Archive for the The Art Happy Hour Category

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

The Art Newspaper this past week has proclaimed that “speculation in young artists” is ending in the wake of economic worldwide meltdown.

The effect? I suspect that it will hurt the smaller galleries that sell emerging or non-blue-chip art the most. I suspect, but don’t follow it closely enough to say for sure, that it will also happen sooner or later with Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern art markets as well… It’s been kind of like buying internet stocks—and we know how that ended. With the high prices for younger art “established” by a speculative market where can they go, relative to demand, but down? But galleries never lower their primary prices, so these works will sit in gallery storage racks—with zero revenue-flow for non-brand name dealers. I call this the death spiral for art: sinking prices and sinking demand.

Is there a silver lining in the midst of this gloomy forecast?

Perhaps a return to the importance of museums, critics and alternative spaces for validation and the introduction of new art.

Hm. A return to the importance of critics? That doesn’t sound so bad… (Except where are these critics going to publish their writing?)

Meanwhile…

On a completely different note, please come to the Art Happy Hour this Sunday, October 19, at 9 pm at the Red Stag Supper Club. (Art Happy Hour is the only true antidote to America’s ongoing Artistic Failure!)

Today’s edition of the Bullet Points of Failure (B.P.O.F.) gives up following, for now, all the local artistic hand-wringing that has of late been something of a preoccupation. Instead, today I strive to expand both inward and outward by bullet-pointing a few personal issues, as well as a few national ones.

  • On my other (yin) blog–about happiness and sunshine and art and drinks all around–I wrote a piece nearly a month ago (yikes! I’ve got to update that blog!) about the Nature of Happiness (and its Connection to Art). My motivation was responding to the artists who had been complaining about changes to a local artists exhibition program. I quoted former NEA chair Bill Ivey who suggested that art is best when not deemed a career-building enterprise, but instead is seen as “a way to pursue self-realization without forcing us to deny the materialist and competitive drives that pass for human nature in the West…” (See www.arthappyhour.com for more of Ivey’s thoughts).
  • Perhaps inspired by these two points, an alert reader, Louis Allgeyer, wrote the note below (which alerted me of a recently published Peter Schjeldahl review, which I hadn’t seen, that touches–much more eloquently–on notions put forward in my recent writing):

    admin/M.F.

    Down towards the end of your nature of happiness piece you sort of ponder,where is it all going art-wise, which I think many do. Esp artists themselves, so that they can jump on the-next-big-thing (just like a stock
    broker). Esp artists who are tired of their usual self-gratification that isn’t gratifying and isn’t art.

    I hope you read the article “feeling blue,” by the other great midwestern art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, in the august 4th New Yorker magazine ( a swimmers head on the cover). He also seems to be having similar ponderings and seems to think he may see ( in a much bigger picture than the little show he is reviewing ) a “fashion auditioning as a sea change.” He goes on to predict what the next-big-thing might be, if history is any guide and if, “our particular civilization is (not)spent.”

    Naturally I like it because my stuff falls right in line so I am gratified.

    Anyhoo, I think it is an important bit journalism.

    Louis Allgeyer

  • Finally, Schjeldahl’s review–of “After Nature,” currently up at the New Museum in New York--is itself well worth bullet-pointing. He says the show “proposes a saturnine new direction in art…. Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.)”

    And he continues: “the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success… Existentialist standards of authenticity may be back in force, however fleetingly. How much can we bear of art that, like Sebald’s writing, glories in bottomless malaise? I expect we’ll find out.

    You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap. I think of Picasso’s world-weary blue period, T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” and “Prufrock,” and the budding Abstract Expressionists’ wallows in Jungian mythology. The syndrome announces the exhaustion of a received cultural situation, whose traditions are slack and whose future is opaque. It typically entails nostalgia for real or fancied past ages that dealt—successfully, in retrospect—with similar crises.

    Viva la artistic failure!

I’m just back from a whirlwind trip to Pittsburgh to check out the 2008 Carnegie International, and I’ve also been scrambling to get a few projects done this week, so I’ve been unable to post to CAFA for the past week. To make up for this recent blog-lull (blull?), below are a few quick Bullet Points of Failure for June–this miserable month of miserably (so far) gloomy weather.

  • Last night, at a dreary-wet, underattended Art Happy Hour (my side-project designed to counterbalance the constant depressive pull of failure from this site), I got to speaking with a local artist named Jim. He’d just come back to live in Minneapolis, where he is from, after spending five years teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is, it seems, a regular reader of CAFA (the first I’ve ever met, actually), so we got to talking about failure and local art, and he said something brilliantly perceptive: “Here’s what I think about Minneapolis now that I’ve been away and come back: I’ve never been in a place filled with so many brilliant, capable, and creative people who are going nowhere.”
  • I didn’t realize this at the time, but back in November, 2007–about the time I was starting up this blog on artistic failure–a Carnegie Mellon University art professor started The Museum of Modern Failure, as a project for a class called “Art in Context.” The idea was to celebrate people’s personal failures, and the “museum” was a black wall on which people post a wide range of “failures”: whether technological (the Hindenburg, the Titanic), unpopular inventions (Segway, Firestone tires, Comanche helicopters, the DeLorean), cultural flops (Milli Vanilli, Ebonics, the mullet), or so on. The concept was suggested by student Rachael Brown, a 22-year-old creative-writing major. She noticed that the store that would come to house the museum, located at 2628 E. Carson St., had a “history of failure… The most recent failure was Bookends, a used computer store operated by the adjacent Goodwill, where old Epsons and educational CD-ROMs had failed to keep the business afloat. ‘I just find it really humorous that blunders aren’t what we celebrate in museums, just big successes,’ Brown explain[ed].” In a perfect coda to the project, the temporary museum close just shortly after it opened, in December of last year.
  • My review of the Carnegie International, as well as a long Q&A-style interview with its curator Douglas Fogle, went live on another new side-project of mine–a blog of visual arts writing on the Rakemag.com site called The Thousandth Word. I didn’t realize it until later, but my take on this big blockbuster international survey exhibition reflected something about the clouds of failure that hang over these times:
  • The best work in the 2008 Carnegie International reflects intimate, eccentric, often uncertain moments even as it hints at deeper and vast problems in the society. This is art of the resigned, pitiful shoulder-shrug variety, not of the noisy (and perhaps useless) hammer-thud variety–such as what was on display in such blustery recent shows as, say, the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Many of the personal and intimate gestures of these artists are designed, in fact, to spill out over from the private mind into a public realm, perhaps like pond ripples or a zen butterfly’s wings flapping or other suitable metaphor.

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