You are an Artist. You graduated from art college more than two years ago, but opportunities seem to be drying up, or at least are a bit chaotic. Occasionally local things come up, but you fear involvement with ‘community art’ will effect your credibility with the gallery system. You haven’t achieved gallery representation yet and you suspect you never will. And you’re probably right; research shows that two years on your chances are basically nil. You keep a studio, but it isn’t much more than a status symbol, you barely get there two days a week, what with your part-time job. You still call yourself an artist when you meet new people, but you are beginning to believe you have failed.
Zuidervaart sees things differently. He says that an Artist’s gifts have benefited from training in our Institutions. This creates a calling for all Artists to spend at least some of their time in the paid service of Civil Society, even if they have gallery representation. This is also appropriate because the greatest demand for art is located in Civil Society. Zuidervaart’s version makes sense of this situation by exposing the fact that Art in Public is extremely important and a more natural workplace for most contemporary artists coming out of art school; itself a Civil Society Institution. In fact Civil Society always needs more artists and provides opportunities encompassing local and national institutions. Zuidervaart also dismisses the notion that Civil Society is second-best to the private gallery system, it is more likely to be the other way round, even. This claim is a bit of a wake-up call when you consider how market obsessed Art Colleges have become. It is possible to graduate with a Fine Art MA without the slightest idea of the existence of anything outside the Contemporary Art Gallery System, despite the fact that it will deliver so few opportunities to their alumni. Zuidervaart offers a better standard against which to judge if you are an artist, than selling your art. Consumer choice isn’t especially good at ratifying good art. People often love art, even, that they wouldn’t consider taking home. And collecting art is very difficult. People quite rightly prefer public institutions they trust to collect art on their behalf.
Zuidervaart, instead, refers Artists to the concept of Relational Autonomy and asks them to hold their Autonomy in tension with their Social Responsibility. ‘Art in Public’ asks of us, are you capturing the public imagination to create solidarity, not mere sensation? Are you communicating in a way that simultaneously equips the audience to be able to speak?
Is your art turning conformity into solidarity?
At last! A definition of success that looks at your work, rather than your bank balance. It appears a little vague at first, but I think this partly explained by our dependence on economic qualifications, and also because it is a relational measure rather than an individualistic one. But then measurement is all about relativity.
Yet it won’t be an unqualified relief for artists to be measured against their work (in public), rather than the flow of their personal wellspring of genius or their proximity to the summit of the gallery system. An Artist in Public is thrown into a vortex of political and personal relationships. Artists can’t function like this alone, garret-bound; they need the support and mediation of Arts Organisations. You see Zuidervaarts argument suggests artists be paid for public work, not just for being artists. This satisfies the best of the arguments on the left and right in the States, one demanding public spirit, and the other autonomy. Robust Arts Organisations provide colleagues for an artist. They are essential because they:
- connect the artists with Civil Society groups and communities.
- make public money accountable, but also free from government interference
- give the work credibility as a cultural, non-economic, undertaking
Zuidervaart was president of the very impressive Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. A group begun by artists that included non-artist members. His experience helps him identify what makes for a good Arts Org:
- Involve local residents at every stage of the planning
- Democracy is messy and time-consuming, but yields the best long-term results
- Think globally; Act locally
- Artists shouldn’t be left on the margins, but involved in making a compelling vision
But to conclude, here are some of my own observations of assumptions we can make about Arts Organisations. First, we often assume that artists need to get together for mutual support, which may be helpful. But what Zuidervaart reveals is that this is unlikely to be where an artist achieves most. It is more important for Artists to be spread out and active amongst other citizens, where directly or indirectly their art can create solidarity.
We also tend to see Artists as charity cases, and Arts Organisations as a way of helping them. But the truth is that artists usually have the lowest commercial rents going. Often a fifth or tenth of what a design studio would be paying. There are certain aspects of an Artists work that could actually benefit from a dose of market forces. Exhibiting an Artist’s work in your building isn’t going to help them get a gallery unless you have a great touring reputation and a list of art collectors. What you have isn’t a gallery; it’s a room. What would really benefit an Artist is your purpose. A chance to discharge their responsibility as an artist towards Society with you.
Which leads to our last observation; we assume that Arts Organisations are organisations about art. Organisations to preserve art or make it happen. These do and should exist, but Arts Orgs often tackle a social agenda but are active through art. UICA is a non-profit organisation that ‘fosters’ art in public. They are a public gallery, workshop and film theatre. But their purpose was cultural regeneration of the downtown area. They didn’t want redevelopment at the expense of residents creating a heartless non-community. They wanted a resurrection. They wanted economic improvements accompanied by meaning and purpose, and artists provided that meaning and purpose.
Art in Public, Lambert Zuidervaart
Edited from a lecture I gave in 2013 recommending this book at a symposium on Sphere Sovereignty. The link above will help you buy this book.