Sunday, October 16, 2011

Art City in Name Only

To some this blog post might be a little too confrontational or controversial, especially if you are a resident of Asheville, like I am, and you hold on to some very unfounded ideas of what this city represents to artists, like I am, and you believe that that this city has carved itself a very nice and comfortable niche in the national artist community, which I wholeheartedly dispute. But since probably nobody pays attention or reads this blog anyway, I think that might as well justify my discontent with the situation present at this particular time, and that is the disconnect between the now almost mythological arts scene and the reality, which for the most of us is rather grim and not getting better.
Before I delve even deeper into this problem, let me qualify a few things in hopes that I might shed a light on what I am actually talking about in reference to “arts” and silence the possible criticism that may or may not be coming my way. By arts, I mean a subject and form of making and creating wholly separate from craft. Interestingly Ashevillians seem to disregard, or have forgotten that art and craft mean two totally different things. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same either. And as has been the norm and trend, the melding of art and craft has recently continued and effectively pushed real art toward the fringes. The emergence, or rather reemergence of decorative arts and rapid multiplication of design galleries in Asheville continues this trend to this day, more or less putting a knife into the wounds already perpetrated on the Asheville artist community. For those that have lived here long enough the situation seems eerily similar to what happened to the so called alternative community, which used to have its stronghold downtown on Lexington Avenue. Since the closing of Vincent’s Ear the gentrification of downtown became complete and the alternatives moved west, setting up shop downtown West Asheville and its neighborhoods. In the years that followed, even that downtown seems to be undergoing rapid change, possibly as unsustainable as the true downtown.
The river “arts” district fared no better. Once huge and affordable artist studios and alternative spaces, housing young and active emerging artists, gave way to weekend warrior landscape painters, encaustic and feel-good abstract hacks. Art with no ideas, no point or reference or content, but with lots of pseudo-emotion and “soul” took a high seat, partly because it could pay the ever rising rent, and displaced the original progressive thinking and challenging art coming from the young downtown bohemians. Conservatism seems to have found its place even in this artist community and continues to be propagated through a consortium of downtown gallery spaces.
To add insult to injury, a few months ago, the city attempted to ease some of the discontent that it started to perceive coming from the increasingly disenfranchised artist community by putting on a side show which they called the Creative Sector Summit. The name sounded great, but the truth was something far more insidious and telling of the situation on the streets. A friend of mine, who attended the summit, retold the experience in no uncertain terms. When he pressured some of the panelists on the issue of affordable studio space in Asheville he was told something to the effect of: “well, you’re creative people, I’m sure you can figure something out,” effectively kicking the can down the road and avoiding the challenge of a meaningful answer. The pattern of non-interest by those “at the top” mirrors in many ways that of the top 1% of Americans toward the bottom 99%. They have no problem taking from us what little we had, and when we ask for it back the response is a jaw-breaking yawn or downright hostility.
Many of us would probably like to gloss over this fact, but the sad truth is that in order to find challenging art, we have to go outside Asheville to get it. This would therefore be in keeping with another fact and that is that serious art magazines, publications and blogs do not cover our area, not for a lack of talent or sheer number of artists, but simply because the art on display here is utterly boring and categorical. And that is something that those at the top should really start thinking about. What does Atlanta have that Asheville does not? Or for that matter Charlotte? And how to implement those infrastructures they seem to posses? I was even more surprised that a cities like Knoxville , Greensboro, and Raleigh are more friendly to the young emerging artist than our supposedly hip town and give them more outlets and opportunities in forms of space and access to contemporary art. Ironically I left Raleigh in 2003 thinking I would get those here.
The problems seem widespread and maybe they are too far along for us to be able to affect any meaningful change. But maybe, just maybe I may be misreading the writing on the wall. Unfortunately I believe I’m right in reading the signs that Asheville hasn’t lived up to its name as an art city in which artists live and die by their swords. Most of them run away from battle, some choose to live a life of permanent destitution, or fold their weapons and join the ranks of the working class indentured servants or any combination thereof.


  1. It's a great town for hashing out creative ideas and there is a supportive social scene based around the visual arts. It is also relatively affordable and if you want to carve out time to make the work, it's easy to do so. But yes, sorely lacking in vibrant contemporary art venues, critical arts writing, stipends, dealers and collectors to stimulate emerging artists. There has been some improvement in the last 5 years and hopefully we will see more in the years to come.

  2. I don't quite understand why any self-respecting hippie, bohemian, or iconoclast would want to associate themselves with or look to the 'establishment' be it a city council or 'fat cat' gallery owner for a 'solution'. That's not their job!

    And it's the job of the bohemian or hippie to 'live outside of the conventions imposed by society' and seek their own solutions... march to their own drummer.

    I am an artist who lives in Mitchell County NC... surrounded by 100's of 'first rate' (albeit at times 'boring and predictable' studio craftspeople, all clustering about the Penland School of Crafts) who work and exhibit out of their homes... supported in part by the Toe River Arts Council's two galleries and the twice a year Studio Tour to over 100 participating studios in Mitchell and Yancey counties. Some of these artists also started (and some have left) the Asheville-based Ariel Gallery as an 'artist's cooperative'. Various communities in the Asheville area all have 'art walks' and 'art tours' similar to the TRAC events. I also know that there are art co-ops in the River Arts District that make it possible for artists to have quality space at minimum per person rents! Recently 2 other artists and myself got together and rented space at one of the RAD buildings... at a cost of $117/month each. Taking on a 4th person would make it even cheaper.

    Why not get a group of 'radical hippie artists' together and rent a studio as a group. Ten artists renting and TIME-SHARING a single studio would cost as little as $35 a month per person. Then you could form your own blog... your own facebook and twitter pages... and start promoting yourselves in very creative ways... by becoming friends with 1000's of local people who like art!

    You could also get a cheap pavilion and set up an 'open air' studio... maybe in the parking lot of a friendly business who is closed on weekends... and as a group do live 'painting demo's'... and then tweet and post your events to your followers/potential patrons.

    These are just some of the many possible solutions once you start looking!

  3. I don't consider myself a hippie artist, and the whole "free wheeling easy breezy hippie bohemian artist" is a tired stereotype that doesn't include any of the artists I know.

    At this point, most people have figured out how to find a space to make their work - that really isn't the problem.
    What is lacking is good critique around current trends in art making -- viable art shows and venues to inspire dialogue and push creative concepts.

    I don't agree with the statement: "It's the job of the bohemian or hippie to 'live outside of the conventions imposed by society' and seek their own solutions... march to their own drummer."

    I pay taxes and the sales of my work contributes to the vitality of the economy. I would rather not let everyone else suck up all my tax dollars for war and corporate welfare. I would love to see more libraries, better healthcare and more art grants for vital art projects, museums and theaters.

    The statement also implies that artists who accept funding are somehow less radical, or less authentic than those who don't apply for funding. But if you really crunch the numbers, and do an informal poll amongst your friends you might discover that many (if not all) have probably:

    • received a gov. grant or corporate grant in some form,
    • benefited from an organization that has
    • attended an event through an organization that has received funding from "the establishment"
    • enjoyed a radio station that receives funding
    • watched a tv channel that receives government funding
    • attended a school that has received government funding.

    and if they haven't they're either living totally off the grid or totally off a trust fund, which isn't an option for most people.

  4. Dear Ursula... I was speaking in a rather 'tongue in cheek' fashion, chiding the writer of this blog re his/her wanting the government to 'do it for them'... as 'historically' such a person was 'anti-establishment'... and so was his/her art, if not against the 'government', against the 'academy'.

    You make so many 'sweeping assumptions'! I am definitely for proper government use of tax payers money for anything, including art projects, grants, libraries, etc... and nothing I wrote suggested otherwise! I don't think that accepting a grant makes anyone more or less 'radical'!

    I also know that the art organizations I'm aware of or involved with get a lot of their funding via private donations of artwork from the participating artists followed by well-publicized auctions. Penland School of Crafts and TRAC both do this. Penland of course charges a lot of $$ for their classes... but also provides many many scholarships, both work and otherwise, to deserving students who can't afford the tuition.

    I only wrote, essentially, to point out that there are many many ways that an artist can provide very affordable or free venues for their work. For example, I took part in yesterday's 'City of 1000 Easels' event in Asheville... sponsored by the city... and had many tourists stop by and comment on what a cool city Asheville is.

    I just believe in the power of each individual to 'create their own reality' via their thoughts, words and deeds. "We" ARE the government... and we get to vote on who represents us, and to write to them, expressing our needs. We can also contact people in the media, and in corporations, if we want more participation from the private sector.

    As for having a government 'create' a critic.. if that is in deed part of what you meant?? That seems a bit far-fetched. However, you could write a letter to various local and regional media expressing your dissatisfaction with the status quo, as art criticism has always (except perhaps in Russia ;-P), been the province of the private sector.

    Cheer up! We do live in a free society which gets to vote... with our dollars and our ballot.

    I truly believe in the power of the people... meaning you and me... to create and to BE ... the change we want to see!


  5. I completely understand your point of view on this topic. I am an artist who transitioned into arts admin due to seeing the need for assistance from the establishment. As bad as that may sound to some artists, it’s a fact that the arts have always needed benefactors in one form or another.
    I presently work for the City in the division of Cultural Arts, although in no part of this post do I presume to speak on behalf of my position; I just want to let it be known from where I stand. I comment as an observer of the arts scene, as well as an artist & photographer.

    The issues you have mentioned have been some of the qualms of the Asheville artist community for years; however I have remained hopeful that Asheville could be a nest that lays an egg in the contemporary arts movement. The chemistry is almost perfect, but we're missing an ingredient & I don't know if it is something we can make up or is it altogether absent?

    Are artists just not networked properly thus missing the inspiration & collaboration necessary to reach new heights? Is it that we’re deficient in quality reception & critique of any significance? Or is the culprit a lack of funded, well thought out opportunities? I'm not really sure what is creating the void, it's probably a combination so no one thing alone can be a fix.

    To clarify one point- the City did not put on the Creative Summit. That was hosted by the Asheville Area Arts Council as deemed per the Downtown Master Plan. The City’s Cultural Arts division was present though & after the Superintendent introduced herself she asked the artists if they were aware of some of the opportunities we've provided to the community. Through a show of hands it could be estimated a quarter of the audience was aware of such opportunities; but when she asked how many artists submitted to the calls it was maybe a dozen people who raised their hands.

    Are Asheville artists just so loaded on Beer-City USA that we’re a land of lotus eaters too blissed out that we fail to examine critical thought & really connect ourselves to a whole other level of art & creation? There are so many possibilities that exist in the chance to be hyper-connected with people all over the world– sharing ideas, concepts, stories, cultures, & an overall sense of humanity without boarders. So why are artists of Asheville so disconnected to the major movements of contemporary art? [Or at least 3-5 years behind.] Not to mention, on the whole, we are pretty desperate for guidance into how to play on a major league field. Even if the quality of one's work is excellent, if you present it poorly it won’t amount to much.

    Maybe fault lies with venues & administrators. Like it or not, to make art you have to find a way to fund materials & your time; & you can only do that by: going into a mode of craft (functional decorative art), creating cookie-cutter themed art to be sold in high-priced galleries, or if you are trying to be experimental or try something new you’ll probably turn to grants & fellowships. We know there are many incredible crafter artisans in the region, as well as plenty of high quality themed artists, but where are the visionary artists of our community? There are a small handful of creative geniuses who walk amongst us & there are scores more of brilliant bright-eyed interesting creative types; but where is the motion or movement within this community?

    I don’t think our alternative scene in languishing, if anything it’s gaining ground & some credibility in this economic down-turn. Artists tend to create more than they consume & in the 21st century that is going to be a brilliant skill to possess. There are lot of things we could get down about if we wanted to tear at the pieces of this community, but why? Half the answer is knowing what question to ask. So let’s identify the weak links & force some change if necessary. The arts are a major component in the economic play of Asheville, & as we know, when money talks – people listen.

  6. Well, i'll tell you what. While i'm not sure i agree with you, GutterArtCritic, you've gained a 'follower' who wants to hear more of what you have to say - and you've prompted interesting dialog. So there's that...

  7. Thanks everybody for the thoughtful comments. I will agree with most of what's been said above and perhaps take things a bit further. Art criticism funded by the government directly is nonsense, but when it comes by way of a magazine that gets funding through grants, then there’s only one degree of separation. Most magazines are funded through advertising, and it is therefore obvious when looking at the ads what the angle of the magazine is. Advertising in Artforum is wholly different from the Laurel of Asheville. So does that in turn dictate the kind of criticism that the local art community will receive? I have never heard of a government body or agency sitting down and proposing that a team of critics go out and by the virtue of their criticism shape the American culture state by state, city by city. This would be a stretch even for Russia. But I do understand the argument posed in that thought. The last thing that artists would probably want is for the members of the city council to tell them that a certain type of art should be favored at the expense of another.
    However I do believe that in a certain sense, the resignation of some contemporary artists toward exhibiting and participating in our city is due to the overall attitude of the community as a whole to the concept of contemporary art. That is the reason there aren’t more venues and that access to thought provoking and important art made by contemporary artists is lacking. Why should someone like Anne Hamilton or Roxy Paine exhibit here if there aren’t any places to do so?
    What I want also point out, is that I wasn’t saying that there aren’t ANY opportunities here. There are plenty, but in the grand scheme of things they are at best provincial and at worst detrimental, with maybe a few exceptions. I myself have probably exhausted 95% of them, having shown in shops, galleries, artist studios, our museum, and I participated in auctions and festivals, all to the effect that I am still considered a provincial perhaps a regional artist. It is a lot of work, for not much recognition. I do not look to Asheville however, to make me into an artist with a big name.
    This is perhaps the way it’s going to be, but my hope is that it isn’t. Kudos to you Jen for getting involved in the way you do. We need forward thinking people to be the torch-bearers for something other than art made for tourists. The conversation needs to be the ground off of which we can all spring up. I don’t know if this blog can play a role in that, but I won’t be opposed to it if it did. And with that I want to invite any of you, if you wish or desire, and have something to say that may be a bit more of a critical nature (I think you’ll know what I mean by reading some of my earlier postings) to freely write into this space. Just get in touch and I’ll hook you up with the links. I know that you Ursula already have your great blog that I read on occasion, but feel free to do that as well.
    I’m sure this isn’t an all exhaustive response to all the questions and points posed in the comments. I may end up somehow summarizing more completely in another post so watch out for that.