If you were to stand at the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet, you could literally throw a stone and hit four of the five winners of the recent Artadia grants. The Artadia granting process needs to be fixed, but to do so the organization — and the communities it focuses attention on — need to carefully consider whether these grants can honestly address issues of regionality in the visual arts.
“The majority [of artists] produce quality work in relative isolation. For artists who do leave their home communities, the decision to move is often an anxious search for an art infrastructure– a place with more artists, galleries, arts institutions and patrons.
“One of Artadia's goals is to help relieve some of the pressure artists feel to relocate. . . . By awarding significant cash grants to artists, Artadia also establishes a strong, new incentive for artistic excellence and professionalism throughout the United States.”
Artadia, a non-profit organization based in New York, awards cash grants of $20,000 each to artists in cities “not traditionally recognized by the art world mainstream.” On May 3rd, five artists in Houston received the awards.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the outcry that ensued. Four of the five winners are current participants in (or recent graduates of) the Core, a 2-year residency program here. Of these four, two had never lived in Houston prior to entering the program, and are expected to move away in the immediate future. Another of the four has already left for New York City.
In addition, out of an applicant pool of some 208 artists, the eldest of the winners is 33 years old, implying that mid-career artists (and certainly elder statesmen) need not have applied.
No panel-selected group will ever please everybody, and all the winners are serious, committed artists. But if Artadia’s goal was to help Houston artists and thereby enrich the cultural community of Houston, it failed. Instead — intentionally or not — Artadia rewarded young artists who are mostly on their way out of town. No artist who has demonstrated a significant commitment to Houston by living and working here for years won this award, a fact that contradicts the implications of Artadia’s mission to “encourage artists in the communities where they work and live.”
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the Houston Artadia awards were covered 100% by The Houston Endowment. The Brown Foundation also gave $70,000, local collectors Jeanne and Michael Klein made a “generous” gift to the process, and the Hotel Derek donated rooms for panelists and sponsored the awards banquet. Which means that, not only did Artadia not pay for the awards (a fact that is not immediately apparent from their promotional materials), but they additionally received over $100,000 in cash and in-kind donations. From Houstonians.
A Flawed Process
Applications poured in for the coveted $20,000 grants, and two different panels culled down the list. The first, a panel of three curators, two of whom are based in Houston, selected 15 finalists out of over 200 applications. A second panel of three out-of-town curators, one New York-based artist and one local curator (who was not on the first panel) was then flown in for studio visits with the artists, and to deliberate on the winners and attend an awards banquet at the Hotel Derek. In addition to the studio visits, the panelists were given several social opportunities to meet the artists and local art world movers and shakers, in an effort to raise panelists’ awareness of the Houston art scene and demystify the jury process.
All of which sounds great in theory.
I have been assured by several of the panelists that discussions were run very professionally. The panelists did as they were instructed, which was to focus solely on the artists’ work (indeed, when the fact was raised that one of the eventual winners had publicly declared an intention to leave Houston in the immediate future, an Artadia representative instructed the panelists not to include that information in their considerations). For their part, the artists agreed that the studio visits were punctual and instructive, and in many cases even enjoyable.
During the evaluation process, two commercial galleries in town representing one or more of the finalists hosted lunches for the panelists. Reportedly no artwork of a finalist was on view in the galleries, and no discussion of the artists themselves occurred. I can’t blame gallery owners for offering to host a lunch with curators who could be future allies in building artists’ careers. But whether it was a good idea on Artadia’s part to permit the galleries to hobnob with panelists before the final decisions were made is another issue. Even with no finalist’s work on view, even without the whisper of a finalist’s name, it is easy to imagine panelists being positively influenced towards certain finalists after an enjoyable afternoon with their galleries. The lunches weren’t a bad idea, they just should have occurred at a more neutral location.
After the studio visits (but before the panelists met to decide on the winners), a dinner was held at Project Row Houses with panelists, finalists, and artists from the community apparently connected with Project Row Houses. I doubt the final results were affected by this get-together, but to meet socially after the viewing but before the deciding cannot have been comfortable, either for finalists or panelists.
Lastly, the banquet at the Hotel Derek was, by one account, “ghastly.” Imagine a seated dinner and awards presentation, with finalists who did not win enduring the embarrassed looks from panelists, and the winners themselves being asked up to the podium, Academy Award-style. It is also impossible in one of these banquet settings to separate 15 finalists and seat them in any remotely egalitarian way.
Of course, Artadia had good reasons for planning things the way they did — the idea is that with more opportunities to hang out between finalists and panelists, a residual relationship would exist that could benefit the artists in the long run. Also, it was many of the panelists’ first visit to Houston, which will hopefully lead to more shows for local artists elsewhere. But the upshot is that an award process that was meant to be more humane ended up being even less so than is typical — and rewarded some artists who have not been here long enough to make a significant contribution to the cultural community.
The Issue of the Core Program
The Core residency was founded in 1982 as an enhancement to the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Core is a good program that has grown enormously in prestige, and it is a tremendous asset to the Houston art community. But I believe it has also, to a degree, been a victim of its own success. Since 1982 the Core has narrowed down the number of fellows in any given year (originally there were about 30 fellows sharing the same amount of studio space that is now allotted to 8). That means that each fellow receives more money and studio space, and that the competition has increased for an increasingly attractive program. More and more developed artists apply for the spots, and a residency that was originally an incubator for raw young talent (and the reason we have some of our best local artists who have gone on to make their home here), seems to have become more of a stepping-stone in the careers of fully-formed artists.
Is the Core really the best Houston has to offer, as some people believe? The fact is, if you get 200 applicants from the most well-regarded graduate schools nationally and internationally trying for 5 positions in Core, these people are going to compete successfully with artists who are plying their trade in Houston, particularly in the eyes of national curators. One panelist said explicitly that the work of Core fellows looks like work you see in New York or Los Angeles, or in the national art magazines. Which is why, given the panels Artadia selected, you see four Core fellows in the Artadia winner’s circle.
Going forward, Artadia will either have to change their mission statement, or find a way to honor the letter and spirit of it.
The most oft-repeated suggestion for helping artists who really live and work in Houston is to have a residency requirement of between 3-5 years (making visiting artists in the Core program ineligible). This would actually exclude the one winner this year who had no affiliation with the Core. But it would also mean that money raised from Houston organizations to go into the hands of Houston artists would get there.
Having more variety in the ages and backgrounds of panelists will also help. The second, larger group of panelists included people all more or less in the same phase of their careers, and with the exception of artist Glen Ligon and DiverseWorks’ Sara Kellner, the panelists all came from similar types of institutions. There were no seasoned veterans, but rather young curators seemingly looking for the next art star out of their own generation.
In the glory days of the NEA artist grants, there were only artists on the panels. Artadia should also have at least an equal representation of solid artists to curators on their panels — since who but artists can ultimately appreciate what goes into making art?
As for hand-wringing over whether Houston is a viable place to be an artist and whether Houston has a decent art community, I would tell collectors and gallerists to take another look around. And I would tell young artists that if what they really care about is making good art, then it shouldn’t matter where they live — and they should be thinking in terms of generating their own buzz rather than moving somewhere that will hopefully do it for them.
Rainey Knudson is the founder of Glasstire.