“How to Save the Art World!” by Debra Hand
Just like with every other industry, the pandemic has affected the art world on every level. Everyone has had to revamp the way in which they do business: the museums, curators, administrators, staff, fair organizers, auction houses, galleries, framers, suppliers, and especially, especially the artists. This mandatory reset has left even the most stable cultural institutions scrambling to pivot in place.
Like everyone else in the art world, I’ve pored over certain questions. As an artist, I ask myself — what of relevance can I possibly offer the world around me at a time such as this? I’ve tried to answer that question, not just for myself, but on behalf of artists everywhere who have been in the trenches all along, trying to create what the world calls culture. What is our collective relevance to the world around us as we plan the way forward? How do we continue to create and share culture when so much of the infrastructure we rely upon is effectively shuttered in place? How do we continue to keep ourselves uplifted? By the way, I want to say Thank You to each and every reader who commended me on the perspective I offered in my last article “The New Art World plus Life after the Pandemic.” Your encouragement was truly needed and appreciated.
Since the last article focused on artists and why we need them, today I wanted to talk a little bit about why we need the formal infrastructure of the art world itself, and specifically, the upper-tiers. I also want to suggest ways that these cultural institutions might save themselves as they face the uncertainty of a new tomorrow. So, if you’re at the helm of one such organization, please hear me out.
By now you know that the entire art world has moved online and it continues to spin on its axis. And although you may have operated websites before the pandemic, and used your online resources to supplement the main activities of your physical spaces, there are many artists that call the online platforms their full time jobs. This is where their galleries live, and where they have built communities of followers from the bottom up. These artists come from every part of life. Some are scrappy young art students trying to make their way through school with occasional sales; some are seasoned artists who hustle every day to engage audiences and refuse to give up despite rejection from the mainstream art world; some are online content creators who give art classes for free, or share videos of everything from painting to sculpting to art history. I bring this up because when the pandemic hit the art world like an asteroid, your world was able to spin right into the trajectory of the one that these artists have been collectively building and maintaining since the dawn of the Internet. Up until now, many of these artists dared not dream of being in the same room with you, let alone having access to your VIP audiences. Yet now, here you all are…together…everyone on one equal platform. With a single click or swipe, your customers can switch from a multi-million dollar art auction on their screen — to the open studio of an unknown artist working in their basement. The collectors, like everyone else, are adapting to an art world online. There, they are free to curate their own cultural experiences and, just like you, they are finding and building new relationships. Personally, I think this is wonderful news for the entire art world. There should have always been room for everyone. Now there is.
In many ways the top tier members of the art world have brought the cultural prestige of their brands to the online commercial space. If one can buy from the auction houses and the blue-chip galleries online, that eliminates stigma that art is somehow less worthy of attention simply because you didn’t attend some ritzy opening to acquire it. But with the 100% online arrival of the top tier institutions, also comes the historical baggage; an image long overdue for a makeover. The top tier of the art world is thought of as snobbish and exclusionary. Even if this is not true of your institution, and even if your new wing is shaped like a sculpture of a Gen X spaceship, that old image still lives in the minds of everyday people when they hear the word museum. And how everyday people see you, post-pandemic, should be a priority in your planning because this is potentially the audience that could save you. And pitching for their attention will be all about understanding what your organization looks like to them.
From the everyday people-on-the-ground point of view, the top-tier of the art world has always appeared to exist within the security of its own orbit – far off and aloof; making guarded elliptical revolutions around its hand-picked cluster of “art stars” while the other satellite-coordinates whirl in and out with the appropriate synchronization to sound the “who’s next” headlines: a satellite network of brand name mega-dealers, museums, international art fairs and major auction houses – all locked in gravitational pull with each other, to the exclusion of everyone else. Now, if this is the image you want the world to have of your organization, then no problem, the work has already been done for you and your reputation is intact. But if your organization truly wants to use art to affect social change and to build unity through culture, then outlining your relevance for the post-pandemic art world should probably be high up on your to-do list.
We have all been shaken by a pandemic and art is now more important than ever. People are longing for connection, culture, and community as we prepare to fully emerge from the aftermath. Art institutions should be there to welcome them, like havens of retreat and healing. From the art organizations to the artists, it should be about how we can all help each other to help each other, without any dampers of classism. If we, as the creators and guardians of culture cannot accomplish unity in the art world, then we certainly will never accomplish it in the larger society. So, not only do we need you to be saved, but we also need you to need us to be saved.
Art is not separate from life, not for any of us. Art is literally life as we know it. And if art doesn’t survive, well, I’ll just quote myself from the last article where I noted…
“Without art and the ability to create it, our existence amounts to nothing more than the mundane tasks of surviving…humankind is reduced to nothing more than a collection of microbial-hosting vertebrate roaming the face of this globe.”
I paraphrased a bit, but you get the point I’m going for. Art is culture, and culture is the collective means by which we conduct our existence. It’s where we get our say in who we are as a society; and where we get to weigh in on the mandates of survival. Not one of us gets to bypass nature’s directive to attain food, clothing, and shelter from the elements. However, we do get to decide how we create the solutions to those mandates. We get to creatively decide the aesthetics of our lives; what reflects us in our homes; the way we present ourselves to the world; the accoutrements of our ceremonies and sacred spaces; and even how we represent our rituals and belief systems. We get to wield the power of creative choice…a popcorn-tile ceiling versus the Sistine Chapel. These choices define our experiences in the world. And one of the most important choices we have as a society is — we get to decide how to tell our stories — individually and collectively. We get to decide the forms we preserve those stories in and how we will pass them down to new generations. We get to decide what lessons we extract from those stories and how they should be honored, or dishonored. We get to form our social infrastructure based upon those stories, either in celebration of, or in opposition to the narratives they create for us to learn from; and we get to use those stories to unite ourselves for the common good. All of these choices are brought to us through art in some form — and through art, they are made more profound.
Museums have traditionally served as command central for preserving and disseminating those stories. They are considered to be the thought-leaders of culture. Historically, they have charged themselves with the work of deciding what is culturally relevant for all the rest of us. They have saturated culture with their value systems which, in turn, have seeped down into every level of the art market. In many ways, it is precisely the upper-tier of the art world that helps the rest of the art ecosystem hold firmly together. Museums feed the notion that art should be valued and preserved. In concert with this, auction houses feed the notion that art can be a great financial investment. Furthering this cause, high profile art sales at International fairs, and blue-chip galleries excite the market and create new collectors who then set trends of their own.
So often, what happens at the top tier of the art market seeps down to every level, and even where collectors are only buying artworks because they love them, they are mindful that the work could multiply astronomically in value in the future. But, the main reason the top tiers of the art world should be saved is not just a financial one.
Yes, there certainly should be more diversity in this tier of the art world. And yes!…additional institutions are needed. All of that should happen as soon as possible. That does not negate the fact that right now, whatever cultural institutions are in place will be desperately needed because that is where the formal infrastructure for cultural gathering exists. The platforms are already there and in prime position to serve. Utilizing what’s already in place, along with institutions sharpening their focus on creating social unity, chances greatly increase for bringing audiences through the doors. Messages of togetherness, hope and renewal are vital for a society staggering out of the stress and strain of a pandemic.
On the post-pandemic horizon, the museums that will beam with relevance are those that are currently figuring out ways to bring people together in celebration of each other’s so-called “otherness.” The image of the museum world needs to be shifted. Museums are more than giant storage houses with showrooms for showcasing the scrap books of the past. Their images should reflect them as places of relevance and excitement where communities can converge and be inspired. Museums can preserve the past, but they should also help to create the future. Life is happening now, and we are in a generation where technology is all about making the “now” more intensely felt and widely seen. Museums should look beyond their catchy-sounding mission statements and into ideas that will make them relevant to the present day needs of the culture.
In the final analysis, the upper tier of the art world is a network comprised of both for-profit and not-for-profit businesses, and they are trying like every other business to keep the doors open and the lights on through a pandemic. And while the general public might tend to think of those doors as gilded with gold, the same concept applies. In order to stay in business, art institutions and artists alike have to figure out how to attract and retain customers. A $20 entrée fee paid by a billionaire looks no different than the $20 bill paid by a bus driver. Cultural experiences should be open to all who want to participate, but no one wants to enter spaces where they don’t feel welcome. When is the last time a bus driver union was invited to a cultural institution to be entertained by a program? What about culture represents them?
In the midst of this pandemic, as we try to anticipate a return to some form of normalcy, how will you make your organization, gallery, or institution more relevant to the communities that surround you or to the cities you serve? Your neon marquee on the global landscape might have blinked impressively pre-pandemic, but in the voice of Edward G Robinson…Where’s your tourists nowwww?! For a while, at least, the top tier of the art world will have to figure out how to welcome and engage the surrounding communities. And how much support they receive from those communities will be determined directly by their ability to both inspire and serve them.
Perhaps it’s time for cultural institutions to humble themselves and learn from some of the very artists who have long stood on the outside of those gilded door, looking in; those non “mainstream” artists who have long been pounding the pavement of the online thoroughfares where museums and others now find themselves searching for ways to reach audiences. While cultural institutions were telling the world what culture was, these artists were actually creating it, along with the communities to support them. In many ways, they are the experts on online art culture. Host an online “art influencer” night and hear what they have to say about creating meaningful art experiences online.
I have always respected how the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum, designed cultural institutions around the idea of serving the community; around creating space for everyday people to come together for community fellowship and enlightenment.
This, I believe, will be the key to saving the art world; creating museums that welcome like beacons in the community, rather than that tower with intimidation over the everyday person. They can create programs and exhibits that invite communities to come together, to play together, to learn together, to be enlightened together, and to be inspired together. Maybe some of the cultural institutions can consider skipping the marketing fanfare that seeks to convince potential audiences that their artists walk on water. Or skip the exhibits designed to elevate single-artist’s brand names up to the mega million stratospheres so that audiences can applaud price tags rather than the art.
Instead, maybe they can search for ways to create critically needed dialogues led by thought leaders with answers rather than cryptic art talks led by artists who float around on delusions of grandeur; or host a community paint party for families, rather than hosting artists who ask endless questions as performance pieces rather than as a true intellectual explorations. Asking questions that can’t possible lead to answers is not art at its best. And asking questions whose answers don’t matter is not art at its best. The answer to a question and the answer to a problem are not necessarily the same thing. Right now art has the ability to actually provide solutions that we desperately need as a society. In the face of a pandemic, who really cares whether or not a tree falling in a forest actually makes a sound when no one is present to hear it? And anyway, sound is created in the ear from incoming sound waves; so, no ears present = no sound present is my guess. But, knowing this, or debating whether or not I’m right or wrong does nothing to uplift either of us. I’m all for fun questions, riddles, and art that challenges us to think; but think about what? Right now the world is in need of meaningful and inspiring dialogue and art, rather than gimmicks.
The art world has spent more than enough time marketing art and artists as saviors who are examining and restoring the world via their cryptic canvases. But the state of the world reveals otherwise. And when you look at the state of the world – at every level from the ocean to the skies, to the people in between — what grade would you give your institution regarding its ability to actually effect change.
If your organization is truly in the business of using the influence of art to impact society and shape culture, then how will you use your infrastructure, your platforms, your influence, your name brands, your endowments, grants, or resources to position yourself as an institution of cultural relevance, not just for the select few, but for all of the communities around you. How will you attract and engage the interests of those communities? What is your plan for serving them?
Life during and after this pandemic, will require support and healing on every level – from our social platforms to our mental health. Think how much our lives have changed in just a few short months. Our human brains have been quickly rewired such that the built-in “fight or flight” instinct once reserved for responding to the threat of a Bangor tiger, can now be activated by someone who accidentally stands too close to us in a supermarket. This is deep stuff, and the art world can play a large part in leading discussions and creating activities that help to promote empathy and kindness among us. The populations of our cultural institutions need to look less like elitist country clubs, and more like diverse community centers where we can engage in harmony.
‘Interconnectedness” is the main keyword in this whole pandemic and it will be the enduring theme, even if we choose to ignore it. In fact, interconnectedness was always the theme of human life, and now we are all being crudely reminded.
In a new art world, how do you plan to remain relevant?
How the museum boards, art fair organizers, gallerists, and other regents of the art world choose to answer this question is yet to be seen, but I believe the secret to saving themselves begins with asking it.
I will close with another quote from my last article. “As we sit here currently, locked in our homes — sheltering in place, we have all turned to our artists to get us through this. We have turned to our televisions, our film-makers, directors, set designers, and cinematographers. We have turned to our phone screens to sedate ourselves with a constant infusion of images, songs, videos and other content brought to us by artists. We have turned to our books, curled in the fetal position, searching for momentary escape and refuge in other worlds provided to use through our writers. We have turned to our artists, and we have never needed them more than in this moment…”
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Debra Hand is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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