Archive for the Foundations and artists Category

Attached below is a piece, recently published on mnartists.org, that describes a public forum I attended on “The State of the Arts in Minneapolis.” In the essay, I attempt to dig a bit further beyond the usual propagandistic platitudes and oft-repeated old saws about art here in frozen Minnesota to examine what things are really like for artists and small art organizations here.

 

COMMENTARY: What is the State of the Arts in Minneapolis?

Commentary by Michael Fallon

Or, “The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Blinders:” arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon comments on the recent panel discussion about the state of arts in Mpls and makes a case for candor in our civic conversation on the subject
On the evening of June 12, the Minneapolis Arts Commission, “a volunteer body that oversees the city’s public art and promotion of the arts,” invited a panel of arts leaders (from a handful of the city’s most influential arts organizations) to participate in a discussion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with the aim of taking stock of “the current state of arts in Minneapolis, and how to move it forward?” The commission’s website describes the night’s agenda as follows: “Minneapolis has enjoyed an arts explosion in the last few years, but how do we use that momentum and continue to build Minneapolis’ reputation as a leader on the national arts scene?” mnartists.org asked arts administrator and critic Michael Fallon to attend the event and report back with his impressions on the evening’s conversation.

IF YOU HAPPENED TO MISS THE FIRST FIFTEEN MINUTES of the recent panel discussion on “Minneapolis’ artistic future,” sponsored by the Minneapolis Arts Commission, you didn’t miss much. In what best can be described as an excruciating exercise of intensive local arts spin, early attendees to the event were treated to a host of thought-terminating clichés from Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson and from representatives of the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Orchestra, Loft Literary Center, Guthrie Theater, and McKnight Foundation.

Just to give a taste, the event began with a vague (somewhat desperate-sounding) appeal from Johnson to the scattered 65 or 70 audience members: “Please know the city views the arts as an essential part and great promoter of our community.” The panelists then unanimously echoed their convictions about the significance of the local arts community. “We’re in great shape,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, an associate curator at the MIA (filling in for the previously planned speaker, the Institute’s new director Kaywin Feldman). “Compared to other cities, Minneapolis is very impressive in terms of art,” agreed Philippe Vergne, chief curator at the Walker Art Center. And thus followed a succession of many of the same, shop-worn old saws that local arts advocates are prone to tossing off (usually without supporting statistical proof) when asked about the arts here. This is just a sampling of the glib, oft-repeated claims that were reiterated in the night’s opening remarks: Minneapolis is the “most literate city in America,” has the “most theater tickets sold per capita outside of Broadway” and the “widest array of artist service organizations in the country,” not to mention the “deepest sources of philanthropic support of the arts anywhere.”

It would be a fine thing if the vaunted art-city status that Minneapolis grants itself were provably true, and if the lip-service served up regarding support for local arts actually had the solid basis in fact that people claim. Unfortunately, the truth, as it can be empirically shown, is less sunshiny than I’m guessing any of the evening’s panelists are willing to admit. Minneapolis—unlike many cities around the country (including its neighbor, Saint Paul) and, notably, unlike most other cities with a reputation for arts friendliness—actually provides little practical support to the arts. Minneapolis offers almost no city funding to arts organizations and artists (beyond the requisite occasional public art project) and has no staff dedicated to overseeing arts development or planning. But, as was not the case with the optimistic spin offered up at the recent panel discussion, you don’t have to take my word for it. This bleak assessment of the lack of practical arts support by the city of Minneapolis actually comes from scholar and economist Ann Markusen, author of a national study investigating how various cities support the arts. Here’s what Markusen uncovered about Minneapolis in her 2006 paper, “Cultural Planning and the Creative City”:

In Minneapolis … the City Council abolished its Department of
Cultural Affairs in the 1990s, leaving only a small Office of Cultural
Affairs with responsibility for public art and publicly supported arts
programming, moved under the umbrella Community Planning and
Economic Development Department. There is also a separate City of
Minneapolis Arts Commission, but it has few powers and little
political clout, and is in general ignored by the more powerful arts
institutions in the City [this has important ramifications, as explained
below]. Cultural affairs departments and offices have suffered
relative resource losses in recent decades as taxpayer revolts and
higher priority placed on everything from public safety to
economic development have squeezed their shares of the public purse.

Markusen further explodes the myth of Minneapolis’ abundant arts support through a point-by-point comparison of urban arts policies around the nation. As opposed to the other, more truly arts-friendly cities—Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and several others—revealed by Markusen’s research, Minneapolis has no dedicated arts funds to support local arts activities, no central planning mechanism or agency to manage arts development activities around the city or region, and there is little sympathy for the arts reflected in urban planning and economic development initiatives. It’s telling that, unlike what you’ll find in some cities, for the City of Minneapolis, cultural policy has little standing. There are few formal avenues for interaction between arts organizations or artists and city planning departments with regard to the management of land use or the city’s zoning laws, which do not permit the mixing of commercial and residential use. Such restrictive policies about urban zoning make it needlessly difficult for artists and small organizations to survive in the region; specifically, these sorts of policies tend, over time, to foil artists’ and small arts organizations’ attempts to create affordable live/work spaces. Further, Markusen explains, in Minneapolis, it appears that “larger arts and cultural institutions have garnered the lion’s share of city commitments in terms of land, parking garages, and support from state bonding funds.” Generally, allocating such a large proportion of civic resources to a few big arts institutions further leaves small organizations, neighborhood arts centers, and individual artists out in the cold. (It is important to point out here that the bulk of the panelists work for just such large organizations which have been among the few beneficiaries of the city’s narrow arts policies, and that may help explain their allegiance to the group-think about local arts.)

If you are beginning to feel your blood pressure rise upon reading all of this, you will begin to get a sense of how I was feeling after the first round of statements by the panel. Fortunately for my health and yours, however, it was at that precise moment that the panel moderator, Fox 9 news anchor Robyne Robinson, stepped in to begin directing panelists toward a more measured assessment and constructive discussion about how the city is doing regarding the arts. “We can sit here and repeat over and over how great things are,” Robinson said, “but then you hear these constant complaints from artists. If things are great, why is the discontent there? Do we just have too many artists and are unable to feed everyone?”

McKnight Foundation program director for the arts, Vickie Benson’s response to this question—voicing her particular concern about the well-being of individual artists locally—represented the first genuine moment of the night, and her remarks elicited an outburst of loud applause from the audience. “We can’t forget,” Benson said, “about the artists who live with poverty, who have no health insurance, and who face a lack of retirement money. We can’t forget about the artists who bring so much vibrancy to our community.”

Other panelists, at first, weren’t quite so willing to immediately validate the local artists’ disgruntlement. “We cannot please everybody,” said Philippe Vergne, slightly testily. “We make choices and, by nature, this is discriminating. Discontent of this sort is not just present in Minneapolis. It happens in L.A., it happens in New York. It is in the nature of what we do.… Desire is important. We need desire or art dies.” Jennifer Komar Olivarez of the MIA agreed: “If you look at the broader picture, our role is to set a certain standard, a bar for local artists to aspire to. We can’t be everything to everybody.” Still, Robinson, to her credit, persisted in asking about the city’s role in supporting smaller organizations and individual artists. She kept dancing around this point throughout the next hour or so of discussion, digging for a more human, more specific response, asking for panelists’ assessments of the current state of affairs which might go beyond feel-good spin. And, as a result, over the course of the evening the discussion grew increasingly realistic about the state of the arts in Minneapolis and about its immediate prospects in the current times and near future.

In short order, Robinson asked whether there were inflated expectations for large Minneapolis arts organizations as a consequence of the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of expansion many of them have undergone in the past five years. (Some panelists admitted there has, indeed, been some tension and growing pains in the wake of recent redevelopment.) Robinson also asked about the potential for large locally-based businesses—which have given tons of corporate money to support these expansions—to exert undue influence on arts programming at the organizations on the receiving end of their largesse. (Most panelists sidestepped the question, instead arguing about the relative merits of “blockbuster” shows. I feel compelled to point out here that I suggested evidence of such corporate influence on arts programming was already beginning to emerge in an essay I wrote more than two years ago.) Robinson—again, to her credit—pressed the point, asking if the panelists’ organizations ever worry about “selling out” in the wake of their recent expansions (which the panelists again, for the most part, side-stepped). Then, she followed up with a question about whether the small organizations in town have suffered from competition with the large institutions (ole!).

As the discussion progressed toward its conclusion, and these expert panelists became less and less able to answer the hard questions about the struggles of the larger art community in Minneapolis, I could tell that Robinson was beginning to circle the truth. When she asked about the financial challenges facing the arts community in the current economy and, specifically, about whether the big organizations had contingency plans to deal with the difficult fiscal realities of the times, the panelists all—to a person—gave grudging nods. “We talk a lot about it,” admitted Vergne. “It’s a very constraining moment…. We’ve been much fatter in the past, but at the moment we are on Weight Watchers.” The other panelists spoke about the various ways that their organizations have been readjusting their activities to cope with declining support and increased costs, even as they grapple with the high expectations that a tapped art public has for these highly visible (and expensive) institutions. Then Vergne continued: “We have to change the way we operate and change our rules of engagement. If we don’t, we become dinosaurs and die.”

And so, the curtain had at last been lifted, revealing a reality beyond our blind faith in the region’s art supremacy. Now, perhaps, a real discussion can begin.

Addendum re: Minneapolis’ Failing Arts Future (June 24): The New York Times noted today that the Dia Foundation has announced the hiring of noted Minneapolis arts booster Philippe Vergne to take over directorship of the struggling foundation. Vergne’s departure marks the fifth high-profile Minneapolis arts leader to leave the city within the past year. Others include former Walker director Kathy Halbreich and chief curator Richard Flood, state arts board director Tom Proehl, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts director William Griswold.

Some arts organizations in Boston recently, on January 13, staged a “die-in” in response to a report on the arts economy of Boston published by the Boston Foundation. Called “Vital Signs,” the report, which was released on December 19, suggested that the directors of “struggling arts groups” should perhaps be seeking “exit strategies.” According to the study, while large institutions such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Museum of Fine Arts remain healthy, smaller groups are “losing audience and struggling to balance their budgets.” The Foundation suggests that an organization “whose vision has either dissipated or lost its resonance with its audience or supporters” should consider shutting down.

Apparently, at the “die-in,” which took place in an alternative gallery space in Cambridge, a self-proclaimed group of “artyrs” drank Kool-Aid as a symbolic protest to the report. According to Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers, leaders of Boston’s small arts organizations had a lot to say to the Boston Foundation.

“The report takes a very naive position in the end,” said Jurgen Weiss, executive director of Snappy Dance Theater. “What I take from it is, ‘Look, here are these big organizations. They’re big. So they must be good. And all these small organizations are having trouble keeping afloat. So by some kind of Darwinian process some of them should die off.’ ”

Kathy Bitetti, an installation artist who heads the Artists Foundation, [said]:

“They don’t fund us, they never have, and they have no sense of who we are… Unfortunately I think this report does more harm than good. They’re looking at a corporate model. Instead of spending money on these reports, they could actually be funding organizations.”

Kristin Tillotson, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this past weekend made mention of a little essay I wrote on artistic competition for (local site) mnartists.org. It’s a small mention–so small I completely missed it when I read the paper on Sunday and had to have it pointed out to me–but nontheless it’s complimentary of my work, describing it thusly:

[Mnartists.org posts] Features, forums, podcasts and the like [that] range from obtuse to interesting (Michael Fallon’s honest piece on the role that jealousy and competitiveness play in artists’ relationships, under “Behind the Scenes.”)

For those of you who missed the original essay, and I know there are a few of you poor souls out there–here it is in its original form.

On Artistic Competition

October 8, 2007
Michael Fallon

Is the art world necessarily a dog eat dog place? Does reputation mean more than substance? What drives artists to do what they do? Michael Fallon’s essay for Monica Sheets’ Jerome Fellows project has thoughts about this–respond in the Articles Forum.

ARTISTS AND ART LOVERS OFTEN CREDIT COLLABORATION as a prime driver of creative expression. But if one examined the actual record of artistic accomplishment, one would find that togetherness and cooperation aren’t a very common spur to artistic efforts. Rather, artists often are driven in their creativity by baser impulses: jealousy, vindictiveness, competitiveness, even pure hatred.

Call it “creative differences” if you will, but head-to-head battles abound in art history. Vincent Van Gogh brandished a razor at Paul Gauguin in the south of France. Pablo Picasso got along with few other artists. Paul Cezanne denounced his childhood friendship with Emile Zola, after the author published a novel loosely based on Cezanne’s life. Jackson Pollock broke with his teacher and mentor Thomas Hart Benton, saying the elder artist’s teachings at best gave him something to rebel against. And James Turrell broke from his friend Robert Irwin, shrugging off several intriguing months of joint experiments on sensory deprivation.

One of my favorite artists, the celebrated French classicist Jacques-Louis David, could be the patron saint of artistic competition. Not only did he fight with nearly every artist of his time—including several former students, whom he deemed ungrateful to their former master—but he throve on contention and competition, fostering it in his atelier by positioning his students like chess pieces placed at varying proximity to him. The artistic spirit of many a student of David was broken after jockeying to be shown at the annual Paris Salon (as a student of David) or to be that year’s recipient of the Prix de Rome. I often wonder how many young artists throughout history have given up on art after having to deal with such bitter competition.

THOUGH TIMES HAVE CHANGED, THE HONEST ARTIST KNOWS that competitiveness, jealousy, and backbiting abound even now in the art world. Artists feel it when an artist “friend” receives a grant award that they themselves applied for, when fellow artists organize a show or other opportunity but don’t include them, or when word comes back around about some artist friend’s sniping about their work.

This touchiness is understandable. Art is a tough thing to pull off in the world we have made for ourselves, overrun with pointless distractions and ambivalent about beauty created by hand. The artist’s practice is often thankless and tense. Grants, exhibition opportunities, sales and other patronage are hard for any artist to procure, especially when so many fellows are scrambling to dip into the small pool of support. The inevitable rejection faced day after day by the striving artist is an almost certain recipe for existential crisis.

As a critic I have had a microcosmic view of the local artistic foot-race. I’ve seen home-grown artists scramble to position themselves in proximity to certain trends and fashions and in opposition to others. It can seem that the order of the day among local artists is: You’re in my camp, or you’re an enemy.

As a result of my attempts to call this race and position the racers in relation to the National Art Derby, I’ve been called “negative” and “bitter” (and worse) at times for words I’ve written and also—for the very same review—been taken to task by an artist for being too positive about his rivals. Furthermore, I’ve known artists locally who were friends with each other twenty-five years ago, who now could not stand to be in the same room. I’ve seen gallerists court artists with talk of bringing their work to their fabulous new space who eventually grow bitter from dealing with artist demand and run off into the night issuing curses and blame at everyone who contributed to the gallery’s failure.

NONE OF THESE STRUGGLES ARE UNIQUE TO MINNESOTA; they are conditions inherent in the stressful pursuit of art across the country. Still, based on what I know of other places I can say there is one particular point of struggle that makes this place different. This is the air of contention that surrounds competition for the direct artist grants given each year by three major charitable foundations in this state—the Bush Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation.

This money, of course, is generous and unusual in this country, especially for an art market of our middling size. But the opportunity that this money and exposure gives to individual artists becomes toxic and jealousy-inducing.

Artists who have been turned down for one of these grants—and a great many fantastic local artists have never won a single one of them—likely think pretty much the same bitter thought when rejected: My art is better than, or at least as good as, what was granted, so why didn’t I win? And this is true whether or not the artists are aware that the jurying process for the grants is subjective, with very human jurors who will often appreciate some art more than other for capricious reasons. Even more disturbing than the universal sour grapes among the non-granted, nearly every artist I know who has been fortunate enough to receive one of these grants almost immediately forgets his or her good fortune and begins plotting even more intently to go after the next batch of grants.

The final irony is, despite the poisonous jealousy and competition that comes from these annual scrambles for the fleeting cash trophies of foundation grants in Minnesota, no one single artist—I’m guessing—would propose that we do away with the grants. If I suggested, for instance, that we pool all this money and divide it equally among anyone and everyone who made art in the state during a given year—yielding each artist at best an annual award of perhaps $5.40—I’d no doubt be laughed out of the room. And rightly so. No artist would give up the slim chance of hitting a career-validating lottery—taking in a cool $20K or even $40K—for the sure shot at such paltry chump change.

In the arts the very air of competition is what drives artists to continue striving. Artists want to become the chief alpha dog of art. That’s the big prize—to struggle mightily but in the end to triumph. The art race can seem as much a draw to artists as the making of art.

In the end, while we all know that hypercompetitive fields, like art, can create a world of hurt, frustration, and disappointment, we also know that such an atmosphere is preferable to the opposite. It’s natural for artists to imagine what cannot be—a world in which nastiness could be kept in check, where everyone could help each other to get ahead in an arts-ambivalent world, and in which collaboration and harmony brings us all together. It’s a natural wish, but both impossible and undesirable—in the same way as a freezer full of vanilla ice cream would be a waste of space.

Competition and contention often yield good things, and in art these factors may be necessary to guarantee each succeeding generation strives to surpass the previous one. After all, two of the students of Jacques-Louis David who faced much of the master’s fiercest scrutiny, Antoine-Jean Gros and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, survived to become two of the most prominent artists of the age that followed David.

Every artist should remember these two figures the next time they feel so frustrated or jealous that they want to chuck their brushes and paints in the proverbial river. No victory or award ever went to the competitor who gave up the fight.

Competition may be, in the end, an evil that is essential to the moving insights of art.