Yokelism with your wallet out
Post #1470 • March 25, 2010, 11:15 AM • 107 Comments
Dushko Petrovich, who has the coolest name of any art writer in America, wrote an essay for the Globe entitled How to start an art revolution: A manifesto for Boston.
That alternative [to New York] would be a community more on a European model, where universities, museums, and other public institutions — including the government, which can help with health care and rent stabilization — combine to encourage a different, less market-dependent approach to creating art. Without ignoring the art market, Boston could position itself as a place to engage it more inventively, providing a much-needed haven for less commercial and more experimental work that pushes culture forward. Instead of (badly) imitating New York, Boston could provide a counterpoint: a well-considered sanctuary for artists to develop at a less frenzied pace, carefully harnessing the city’s wealth of tradition to the perennial strength of its youth.
Politically we're on entirely different footing here, but some of his ensuing suggestions are good ones: a satellite space for the geographically remote (by Boston standards) ICA, study centers around town for Museum of Fine Art holdings, debt elimination (in other words, scholarships equal to tuition) in art degree programs. I also happen to agree with him that Boston is poised for greatness; it's one of the reasons I was drawn here. On the other hand, the world needs another MFA program, even one at Harvard, like a hole in the head. And rent control? Really? What renders artistic types so wholly immune to basic economics? Speaking of economics, commenter columbogal mentioned a wee problem I've heard about before:
The reason there are no galleries is because Bostonians do not PURCHASE art. For the most part it's a family-centered town and it's usually single people with disposable income who buy art (we're not talking collectors here). Students don't count, they have no money. That's why the art scene thrives in towns like LA and NY with lots of singles and lots of extra cash.
We operated a gallery on Newbury [Street], a start-up from 1996-2000. In the beginning we had many successful shows but towards the end shows with beautiful work that produced no sales for the artists. No art scene can flourish in a town where the people do not buy art. We featured work of students of many local Universities and Art Schools and never received a word of support from any of their institutions. No support was ever forthcoming from the Boston Globe, the Mayor's office of cultural affairs or the Back bay Association though we did receive lots of requests to donate money or pay higher and higher taxes. In the end the golden goose was killed by greed. The art scene is lost and Newbury Street is a commercial shell of its original self.
The article's subtitle, "A manifesto for Boston," may not have been one of the author's choosing, but it's a shame to not cite previous recent work by Greg Cook on this selfsame topic in the form of a series of Yokelist Manifestos. (Scroll down while looking over the left sidebar for the Yokelism header.) Yokelism is Greg's charming coinage and he deserves full credit for both the term and the approach. But even Greg's excellent suggestions don't include a solution to the problem of Bostonians not buying art, and I tend to think that other measures will be largely palliative until that problem is solved. And so...
One: The plural of anecdote is not data. Until someone does proper market research on who is buying how much of what and why, there's no way to come up with an informed strategy to increase the numbers of who, the size of how much, and the reasons why. This effort is quite beyond the scope of my paltry abilities, but with all the schools in the region, and consequently all the business programs, it seems like a little bit of coordination could give a group of eager students an opportunity to make an important contribution to local cultural knowledge.
Two: There are about the same number of visual art venues in the six-state New England region as there are in Los Angeles County, as I found out by counting them in the annual guide that Art in America puts out. This makes concentrated art-viewing less of an evening out and more of a day trip or overnight excursion, as our man Smee demonstrated a couple of weeks ago. Mere findability is an unsolved problem. Openings outside of Boston should probably occur less often and include hotel and dining deals. Imagine an art outing to North Adams and Williamstown that included a sweet offer to stay at The Porches and eat at Mezze.
Three: As Greg has noted, the galleries have been getting shaken up or wiped out at a surprising rate over the last couple of years. Meanwhile, Boston in particular and New England in general have an unusual number of studio collectives: Brickbottom, Fort Point, South End, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Hyde Park, Somerville, and probably dozens more. This returns an unusual amount of control over career concerns to the artists, where it rightfully belongs, but it also guarantees that purchasing activity and criticism are never going to align in a way that causes one to fuel the other. It may be that this is a better town for independent curating than dealing. Instead of trying to sustain a store, independent curators could make a name for themselves by staging short exhibitions in temporary venues, which would allow for commensurately shorter-lived financial obligations between all the parties concerned, less risk of disaster, and probably just as much benefit to reputations and careers for both the curators and the artists as would be generated by normal gallery exhibitions. Perhaps the recently liberated Maya Allison could blaze a trail here.
Four: Boston has an unusually rich concentration of people who work in technological media, enough to support the Boston Cyberarts Festival, Axiom Gallery, Art Technology New England, Willoughby & Baltic, and a chapter of Dorkbot among others. It also has an unusually rich concentration of technology businesses. Artists, meet your patrons. ATNE could go a long way towards setting those connections up.
Five: Creators in the region are making important contributions to the art of comics and illustration. The amount of talent circulating around the Boston Comics Roundtable and Trees and Hills is awe-inspiring. We also have the Xeric Foundation and the Center for Cartoon Studies here. The author of the whole Diary of a Wimpy Kid enterprise lives in lovely little Plainville, MA. We have the Eric Carle Museum. The whole Fort Thunder/Hive Archive/Dirt Palace phenomenon that came out of Providence has made an indelible mark on the local art history. Much of this work comes in at student-friendly price points and wins attention far outside the usual circles of art criticism. Curators and critics should recognize this as an important property of the region's art making, and cover, collect, and curate it accordingly.
Six: As far as Google is concerned the only young collectors' group in Boston is sponsored by the Copley Society. This is a big, unrealized opportunity for the museums and/or private parties to cultivate new collectors.
Seven: Learn basic economics, for crying out loud. Bostonians, and everyone else, will buy art if they see something they like and can afford. To think otherwise is to succumb to anecdote. Don't idly wish for philanthropy and state intervention - make something great and get it out there.