Alternative exhibition spaces, alternative futures (1992)

Glenn Harper
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 11 February 2011
This article was previously published with the title “Alternative futures” in Organizing Artists: A Document and Directory of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations. Washington, DC: NAAO, 1992, pp. 57-61).

Alternative exhibition spaces, alternative futures

Alternative spaces were born and have survived because of the need felt by artists to take control of their own work, their own lives. In the ’90s, this mandate will force artists’ organizations onto the front lines of other struggles as well. Make no mistake: Congress’s recent attempt to censor the arts is not primarily about art; it is about the imposition of a single, unified culture by a (European male conservative) minority onto the entire country. They are simply coming after artists first. Artists’ organizations can stay on the front line in this struggle or they can be overrun— there is no other option. If alternative spaces are to be maintained only out of inertia or out of nostalgia for the ’60s and ’70s (as the only surviving institutions of the counterculture), then they are not worth the effort. If, on the other hand, artists’ organizations engage with contemporary artistic and social concerns, if they serve contemporary artists’ needs, media, and goals, and if they make possible a reimagining of society and human life that neither the right wing’s unified culture nor the art world’s museum culture is capable of, then their survival is indeed crucial, not only to the art world but to the wider society as well.

A number of important questions about artists’ organizations have been raised in the last decade. Among them are: 1) does the institutionalization of these organizations contradict their “alternative” mission? 2) what are the prospects for funding truly alternative organizations, given the current social and political climate? 3) are the original ideals of the movement still relevant and maintainable today (do the words “experimental,” “cutting-edge,” “risk-taking,” and “opportunity to fail” still mean something, or are they just marketing and grantwriting catchwords)? And 4) is the movement destined to serve merely as a farm system for commercial galleries and larger artworld institutions?

These themes have a common thread: they all question whether the original model according to which artists’ organizations were constructed can or should accommodate differences between society and the art world, differences that are themselves different from those that reigned during the movement’s founding era. Are we nostalgic or realistic when we talk about the necessity for survival? At each symposium, in every article on artists’ organizations, the comment is made that we never know how much longer we can depend on public funding; that question is more pressing today than it has ever been. And each symposium and every article has demanded that we find viable alternative funding sources. Most of us have still not found them. What can we do to bring our institutions into creative confrontation with these ongoing problems, with current social factors, and with contemporary artists?

We can recognize that we are now and have been (whether we like it or not) deeply political, and with that awareness we can better act as an opposition force within society rather than a counterculture that pretends to live outside it. If there are no new funding sources, then we must find effective ways to lobby the old ones so that they respond to our needs and recognize our value. We can confront cultural differences and biases in our own curating and criticism and make our audiences aware of cultural multiplicity. We can constantly refocus ourselves on art and artists, not exhibition schedules or grants or maintenance or the other hard facts of our daily lives. We can reject the persisting myth of the eccentric, bohemian artist who can’t be trusted in positions of responsibility. We can confront the reality of our institutionalization and critically examine its consequences. We can educate our audiences, the mainstream media, and politicians about the importance of art (in an era when sympathetic legislators and newspaper columnists can agree with even a fragment of what the radical Right says about art and public support of the arts, this is possibly the most important thing for us to do).

I have, in recent years taken to repeating a remark made by Ad Reinhardt that “art is not the spiritual side of business.” Sadly, for the dominant culture art is precisely that— the leisure zone set apart from the main business of society. We can’t allow ourselves to end up with only the sterile choice between a commodity culture and a leisure culture; as the constituents of those institutions most directly concerned with the everyday business of creating living culture, we must assert ourselves, become the pests who will insist over and over again that Jesse Helms, Richard Armey, and company haven’t a clue about what art and culture are, and neither do the politicians and journalists and administrators who have made nothing but half-hearted attempts to oppose the radical Right. Only artists and artists’ organizations themselves can effectively state the case for contemporary art and artists. Librarians and other groups have effectively lobbied both for public funding and against censorship of literature. We need to learn from them in our struggle to reverse the currently dominant view that withholding funding is not censorship.

The government serves its own and the public’s interest by funding art, libraries, and education, and in each case governmental meddling with the content of art, books, and classes is forbidden by the First Amendment. The conservative revolution of the Reagan era is now bearing its fruit in censorship and the threat of censorship, and in the reluctance of corporations and other private institutions to engage difficult issues, challenging art, and contentious artists. This conservative bent is a problem for all arts groups, regardless of their own political position, but it also can be an opportunity. Against rigid definitions of art and culture, and a homogenous, distorted view of what is actually a multiple, varied society, we can propose alternatives that will seem vital and exciting, that will take into account the real lives and needs and variety of contemporary social experience.

The Washington Project for the Arts’ decision in 1989 to present the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit after the Corcoran had suppressed it was exactly right: we can’t let conservatives scare us into submission through self-censorship— we have to go on the offensive. I was astonished to discover that several arts groups around the country have objected recently to the use of the word “dissent” in the title of a national series of arts events. On the contrary, we have to embrace dissent or we will lose the right to dissent, silenced by a single, unified culture that demands assent from everyone. And we must realize that our engagement with politics is broadly based, that “artists’ issues” include a broad range of social issues. Artists’ organizations have been in the forefront of AIDS activism and have felt the burden of the epidemic— and now arts groups are being red-lined by insurance companies because they are considered a high-risk group. Many alternative spaces cannot afford health insurance; we have to make that situation better, not allow the insurance companies to make it worse. The solution is political action, a lesson that can be learned from the success of Artists for Tax Equity. Our best chance to overcome the contemporary problems of real estate and rental prices, salaries for those working in artists’ organizations, and the decline in governmental funding is to go on the offensive, to set the agenda rather than allow others inside or outside the art world to impose it on us.

We need to continually remind ourselves that our purpose is to make a clearing in which artists can work and grow. Twenty years after the birth of the alternative-space movement, there are still artists whose work can’t (or won’t) be accommodated by museums or commercial galleries. There are still artists who haven’t adopted the “career goals” encouraged by those institutions. Artists still need to show their work, to have it written about honestly, and to become part of the political dialogue, whether or not they meet (or accept) the criteria for “professional artist” status determined by grantors and institutions. The phrase “a place to fail” refers to this need for a place to show in public. Now more than ever, there is the need for artists’ organizations, but we must look at artists and their needs at present, rather than at the time of our organizations’ founding. The alternative arts movement is based on the model of art as communication rather than artifact, emphasizing the need for public venues for and public discourse about art. It is that communication model that is at the core of our mission— beyond it, there is no single model for the structure of our organizations, nor a single notion of art.

Artists’ needs today may not be met by the same strategies, ideologies, and attitudes that prevailed at the time of the movement’s inception. The notion that alternative arts spaces represent a counterculture, separate from and in an antagonistic relationship with the general culture is part of the myth of artists’ organizations, one that has nothing to do with contemporary social reality. For artists’ organizations to effectively serve artists, they need to conceive of themselves as an oppositional movement within contemporary culture, not a counterculture outside it. Only by working with institutions and audiences can alternative spaces provide a truly alternative, living form of culture. And only through engagement with social institutions can artists’ organizations manipulate, adapt, and creatively misuse the programs, bureaucracies, and political discourses of the current world. At the same time, we need not and must not become a mirror of contemporary society. Artists may best affect society by providing an enclave of multiculturalism or cultural democracy that openly challenges the dominant forms of misrecognition that deny the multiplicity of the country and the world.

Some artists’ organizations are meeting social questions head on—by working with inner-city children, the homeless, low income people, and people of color in ways that empower those groups rather than patronize them. Other groups are recognizing the multiplicity of their neighborhoods, their current and potential audiences. I do not mean that artists should pander to audiences in order to get funds for projects they “really want to do.” Artists’ organizations instead must educate their audiences about what they do. They need to demonstrate the power of art.

I have heard at least two arts administrators, one from an ICA-type organization and one from an alternative space, declare recently that artists will never organize themselves politically or lobby on their own behalf, even at a local level; that artists are necessary, wonderful, difficult, and unreliable. If we continue to view artists as exploitable, child-like tinkerers, we will certainly have abdicated the real role of the artists’ organization. We cannot allow even a vestige of this patronizing stereotype to enter our organizations through the perceptions of our administrators. The artists’ organization also must take into account that there is neither one art world nor one community of artists: there are multiple, disunified art worlds and communities of artists, as well as different standards of “quality.” We have to be open to differences among the communities that are served, particularly the differing ethnic, racial, and sexual communities, none of which are themselves unified and monolithic.

Artists’ organizations must also continue to reevaluate their role in certifying or validating artists and artistic practices. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to be the gatekeepers, winnowers, or scouts who do advance screening for museums and commercial galleries. We must reject the notion of a contemporary canon, subvert the market structure, and remain open to new participants—the anarchists, the outsiders, the young and untried. We have to remain an open forum in which all these groups can engage in a meaningful discourse in and on art. Key problems for the ’90s are professionalization and institutionalization: are we heading for a time when you can (and therefore must) get an MA or MFA (or more probably an MBA) in alternative-space management, and thereafter expect a lifetime career in The Field? Are we inevitably bound for the kind of institutionalization mandated by the funding organizations to whom we are answerable?

Professionalization is rampant in the art world and related fields and is a sign of the kind of institutionalization that distances administrators from artists. Artists’ organizations also have to confront constantly the dual problems of burn-out and continuity. How can we keep anyone, artist or “arts administrator,” in an administrative position that demands almost selfless commitment to noble goals at great personal and financial sacrifice? And after the visionary founders are no longer around, there is a problem of succession and legitimacy that accelerates institutionalization and separates administrators from artists.

There is no one solution for professionalization and the isolation of staff from artists, but the key will be to prevent the organization from serving solely in the interests of its own board or its own continued existence rather than the artists that alternative spaces were created for and by. We have to stop letting structure determine function and turn the equation around. Institutionalization itself is not the problem. Rather, it is the strategies by which we create our institutions and which in turn determine our character and our ability to fulfill our role. Older, non-institutional models like the anarchistic co-op and guerrilla art spaces, the floating museums and artist-organized shows in loan spaces still function effectively in many cities without ever becoming institutionalized: these may be the only groups still capable of living up to the ’70s idealism in which artists’ organizations were born. But those models do not suit organizations with other missions.

On the other hand, the prediction of 10 years ago that artists’ organizations would buy property and become landlords to solve their space and money problems (without it affecting their character and mission) sounds naïve now to most of us. The capital-intensive nature of such enterprises can reroute an artist’s space into the heart of the “institutionalization problem.” Many of us are more effective in our mission if we adopt strategies that are less capital-intensive, putting as much of our resources as possible into artists’ programs or into the hands of artists. The key, however, is not to assume that one or another kind of structure is necessary, but to consciously adopt strategies that do not alienate institutions from artists.

To take advantage of our strengths, we must also explore any means of cooperation that will extend the reach and stability of artists’ organizations collectively and singly. Our building or space strategies, as well as many other aspects of alternative spaces, must consider possibilities for cooperation among artists’ organizations, as many groups of organizations are doing. We may only survive as a movement if we join together in a supportive community.

We must take advantage not only of new technologies but of new marketing tools as well, specifically those used by small, decentralized enterprises with specific target markets. Magazines with readerships once considered negligible are now thriving because they appeal to an audience they can identify specifically and reach effectively. Some alternative spaces are exploiting video’s potential for decentralization. We can’t remain tied to the old gallery model, showing work to the same audiences in the same ways: this was the model alternative spaces once rejected and cannot afford to return to. We won’t reach and educate and inspire new audiences by imitating museums or mainstream magazines. We need to develop our own means but also watch carefully the marketing techniques of the decentralized segments of the non-profit world, not to imitate them but to free ourselves from slavish imitation of art world method that either ignore or pander to a broad public.

To allow artists’ organizations to die or ossify into unresponsive institutions would be to surrender to the central institutions and their artworld agents, the professional curators, managers, and fundraisers. Are we still working to throw out the canon and energize society, encourage disrespect, recreate art anew: are we open to new alternatives, new agendas, new media? Can we exploit wit, our outrage, and our outrageousness, those qualities that differentiate alternative spaces from museums, to reach and hold audiences? We can only avoid becoming compartmentalized as R&D for the “real” art world by exploiting our understanding of the real needs and importance of artists and by lobbying for ourselves instead of letting the big boys do it for us, by organizing coalitions and supporting the organizations that already exist (NAAO, NAMAC, lobbying groups like the American Arts Alliance, as well as more specifically defined groups like Artists for Tax Equity and the Alliance for Cultural Democracy).

We will only maintain the multiplicity and diversity in culture that is and has always been the motivating ideal of the alternative arts movement if we organize ourselves into an opposition movement that can create a clearing within contemporary society in which the alternatives, the multiple and diverse cultures and visions, can grow. We can only survive as a community if we insist on decentralization, respect voices at the periphery, and produce communication between artists at the margins of society and the multiple communities of the society as a whole.