Supporting Local Artists

The public was up in arms over the Bruce Naumann exhibition we were opening when I was an intern in Madrid at Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS). I learned much from the intense public discussion that ensued. There had been so many American exhibitions recently, the public wondered what the museum was doing to raise Spain’s profile on the international stage.

It wasn’t a case of xenophobia. Fads in Spain seem to embrace other countries for periods and then move on. The US was very much the center of love at the time.

The discussion emanated from a deep sense that Spain’s art is part of a citizen’s patrimony, part of your birthright. In fact there is a law that any ordinary citizen can contest the deaccessioning of a work of art from the national collections.

That notion is really unheard of in the United States. We see a wave of public opinion surge when a whole collection is in jeopardy such as recently in Detroit, but by and large we don’t have a personal sense of ownership over our cultural history. Probably because we come from so many different cultural histories and because we vaguely trust boards of trustees will do the right thing, somehow magically immune from real world concerns.

Cultural Policy varies greatly from nation to nation, something we don’t think about so deeply immersed in our own “nonprofit” model. In Spain, for example, museum employees are civil servants. This also has a great effect.

That question had a great impact on me though: If Spain doesn’t lift its local artists onto the international stage then who will?

I approached opening the gallery in Denver with that same question front and center. If we don’t lift up Colorado artists, who will?

Buying Art is More Like Falling in Love than Buying a Pair of Shoes

The fact is good art will change your space. It will change how you feel about your space. It will remind you of things, it will be different every day and in different light. You develop a relationship with a piece of art based on where you first saw it, who made it, its physical properties, what it connotes intellectually, how it contributes to your image of yourself and your perception of what others think of you! Phew. It’s true. In that sense it’s like entering into a relationship rather than buying a thing. If you choose wisely, the relationship will deepen over time.

A Reputation-Based Economy

The artist Paolo Cirio said to me two years ago, “We operate in a reputation-based economy in the arts.” It’s an eloquent summary of the systemic forces at play.

When you couple this with the concept of “signifiers of value”, how power compounds itself becomes very clear. Paolo addresses this in his work and it’s something I hope to address in my work with digm.

2015 in the Gallery

You have to make space in your life for a new relationship.

In 2015, I am not working on any exhibitions in the Gallery. We are inviting others to curate exhibitions and Kurt has hired an event consultant to help drive/coordinate events. We are doing this so that I have the space and time to work on digm.

From the beginning our intention was to help promote Colorado artists in the international market. We believe the infrastructure we’re building with digm will be the best way to accomplish that goal.

It took an enormous amount of work to get to the point where I could be extricated from daily activities, consuming the better portion of probably 6-8 months:

  • I returned over 350 works of art I had in inventory. I believe the cost of art handling is too high relative to our fundamental goal of bringing benefit to the artists. Keeping inventory in-house just isn’t how we make money. It will also eliminate any possibility of accidents or theft and simplify insurance tracking. It also takes too much time to do it well, and it is non-negotiable that one do it well.
  • I continue to show private clients work via digital images and then bring the work in person when there is interest. Ironically, we’ve had increased sales this way.
  • I eliminated any staff. That was hard to do. However to keep the costs pegged to the income, it was necessary. It also took too much of my time relative to where I want to allocate my time this year.
  • The late night lounge is still active with the Tavern Liquor License and open for events (openings, parties).

I am excited to see what this year brings! Never a dull moment around here.

Why Value Art?

I’ve had a contemporary art gallery in Denver, Colorado for 4 years. I am so deeply troubled by the systemic problems facing this economic model, I don’t know how to begin to describe my experience. I hope to contribute some useful possibilities for innovation to the field, and so I will begin simply with what I think of as getting back to basics.

BASIC #1:  Why does society value art?

It’s not a given that society will value art. Over time, however, art has been highly valued in different ways. The first step for a contemporary analysis is to set aside the temporary financial values we assign through art market transactions like auctions and art fair sales.

One answer today is that society values art because it is the tangible expression of an idea. My son asked me when he was 8 years old and reading a book on Roman civilization: “Mommy, how have things changed so much from Roman times until now?” “One idea at a time, honey”, I answered him.

So, to evolve, we must protect the notion of ideas; that’s how we change. However it’s the sharing of ideas that has value and so we try to reward that. In comes art.

Art often deals with ideas surrounding the human experience. When I see a xxxx sell for $100million, I don’t take offense at perceived art market vagaries, rather I think “wow that’s cool that humans value the reflection on our own experience that much!”

Really powerful expressions of ideas, the ones that effect change, often produce somewhat of a state of “shock.” It’s such a fundamental shift in how we think about something that we feel surprise.

Often people will confuse that sense of “shock” or “surprise” emanating from true change with the desire to simply produce “shock” and “surprise” as if that in itself could produce change. And so you see lots of work that sets out to shock.

We see this run rampant in the contemporary art world, often leading to disdainful reviews of art. Fundamentally, truly, while we want to respect everyone’s expression, some expressions simply don’t effect as big a change of state as others. And that’s OK; we need to fundamentally embrace the notion of failure as part of the process of creation. Perhaps down the road, when seen with a different set of circumstances, that very same work can take on more power. Or not. And so it is our job to encourage the expression of ideas and not to dismiss/destroy them too quickly until they are more fully understood,  and to share them.

We value the work as “good” based on criteria that keep changing because we are in fact judging it against a changing human condition. This fact often leads to a sense of injustice on the part of artists. In a legal sense, for example, “justice” involves knowing your accuser and knowing of what charge you are accused. In the art world you are judged, but not sure by whom and for what. No one will give you formal criteria: “your technique is bad” for example because those have been dismissed as notions that miss the whole point of art.

So if you look at why society values art, it is mostly because of the inherent power of the expression of an idea to induce a change of state.

This begs the question, “do our social and systemic structures support or thwart this process?” It’s clearly an important process in human advancement, just as important as any scientific advancement.

The Difficulty of Innovating

It’s difficult to imagine New York without Central Park, the lungs of the city and the space you can retreat to in the urban jungle. Yet that took vision and foresight in a time when urban planning and public spaces weren’t as valued as they are today.

The Denver architect David Tryba recommended the biography of Frederick Law Olmsted by Rybczynski ,  “A Clearing in the Distance”, to me. It’s a good read to think about urban spaces, public spaces, framing the community dialogue and the importance of innovating.

The most interesting passage to me was that in which Rybczynski describes the difficulty of being yourself, of innovating before something is widely understood in society:

“Olmsted was an organizer when organization was considered a symptom of “monomania,” and a long-range planner in a period that thought of planning as “mysterious.” He was a landscape architect before that profession was founded, designed the first large suburban community in the United States, foresaw the need for national parks, and devised one of the country’s first regional plans. Above all, he was an artist who chose to work in a medium that then– even more than now– lacked public recognition. He was an innovator and pioneer largely by chance. But, as Louis Pasteur, an exact contemporary of Olmsted, once observed, ‘Chance favors only the mind that is prepared.’ Olmsted’s preparation was not based on formal training or education. What laid the groundwork for his later achievements was an amalgam of sensibility and temperament, coupled with an unusual set of formative experiences.”
(page 23, Chapter Two)


From Analog Surrogates => Camping

Airstream copy

A gifted teacher changes you. Linda Tanis taught an experimental, gifted program in the public schools of Hendry County, Florida, in the late ’70s, and the two years I participated changed my life. She was a volunteer firefighter who would overturn old school buses and set them on fire to practice fire rescue and train the men in town. She went camping in Canada with two friends for a month each summer and brought us films on reels with the most pristine forest views one could imagine. Her passion for conservation filled my soul with awe. She showed us films like Soilent Green. She put 4th graders to work on computers in 1978; I remember the dreaded haunted house trap doors awaiting in a single text word on screen and the ensuing gasp. She formed the conviction in my mind that women are fearless.

I dreamt of camping from the time I saw her first film and could fumble through the camping section of the Sears catalogs of 1979. I’ve now (tent) camped in nearly every state in the union except maybe Washington, Oregon and Minnesota. Several years ago we also bought an Airstream from 1973 on eBay to take our boys around Colorado on more extended trips. Kurt and I got tired of breaking down camp for 4 people and moving it every two days.

When we speak of digital surrogates, as in a digital image standing-in for the original work of art, I think of those catalogs as “analog surrogates”. They don’t “stand-in” for anything; what they do is light a forest fire in your imagination. I think of 7-year-old-me lying in bed basking in the campfire glow on the printed page. I never bought a thing. If you looked at them from a consumer/advertising perspective, you’d miss the whole point. Yet I would say they are a huge part of my childhood for the camping gear sections were the *only* access to camping I had at that time. I think I’ll go look for one of those ’70s catalogs on eBay…

SearsCatalog1979 copy

No more GENIUSES, please! It’s tiring.

Yea, yea, he’s a genius. We’re seven billion people on the planet, and he’s the one. No, thanks. I don’t think that serves us mathematically.

It’s much more useful to think of a “SUBJECTIVE PERSONALITY” than perpetuate the cult of “genius”.

Lately, I’ve been thinking very much that we seem to have a fundamental MATH problem in the arts. I don’t think we understand the statistical pervasiveness underlying creativity and as such tend to focus on the wrong things, like the notion of “genius.” We need to step back a bit and look at larger populations, and recognize that a large part of the population is struggling to develop more robust skill sets for harnessing creativity instead of perpetuating the notion of “exceptionalism” and “genius”. As a society, we would stand to learn more from one another.

Johnson O’Connor’s (1891-1973) research sheds some light in this area.  O’Connor writes about the “subjective” versus the “objective” personality type. One is not better than the other; he isn’t passing judgment as we tend to do when we think of an “objective” person as perhaps being more impartial. Rather, O’Connor uses these terms to signify how we relate to one another. When tested, “objective” persons will give the same response to a query as a large group of others while “subjective” persons will give very different answers. For example, when I took one of his tests twenty years ago, I was asked to state the first thing that came to mind when prompted with certain words:


We went through hundreds of words, quickly. Sometimes people list things that are opposites and sometimes they are commonly related in other ways.  Fascinatingly, statistically, very many of us give the exact same words. A “subjective” person, however, starts to deviate from the most common answer. I, for example, answered “A Poem by Federico Garcia Lorca” when prompted with the word “death”, the poet’s melancholy mood filling my mind. That, clearly, is my own response. An “objective” person would have likely  answered, “Life and Death.”

You could dismiss this if it was just a comparison of a few people. What’s really interesting is that they’ve been doing this at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation since 1929, and after working with hundreds of thousands of people, of course patterns become very clear. Persons that do well in business, for example, tend to be more “objective”, giving similar answers to one another, and because they relate to a larger group of people, do better socially with those groups.

I find O’Connor a thinker well before his time, and though some of the writing is difficult to get through for all the technical references to the tests, there is some extremely good insight well worth seeking out. Below is one of my favorite passages. In the introduction to his book of 1948, The Unique Individual, Johnson O’Connor writes:

“Three-quarters of all men and women belong by nature to one personality type, the remainder to another. From the objective multitude come prosperous business men, from the extremely subjective minority come creative artists, gifted writers, lyric poets, scrupulous surgeons, diligent scientists, and unworldly musicians. The easy momentum of the conservative majority carries the civilized world from day to day, as a revolving fly wheel, once in heavy motion, carries a reciprocating engine smoothly past each successive stalling point; while the explosive minority furnish the impulsive driving force.

In the considered choice of a lifelong career, men and women who score extremely subjective must face the disadvantage of belonging to the outnumbered species. In place of counting on the established three-quarters duplicating their own emotional reactions, they gain their point only by anticipatory study and such prudent presentation that every verdict rests on a rational consideration of the controversial issue [think, entrepreneur’s PITCH!] . For this reason, extremely subjective persons thrive in fields of trained advice, as in the practice of medicine, legal counseling, engineering design, certified public accounting, and the fine arts, and only occasionally enjoy the jostling business world. [Today’s entrepreneurs clearly need to learn to navigate both these modalities.]

Extreme subjectivity strives obstinately toward an enduring goal, a better mankind, where lasting progress is not easy, innovations remorselessly criticized, professional standards not raised without a disheartening struggle.”

O’Connor presents the example of a dentist who is very dissatisfied and in fact a very subjective person. O’Connor continues:

“After reading the disconcerting biography of Wolfgang Mozart, this middle-west dentist felt little sympathy for the Austrian composer’s blind allegiance to aesthetic creation; and yet he saw the same symptoms in himself, knew that great scientists, glorious artists, and sublime musicians live turbulent lives, but leave behind illustrious works which raise human happiness to a new level. He typifies the extremely subjective person who sacrifices himself irresistibly to a visionary principle, who suffers in so doing, whose inner nature pushes him remorselessly to the precipitous verge of a mental breakdown, but who cannot desist; for the extremely subjective person contributes lastingly to human welfare at the expense of his own immediate comfort. To win the profound gratification which this man craved, he would not for a moment forsake his fantastic ambition. Fundamentally he demands speedier progress [think, entrepreneur’s DO MORE FASTER!], an achievement which depends upon still greater sacrifice…only tangible accomplishments, gained through picturing a problem and preparing for its solution with impersonal detachment, satisfy the missionary spirit.” (p. 1-2)

P.S. If you want to see a physical example of this, go view the 30,000 postcards created by Mark Mothersbaugh in the Myopia exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver through April 2015. There you will see a highly subjective person who daily gave the ideas tangible expression.

“Taking Risks” implies being able to do so

Ron Ragin from the Rauschenberg Foundation made a very eloquent statement about fear and the reality of taking risks. The Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF) held their annual DinnerVention in the Gallery this week and you can hear Ron speak of this starting at hour 1:09. The dinner called together young cultural policy thinkers to think about new solutions for the field. New solutions, of course, always imply risk. Ron highlighted, as a precursor to even being able to go down that road, that we must ask who is in a position to take risks.

“Most of the people we all work with and are alluding to, have something to lose…Legitimately, what governs so much decision-making about where we are able to take risks, individually, organizationally, institutionally, network-wise, whatever, has to do with how we’ve organized power and how we have positioned ourselves to be able to do that in a structural way.”

Ron continues: “If I have a mortgage and a baby to feed and daycare to pay for, I’m not going to come talking some mess to my boss that’s going to get me in trouble so that I might lose my job and my health insurance, if I have a major illness.”

See the DinnerVention video.
Read about the participants.