Sunday, May 25, 2008

Love and Money: Art in a Desert City

The Struggles of Making, Exhibiting and Selling Art

By: Kurt von Behrmann
(Prelude: Please note, a slightly shorter version of this article may appear on Print 'N' Post ( in a few. The version here is the complete version with all of the asides.)
[ Before reading, this article was a rumination on the subject of art. Being an urban artist and freelance writer living and working in Phoenix Arizona, I have seen some of the issues, problems and difficulties that come with taking visual art seriously. I have also seen the problems that come with freelance writing. Both professions involved long hours, low prestige and everyone asking, "Can you make a living doing that?" The answer is yes, and I have. But lately, it has been a hard hard road.

With the economy taking a nose dive, $ 4.00 gas a reality and the price of everything rising while wages remain low, everyone is taking a beating. But I have to think about the arts and just what will become of them. So consider this a rumination on what has been taking place.
After I read this piece I realized I answered my own question. Now I won't have to wonder why visual art in the U.S. at such a low point. The answer is painfully obvious, and just plain painful.]

For a long time Phoenix has been posing itself as a sports town. Erecting mind boggling large arenas -- the most recent a huge post modern curved facility in Glendale, Arizona ( not to be confused with Glendale, California ), the sprawling landscape of Phoenix and the surrounding areas has become home to every imaginable sport possible, including Hockey. Moved by the profits, and incidentally the prestige, each city that comprises the greater Phoenix area became excited by the idea of the once small desert town transforming into the ideal attraction for every sports fan imaginable.

Spending public funds like the boom economy was going to always be there—as we know that bubble burst --and motivated by the all important tourist dollar, justification for the investment was made using the idea that all of these millions spent on facilities would generate dollars. Dining establishments, night clubs, whatever, nearly everyone felt , and still feels, that this major splurge of funds would all lead to money being pumped into the local economy like a river over flowing .

How effective all of this has been remains debatable. Glendale spent a virtual king’s ransom on the Super Bowl this year. Depending on whom you talk to, and how they measure “success,” it was either a great investment or something that will become a great investment. There is also the assessment that it was a fiscal flop. The notion that building sports facilities and spending millions on them will automatically jump start a local economy has been held as holy grail. No one questions the assumption that if you build it they will come, and they will bring their wallets.

When you look at it the entire picture, the whole thing can be seen as a form of state subsidized sports. If the facility, or facilities, make money, private hands prosper. If the project fails, it is left to the tax payers to clean up the mess. In one of those huge media campaigns that manages to capture the viewers imagination, voters overwhelmingly supported the propositions that made this possible. While some saw chance taking and big business wheeling and dealing, to others it was just the price you pay for being a large city. Again, depending on whom you speak with, and how they look at it, the potential for benefits outweighs the risks.

While Phoenix moves into over drive on the “Sports Town” image, the Valley, Tempe, Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa have been working on the idea of being Art towns. In the arena of fine art, but most often cowboy art—those traditional images of cowboys and feathered Native Americans on horseback – the city most identified with art with an “A” remains Scottsdale.

Amid trendy shops, upscale restaurants and equally high end apartments and homes, Marshall Way has been viewed as the center for fine art in the Valley, if not the entire State of Arizona.
Not wanting to be left out of the rush to culture, Phoenix has revamped its aging, and rather small, Phoenix Art Museum. An over haul much needed, the largest of the Valley’s cities, Phoenix is not the only one taking art seriously via construction.

Tempe, which just put the finishing touches on a manmade lake, now boasts a shiny new art Center. A multi—million dollar affair, art spaces and institutions that were run from antiquated spaces or from whatever room was around now have lush settings to call home.

Mesa, the largest City in the Valley to the East, boasts Arizona’s most expensive art center, the appropriately titled Mesa Arts Center. In a strange twist, a City that repeatedly votes down property taxes had no problem at all agreeing to fund a multimillion dollar arts center, theater, performing arts space and educational facilities.

The steel glass sleek structure is impressive. Boasting room for every art form possible, and instruction and shops as well as large galleries, it is everything a center should be.

Popularized by those who are experts on urban renewal, the one element that can “jump start” the heart of an ailing downtown is visual art. Just add art, and prosperity and a sizable tax base follow. There could be truth to that. There are also problems. Just look at Manhattan.

Whenever and where ever artists have found a safe haven, in time that place becomes a draw and things change. Suddenly crime drops, white flight vanishes and miraculously a blight neighborhood becomes the seat of fashion. Just as the metamorphosis materializes, artists suddenly find themselves unable to afford the very communities they settled.

Like some wondering tribe, they are forced to vacate by sky rocketing rents. The process replays itself over and over again. Just as creative types settled downtown and made possible new communities, it was not long before an area high in crime suddenly housed multi million dollar penthouse suites. The notion that building nice developments is eclipsed in the quest to lure the luxury market to the convenience of a high rise complete with high H.O.A. dues and 24 hour security to keep the riff raff out.

The idea of art as a nepenthe for economic woes is not knew. Exactly how it works, and who benefits is wrapped in a blanket of assumptions.

Just as art brings forth new wealth, or increased wealth, buildings are part of the equation. The second part is making sure you have an “event.”

If you think art is just about buildings, both Scottsdale and Phoenix host their own “Firsts.” The first Friday of the month, Phoenician Galleries open and remain open late on those Fridays. Scottsdale does the same thing only on Thursdays.

As a study in contrasts, the Scottsdale event is decidedly upscale, sedate and user friendly. It can also be bland as dishwater. Phoenix First Friday is a sprawling urban event that contains a little of this, a bit of that and some of this. From pristine art galleries, to alternative spaces, some that spend most of their time as private homes, Phoenix’ First Friday is more like an open party where the focus is more often than not on the bands, the crowds and the outrageous.

Ranging from the serious to the silly, the artistic identity of First Friday is somewhere between art school experimental and people simply in love with the idea of being artists, but not always able to produce what artists create, viable visual art.

Inflamed by ego, prices can be high for the esoteric creations produced. In some cases, you can see earnest work. There are galleries that have managed to keep their credibility without falling into the “throw it on the wall and see if it sticks” mentality. Others full up spaces with the work of friends, hangers on and assorted others in the hope that somebody buys it.

Certainly, it is great to see art, even if it is problematic and often presented under less than ideal conditions. The problem is seeing the art. Having street vendors, musicians, or whatever else, hanging around, visual art simply becomes a backdrop for one large city wide party.

Initially, a small scale affair, the first years of First Friday’s were more art centered. Over time, success, namely large crowds, changed everything. The nice open feeling was replaced by endless throngs of people looking for something to do. Teens and “tweens” looking for a place to hang out, or do drugs, or both, found sanctuary in the anything goes atmosphere. Suddenly, there was a problem.

When the suburban kids, fresh scrubbed and use to being around those like themselves faced the realities of urban living, suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore. It was one thing for artists and their friends to get happy and high. But, it is another thing when you deal with the homeless and the harsher side of urban living.

Unsure of what to do, like kids everywhere, they asked Mom and Dad for help. In this case, the parents become Phoenix’ Finest, The Boys In Blue.

Feeling scared and unable to handle what most city dwellers just deal with, our fresh faced artists asked the City of Phoenix Police Department to step in and keep the poor and the undesirables out of the way.

Doing what any good police department would, do they got busy. They went after those breaking the law.

What the Police Department discovered was that some spaces were selling liquor, without out a license, openly. Artists who had no trouble smoking a joint found themselves under the watchful eyes of the Police.

Well, it is one thing to arrest minorities and the poor, but to interrupt nice white children who get high and make art is another. In a rash of protest, the very people who invited the Police to the party wanted to revoke the invitation.

Making a huge production about “Nazi” tactics, the very ones who were the most offended were the ones who made the loudest noise. Stories vary, but the gist of the deal is that with crowd, popularity and the anything goes attitude, at some point order was going to need to be enforced.

They should have seen it coming, but they didn’t.

Sadly ,the Police could do nothing about enforcing a more stringent quality code on the art.
At anything like this, there is going to be something for everyone. If you are looking for the genuine, the really expressive, or the works that are indeed fine art, one has to wade through a lot of “stuff” before one finds the goods.

I am not sure if it is lack of education, poor education, or a culture that seems to look at visual art as some aloof effete affectation best left to ivory tower intellectuals that is to blame, but the net result of art being consigned to such a lofty cold space in the main culture means connoisseurship falters. Lacking a historical background, or even a basic understanding of what aesthetics are, those responsible for the state of the visual arts are just as badly educated as those who are now creating the work.

It is not uncommon to meet practitioners of fine art totally unaware of even the most household names. Giacometti, Niki de Saint Phalle, and a host of others fall on deaf ears. While I do not think artists need to be aware of the minutia of contemporary art, it is alarming to see how little many of them know about an area that they are investing time, energy and incidentally money.
In a “feel good” culture that wants to make everyone to believe he or she is an “Artist,” this preposterous proposition overlooks the fact that visual art is a discipline. It is an area of expertise. No one wields a knife and considers him or herself a surgeon. But anyone with two eyes and a paint brush can easily assume the title of artist without ever having to produce “papers.”

It may sound “class” conscious, or “educationally slanted,” but without a background of study, what one produces becomes, well less. The idea of being born “inspired” is really an illusion. Even Mozart had a teacher, and a damn good one. The great Michelangelo had teachers. Though he frequently down played it, he was an apprentice and learned in the Court of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

The point is, genius, talent all of those things can arrive with birth. But they are just raw tools. It isn’t until they are developed and disciplined can they ever become anything approaching art.
The biggest “hit” that art takes is when it is handled by a luxury class that views art as either a form or therapy, entry into a higher echelon or a dilettante’s delight. Deluded by the notion that if they paint and go to workshops , the title of artist will fall on them like manna. The idea of this being a serious undertaking falls on deaf ears. Armed with credit cards and an eager desire to become “classic artists,” they strive to be photorealists totally unaware of why as they throw paint and congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Art, ultimately, is a simulation of life. I once said, “The difference between art and life is that in real life all the dull parts are left in place. “ Art is not reality, but a hyper version of it.

But all this aside, what these followers of the “classic” tradition wind up doing is never accomplished and never inspired. The mantra of wanting to paint the world as you see it reigns supreme. Expression, invention are still admired, but they are adored as constructs.

When art does do what it is supposed to, most of the caretakers of culture recoil. What passes for “bleeding edge art” is usually some stripped down tame version that is so neutered it wouldn’t offend you average Southern Sunday School Teacher.

These issues are not unique to Phoenix or the Valley in general. They are omnipresent on these shores and have been so for a long time. But not all is lost.

On the plus side, the City is attracting artists and art spaces. Crowds are looking at art, and we have some great new facilities.

Now the bad news, the art community has to beg for crumbs, support for local talent is nearly non-existent and many of these great new facilities are operating on fumes.

Rumors and back room gossip have told stories of some art centers that are hanging on for dear life. While multimillion dollar buildings are great, without an operating budget, they will languish. As great as all of this is, local talent is still seen as the illegitimate child compared to the sophisticated offerings shipped in from outside the State.

I am not going to argue against outside talent. There is nothing wrong with having outside elements. Without those connections, news, insight and inspiration maybe short lived. They are important to have. Equally important is support for the home team.

As popular as First Fridays have become, one would be hard pressed to find as many sales. Art lovers, the curious and the young venture out to see art in Phoenix. What I seldom see is anyone pulling out a wallet or a check book or a credit card. Sales have always been slow. Given the “new economy “ and four dollar a gallon gas a reality, venues will close.

One of the Valley’s longest lived galleries, and something of an institution for emerging artists, Art One in Scottsdale may close. Disclosure of the difficulties they are facing with poor sales made the local press. No longer a secret, the cat is out of the bag. The art market is drying up, and drying up fast.

Even when the economy was doing well, art venues in the City pop up and come down like some type of floating crap game. A gallery here, a gallery there, they come and go. The biggest reason for failure is fiscal.

Erecting a gallery and opening once a month is not running a gallery. Running a gallery means P.R. It means finding supporters and it means sales.

That does not mean you have to trash your standards to sell. What it does mean is figuring out your identity, your market and creating a business plan. The problem that so often comes up is that businesses are run with little money and no plans.

Although the Valley is filled with wealthy affluent folk, the reality is that their collections are culled from other places. The disconnect between downtown Phoenician Art and the audience for local creations is wide. The divide makes the Grand Canyon look narrow.

If that were not bad enough, there are no spaces offering art for the vanishing middle class. Not everyone can afford multiple thousands for art. Rather than cater to only the high end, local art has not marketed itself to the new collector, or those with more modest means.
The public has never been invited to the art party. As a result, art has taken a brutal beating. Like some hidden arm swung in the last round, art with a capital “A” has hit the mat. There will be no belts won today.

Between the inability of art venues to find supporters, and the failure of large scale events to attract buyers of any kind, the net result is a large city wide party every month . In the long and short run, artists and art has not been served well.

Should tax payers expect the City to step in, that brings up a plethora of problems. Having served on a City panel, and having been an Art Administrator, the process of how these panels work is a marvel of self indulgence and pocket lining.

Self serving takes on new meaning when you talk about government support of art on the local level. Incestuous internal connections and petty beaurocrats always watchful of their own turf, power and influence, what results from open meetings that are in reality cabals are public art works as unimaginative as the people selecting them.

Stripped on innovation, designed to please everyone and satisfying no one, the end products are usually disappointments that fail aesthetically, intellectually and artistically. By the time the products hit the general public it is little wonder that tax payers have a low opinion of high art. When confused, muddled and shorn of any use, the disasters that reign supreme are a mess. We have a total failure of a public art project that lines Baseline Road in Phoenix that one is not sure if it is art, or some sort of landscaping tool set up to help plants grow.

Even with offices and agencies designed to assist the arts, the money never really winds up where it can do the most good. For all of the announcements and love that is bestowed on the arts, there is precious little in the way of real support for the individuals that make art or those that support them. Sure, you may get a few dimes here and there, but the bells, whistles and hurdles are insane.

Even if you want to show in some state supported spaces, expect to shell out $20.00 to $50.00 dollars along with an application just to be considered. If you don’t make the cut, too bad for your application fee, it is non refundable.

Many years ago I attended a meeting designed to address the issue of how to show and support art with little or no money. Surrounded by pundits, professionals and officials, the only solution anyone offered was that of an artist who showed from her own space.

When asked how she was able to do it, she replied that it was easy.

Her solution was to max out her credit cards.

For artists and supporters stripped of cash, the idea of maxing out your credit line is hardly a viable option, particularly for those with limited credit lines in the first place.

As a general rule, no one likes to talk about Art and Money in the same sentence. Why? Art is supposed to be above something as “vulgar” as cash. However, without those pennies pens, canvas and a place to work cease to be.

I doubt if there is a single solution to the problem of what to do, but until everyone grasps the connection between patronage and art, the visual arts will remain consigned to the outer limits of U.S. culture.


Marilyn R Miller said...

Interesting thoughts, though somewhat too ambiguous to be understood.
I would like to see your art work.
I sometimes feel that artists have tried so to be provocative that there is no longer communication between artist and viewer except perhaps the artist claiming superiority in ability to feel and understand thier deep, hidden and usually base and ugly visual detritous.
Where did aestetics of beauty go?
Often I feel that is the reason for the popularity of "Western Art." The paint and colors are usually beautiful. The message is clearly communicated. That seems to make it obsolete because it has been done before.

Marilyn R Miller said...

Interesting thoughts, though somewhat too ambiguous to be understood.
I would like to see your art work.
I sometimes feel that artists have tried so to be provocative that there is no longer communication between artist and viewer except perhaps the artist claiming superiority in ability to feel and understand thier deep, hidden and usually base and ugly visual detritous.
Where did aestetics of beauty go?
Often I feel that is the reason for the popularity of "Western Art." The paint and colors are usually beautiful. The message is clearly communicated. That seems to make it obsolete because it has been done before.