August 08, 2009

Reconciling the Local/National/International, part 1

Julian Myers’ post on the recent turmoil at New Langton Arts gave rise to a robust and very necessary discussion about the state of contemporary art in the Bay Area. Looking beyond the immediate issues at Langton, I’d like to address the perceived conflict between the local and international art worlds. In the Bay Area, we have many world-class museums, universities and art colleges. We have the benefit of some of the world’s foremost artists, curators and critics, having chosen to work here. We have a wonderfully tight-knit and innovative arts community, full of experimentation and creative risk-taking. The smallness of our region allows for incubation of new ideas in an interdisciplinary context. Our location at the nexus of the East and the West gives us an unusually international perspective for such a small community. In theory, this should be the ideal place to be an arts worker. Yet there is an underlying tension here, too often expressed in buzzwords like “insularity,” “inferiority complex,” “inside” and “outside.”

Emotions run high whenever this topic is broached. Everyone’s got a dog in this fight, and the stakes are high because it’s fundamentally a discussion about how we might have sustainable art careers without breaking  away from our communities. This is a debate about resources. Recruiting arts workers from outside the region is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, expensive. The cost of living in the Bay Area is remarkably high considering our small local economy. Those institutions that emphasize local practices – Southern Exposure, Intersection for the Arts, the LAB et al – generally have much smaller budgets and audiences than the ones that emphasize the international – SFMOMA, DeYoung, YBCA etc.

Local artists and curators often claim that those institutions that have access to more funding and larger audiences, are disinterested in mining the Bay Area for talent and presenting our artistic output within the context of their international programs. Curators and artists who have relocated here may feel that the local community closes ranks against them, branding them elitists without fair cause, and dismissing any overtures of inclusivity. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s very difficult to address these tensions rationally, but I do feel it’s essential that we do so, and that we do it here, on OPEN SPACE.

So, I’d like to ask how small, mid-sized and large institutions can best work together to support informed and rigorous regional art practices, which are essential to a strong local arts community? How might the international curators and artists recruited by our local museums and universities, support exposure of regional art practices on an international level? What responsibility do locals have to educate themselves about international trends, and to promote themselves to a wider circle than just their own friends and peers? Can an artist, curator or critic with international ambitions be successful without abandoning the local? Can the culture of international contemporary art embrace regional differences and avoid the homogenizing tendencies of globalization?

These are big questions, and it seems the only responsible way to address them is to engage in a systematic, rational analysis. I’m a curator, not a statistician, so it’s probably going to take me some time to collect and analyze the hard data. I’ll get to work on it, and post my results in the near future. Meanwhile, anyone want to tackle some of these questions in the comments?

Comments (3)

  • I am not sure I fully agree with the characterization of larger museums as “encyclopedic generalists pursuing the broadest audience possible.” Certainly, this is one function of a collecting museum. However, the presence of programs such as Berkeley Art Museum’s MATRIX or SFMOMA’s SECA Award and New Work series suggests that there is in fact another function recognized by these museums — to recognize and promote emerging artists and practices to the broad audience attracted to blockbuster exhibitions and historic collections.

    I want to mention SECA in particular because I would hate to give the impression that I’m disregarding this important move on SFMOMA’s part to recognize and support Bay Area artists. SECA is, in my opinion, an outstanding program. My only issue with it is, that it segregates Bay Area artists from other artists at a comparable level of professional development, the ones recognized by the New Work series. After SECA, there is nowhere for a Bay Area artist to move up to (and most receive the award at a fairly early stage in their careers). Because the recognition is Bay Area-specific, people outside the region may or may not recognize its value in the way they would recognize a New Work show. Since MATRIX has also been showing fewer Bay Area artists, this is a reason for my concern.

  • Leigh, thanks for asking these questions. The trouble with thinking out loud on the blog is that the thoughts are not always complete, however this too allows for interesting conversations to emerge.

    My statement about the relative scale of institutions that focus on the regional vs the international is not meant to imply that smaller institutions only show regional artists because they are limited by funding. I do think that some at arts organizations in the Bay Area believe they would receive more funding if they showed international art – but as I stated in the discussion surrounding New Langton, I personally do not believe this would always be the case. I do think that a healthy regional art scene requires differently-scaled institutions that each represent a mix of regional and extra-regional artists, that mix being determined by the individual institution’s mission and financial capability. There need to be spaces where artists can emerge, others that can push them into mid-career, and so on. That trajectory is thwarted when smaller institutions focus too heavily on the regional, as much as when larger ones pay the local too little attention.

    With respect to statistics, I have a perception that there is more mobility of the sort I describe in other large regional centers than there is in the Bay Area. I also feel that a few years back, we used to see more back-and-forth exchange of ideas and artists between the New Langtons and Southern Exposures, and the SFMOMAs and Berkeley Art Museums. Something has changed.

    However, I have no proof of this, and I’m open to the possibility that my perception is inaccurate. I’d like to do an analysis to see if I can prove it one way or another, in the hope that I’ll find we shake out pretty well as far as cross-pollination between the different strata of our arts community.

  • Leigh Markopoulos says:

    Anu, I too appreciate robust debate on current practices in the art world, and in that spirit would like to comment on a couple of threads in your post as follows.

    Your statement that:
    “Those institutions that emphasize local practices – Southern Exposure, Intersection for the Arts, the LAB et al – generally have much smaller budgets and audiences than the ones that emphasize the international – SFMOMA, DeYoung, YBCA etc.”
    to me constitutes a mischaracterization of the remit and mission of both groups of institutions, as well creating a programmatic chicken-and-egg analogy that doesn’t help your argument – viz. if smaller institutions had more money they would show international art. Nor is it accurate to imply (if this is what you are doing) that these organizations are getting less funding support because they don’t show international art.

    Furthermore, there was an unproductive confusion between SFMOMA’s role and that of other organizations engendered by some of the comments responding to Julian’s New Langton posts that might well be addressed briefly here. A museum has a very particular set of educational, civic, and cultural responsibilities and roles (not least those endowed through accountability to public funding), which render any comparison with smaller or mid-size non-profit Kunsthalles null and void. Museums, as is particularly evident in collections such as the De Young’s and Oakland Art Museum’s locally, are encyclopedic generalists pursuing the broadest audience possible. Smaller organizations have the flexibility, and liberty, to define themselves and their mission more precisely and to pitch themselves to a more directed audience. This seems rather good and fair and necessary in the interests of diversity. It also seems like a pertinent counterpoint to the argument evolved out of critiques of globalism, which states that the local/specific is a necessary anchor to the transnational/general.

    Finally, I’m not too sure if the questions that you raise here are of the variety that can be answered with statistics (what would these look like anyway? Mid-size institution, 5 shows annually, 50 artists, 48 of them local? Non-San Francisco curator, female, one group show annually, 20 artists, 3 of them local, etc.), as these are open to the same misinterpretation that you identify as having plagued programming decisions locally.

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