The Generosity of Cultural Production: A Conversation with Sharon Louden
Sharon Louden is an artist, educator, and advocate for the arts based in Minneapolis, MN and New York, NY. She is also the editor of the Living and Sustaining a Creative Life series and is currently on a book tour for the second book in the series entitled, Artist as Culture Producer. In this book, Louden gathers 40 artists from around the US and several from abroad, and she asks them to share their personal stories about what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. Much like Louden, many of the artists in the book have practices that extend outside of the studio and aim to be agents for change in their various communities. As Louden states in the preface to the book, these artists are “on the front lines but hidden in plain sight, informing, educating, inspiring, challenging conventional wisdom, and helping us with their creativity to solve problems and contribute to the well-being of others.”
In our conversation, Louden shares insights that she has gleaned from the book about the roles that artists play in our lives and perils of insufficiently understanding the contributions that they make in our society:
Miriam Kienle: In your first book in the Living and Sustaining a Creative Life series, you gathered 40 artists who spoke openly about their day-to-day lives as artists and the various realities of sustaining their creative practice. The new book in this series centers on “Artist as Culture Producer.” Would you talk a bit about what a culture producer is or does, and how that differs from commonplace image of the artists in popular media?
Sharon Louden: Yes, great question. The book series started because I was moderating a College Art Association panel in February 2011 entitled “How to Make a Living as an Artist (With or Without a Dealer).” My publisher was in the audience and said that she would love for me to write a book, but I told her that I didn’t feel comfortable writing, so I proposed bringing together the narratives of artists who I saw as having a unique approach to making their creative practices sustainable.
When I graduated with my MFA, people had these preconceived notions that you either had to be represented by a gallery or you were a failure as an artist. Now those ideas have begun to change and we see that there many ways to make a living as an artist. What I would like to see happen more often would be for artists to share with one another. I believe that generosity is extremely important and that generosity yields generosity. Therefore, it was key that in these books — especially my second book — we feature artists supporting other artists, and artists forming bridges between the art world and the public realm in order to create spaces for interaction and progress. These artists are culture producers.
To answer the second part of your question, when I went on the tour for the first book, people in the audience would marvel at the fact that I was an “artist” and that I had taken a shower and didn’t have paint in my hair and was highly productive.
MK & SL: [Laughter]
SL: But when I would explain that I was a “cultural producer,” they were curious and asked lots of questions. The title of “artist” has so much weight and so many stereotypes that, to me, it doesn’t match who we are today. Artists exist in divergent sectors of society — be they corporate, educational, technological, environmental, or medical, to name a few — and they affect our everyday well-being.
MK: In your comments, as well as in the book, resourcefulness and generosity seem to be important recurring themes. Perhaps you could elaborate on those themes and how they affected your choice of artists or any directives you gave the contributors?
SL: First, I selected the artists after doing a ton of research and asking many people who I respect to suggest artists that were generous to their communities and to other artists. These artists had to make opportunities for others and be loving, giving people. In other words, not narcissistic individuals who aim to dominate the market place, but rather, people who are leaders in their communities, go outside of their studios, and have a substantial presence in the public realm. So because the artists in the book fit these criteria, they naturally wrote in a manner that spoke to their generosity. Therefore, I didn’t have to give them this kind of directive. But I did ask them questions like: “Can you write about your life and the aspects of your life or markers in your life that created an armature for sustaining your creative practice?” These base questions are similar to what I wanted answered from the artists featured in my first book, but for The Artist as Culture Producer, I demanded a lot more. My first book started conversations; I believe my second book completes them. After I completed the 62-stop tour for the first book, I had a better sense of the kinds of narratives that were missing in today’s discourse about what artists need to sustain their creative lives.
As I edited the book, I kept in mind that the first audience is always the general public, and the second audience is the art world. So part of my mission was to have the general public know that artists exist as viable and vital part of society, and also to provide artists with compelling, sustainable models. Therefore, I required that the contributors not give advice and write in a way that was legible to people who had never met an artist before. As a result, just like the first book, I think this second one is also very accessible.
MK: Yes, the essays seem very much rooted in the artists’ narratives about their lives and their approaches to engaging the public, and is written in a very approachable way. Perhaps you could give some outstanding examples from the book of artists who embody this generosity and spirit of public outreach, and make clear to the general public the necessity of the arts to our society.
SL: Yes, well actually, starting with the book’s introduction by Hrag Vartanian, Editor-In-Chief and Co-founder of Hyperallergic, I see him as a leader in bringing art to the public and empowering artists to see their own value in society. He does this not only through Hyperallergic and his criticism, but in the many hats he wears, whether they be in curating, teaching, lecturing, or his photography.
As far as the stories in the book, Edgar Arceneaux’s Watts House Project (WHP) immediately comes to mind [a “collaborative artwork in the shape of neighborhood redevelopment” in Los Angeles that used local skills to renovate homes and create green spaces in the neglected area around historic Watts Towers by Simon Rodia]. Even though, in his words, this project “failed,” in the ten years that it did exist, with his guidance, it really cultivated and changed an entire neighborhood.
Another person is Brett Wallace, who was hired by LinkedIn partly because of the unique skills he possesses as an artist — namely being a self-starter, motivated, and creating things from nothing. Also, as an artist, he responds to, and contributes to changing that corporate culture despite being inside it. Additionally, he exposes so many other people to the value of contemporary art through The Conversation Project that he started with his wife Laura. This interview-based project informs the general public (particularly the corporate world) about the perspectives and contributions of key figures in the art world.
Another artist is Sharon Butler. She started a blog called Two Coats of Paint in Mystic, CT, because she felt that painting was being neglected in the blogosphere and wanted to gather a community interested in painting around her. Her blog then expanded to other ideas and projects including a residency out of her studio for other artists and a “$50 Stock Club” where she gathered artists to invest in stocks together. She also exchanges a lot with other artists by regularly seeing exhibitions and doing studio visits; her generosity is infinite.
So those are several good examples of artists who immediately come to mind when I think of the giving spirit and public mindedness that the book captures. These artists are just a few in The Artist as Culture Producer who share that spirit of generosity.
MK: Similarly, the photographer Alec Soth in St. Paul, MN, who started the blog Little Brown Mushroom and the Winnebago Workshop [“a free mobile classroom for teenagers”] spoke about how the various facets of his creative life overlap and all inform and fuel one another — from making photographs and art writing, to community art projects and raising a family. You too have many aspects of your practice from making paintings and animations to large-scale public installations and community art projects, as well as this book series. How do the various parts of your creative life inform one another, and has the book series inspired or transformed your creative practice?
SL: It has made me want to work more collaboratively. On this book tour, I will really try to work collaboratively. I’m an artist who works on site and does a lot of different things. My own work never stops. As we speak, we are driving to one of the 95 venues on the book tour, and I’m doing a phone interview with you, but later I might be drawing. This is just how I work. But the book has helped generate a lot of different ideas about collaboration and approaches to art making for me.
MK: You have done some collaborative work in the past with Glowtown (1999-present) and some of your installations have been collaborative. What are some of the new collaborations that the book project has sparked? As you say, the book itself is also a collaboration. Many of the artists who contributed will be going out on the road with you.
SL: Yes, and I didn’t know half the artists before I started, so for me I cultivated a community by just doing this project. At the book launch at The Strand in New York a couple of weeks ago, there were about 17 or 18 contributors present, and many of them had not really known one another and now they do. It’s really exciting for me in this way, and I can’t wait for the third book to come forward!
But getting back to your question, yes, Glowtown is a collaboration that I really love doing with kids. We take dental rolls, glue, cardboard, recycled materials and luminous paint to build a town that is transformed when the lights are turned out. We are supposed to do a Glowtown workshop this fall, but I’m open to doing even more collaborative projects. Meeting all these people on the tour allows me to think differently about making work.
MK: So you didn’t know many of these artists before you started the book project. What was the process of sourcing the artists?
SL: I vetted the artists by talking to various people, reading about them, followed them on social media, and did basic research for each person. One of the benefits of being 52 years old is that I can lean on people that I have known for many years and trust their opinion. But I also met them through social media — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — and followed them and started to get to know them and how they operate in their communities. Morehshin Allahyari, for example — I met her through Twitter. She is an Iranian-born artist who uses new media to address issues of censorship, diaspora, and self-exile. Her personal story worked well and I wanted to get to know her through the experience of working with her on this book.
There are people who I sought out on my own, and others who were referred to me by friends. And actually, one of the artist-contributors solicited me, Carron Little. She remembered being on a panel with me and reached out to me via Facebook. She is a Scottish artist who lives and works in Chicago. She works in various media and has an interesting story. The way that she contacted me about contributing to the book was so sincere, and after a lengthy back and forth, it was undeniable that she had to be a part of the project.
MK: After reading the book, I was struck by how well all of the artists’ stories dovetail. Also, the foreword by Hrag Vartanian and the concluding essays by Chen Tamir [Curator at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tel-Aviv], Courtney Fink [director and co-founder of Common Field], and Deana Haggag [President and CEO of United States Artists] serve as such excellent bookends to all of these diverse artists’ essays in the middle. I love the utopian bent of Hrag’s text where he asks readers to imagine a world where artists were made integral to every aspect of our lives — in hospitals and healing spaces, on the street creating furniture that encourages community and reflection, in the government helping our leaders actually connect with the people. At the end of the book, however, Chen, Courtney, and Deana ask us to think about what our world would be like without the arts. They discuss the dangers of cutting NEA funding or not having artists’ voices to dissent against mainstream media. How did you select these authors and arrive at this structure for the book?
SL: I wasn’t actually thinking about it in those terms, I just knew that each of them were going to be really good voices for the book. Courtney, Deana, and Chen were all really different and geographically diverse — Deana was in Baltimore, Courtney in California, and Chen in Tel-Aviv. I was interested in how despite the fact that all three of them were living in different locations and experiencing different people, there were continuities in their messages. I knew that I needed each of them to be part of that defense of the arts, as you say, and because they are powerful women coming from different perspectives.
MK: On that last point, the prominence of women’s voices in the book really spoke to me. The book has 22 women and 18 male artists and, unlike the art world, in which men are disproportionately represented in relation to their female colleagues, your book is more balanced and features more women than men. Can you talk about that choice?
SL: Yes, it was very important to me to have more women than men. It was highly intentional in this book as well as the first book. I tried to find women with many different perspectives and who would serve as good role models for other women. I’m grateful to a lot of women in my life who kick ass and I want to represent that. So in my third book, I will include even more women. It will be 2/3 women and 1/3 men. I make a concerted effort to have more women in the books because I feel they are generally underrepresented. I love men, but I need women to shine a little bit brighter.
MK: Certainly, that needs to happen to offset the gender bias of the art world. So you just mentioned the third book. Could you talk about that project a bit?
SL: Yes, that book will be called Last Artist Standing: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life and will feature artists over 50. I’m half way through it, and still selecting artists. I only have about 20 at this point and haven’t selected the contributors for the introduction or conclusion. With this third book, it’s important to me to show that artists transcend generations, and that the longevity of an artist’s career is a marker of success in and of itself.
MK: You feel that it’s necessary to have this book in order to confront the ageism and sexism prevalent in the arts today?
SL: Yes. It’s a telling sign that when I started consulting for Creative Capital, they told me that 2/3 of people who sign up for professional development are women over 50 years old. After hearing those statistics, it gave me the energy to do this third book.
MK: Are you also hearing that when you are out on tour? Are people expressing that they would like to hear from female artists over 50 because that voice is underrepresented?
SL: Yes, the response to the idea for this third book has been extraordinary. The public wants to know more about artists over 50, and those artists also want to be acknowledged and validated.
MK: You mentioned earlier that for you, one of the benefits of being an artist over 50 was that you have developed over the years a community of peers that you can really trust and lean on for support. Are there any other valuable aspects of being an artist over 50 that you have noticed in the process of working on the third book?
SL: Thank you, I appreciate the question so much. But when I’m in the middle of a book, I like to observe, learn from the research, and then digest it before sharing. I let it unfold, so it’s hard for me to say at this point definitely what those aspects are. If you ask me this next year, I will have an answer for you, but for now I’m weeding through it and just figuring it out.
While on this tour, I’m talking to a lot of men and women over 50 and getting their perspectives in person in addition to doing my own research on the individual contributors. So I’m really in the thick of it.
MK: I totally get that. It’s hard to speak definitively about a project in progress. So in the current book, one of the things that most spoke to me was the openness with which the artists spoke about issues of work/life balance. Did you find that to be true and maybe you could talk about your own experiences balancing your varied creative pursuits and your personal life?
SL: [Laughter] Challenging!
MK: [Laughter] Yes, I can imagine as you are currently on a 95 stop book tour, things might be a bit crazy at the moment.
SL: Well, it takes a village to do anything. I’m thankful to have amazing people around me from my publisher and distributor, to my husband who is my project manager, to the galleries who work with me. I have a lot of people in my community. No project I do is singular. It’s always collaborative and I truly enjoy that aspect. There are some artists who see their practice as singular, but I don’t see it that way. But my life/work balance centers on priorities and what has to get done first. I structure my day based on what is needed immediately, and try to be as organized as possible. So that’s how I approach time management, but how about you? How do you do it?
MK: Yeah, I guess I’m also motivated by priorities or deadlines. I will work intensely on whatever is most pressing. But also, and perhaps this is the same for you, I like to vary the scale of the projects I’m working on. I have a book project that I’m currently revising as well as a major exhibition, and those projects have been unfolding over several years. However, I also like to do things that are quicker and smaller-scale like this interview with you. Going back and forth between different kinds of projects helps to keep each of them fresh. Do you find that to be true for you?
SL: Yes, certainly. But I’d love to know more about your book. What is the book project you are doing?
MK: Oh, I’m working on a book on Ray Johnson who is considered an initiator of the international mail art movement.
SL: Oh, wow, I love Ray Johnson!
MK: Oh, really! Me too!
MK & SL: [Laughter]
MK: He has such an amazing sense of humor about his work. He’s always cracking me up. But the theme of the book is actually about community, and how he re-imagined the idea of community or togetherness as something that functions across distance and difference. It had initially been called “Community at a Distance,” but I’ve recently retitled it “Beyond Belonging.” I think the new title gets at the open, collaborative, and networked nature of his practice, as well as queer aspect of his correspondence. Biography has become an even more important aspect of the project. As I’ve been revising the book’s chapters and rewriting the introduction, I’ve been thinking a lot about how being a gay man with a camp aesthetic in a vehemently homophobic society shaped the structure of his correspondences and the mail art network that he helped to forge.
Additionally, I’m working on an edited volume to accompany the exhibition on mail art that I’m curating at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s Fleischman Gallery. The essays in this book examined how between 1950–1990 artists from around the world looked to the postal system as an alternative means of producing and distributing art. Particularly, how these artists circumvented elite modes of display and distribution like galleries and museums, and instead stressed the interconnectedness enabled by their creative deployment of the postal system.
SL: No wonder you like my book!
MK: Yes, I know. I’m interested in artistic collaborations and alternative spaces and so I really loved your book!
SL: Well, Ray Johnson is one of my very favorite artists of all time because of the openness of his practice. There are also many personal reasons why his work speaks to me, one being his daily practice of corresponding. I love the art of correspondence — the physicality, intimacy, and generosity of it. I send out lots of correspondence. I love the way that it extends a conversation. I hope that you will become my correspondent after this interview. I think I have your address. You are in Lexington, Kentucky, correct?
MK: Yes, I am.
SL: I’m coming to Kentucky on this book tour and would love to meet you in person. I’m excited to come to Kentucky because I think that areas outside of major metropolitan centers are having some of the most important conversations about art and the role it plays in their communities.
MK: Yes, I really enjoy being in the School of Art & Visual Studies at the University of Kentucky and living in a mid-size city like Lexington, because I feel that the arts community is very tightly knit, and yet also connected to creative networks all over the world. I’ve been inspired by the many artists in my community from diverse backgrounds, who have showed up in our city center with incredible handmade signs to protest the president’s attacks on women, immigrants, and people of color, the environment and the arts. In these bleak times, I’ve also been encouraged by the programming of our local art institutions the UK Art Museum, Bolivar Gallery, 21c, Institute 193, Infinite Industries, among others based in and around Lexington. Every day, they make a space for critical dialogues to take place about challenging topics like racial violence, gender discrimination, and environmental crisis. These spaces work with artists to tell stories that challenge problematic norms and inspire us to expand our sense of being and belonging in the world. This work is particularly important in a red state where these voices are minimized and funding for the arts is threatened.
Like many smaller cities across the US that don’t have much of a commercial gallery sector, our non-for-profits are at the heart of our arts community. Many of these organizations are in part funded either directly by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) or through Kentucky Arts Council, which receives a lot of its funding from the NEA. Many of the artists in your book talk about the significance of such grants to their creative development, and in the conclusion Chen Tamir makes a very compelling argument as to why we need public funding from institutions like the NEA and not just private patronage. However, as we speak, the NEA has been entirely cut from the president’s proposed budget. In concluding our interview, I wonder if you might describe the service you see art providing in our society and what we risk by defunding federal agencies like the NEA.
SL: The NEA provides monies for both experimental and proven projects in a lot of rural and regional areas so I know that if the NEA is abolished it will hurt those communities. At the end of the day, it also shows how little the US values the arts by not defending the existence of the NEA and NEH. Grants are not only important to helping artists with validation, peer respect, and of course money — but are also cumulative within communities. By that, I mean that public commitment to the arts, vis-a-vis grants, brings a heightened awareness of the importance of the arts to vitalize our existence, not to mention all of the well-documented studies that show that the more arts education we have in our youth, the better suited our kids are to weather the vagaries of life as they go through college and enter the work force.
MK: Excellent point. Too often we overlook how the arts help to nourish and sustain future generations. To that point and as a final question, I wonder if you might discuss what “sustaining” a creative life means to you. I like that word because it recalls the environmentalist language of “sustainability.” Were you thinking about that at all when you selected the title for the series? What was the thought process behind your name for the series?
SL: “Sustaining” is not just financial. Sustaining means continuing to make work, to be active in community, to have exchange, and to produce culture — not only in one’s studio, but as it pertains to playing an important part in the bigger picture of society. Sustaining one’s practice shows how integrated and essential artists are in our world: we have always contributed to the well-being of others. There are many ways to sustain a creative life, and my hope is that the books I produce will help bring stories of contemporary artists to the general public, thereby showing how we are integral to society.
MK: Thank you, Sharon! It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
Miriam Kienle is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky, specializing in modern and contemporary art. She has published articles in publications such as Media-N, Art Papers, and NY Arts and curated national and international exhibitions at venues such as Dorsky Curatorial Projects (New York), Krannert Art Museum (Illinois), and São Roque Museum (Lisbon, Portugal), among others. Her current book on the artist entitled Ray Johnson: Beyond Belonging, examines Johnson’s mail art practices through the lenses of postal history, network studies, and queer theory.
Sharon M. Louden a full-time practicing, professional artist who has exhibited in numerous venues including the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Drawing Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Weatherspoon Art Museum, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. Louden’s work is held in major public and private collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, National Gallery of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Neuberger Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. Sharon Louden’s work has also been written about in the New York Times, Art in America, Washington Post, Sculpture Magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as other publications.
Sharon Louden, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Artist as Culture Producer (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books; distributed by University of Chicago Press, 2017) is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.