Archive for the The art world is its own worst enemy Category

If you thought the news hasn’t been bad enough for the arts over the past few years, that was before the culture brought out the salt.

Consider item one: The amendment that was supposed to dedicate a portion of a dedicated sales tax to support the arts in Minnesota gets coopted by rich organizations of an, at best, nebulous artistic nature. This includes greedy history centers, a zoo, a public television station, and a juggernaut public radio empire (all of whom, unlike true arts organizations, have armies of lobbyists at their disposal).

Then, it is announced, some of the nation’s leading artistic organizations are announcing bad news. Many of these venerable institutions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and other key components of the culture industry in New York City — lost between 30 and 50 percent on the value of their endowments in 2008. The main reason? Overly agressive investment strategies:

Endowment asset allocations [in recent years] moved away from the safety of fixed-income instruments, such as high-grade bond funds, to the volatility of domestic and foreign equities and even to “alternative investments,” such as distressed debt and venture-capital equity. This investment strategy paid luxuriantly during the good times, resulting in bloated budgets and massive expansions. Yet with only quarterly meetings, arts boards proved too slow to navigate away from the hazardous investments once the bad times began. In short, arts organizations adopted bad habits.

In the wake of the recently announced demise of VACUM, the Art Newspaper posted a story on the forced death march facing arts journalism. Here’s some key info:

Arts journalism as we used to know it is sinking with the ship…. The problem is that the cuts [to newspapers] are deepening an already miserable shortage of resources, set against a cultural universe that continues to expand [emphasis mine]. We are past the tipping point: it has become acceptable to run a paper with just a skeletal culture staff. Specialised writers are giving way to generalists. Culture sections are being tossed overboard (standalone book review sections, in particular, are a dying breed). Article lengths and “news holes” (space for editorial content) are shrinking. All this has eviscerated newspapers’ ability to deliver quality arts coverage, which, as a result, must migrate elsewhere…. Many experts believe that daily newspapers will never find a way back to sustaining solid arts journalism. Magazines are doing marginally better, but they cannot shoulder the burden of timely local arts coverage, especially for non-specialist readers — and some are folding.

None of this is a surprise to me, of course. Whereas I once had no problem finding home to 30+ yearly articles (even as I struggled to keep up on a dayjob) in local and national magazines, newspapers, newsweeklies, and online magazines, this has for the most part gone away in the past year. Most of these formerly welcoming venues have folded or been forced to cut back their space for arts writing. In fact, I’m back to writing almost solely for the first publication that was brave and daring enough to accept my very first review back in 1997. This is less of a tragedy for me than it sounds. While I’ve enjoyed writing about and supporting local art, it has not been without its hassles. And arts writing has never been much of a money-making venture.

This downturn in fact has given me freedom to evolve. I’ve been dabbling this past few months — ever since my most recent online magazine venture folded for budgetary reasons — with other writing forms: poetry, journalism, essays, fiction, memoir,… not to mention my eccentric and self-absorbed blogging (blogging, BTW, seems to be what the Art Newspaper pins all future hopes, even as it acknowledges that a general lack of funding for the practice keeps it marginal and ephemeral).

What’s perhaps the only unfortunate thing about this death of arts writing is the effect of the decline of attention being paid (not just by me, but by other writers across the board) to local artists. As the article hints, cultural production continues to expand even as less public attention is paid to it. As evidence, I note that today I am receiving more notices from artists — in the mail, via email, on Facebook, etc — than I ever have. Artists seem increasingly desperate for someone to notice them.

Alas, poor artists. In response to all your notices, emails, and public interruptions, all I can say is: Sorry. I can’t respond to your art, at least not in any official published way, but hey, that’s the way it goes.

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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

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

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.

While I haven’t been the most active poster over the past three weeks, I have been following one story carefully (and collecting multiple links on it)–i.e., The Meltdown of the Current Art Market. For your enjoyment, then, I’ve put together a Cavalcade of Links tracking the falling fortunes of the art market over the last month:

  • Tapped Out? (Big New York Auction Houses Brace for a Slower Dance at the Fall Sales), New York Times, October 26
  • Our False Oracles Have Failed, We Need a New Vision to Live By (Huge financial success has hidden the moral bankruptcy in our civilisation, we must rediscover our lost values or perish), London Times, October 30

And, my very favorite link of all:

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.

Mary Abbe of the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s been busy of late. She’s the source of two of today’s Bullet Points of Failure (B.P.O.F.), both of which follow up on items I’ve been covering here on CAFA in recent weeks.

  • In Anxious artists’ fears quelled, protest averted with attorney’s answers, Abbe writes to follow up on the MAEP kerfuffle. Apparently, on July 24 a group of artists attended the MIA’s annual members meeting, attempting to mount a protest, only to see it wither “under the weight of parliamentary procedure… Board president Brian Palmer, a Minneapolis lawyer, defused the situation by answering each question with judicial precision and disquisitions on the museum’s legal responsibilities. The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program will continue unchanged and independent, he said. Questioners would need to ask the program’s coordinator why he resigned voluntarily if they wished to know.” And thus spaketh the passionate crowd.
  • In SOS: Same old struggles at the MMAA, Abbe reports further on a story reported here previously, the resignation of Bruce Lilly, the director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. “The resignation last week of Bruce Lilly,” she wrote, “the museum’s director for 11 years, highlights the St. Paul institution’s long-festering problems. Museum officials put a brave face on the situation, insisting that the organization would find a new leader, new quarters and more money. ‘It’s not easy, but the staff here is up to the challenge,’ said Natalie Obee, the museum’s business manager, who who stepped in as interim executive director.” Apparently, the museum has had a long cycle of debt–including an estimated deficity of $260,000 in 2007, on an annual budget of about $700,000–and is facing the loss of its current space (the second time it’s faced a move in the past five years).

On Tuesday, the Star Tribune announced, in a story titled “Upheaval continues at the MIA,” that yet another local arts leader, Stewart Turnquist, has resigned. Turnquist was particularly supportive of, and beloved by, the great mass of local visual artists. He was known for his calm demeanor, diplomatic nature, and ability to keep a program vibrant despite ongoing institutional attacks and growing lack of board support.

Here’s what Strib arts writer Mary Abbe had to say of this news:  “The departure of Turnquist, coordinator of the artist-run Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), signals continuing turmoil at the institute where management has been in upheaval the past five years. In that time, it has had three directors and lost at least seven curators and top administrators to other jobs, retirement or death… As word of his imminent departure leaked out Tuesday, artists worried that it signaled the end of the MAEP program, the state’s most prominent showcase for Minnesota talent.”

I came to know Stewart Turnquist well in my capacity as leader, between 2002 - 2005, of VACUM, a MN-based art critics association. He was instrumental in helping to set up a regular lecture series by our group at the MIA. A few years before I came to know Turnquist better, I described him thusly in a story about the organization he ran (the MAEP):

The meeting starts with opening comments by program coordinator Stewart Turnquist–a senior civil servant in this tumultuous democracy. He is a dapper and cheerful man–he reminds one of a favorite uncle–and has served as the program’s coordinator since early in 1977 (that is, for all but the program’s first year). “Hard to believe, but I’m your obedient servant,” Turnquist begins, after introducing the other members of the MAEP support staff (who are all employed by the MIA): program associate Randall, and program assistant Karen Harstad. He then launches into an hourlong, homespun slide-show recap of the past fiscal year–a state of the union address, or perhaps a state of the art.

In 2005, I wrote about an internal kerfuffle at the MIA — involving a prominent local corporation (which I dub the “Bullseye” corp) — that may have eventually helped lead to Turnquist’s ouster at the institute. At that time, Bullseye Corp had intervened in the scheduling of MAEP shows (the first time such a thing had ever occurred) — pushing back one MAEP show, and extending another — so as not to mess with the timing of a Bible Art show that BE Corp was financing. “What’s most strange,” I wrote, ”is Bullseye Corp, perhaps actually believing the rhetoric of its own advertising (which positioned the Corp as a purveyor of “higher end” and “hip” product as opposed to just plain old run-of-the-mill trinkets and crap) suddenly seemed to be having a lot of influence on artistic decisions at the institution.”

I’ll also add that, a few years ago just after I returned to MN after a short stint away, Turnquist confided in me the on-going struggle he was having to keep hostile fringe agents at the MIA (in particular, meddling board members) from attempting to reign in, or even dismantle, the one-of-a-kind artist-run exhibition program (the MAEP) that he had led for more than 30 years. I’m sure Stewart was not surprised at his fate at the hands of those who are now steering the big art ship. Still, I feel for this great and gentle local arts warrior, and I wish him well with this blessing:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.