Hypothetical Art Spaces, and the Damage Done
On March 25th, a panel of experts were gathered at the City Club of Eugene to weigh in on a topic that has troubled the creative set here for many months: How do we fix the broken visual arts scene in Eugene. I happened to be at that discussion, and while I won’t get into a point-by-point examination of what was said, I will say that I didn’t walk away invigorated or newly hopeful that we’re about to turn some imagined corner. Indeed, on at least two occasions, the phrase “canvases on the wall” was said with something bordering on disdain. A sign of the “old” way of doing things, instead of a preferred synergistic hub of multi-use spaces that will, inevitably, further push 2D visual art into mere window dressing.
If I were to sum up my impressions of “What Is The State Of The Visual Arts In Eugene And What Is The Future?” it would be that many are awaiting market capitalism on a white horse to gallop in at any moment and save the day. Businesses participating in art walks were praised, the need for bank involvement was invoked, business acumen was hoped for, and “corporate sponsors” dreamed of. Meanwhile, statistics were thrown about to show how little young people care about museums (without also musing on how decades of cuts to arts funding has fueled that lack of involvement), how museums are “intimidating,” and how utterly unlikely a space devoted primarily to visual art is. By the end of things, a new visual art space was discussed in the same tones as a moon-landing in 1961.
I don’t want to repeat myself, but I still think we’re having the wrong conversation. We have been duped into thinking of fine art as a business model, an investment scheme for the wealthy (or would-be wealthy). Pieces of art are now potential lottery tickets, just ask “Antiques Roadshow” (“I found it in a barn!”). Everything revolves around a “cui bono” culture of buying and selling, and those who make the money happen are seen as primary movers in making a city and “arts city.”
Once the focus is on people making money, and hopefully spending it on the arts, the conversations all soon become about people (and institutions) with money. How can we make tech-people care about art, how about cash-rich marijuana retailers? Heck, how about Phil “Nike Money” Knight? Does anyone want to buy a building and put some art in it? At this point, the artist is pretty much secondary, if you build the thing, they will come, AND, they’ll thank you for it!
The truth is that without a healthy ecosystem of artists working with, alongside, and against, each-other, nothing is going to happen. Meanwhile, the arts outlets we do have (left) are safe, largely conservative, and unlikely to create any conversation outside of an aside between glasses of wine at the art-walk. Just ask the local Tropical Contemporary arts collective, who calls the Eugene arts scene “super traditional” and that it “doesn’t challenge anyone.” Will Karin Clarke Gallery’s new Biennial change things up? Only if it is truly adventurous in the work it selects, pushing outside of the gallery’s comfort zone, and risking a show that alienates the status quo (in the hopes of creating a new one).
The problem of history is that the winners, in retrospect, seem inevitable. However, art history has never been so simple. We keep waiting for a new Irascible 18, without realizing that those artists depended on gallerists taking risks, some without any immediate return on their investment, one gallery went out of business showing them. We don’t really remember that, we remember Pollock in Life Magazine, we remember Rothko’s massive color-field paintings as if they’ve always been, not the years in the wilderness experimenting. We forget that art establishments have almost always sided with conservative ideas of what’s appropriate until the tide changes once more.
If the visual arts in Eugene is going to be a thing, it will only happen once artists find a way to communicate, organize, and yes, show, in a way that understands that this process is messy. It will take organizers willing to take more risks, and make hard aesthetic choices to find voices yet unheard. It’ll take judgment calls that won’t make everyone happy, and indeed, won’t be eagerly embraced by those who think art is best enjoyed while shopping retail. I’m confident there are local artists scheming already, and 20 years from now, they’ll seem inevitable, but until then we just have to embrace the uncertainty of the present moment.