January 5, 2010

Lookin' For Love In All Wrong Places

Last night on very short notice, I went to "Running for Cover(age), A panel discussion on arts criticism in the DC area," organized by the Washington Project for the Arts. Here are the impetus and content of the discussion in a nutshell:

The Rubells have a Morris Lapidus-designed hotel in SW DC that they've been working to turn from ghetto-sketchy-by-the-freeway to edgy-hip.

A few years back, they bought a Dan Steinhilber sculpture at the WPA benefit auction, and he became suddenly/locally famous.

This year, the WPA asked Mera Rubell to select artists for its auction.

Instead of guaranteeing a big auction haul and a little more glamour by importing art world hotness, she decided to find work by visiting DMV [DC, Virginia, Maryland, it always confuses me] artist studios en masse.

The WPA received 200 applications. For studio visits. To donate art to a benefit.

[Slightly less dramatic pause/update: Adam from WPA emailed to clarify that donor artists receive half the proceeds of the work sold at the benefit auction, so it's not a straight-up, NY-style call for donations. Duly noted.]

36 were chosen at random, and a 36-hr marathon was mapped out.

Entourages were assembled.

Visits were documented [by my photographer neighbor Jenny Yang, as it turns out].

Feature writers were pitched. Kriston Capps wrote about it for Art in America. The Washington Post's gallery reviewer Jessica Dawson did a big cover story titled, Collector Mera Rubell makes rounds of Washington's isolated artists."

Facebook Arguments broke out on Facebook: did the Post/Mera mean what they said, because it really hurts our [sic] feelings, doesn't she/they love us?: "What do you mean, 'isolated?'" "I thought I was working hard enough?" "So I should talk about my work with my dealer?" "What if I move to New York?"

Which discussion was hastily converted into a real-life support group/town hall in a panel discussion format, held in the lounge at the Rubell's hotel.

The panel was three freelance art writers and an artist/blogger/professor. Two other panelists have blogs, too; the third is an anti-blogging editor-turned-art history grad student. One panelist, Jeffry Cudlin, is an artist/blogger/freelancer and curator of a local arts center.

Many in the audience appeared to be freelancers and/or worked at local arts non-profits and/or arts centers.

Everyone wants "community," and "dialogue," which boils down to attention.

Which is especially visceral for an artist, something which Mera is well aware of, and whatever else may be said or thought about her, it must be acknowledged that Mera is intensely, obsessively engaged with looking at art.

But in last night's ersatz discussion, the role of attention was played by writing.

I heard no local commercial gallery presence, and only the intermittent reference to selling work, so I think the arts center/non-profit/alternative space paradigm of "community" prevails.

Which means writing as a generator of foot traffic, not necessarily as a generator of discussion or its MFA cousin, discourse.

Despite this warm-bodies-in-a-gallery focus, comparisons were constantly made to Chelsea, which seems inapt and non-applicable in many ways.

From an artist-making-art perspective, DC is fundamentally a local/regional situation.
The large number of museums, the confluence of federal/national/civic art organizations and the international cultural/diplomatic community may complicate or obscure this fact, but they don't change it.

DMV's international and national components went entirely unmentioned last night. But to the extent these entities bring art to show--and more importantly, artists to work--to DC, they can contribute significantly to the quality of the area's art experience.

[A regionalist counter-example, though, is music, where DC seems more analogous to other strong sites of production like Atlanta or Baltimore. President Obama's professed love of keepin' it real notwithstanding, hip-hop artists in DC seem to have no problem embracing and leveraging their marginalization from the general populace and media.]

Back to art, Carmen Herrera is only the most recently prominent example of getting into the Hirshhorn by obsessing over her work, not over getting into the Hirshhorn. [Her example went unmentioned last night, btw.]

Closer to home, Anne Truitt is a DC artist whose Hirshhorn retrospective was hailed and discussed in Artforum. That's 15+ years after her Baltimore retrospective, and 35+ years after her Corcoran show. And 5 years after her death.

But though local gallerists and collectors supported it early on, no writer championed her work. It was historians and curators outside DC. And artists who looked at her work and practice and writing and example.

Two writer/editors on the panel, Kriston and Danielle, both frankly acknowledged the limits of their own interests: for them to write, something needed "a hook" or to "be sexy." Kriston said flat out that supporting the scene or "community" was not his responsibility. This is fair, honest, and generally correct.

And yet people seem to expect/crave more from the Washington Post. It just makes no sense.

As I said last night, the Washington )#$%ing Post has absolutely no critical credibility with anyone in the art world outside of DMV. And it should be obvious from last night, too, that many people in DC feel the same way.

The Post's sole impact is to generate some awareness and foot traffic among the art-sympathetic non-enthusiasts in the region.

For an arts center, this might be somewhat important, but there are many more viable, longer-term, more stable ways to build a community than through the vagaries of headlines.

For a rigorous, critically engaged artist, I'd argue that the work itself should be vastly more important than the co-workers at your dayjob seeing your name in the Post.

This goes for other types of artists, too, including those for whom art is primarily a self-expressive means for connecting with others. Other, better, tools for connecting now exist.

After the discussion, I became excited to see more art made in DC.

But even the relentless self-promoters last night thwarted my basic efforts. The Arlington Arts Center looks the most promising, but there are next-to-no info or images on their website. [clarification, there are some, they're just buried and hard to find. The catalogue for last summer's show, "Paradox Now," (PDF) is particularly excellent. Thanks, Jeffry.] The passionate woman from the Rockville, MD showing the outstanding art? Uh, actually, you showed children's book illustration and amateur landscape photography, and your website has kids making gingerbread houses on it. You are in a no-doubt-vital-but-completely-different business than Transformer, which has a highly credible alternative/contemporary program, and which and shouldn't give a damn about not being covered by vapid party picture magazines. And yet.

And so. The collective agreement was reached, if not acknowledged, that more serious writing about the art in DMV is needed and wanted, at least by the people in the room.

People writing intelligently and passionately about art happening here.

Passionately, because there is no money to be had. The best line of the night was one freelancer calling out the anti-blogging-for-free freelancer/panelist on the Washington Post Express blurbwriting they both do. "It's ho' work, and you and I both know it!"

Kriston didn't mention it last night, but his tweet about launching a new GWU class-anchored DC art mag in January" suddenly makes more and less sense.

I'm sure the price will be right, but I'm not sure that a knot of GW undergrads can produce better criticism than the Post, and that's a pretty low *(#$%ing bar.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: January 5, 2010.

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