I will start by saying that I actually have a great love of experiencing amazing work in white cube gallery spaces. There is nothing like a pristine neutral box for being able to really concentrate and trip out on an art object (or really any object—you can stick a piece of trash off the street into a context like that and it will look amazing). But having said that I’d now like to compare white cube artist spaces, galleries but more so studios, to jails.
If you were some kind of ruling class, happy with the status quo, and averse to any alternatives what would you want to do with a whole rambunctious set of the population that had radical ideas and activities? Probably figure out a way to keep them out of active society and in some safe, contained, out-of-the-way place, where their production could smolder or, even better, be used as commodity objects to further the power of the existing system. I doubt there is really any organized conspiracy to create that kind of imprisoned situation for artists, but regardless of how it happened that appears to be the case.
Artist people have been convinced that they should spend huge parts of their lives alone with their thoughts and objects in cell-like rooms in marginalized zones of cities away from other people and from any possibility of putting their ideas into real practice. Instead, they are given long shot hopes and dreams that their special creativity will someday land them in art stardom with gallery shows, sales, reviews and articles, books, fans, etc. But the reality is that most of the people pursuing those goals never get their objects shown anywhere other than in piles in their own studios and storage units. Even if they do end up getting lucky and a curator or gallery director chooses to let them exhibit their work in a gallery somewhere, generally the people that see the work are very limited in number and the chances of long-term success are still very unlikely. Only a chosen few achieve real art world success and even those artists are beholden to the power structure of the commercial gallery system.
Why do these people who supposedly have the freedom to do anything they want to, more often than not, decide to use that freedom to make paintings, etc. in the hopes that rich people will buy them? Well, the system including education from grade school through graduate school, reinforces in a variety of ways the idea that artists are people who produce paintings and sculptures, that they love spending time alone inhaling toxic fumes of one sort or another in this pursuit of making non-functional objects so that they can express themselves. These people supposedly don’t want to or can’t operate in other ways, and they need galleries and other arts institutions to validate and support them or they would have no means to share their work with the public. The systemic representation of who artists are and what art is perpetuates itself and in the process severely disempowers and limits what artists can actually do and how they interact with and contribute to society.
What if instead of using that dominant art world concept, a variety of ways for artists to function (including the studio/gallery one) were represented, promoted, accepted, and encouraged? The whole system would have to be overhauled to accomplish that, so of course it is very unlikely, but there seem to be small shifts occurring in that direction. I have had an interesting experience in regards to that at Portland State University, where I have taught since 2004. When I got there the undergraduate majors were limited to sculpture and painting/printmaking/drawing. There was no way to add all of the possible disciplines that were not represented—photo, video, performance, ceramics, etc., so the situation was dealt with by just creating one major called Art Practice and letting students decide how they wanted to combine or focus on medias and methods. Slowly over time more classes began to be offered that rounded out and reflected the wide array of approaches that artists use to make art rather than just the traditional ones. I was also able to create an alternate MFA concentration from the more standard studio/gallery based one (which still exists at PSU). The MFA in Art and Social Practice program that I started in 2007 doesn’t give students studios or final gallery shows, but instead encourages collaboration, participation, site-specificity, interdisciplinarity, and social engagement. Students work on real world projects both of their own making and as part of program partnerships with local, national and international organizations.
PSU Art & Social Practice alum Carmen Papalia leading Blind Field Shuttle, 2012, a non-visual walking tour in which up to 50 people can walk with the artist through an urban space while closing their eyes. (Image: Jordan Reznick)
There are many other new academic programs appearing that also operate outside of the studio/gallery model. Funding and commissioning organizations like Creative Time and A Blade of Grass are creating more opportunities and exposure for socially engaged public work. Museums like the Hammer, Walker, and Portland Art Museum have created and funded special programs for public engagement. These and many other developments are good signs that a new understanding about the role and agency of artists is developing (often times based on more singular historical precedents, like the work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Wendy Ewald). The field is in fact wide open and opportunities are everywhere for artists to function (and potentially be sustained) in society, having very real impacts that go beyond the limited studio/gallery model. The more that can happen the better, so that when artists consider their freedom to do anything they might want to do it could include participatory projects in a hospital, school, library, grocery store, etc. and in any possible form and situation. Artists are not prisoners or monks and should only behave in those ways if that is really what they want to do with their time, not because the system tells them that is what they are supposed to be doing.
Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested
“Breaking Out of the Studio/Gallery Paradigm” by Harrell Fletcher – April 9, 2014