For the majority of working artists who are not part of the art world establishment, there is a definite disconnect between what transpires in their studio and the big business of art. The contemporary market is a treadmill of fairs, dealers, collectors, auctions, art consultants, art advisors, and what nots. Economics is the motivation behind purchases when acquisition is solely for investment purposes. Others are interested in reflected status, art as luxury consumer goods. Maybe it’s never been any different.
The mind-set of the 1970’s, which was formed by the politics of that era, is gone. Yet there are signs that the rebirth of activism is on the horizon. Propelled by the dismal world situation, fertile ground for the regeneration of the socially concerned artist is ready and waiting.
Observing the scene at the Visual AIDS 10th Annual Postcards from the Edge benefit gave me encouragement that the “other side of the art world,” the one that showcases community, is alive and kicking. Hosted by the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea (epicenter of gallery chic), a preview party with admission cover, but free to participating artists, was jammed.
Approximately 1600 original works on paper measuring 4” x 6” were mounted in rows on the gallery walls. All the pieces were displayed in egalitarian fashion, unidentified. The list of contributors was readily available. However, the goal was to have people look at the images without reference to who the artist was, thereby focusing on the aesthetic connection to the work. It made me wonder how the statistics would be different if galleries engaged in a blind selection process, uninfluenced by gender, race, or age. I did overhear one person involved in the parlor game of “Did you find the one by Kiki Smith?” but overall, I saw a lot of gratified artists. In this open show, every one who donated work was exhibited. They understood the cause. As one artist explained to me, “I was affected by the loss of someone I cared deeply about. This gives me the opportunity to support a crucial issue.”
Amy Sadao, Executive Director of Visual AIDS, commented on the subtext of the evening. Postcards From the Edge is “a radically democratic show,” she said. Her reflections on the exhibit raised several interesting questions including, “Who gets to show in public institutions?” “What work is important for us to see now?” “Who qualifies the work?” The evening was beneficial to both artists and buyers. Sadao explained that in purchasing these small-scale artworks, it was a “possible way to start a collection.” Postcards From the Edge has made it on to the radar of collectors who target works on paper in smaller dimensions. Sadao told me that many buyers include artists, and that “now and then you get a gallerist.” She clearly conveyed a concern with helping to create a dialogue that might potentially forge career relationships.
Cards were $75 each, and 100% of the price went to supporting the Visual AIDS programs. The first day for sales was Saturday, December 1st, World Aids Day. Nelson Santos, Assistant Director, confirmed on December 5th that the final count wasn’t determined, but that “at least two-thirds of the cards were sold” and that it had been the “most successful event” to date.
Visual AIDS states its mission as “working to increase public awareness of AIDS through the visual arts…working in partnership with artists, galleries, museums and AIDS organizations.” Originally founded in 1988 to mobilize the arts population in reaction to the devastation of AIDS, it has evolved into a potent force. It’s original premise of a Day With(out) Art, spoke to the power of art…which is often overlooked. One of its ongoing activities is the Frank Moore Archive Project. This slide bank documents the work of HIV-positive artists, as well as that from the estates of artists who have died of AIDS.
Without question, there is an established art machine that isn’t going to change. Too many interests are well served. But there is plenty of room for artists, operating as individuals or in groups, to strive to make a difference. Most of them will have to keep their day jobs, but at least they will be on the road to participating in effecting change.