Archive for the Exploiting artists Category

Have Paintbrush, Will Travel

A picture is worth more than a thousand words to the Canadian artist Katherine Dolgy Ludwig, who trades her watercolors for lodging at the homes of professors on sabbaticals.

Through the rental matchmaking service SabbaticalHomes.com, Ms. Ludwig has house-sat for academics in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Wales over the past seven years. Instead of paying them money, she gives them one of her vibrant artworks.

“Hosts can choose any of my paintings,” she says, “but often they’ll pick one I’ve done while living in their home. They say, ‘Wow, that’s my rug,’ or ‘That’s my kitchen in the background,’ or ‘There’s my pet,’ so there’s a personal connection with the painting.”

Ms. Ludwig trained as an architect but switched to painting and taught at the Ontario College of Art & Design. In 2006 she decided to paint full time. That has resulted in a series of fellowships in the United States and Europe, during which she cares for professors’ homes and, occasionally, their pets for weeks or months at a time while she paints and exhibits her artworks.

“It’s a very old tradition for artists to trade their work for necessities,” says Ms. Ludwig, who during one memorable house-sit three years ago “paint jammed” with the jazz musician Ornette Coleman, putting him and his band on canvas while they played on Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

As an artist on the rise, Ms. Ludwig has seen her paintings, bartered and otherwise, appreciate in value over the years.

“One of the first I traded was worth about $2,000 then,” she says. “Today it would be valued around $10,000.”

Before we get back to our regularly scheduled blogging about petty, self-defeating artistic jealousies and treacheries, here’s a recent news item from Minnesota Public Radio that bodes further ill for artists struggling to keep paying their rent.

According to the story, starting in 2008 artists may have a “hard time finding places to live and work for cheap” (as though it’s currently that easy). This is because a new IRS ruling says low-income artist lofts are not in compliance with federal tax regulations.

The IRS’ Section 42 Low Income Housing Tax Credit generally helps pay for anywhere between 35 percent to 60 percent of the capital costs of building or renovating a building that “serves the general public.” However, Section 42 says a building can’t qualify for the low-income housing credit if it offers housing only to members of “a certain social organization.” This appears to be the tax sticking point with artist lofts, and the IRS has now begun more closely scrutinizing such housing.

Of course, this conflicts with much of current civic policy, as, according to the story’s author, Marianne Combs, many cities across the country are “using affordable housing to attract artists, in the hopes they will bring with them urban renewal.”

Minnesota-based Artspace, a real estate developer that specializes in developing artist live/work spaces in blighted areas of America’s cities, is working to appeal the IRS’s determination process on Section 42. 

Bill Mague is portfolio director for Artspace. He says he doesn’t understand how after 20 years of financing artist loft developments, the IRS could rule that his organization isn’t serving the general public.

“All of our projects have people who fit every possible demographic - age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, primary source of income,” says Mague. “And so that’s why I don’t think we come even close to any of these concerns that the IRS is voicing. And I think if they were to prevail, it would significantly impair a very powerful federal housing tool.”

A guest column by Roger Valdez in the Friday, January 25, edition of the Seattle Times tells a story familiar to artists (and to CAFA readers). Arts organizations there are getting squeezed out by a callous market and an uncaring local community.

Over the past decade, several local arts organizations, … have folded because of space issues. Today, tenants of the Odd Fellows Hall on Capitol Hill are struggling with the possibility of rent increases that will make it impossible for them to do business.

The crisis faced by small- and medium-sized arts organizations in Seattle comes down to two words: real estate. How to acquire, renovate and maintain one’s own home isn’t something taught in art school. Arts organizations produce art, not facilities plans.

The story follows a familiar path. A local arts organization without much money finds space in an older building where the rent is reasonable. The owner is willing to allow the group to knock out a couple of walls, make as much noise as it wants, and start doing what it does: art.

The owner isn’t interested at that time in selling the underutilized property for high rise-condos or other development, and the arts organizations, taking heart, sign or extend leases.

But, the day comes when the economic lure becomes too great, or family dynamics change, and the owner decides to sell. Faced with a changing use of the property, the arts tenants put out a call for help, but it’s too late.

Does it have to be this way?

I met Dean Fleming in the summer of 2005. Driving through the Sangre de Christo mountains about 40 miles south of Pueblo, I realized the weather in Colorado in August is about a perfect you’ll ever fine. Heartbreakingly beautiful. The sky is a pearlescent blue ocean hanging over the sage green ocean-bottom valleys and the distant coral-reef mountains. On each side of the Huerfano valley, the landscape rises up into scrubby chaparral then disappears into rocky murky mountaintops.

Dean Fleming first discovered this region in 1966. At the time, he was feeling increasingly stifled in New York. “Art was a profession,” he said, “like playing football. You get together a resume and a portfolio. You work to get the critics to do a review… The structure of the profession was not something I ever worked at. I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. In New York, there’s a lot of pressure to repeat yourself and do the same thing. In New York I was the ‘parallelogram’ painter, which I thought sucked beyond belief. I didn’t want anything to do with that. I wanted to do what I felt like.”

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 Dean Fleming, “Untitled,” 1965

 

Fleming took a get-out-of-New York trip to California in 1966 with composer Steve Reich and painter John Baldwin. On the way, they stopped Ignacio, Colorado, to catch a Native American Sundance. “I found it magical,” said Fleming. In a letter to New York gallery owner Paula Cooper in July 1966, he wrote:

Dear Paula,

Excellent mustanging across country spending 4 days with the Colorado Utes sun dancing, basking in stars & Rocky Mountain blaze of sun, cleansing chunks of Manhattan funk & generally changing. Steve playing tapes, John the trumpet & me giving out books & buttons, we Johnny Appleseeded culture across the land…

Fleming’s suggestion that he was changing was revealing. It was difficult for him to adjust again to SoHo when he returned: “When I went back to New York, ” he said, “to my loft on Broom Street, I had a dream that I was supposed to be in the country, surrounded by friends. That was the impetus to come back to Colorado.”

In 1965, some artists, filmmakers, and philosophical types from Lawrence, Kansas had started—in Trinidad, Colorado—what would become known as the first rural “hippy commune,” Drop City. The founders of Drop City had hope to continue working on an art concept—Drop Art—they had developed earlier at the University of Kansas. Drop Art was informed by the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow and the work of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and R. Buckminster Fuller—a professor and inventor who pondered questions related what would later become known as the “sustainability” movement. (Fleming knew “Bucky” Fuller, as he called him. In fact, he learned to make the geodesic dome that is his Libre Commune studio/home from him.)

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The Ultimate Painting ,” by Drop Artists, 1966, acrylic on panel, 60″ x 60″

Fleming first stopped at Drop City with a few friends for a short stay, coming to think of the place as a “touch chaotic.” “They had this open-door policy thing that was untenable,” he explained. “Artists need their own space to think and get work done. They were doomed for failure.” (Drop City was abandoned by its residents in 1970.)

After a few months, Fleming and his group discovered a plot of acreage on a mountainside near Gardner, Colorado. Somehow they scraped up the money to purchase it ($6000), and thus began the Libre Community, a continuously existing commune that has expanded and contracted through the years—with various artist microcommunities popping up then fading away. Amazingly, the commune still exists today, forty years after its founding.

“It’s a funny mix here,” said Fleming, who these days possesses deeply lined face and a long mane of white hair. “There have always been Native American practitioners, Buddhists, wine drinkers, pot smokers. Theater artists. Photographers. Artists. Everyone, each in their own area. Some of the groups overlap. But for me, it’s always just been a great place to work.”

Fleming’s life as a working artist in Colorado has been long and rich—even removed as it’s been from mainstream currents. “I don’t have a lot of money. I never have. But if I have a place to stay, it works out.” Still, like anyone, he seems to have his share of regrets. “I worry about not having health insurance,” he said several times over the course of my stay.

Fleming still paints every morning, first thing—”even when I’m traveling,” he said. Behind his geodesic studio, a good-sized shack holds a large cache of paintings reveals the results of this fifty years of effort. He is pensive about his legacy as he shows this trove to me. “My situation (as an obscure artist) is deliberate. It doesn’t matter in the long run if people like my work or not. I seek a place always where the painting takes over. I’d hope the observer would have that experience, but that’s very individual. It’s the nature of people to like a different painting for different reasons. I think of painting as being a mirror for people—where they’re at.”

As promised, here’s another story of what happens when an artist is exiled by the community or neighborhood he helps (re-)build into a vibrant and hip art district. This time the artist, Dean Fleming, became “exiled” by choice.

Scene: It was the heady 1960s; for the past decade-plus, America’s comfortable and prosperous middle class had been fleeing the country’s cities for the newly built suburbs, leaving huge openings in various city districts for all sorts of opportunistic elements to move in. Such a district in New York City, in 1962 sometimes called “Hells Hundred Acres,” was described by Richard Kostelanetz in his book on SoHo thusly:

“The area below Houston Street [in New York City] was an industrial slum that I might have walked through reluctantly on the way from Greenwich Village to its north or Chinatown to its east. Industrial debris littered streets that were clogged with trucks and truckers during the working daytimes but deserted at night… I first became aware of someone actually residing in the nineteenth-century industrial slum in 1965 when I was introduced on Canal Street to a Korean artist [Nam June Paik] who had just arrived in America and rented a nearby ‘loft,’ which was a word new to me at the time… I later learned of such urban pioneers as Alison Knowles, who, in the late 1950s, had rented space in an industrial building on Broadway just north of Canal Street, where she lived with her husband-to-be, Dick Higgins… By the time I relocated downtown, first to the East Village in 1966, I became aware of artists who had rented large open space in which they worked and, incidentally, lived… [the author mentions Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, the writer Donald Barthelme, Chuck Close, and many others in the text that follows].”

Dean Fleming, a California native, came of age as an artist in New York in the 1960s. A contemporary and friend of sculptor Mark di Suvero, Fleming worked initially in a catchy, trendy (but not earth-shatteringly original) minimalist-geometric style, and he had a few years of success in the gallery scene of the time. Fleming also was, along with di Suvero, a co-founder, in 1963, of the Park Place Gallery in SoHo, which is often called the first cooperative gallery in the district. Kostelanetz doesn’t seem to make mention of the space, but Wikipedia explains, “the gallery showcased works by younger, less established artists with an emphasis on Geometric abstraction, shaped canvas, Hard-edge painting, Op Art, paradoxical geometric objects, and experimental art. Many of the sculptors, painters and other artists who exhibited in Park Place Gallery were interested in cutting edge architecture, electronic music, and minimal art.”

In 1967, burning out on the increasingly large crowds of people clamoring to see what was going on in SoHo, as well as the quickly fragmenting and trend-driven New York art scene of the time, Fleming took off to travel, to far off places like Morocco, Mexico, and the American southwest. While intending to return to New York eventually, in 1968 Fleming became enchanted by the Huerfano Valley region of Colorado, a few hours south of Denver. And, with a few idealistic friends and fellow artists, he bought a few acres and founded, on Greenhorn Mountain, a commune called the Libre Community. His idea was that the community, which still exists to this day, would be a refuge for artists like him looking to get out of the busy city and recharge for a few months. He had it in mind that he’d be able to exchange space in the commune, which has various structures and studios spread across its multiple acres, for an occasional stay in a New York loft. This never happened, unfortunately, and Fleming has remained in the Huerfano Valley—rarely exhibiting in New York or outside of his region—for the past forty years…

TO BE CONTINUED…

In a previous post, I described—in an oversimplified, somewhat glib six-point plan—how artists are exploited, over and over, by cities around this country. The sixth point of the plan read:

  • Kick the artists out of your buildings, sell to investors at a huge profit, retire fat, happy, and with a spotless conscience.

Since you’re likely not one of the conscienceless exploiters, you probably wonder sometimes what are the results of this callous manipulation of artists. What happens to the artists once they’re turned away from the hip and happening urban district—and from the spacious studios and accommodating galleries—they’ve helped create? Well, as it happens, I’ve profiled a couple of artists through the years who have faced exactly those circumstances, and I’ve seen the fallout. It’s not pretty…

In the spirit of open information exchange, I’ll share two such profiles. In the first, I write about Frank Gaard. He was one of perhaps hundreds, maybe even thousands, of artists displaced and removed from their studio and living situations during the artist-spawned regentrification of Northeast Minneapolis.

A wildly productive artist of long-standing status locally, Gaard long has lived (as the story describes) on the edges in terms of financial, and mental, stability. As a result, he was in a terrible position to weather a sudden and unexpected change of living circumstance when he was kicked out of his apartment in 2001. In the profile, which appeared in City Pages in the fall of that year, I describe his conditions, after having moved to a dingy basement apartment in one of the roughest parts of South Minneapolis, thusly:

Gaard has a haggard look about him these days. His face is lined and sags heavily into his thick shoulders; his skin is pale and his wispy gray and white hair flies from his head in unkempt bunches. His eyes and his occasional smile still exude charisma, but the overall air about the artist is what doctors from another age might have called melancholia. The effect could also be that of stress stretched over a long, bleak period. Gaard had to leave his Northeast apartment this past summer after his landlord sold the building. (The artist had been providing paintings in lieu of paying full rent.) His new apartment contains colorful acrylic canvases leaning against walls and furniture, stacked on tables and counters. These may not be the best of times, but Gaard continues to work at an impressive clip; he is nothing if not a persistent man.

The happy coda to the story is eventually Gaard pulled himself back up by his easel legs. When I visited him at home in 2006, his circumstances had changed dramatically. There was light coming through the window of Gaard’s front living-room studio in the cute clapboard house he kept with his new girlfriend, and he looked many times happier and healthier than five years earlier. It probably helped too that he was also fresh from a triumphant, widely publicized local billboard project that had been commissioned by the Walker Art Center.

Still, it took a good four-five years after his exile from Nordeast for Gaard to get back to this stable ground. Four-five years of stress, unhealthy living, and lack of production (he only had one exhibition during this time) before Gaard was a viable artist again. It’s very revealing, after all, that at this moment of triumph, in the little Walker web-Q&A posted to accompany his billboard project, this is what Gaard has to say:

7. What advice do you have to offer young people today?
Enjoy your youth before the evil days draw nigh.

One of the earliest art feature stories I ever wrote, in 1998, was about the (very common) civic practice of exploiting artists. Here’s how it works:

  1. Take a blighted or economically diminished section of your favorite city, preferably with a wide array of large warehouse or mixed-use industrial buildings;
  2. Inherit, steal, or buy up a bunch of real estate in said blighted area;
  3. Invite people who have few other options for finding cheap urban real estate—namely, artists—to inhabit your warehouses and old factories;
  4. Watch the artists turn your blighted area into a hip area where lots of young, up-and-coming people hang out;
  5. Watch new businesses like galleries, art stores, cafes, restaurants, and so on develop in formerly empty spaces;
  6. Kick the artists out of your buildings, sell to investors at a huge profit, retire fat, happy, and with a spotless conscience.

I wrote my story about Northeast Minneapolis, just north of the downtown of Minneapolis, which, back then, was the hub of arts activities in the Twin Cities. Here’s a sampling of the crux of the story:

Roughly defined as the Central Avenue corridor running between 3rd and 37th avenues, Northeast Minneapolis has historically been a confluence of working-class residences, light-industrial parks, warehouses, and low-rent retail shops. At present, several art galleries (including Acme Visual Arts and Icebox Gallery) and a number of large studio complexes (including the S & M Tire Warehouse, the Tyler Street Studio Building, the California Building, and the Northrup King Studio Complex) can be found around the Central Avenue corridor, where the low-rent warehouse and industrial spaces began to attract artists and gallery owners about 10 years ago….

….Although Northeast Minneapolis is arguably the art center of the Twin Cities these days, that distinction may be ending as the neighborhood evolves. Like AØSO, two other Northeast galleries have closed in the last six months, and another in the last year. At the same time, rising rents and new neighborhood development threaten to displace some of the artist occupants of warehouse studio spaces.

Of course, this story is not unique to Minneapolis. It’s been going on for ages all over the country. (The cycle has repeated in the Twin Cities at least once more since I wrote the story in 1998.) This book, for example, tells the story of the rise and fall of the great arts colony in Manhattan’s SoHo district. And this was way back in the 1960s, before they’d even invented urban blight!

And, as you’d expect in this great age of Artistic Failure, this story continues to play today—except now, as this story by David Freedlander in Am New York relates, the cycle of artistic exploitation-rejection can encompass entire major metropolitan areas.

The story starts by quoting Robert Elmes, who recently very nearly moved his gallery, Galapagos Art Space, out of New York (to the more favorable climes of Berlin):

“The cultural ecosystem is under incredible threat right now,” Elmes said. “The word spreading back across the country to young, creative people is that New York is incredibly expensive and there isn’t the opportunity to experiment with new work. The best and the brightest are going to other cities.”

It’s a common refrain among those who work in the creative industries and follow the cultural scene closely: New York City, which has incubated a century of the world’s leading artists, musicians, and performers, will cease to be a place where art is made.

“New York could easily become a museum city like Paris or Rome that doesn’t produce much in the way of relevant culture,” Elmes said. “If you take emerging and cutting-edge arts away, the city becomes dramatically less interesting. That was always what New York was about but we are not protecting our brand.”