evaporating. In a falling market, the focus will again be directed towards the galleries that have proved their commitment to their artists… In the end, a correction is healthy for the sustainability of the future art market. The interest in art will not disappear, art and artists will not disappear—if anything, a tougher environment will be more conducive to artistic creativity, and hopefully the market will go back to focusing on what constitutes the real value of art, as art history is rarely made in the auction rooms.

CTV’s website recently the following story, which provoked some interesting and telling comments (below):

Some Calgary artists played dead on Monday to try to raise awareness about cuts to national funding for the arts.

Protestors gathered at City Hall to say that Canada’s arts and cultural scene is on its deathbed.

The federal government recently cut 45 million dollars of funding and the artists say they already struggle to make a living and they worry it’ll get even worse if the Conservatives win a majority government.

The protesters want people to save the arts and vote for any party but the Tories.

Local theatre director Jamie Dunsdon says the conservatives have undermined the value of the arts in the community.

“I think it’s because we have politicians like Mr. Harper telling us that we don’t value arts which isn’t true, every day citizens do value arts. It’s on the walls of our dentists’ office, it’s on the radio. We do value arts, we just need the funding and we need politicians to recognize that we need the funding and the support,” said Dunsdon.

The Conservatives say they’ve boosted arts funding since coming into office.

They also say they’ve simply shifted some of that money into other programs, including sports and recreation.

SAMPLE COMMENTS:

Claudia.
When people are loosing their houses etc. it would be irresponsible for the Feds to put more money into the ‘arts’. Get real! Who else should the government bail out?


Glenda Bowser
I think the arts have survived very well on the backs of taxes payer. If they are starving I suggest they get a job like the rest of us,


Liz
Totally agree with the cuts - an elite group with attitude - what about extra funding for the underemployed,the wait staff, the retail clerks - everyone cud benefit from a hand-out. What makes the arts group so special!!! - talent - if they had any, they would not have to beg.


Pete
Lets see, a cut of less than 2% to the total arts funding. If thats catastrophic then these people have much more to worry about in the current financial climate when other people are trying to keep their real jobs that pay taxes and support these “artists”. Gravy train is over folks


Angelo
I always figured being an artist was a side job, since when am I, as a taxpayer paying for “art” that I wouldn’t pay to see anyway? Put down the paint set and pick up a hammer!


Michelle
I would rather my tax dollars go to HEALTH CARE, than some starving artist. While listening to them cry on the news about how they can barely survive now, I could not help but think…”Get a real job then!!!”


Davey boy
If that’s the best artists can come up with. Then please take there funding away


Sue - Calgary
I think people in the arts community should wake up and get a real job instead of perfoming meaningless plays that no one understands. I think our tax dollars can be better spent elsewhere.


Jane - A Calgary Taxpayer who is struggling
Well, if the artists were any good at what they do, they would make a good living at it in the free market. If they cannot support themselves, perhaps they could get real jobs like the rest of us! Welcome to the real world! If I like art, I will buy it or see it, otherwise, I am not going to pay for it. I am a good gardener, but the government does not support my hobby. Why would I, who am struggling to make ends meet, have to pay tax dollars to the arts? Funny how the artists have time to play dead, on a work day. I am at work. Making a living. Maybe they could try it instead of complaining and protesting.

A new story out in Time magazine discuss the inevitable news: As the rest of the world tanks culturally and economically, so apparently goes China.

At a Sotheby’s sale of 20th century Chinese artwork on Oct. 5, two-thirds of the 110 lots failed to sell, and many of the pieces that did find buyers went for below their estimated prices. By the close of the biannual sales of the world’s largest publicly traded art auction house, Sotheby’s took in about half what it had expected, at just over $140.7 million….

Many say the unimpressive results were a combination of already overinflated price estimates and the dismal economy. “Particularly with the fund managers, if they are concerned with things happening in the world, they may be inclined to hold on to their funds,” said Mark Joyce, owner of Koru Contemporary Art in Hong Kong.

That’s not good news for Sotheby’s. Following the poor sales, the auction house’s shares fell 14% on Oct. 6, hitting a three-year low. (Sotheby’s was not available for comment.) Nor does it bode well for the regional art market: the Hong Kong auction was its first gauge after the worldwide financial crisis hit last month. “Due to uncertainty in the markets, investors are making selective choices as to where to spend their money,” said Shirley Ben Bashat, director of the Opera Gallery Hong Kong….

Beijing-based artist Zhao Gang isn’t surprised. “Three years ago the prices started going higher and higher,” said Zhao. “Last year the price was pushed way too high, and it’s got to come down.” …

Still, the local art world isnt’ getting too depressed — yet. Says Bashat, the director of the Opera Gallery Hong Kong, “Many buyers see art as a safer investment in the mid to long term compared to other investments in the market.” Buyers may be turning away from contemporary Chinese art today, but at least they are keeping an eye on Asia.

Here’s a review of a recent failed art exhibition that I wrote for The Thousandth Word blog: “Bang a Drum for the Losers.”

Be forewarned: My take on the show at hand, “Millions of Innocent Accidents” by the artists collective Hardland/Heartland at the Minnesota Artists Gallery (at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), is a tad harsh. But I had a point to express, related to the cause of so much artistic failure across the land of late, which was this:

Shrill gestures like breaking windows, destroying property, and flouting the rules of civilized society do not make compelling symbolism. Instead, acts of a hopeful, imaginative, empathetic, or out-reaching nature are what’s needed to attract and capture the attention and support of others….

….As soon as I walked into this gallery and saw the poorly conceived, dolefully hopeless work that this well-meaning group of artists purported to consider compelling visual art—all their random and indistinct trash and burnt paraphernalia and jumbles and piles of detritus and tossed off dreck and doodles and goats’ heads and black tar corner accretions—my spirit fell. The show was a disaster, off-putting and uninspiring, and it was clear at a glance that this loudly shouting, in-your-face visual group had failed to reach out to others in any meaningfuly to get their righteous points across….

The chief problem is that, while it’s clear that Hardland/Heartland’s hearts are in the right place and they have the energy to make a lot of work (and I mean a lot of work), they just don’t know how to make much that is compelling and symbolically relevant or that embodies and expounds on their frustrations, fears, and angst in a way that someone else would care to look at. There’s no hope here, no imagination, and certainly nothing to empathize with.

NOTE: This is not a book review. This is just a head’s up to all you hungry CAFAians out there.

I just picked up a (relatively) new book by the Journal of Aesthetics & Protest Press about artistic failure. Called Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices, it’s a low-budget, special-interest sort of publication (supposedly published two years ago–though there’s no date on the copyright page) that appears to contain a good amount of the dense, almost unreadable academic-style writing you often find in curator-driven vanity monographs that art centers often “publish.” I say this without having really dug into the book yet (though I intend to soon), and admit that what I have read thus far has been pretty compelling. The editors seem overall to take a whippet-smart approach to examining the very hot issue of failure in art (and politics and society, yadda yadda) (though they also seem to be, at least from the note I received from them about an earlier version of this post, somewhat testy, and for little reason).

I may (or may not) post more about this text in the near-future, but for now here’s a sampling (from the book’s intro), which could have fit in well with some of what’s been written thus far on the very webblog you’re reading now:

Just as any human enterprise is defined by what it excludes, it is a culture’s failure–quickly forgotten, repressed, buried away–which have the most to say about that culture’s beliefs and values. Our project is conceived of as part of the archeology of thos lost failures, a way of bringing to light our own culture’s aberrations…. The work in this book takes different approaches to failure. Some writers investigate failure’s root causes (both specifically and generally), in an attempt to understand why things fail. Others use the idea of failure as a way to reinterpret our relationship to history and progress, while still others question the rhetoric of failure and success altogether.

(** = Bullet Points of Failure)

Having been away all this past week at a remote and top-secret rural retreat (no email, no cell phone, no Internet — ahhh!), imagine my chagrin at coming back home to find my local community on fire like Atlanta — at least as far as local artistic failure is concerned.

To clarify what I mean, here are a few bullet points:

  • As you will recall from reading CAFA, I have reported on multiple local defections, failures, and collapses of arts administrators and organizations in recent months. Just to give a recap, in the past 2-3 years, prior to this past week that is, Minneapolis has seen the loss of three directors of two major arts institutions, the defection of a State Arts Board director after only one year, and the removal or resignation of five-six major curators at top arts institutions. It has seen the collapse of one major artist-member crafts organization (the Minnesota Crafts Council), the near-implosion of Minnesota Film Arts (which mounts the Mpls-St. Paul International Film Festival), the collapse of a regional Tony-Award winning theater, and the near-failure and rumored impending collapse of countless mid-sized arts organizations. (Rumors that are so common that it doesn’t seem right to pass them on, lest it keeps said orgs from rebounding. Just as an example, however, I will mention that this organization is emblematic; after failing to pay rent for three months this fall/winter, its director resigned and 3/4 of its staff was let go, and thus far no replacement has been hired.)
  • As if that all isn’t enough, on July 16, the board of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis — a venue that presents works by local and national performance groups in town — announced it was placing its long-time (30+-year veteran) Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett on “indefinite leave.” By July 17, public responses to this news had come from a coterie of interested citizen/artists and from a long-time writer on dance in Minneapolis. The immediacy and intensity of the response from the public resulted in, on July 18, a response from the Southern Theater’s board, which cited the need to deal with “a huge financial deficit, a building badly in need of repair, faulty and problematic accounting practices, personnel issues, low staff morale, and complaints from artists” and the resulting need to restructure the organization.
  • Finally (finally!), a press release came across my desk on July 18 announcing the resignation, after eleven years, of Minnesota Museum of American Art executive director Bruce A. Lilly.

I can’t think of anything else to say at this point, other than to quote the words of Henry Longfellow: “All things must change to something new, to something strange.” Be brave, Minnesota, this will all pass.

Lisa Boyle, the owner of the 4-year-old Lisa Boyle Gallery, has just announced on the Bad at Sports blog that she’s calling it quits.

“Why is it so GOD DAMNED hard,” she writes, “to sell a piece of art around here? I can’t help asking myself this as I soon join the ranks of civilians outside the Art World proper and close the doors on my [gallery].”

Boyle acknowledges that she’s in good company, as “a handful of my compatriots are shutting down near the same time. 40000 last December, soon Navta Schulz, Gesheidle and others. Closings here, closings in New York, even my friend in Boston are hanging it up.” This leads her to ask, as many have, “Whose fault is it?”

She ponders the oft-cited local (Chicago) presumed reasons–lack of collectors, lack of critics, lack of museum support, nepotism in the market, competition from LA and NY–and then she comes to a realization:

…here’s the big bad bald truth, people: I’m just not that good at running a gallery. No, thank you for your support and encouragement, and I truly appreciate your assessment that I have a “good eye”, I do! It’s just an unavoidable truth to me that we’re being flushed out of our excuses, me and all the other quitters, by the simple fact that there are a few people out there who have been able to sustain important programs and be happy running a successful gallery in Chicago and certainly elsewhere. In other words, it can be done, so there’s no use in talking about how hard it is to do it… Making a life (if not a living) out of selling arbitrarily priced objects that no one needs is a very competitive venture. Not as easy as it looks. You have to want it. I mean really super bad. If you are going to create a successful system of supporting artists, connecting with institutions, and staying happy and successful as an art dealer, you have to want that more than a lot of other things. Like more than a paycheck, for example. More than every single Saturday for the rest of your natural born life. More than healthy exposure to the sun. You have to welcome payment in the form of some awkward social cache rather than in money, and you have to not mind being chained to a desk between four white walls for years, with the exception of those times you pack up your wares, like a traveling salesman, and take the show on the road. All of these things have to be fun and exciting to you…

Lisa added that she’s going to be working, part-time, in an academic office at Robert Morris College–no doubt relishing a new sense of sanity and stability, even as she gets a regular paycheck. I will add it’s refreshing to hear someone actually come out and speak truth in this matter of artistic failure–in this case, of just one gallery; though her word could just as well be applied to the entire system of arts in this country.

To her words I will add my own: As it happens, I too have just announced I am giving up, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as Lisa, my own three-year quixotic (dayjob) pursuit of a life and career of support in the arts (to go to work in a more stable workplace, associated with academia, that is closer to my home).

I’m still slogging through Bill Ivey’s book, Art Inc.—trying to comprehend the intricacies of his arguments. For the most part, thus far as best I can tell, Ivie’s arguing that our cultural values—so heavily geared toward the commercial, and so heavily favoring the corporate—are at the root cause of our society’s dysfunctional relationship with the arts. That said, his solution thus far seems, at best, pretty pat and somewhat naive. I’ll report more once I manage to fight off the distractions of summer and can actually finish the book…

Meanwhile, a recent Reuters report by Mike Collett-While, “High art prices may disguise malaise,” tracks the continued decline of the current market for art.  According to the story, which comes out of London, while the super-rich continue to push prices for Blue Chip art higher, “the picture is less rosy at the lower end of the market…. [and] values for even the world’s most sought-after artists could come back down to Earth with a bump if confidence were to slide.”

While records fell in a series of Christie’s and Sotheby’s summer art auctions, “falling share prices, inflationary pressures and rising costs of oil” were affecting the middle market, as one-third of lots failed to sell in a recent auction, and the the auction fell short by around $49.5-million of its low pre-sale estimate.

“The problem is when people in the market start to question and become uncertain,” said one analyst. “There could be a political or economic jolt that is so dramatic that it distracts people at the high end of the market, and it is like a house of cards.”