Artists have a hard time organizing. We don’t have a union to bust, don’t have annual conferences, and it’s not all that shocking. Take a bunch of individualistic, over-worked, buck-the-system kind of people and chances are they aren’t going to want to join a club, and who can blame them? For a couple of years I attended the yearly powwow of the Southern Graphics Council. This is the printmaking mafia, and while I ate piles of oysters at the first bar in the nation, and met genuinely good people, something in my nature wasn’t having it. My experience with the College Art Association was much the same, though it can’t hold a candle to the printmakers in terms of fun, and has to be some sort of academia run Ponzi scheme.
Primarily social networks, organizations like SGC and CAA have missions to fulfill, but advocacy doesn’t top that list. They put people in touch, but they’re not where the rubber meets the road when it comes to controversial issues. Organizing of this sort is typically left up to a few individuals with the willingness to put the money where their mouths are; reminding us all of the importance of expressing dissent, regardless of whether it seems to fall on deaf ears.
The recent dust-up at Arthouse is a good example. Brilliant for the way they galvanized the local community, Arthouse’s missteps reminded people that they have a real stake in the organization. It should have reminded Arthouse of that fact as well. Many have donated money and artwork over the course of multiple years, and as a result feel like part of the institution. Investment isn’t for fair weather fans on either side. Asking for community support and then disrespecting community dissent is a whole bowl full of bad karma, and I don’t even believe in that stuff. The fiasco resulting from Arthouse’s blunders is well documented and at this point I’m more interested in the community response. Did the outcry produce any results?
Aside from a Facebook event page, ‘Artists FOR Arthouse,’ and a handful of 5×7’s protesting the whole debacle, its hard to see evidence of any changes. Was Facebook essentially just a safety valve? Social media led the charge and put people in touch, but did anyone take over for the software and nail the treatise to the door? The crickets emanating from 7th and Congress, and rumblings of a possible merger with financially sound AMOA, seem to answer a number of these questions. If community members wanted concrete things to change, (I’m speculating on these) i.e. employ a full-time curator, pay and respect artists and their work, and don’t bow to the demands of censorship by self-entitled board presidents, a lot more needs to have happened than blowing off steam on Facebook and then enjoying a cocktail at the 5×7 party.
History’s archetype for this type of artist led advocacy is the Art Workers’ Coalition. Through its rosy lenses that act of organization, consolidation, and protest is temptingly romantic. Sixties earnestness is luxury territory for any contemporary idealist. But discounting it on that basis ignores the fact that AWC engendered concrete action and actual results. Love that free admission day at museums don’t you? Thank AWC. What it, and the contemporary organization Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E), demonstrate is that artists don’t need to be of a particular standing, or form a cumbersome global trade union. It’s not an all or nothing game, and these groups operate as regional artistic collectives as much as advocacy organizations. Only a few people with the gumption to speak up, and the fortitude to keep feet to the campfire, are necessary to initiate serious reforms that end up benefiting everyone.