May 05, 2011

Bohemia of Finances (pt. 6)

In “I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac,” Kathy Acker somewhat wryly describes the art world as “the bohemia of finances.” Still, questions of money and capital in the art world continue to transpire. Occasionally I will post discussions with artists and curators about the economics of their practice. This sixth installment is an e-mail conversation with the editor of local arts publication Art Practical, Patricia Maloney.

BB: Could you describe your practice for SFMOMA blog readers in broad terms?

PM: These days, my primary calling card bears the title editor-in-chief of Art Practical, as most of my activities intersect with that online publication, which I founded and direct. It may be worth noting that I have no formal training or professional experience as an editor, although editing has been an aspect of nearly every role I’ve occupied in my career. My academic training has been in studio art, art history, and critical theory, and professionally, I have worked in administrative, project management, and curatorial capacities for museums, as well as an independent curator, and freelance writer and critic. All of which has informed my approach to building Art Practical.

I think of myself first and foremost as a reader, either when I am looking at a work of art or editing a text. I love thinking about the structure of language — how words come together to form ideas and how ideas come together to build concepts, narratives, and histories. I have a tendency to plot out what I say when I am speaking; I visualize words coming together into sentences, laying them out in front of me.

I am more of an analyst than a creative thinker, so it is a great luxury to be in conversation with artists, whom I always look to as visual and critical thinkers. Artists are equipped in a way few people are to analyze the constant stream of visual content with which we are barraged on a daily basis, but their activities are also marginalized from mainstream culture. I spend a great deal of time thinking about — and trying to enact — ways in which artists might be perceived differently. That beyond the market value of their work, or the institutional validation they receive, artists can be recognized for the critical reflection that they bring to bear or global or local economic, political, or social conditions.

BB: Could you say a little bit more about Art Practical, including perhaps its economic structure? You have a staff of many, and online real estate, while more affordable than offline real estate, still requires financing.

PM: Art Practical began as a way to bring visibility to the artistic practice and sensibilities of the Bay Area in a way that wasn’t happening, but needed to. It deepens appreciation of the work produced here and nurtures its development. We produce biweekly issues that include critical reviews, essays, serial writing, interviews, and a forum that promotes community participation. Since our launch in late October 2009, we have produced 36 issues and over 200 articles. Artists, writers, educators, and curators comprise the group of contributors. Art Practical is also a news source, producing a daily list of exhibition openings, events, lectures, and performances; news feeds of relevant activities, applications, and events; and an editorial list of events and exhibitions that should not be missed.

Art Practical began as a volunteer endeavor, and remains that for the most part, although the six editors now receive a small stipend. However, from the beginning, I understood that it needed to become a financially sustainable endeavor to survive, and we’ve made great strides in that direction. Early on, we received a grant as part of Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure program, and late last year we became fiscally sponsored through Intersection for the Arts’s Incubator program. That means we can apply for grants and accept donations utilizing their nonprofit status, as well as receive guidance about our funding strategies. But earned income is crucial to our growth. We have a steady stream of paid sponsors, all of whom receive visibility on the site via banners, which appear on every page. Finally, we’ve benefited tremendously from in-kind donations.

Financial sustainability would mean that the editors and I draw incomes from Art Practical; the writers receive stipends for their work; all of our site development and design costs are covered; we have funding to produce public programs; and we can expand the scope of our activities and reach.

Art Practical currently is a collaborative endeavor, in that it is clear those who participate are strongly invested. It will be interesting to see how that investment might change as we become more of an enterprise.

BB: In your recent review of Shadowshop, Stephanie Syjuco’s alternative production model currently on exhibit in SFMOMA, you suggest a complex relationship between the economics of art-making and the “conceptual, aesthetic, or critical concerns” that make artists artists.

Have you found a way to talk about how those conceptual, aesthetic, or critical concerns really differ from the monetary concerns of an artist whose works are for sale? Not to suggest that they don’t! But I wonder if perhaps those more sublime concerns are privileged in art discourse over the fiscal concerns, whereas in the abject sphere of the marketplace it’s precisely the opposite.

PM: A complex system of reception exists around a work of art, many of whose elements can be traced to its monetary value or the financial transactions that happen around it. Ostensibly, the market value that an artist’s work can bear suggests that an artist’s ideas also have currency or influence. But, as I mentioned in my review, fair market value signals the buyer’s willingness to accept the terms of purchase for an artwork as much as it does anything else.

In Stephanie’s project, she works, as she states, from the assumption that artists produce, and that what they produce is negotiated within a hierarchical set of considerations around production. For the theoretic and conceptual concerns of artists to prevail, production is irrelevant, to a certain extent. What distinguishes the activity of the artist is the fact that it presumes an audience. There are not many modes of production that presume an audience rather than a consumer, the distinction being that the artist remains present as author and generator beyond the moment of encounter with the object or experience, and that the person receiving this object or experience is asked to consider the artist’s intentions alongside their own interest.

Whatever material form or ephemeral gesture a concept takes, an artist understands that those objects or actions are conduits by which they convey their position, critique, reflection, experiment, exploration, etc. to someone who will consider them, and will most likely introduce their own terms into the conversation. You don’t have to pay to think about a work of art. You may have to pay to gain access to it, but not to think about it.

And so for any artist concerned with the value of their work beyond its market value, it is important to think about who you want your audience to be. Whom do you imagine thinking about your work, and how do you imagine their reception, in the same way you ask people to think about your intentions? Whom do you imagine sitting across the table from you in conversation or hanging out in your studio? How do you see this work in operation in the world? Where do you intersect with the larger culture?

When artists say they don’t think about their audience, or that they make their work for themselves, I often think, well, I can stop paying attention then.

BB: I’d love to hear your thoughts about the state of criticism, especially in reference to the economics of the art world. For one thing, many of the writers in Art Practical are artists, and many of the artists written about in AP have a critical practice. It seems to me as a reader that the interpenetration is partly the point. Does money have a role in how these practices are different, if they are? I’m not just asking if contributors to AP are paid, though that might be one approach. Is criticism understood to be part of the “community service” that Zachary Royer-Scholz alluded to in our conversation?

PM: One of the things that is evident to me (and to readers, I hope), is that the artists who write for Art Practical are analyzing the practices of other artists as an extension of the investigation into their own work. That is not the only reason they write for us, but if an artist takes the questions s/he is asking of their own work, it becomes extremely useful, even enlightening, to apply those same questions to other artists’ work, and see how the answers differ or correspond.

There is a strong historical precedent for artists taking on the role of critic for this purpose. If one looks at the collected writings of Donald Judd, and particularly his reviews for Art News in the early sixties, one sees how he is formulating his philosophy around his own work.

But that is not your actual question. Art Practical benefits from the overlap between socially engaged and critical practices, and from the frequently ephemeral nature of social activities, which are documented and expanded upon by corresponding texts. We also benefit from the extent to which artists engage with philosophy and theory, particularly in graduate school, as a way to contextualize their practices. Writing promotes research and correspondence.

There is little money to be gained from either an artist writing criticism or presenting their activities in a text-based form. The value arises from the further distribution of ideas and documentation of work than can be had by the immediate experience.

But related to your question above, I think an imbalance exists — not with how aesthetic, theoretical, and conceptual concerns are privileged over fiscal ones in art discourse, but that there is insufficient currency attributed to those concerns in a larger economic sphere. As an industry (and I use that word purposefully), contemporary visual art is a pretty insular one. Many if not most of its audience members are also participants at some level. But I think the alienation from a broader audience is tied directly to the fact that artists are educated differently than a general population these days, and that the critical reflection inherent in an artist’s education is vastly undervalued within the public education system. A recent study, which has been published under the title Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, suggests that up to a third of the college students they tracked over four years and across 24 universities showed no noticeable improvement in their critical thinking skills. For the visual arts to gain traction with a broader audience, the discourse in which contemporary artists routinely engage needs to find greater credence in a larger academic sphere.

During my tenure at MoMA in NY, I worked with the Education Department in school programs. We utilized what they called the Visual Thinking Curriculum. It was an inquiry-based approached by which students were asked to speculate on a work of art, grounding those speculations in what they observed concretely. Their interpretations needed to be contextualized by what they saw. Subsequent studies showed that students who were trained in this approach and applied it to other areas of learning demonstrated significant gains in evidential reasoning. Apply that pedagogical model on a grand scale nationwide and what might the economic impact be of students more capable of competing in a global marketplace? We currently rank 14out of 70 countries in reading skills, and that is our highest rank.

BB: One reason AP is so interesting is its nonaffiliation with the academy. This is not to hide the fact that many of its contributors have MFAs or PhDs, but just to point out the paucity of forums in print or online for the kinds of discourse one finds in AP separate from institutional space (I guess not just the academy, but the museum, too.) Do you have any thoughts about this? Was this nonaffiliation considered as part of the “mission”?

PM: I am a geek about art and about language. That is where my interests lie to the exclusion of most other subjects. While my friends will tell you that I have a ridiculous storehouse of knowledge about celebrity culture, it exists solely so that I can talk to people who are neither artists nor writers. Small talk is not my strong suit. I was at a party in Chelsea last year during the Armory, surrounded by all these beautiful people and fancy cocktails. A fellow critic and I were standing in the middle of it, both of us hunched over our notebooks, comparing notes on artists. I had a great time. Art Practical operates at the level of discourse that it does because that is where my comfort zone is.

That is the glib answer. The serious answer is embedded in the ones above. The level of discourse arises from the depth of their artistic practices and academic training. It arises from an understanding of what critical dialogue can promote in terms of awareness of other practices and establishing a community of peers. The interests of our individual contributors shape our content, and since they are diverse in their practices, we cover a broad spectrum.

However, Art Practical is also a reactive forum. Not reactionary, but responsive to the activities that happen around us. In conversation, Suzanne Stein has observed to me that we are an instituting force in the Bay Area, and that is true. We are creating and simultaneously archiving a series of overlapping narratives of this particular moment in contemporary art, perceived through the lens of this community.

And while that community is greatly fueled by the various academic institutions in the Bay Area, our coverage essentially begins at the point where the individuals that pass through those institutions step out into the world and intersect with a broader audience that is not just their faculty and peers. The “Practical” in our name comes in part from the fact that what we are reflecting on are ideas not in theory, but in practice.

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