Art Squads: artist communities and artist-led initiatives as vehicles of change

Art Squads: artist communities and artist-led initiatives as vehicles of change

Community has become a central, necessary facet of contemporary artists’ lives, both in and around their practices. Recently, when I asked painter Sedrick Chisom to describe what he felt he needed most as an artist, he replied, “A squad, and hunger.” The concept of the crew, and a crew within a community, comes up again and again in interviews on this site, in critical and theoretical readings, and in historical accounts of artistic movements.

Chisom’s response touches on two significant aspects of artistic culture. First, the squad: the group of people, often collaborators, who also do what you do or enjoy the things you enjoy, which amount to a support network. And the idea of “hunger,” which he described as “a drive or sense of being propelled by something that has affected or changed you, and motivates you to act and engage with culture.”

Countless times I’ve spoken with artists who feel they must balance the two pans of a scale of art-related work: the creative side and the business side. Time in the studio to make their work is necessary, but they also know that in order to get that work seen, and, in short, to make money, they need to share it with others. Whether this means networking at gallery openings, sending innumerable emails and enquiries, applying for residencies or other competitions, or just keeping the website updated, it's practically another job.

So, one must be hungry in the sense that you want to achieve something, whether personal satisfaction with your work, notoriety, or sales, or probably (honestly) some combination of those. But one must be also hungry to connect, and to be engaged with the surrounding culture and artistic community. Because while the idea of networking has business-like connotations, the idea of a community, as a support system and social group, is perhaps the most essential element of all -- in order to maintain a sound, consistent practice, to receive useful feedback and advice, and to move forward with projects and ideas -- to make change.

I wanted to see if I could realize an everyone teaches everyone learns environment that was anchored more in skill building than conceptual thought. Weaving was just the process I utilized to get there, but it made the most sense as weaving is generally the universal metaphor for building community; many individual pieces becoming a stronger whole.
Ricki Dwyer

I wrote my Masters thesis on the concept of community and collaboration at Black Mountain College, a defunct liberal arts school in rural North Carolina, centered on a mission of education-through-art, where artists such as Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland, Cy Twombly, Jacob Lawrence, Willem de Kooning, and many, many more taught, studied, or visited. Its mission was progressive, when it opened in 1933: a liberal education through the arts. It was not an art school, but it fostered a community of arts-minded learners, and thus attracted a group of people who would go on to become great artists. But more to my point, it was an example of a heightened sense of artistic community: organized, mission-driven, creative, often dysfunctional, and a framework for numerous other groups to build and redefine themselves through their mutual interests and activities even after the college closed in 1957.

Sociologist Etienne Wenger would describe this as a  “community of practice." It can be loosely defined as a group of people who share a joint interest or enterprise, are mutually engaged within the community, and share a history, style, or discourse with one another. (1) Importantly, a community of practice is part and parcel of ongoing learning experiences. For artists — and I count myself in as an independent curator — this concept is not new, but it does elucidate the significance of being a part of a supportive or common interest group so that we may all continue to learn from one another. Wenger emphasized that through communities of practice, individuals are able to share with and learn from one another, define both personal and group identity, and develop and pursue meaning in their practices.

Art's function in our community is to bring people together. It also allows people to express their feelings to the community. Art is important because it brings discussion between others. It is a display of beauty, creativity, and free expression. ... It inspires others to do more, and in ripple effect, our generation expands its thinking.
Max, high school student, Appleton, WI

The community or network, however one chooses to look at it, becomes a way for individual artists to not only support one another creatively and developmentally as artists, but to provide one another with professional opportunities as well. Enter the artist-run initiative.

A natural extension of the support network or the community of practice, the artist-run initiative (ARI) is essentially a squad that self-organizes, often in the form of a collective space in which they can create and/or exhibit their own and others’ work. Artist-led initiatives began to emerge in the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and 1970s, primarily in the United States and Western Europe, when avant-garde art practices began to reject boundaries of fine art and the institutions that had, until then, defined it. In the wonderful book Artist-Run Spaces, Gabriele Detterer writes, “Nonprofit artist-run spaces mitigate the artist’s isolation in social and economic terms. … Described in part as ‘social artwork[s],’ artist-run spaces revise the conventional professional image of the artist and direct attention to the artist as a social being, and to the production of art as a collective action.” (2)

Artist-led communities take many forms. They may be simply a group of like-minded friends, or they may run a full-fledged art space. Some are only online. The internet also provides a life-after-life for some ARIs, such as Franklin Furnace, which was established by artist Martha Wilson in Manhattan in 1976, and has existed as a virtual platform since 1997. Since the 1990s and 2000s, artist-led spaces have influenced both the types and methodologies of programming at traditional institutions. (3) And with increasing visibility and user-friendly technology, artists in even more remote areas can access the art world via their computers or phones, and connect with more and ever-overlapping communities.

As artists now wear more and more hats, the cultural understanding of who the artists is and what s/he/they do, has changed and is continuing to change. A couple of years ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an article in The Atlantic, titled “The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” that “the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date.” The artist has now become a jack of many trades -- designer, promoter, educator, curator, organizer, dealer, and producer, among others. The perception of the artist as lone artisan, as genius is replaced by something resembling a professional. This opens up an entirely new debate.

Daniel S. Palmer wrote a critique in Artnews about the hyper-professionalization of emerging artists: “As the buying and selling of art has become more commercialized, so too have the artists, starting as early as their schooling. M.F.A. programs, rather than serving as sites for experimentation and refining one’s style, have evolved into monotonous trade schools and debt-generating networking clubs.” There has been a proliferation of MFA programs over the last few decades (don’t even get me started on Fine Art PhD programs), and increasing wariness about schools catering to the art market. It's a paradox that art schools still offer a minimum of guidance in professional or career-related aspects of keeping up an art practice, but as a whole they are increasingly geared toward churning out work by artists who are focused intensely on the market.

It is exciting to me to be able to talk to artists around the globe and have an exchange about what we think and how we feel in regards to what we are doing. I have been fortunate to talk to numerous people, both artists and non-artists about these things and in turn have multiple points of reference. ... It is great to have a sense of community that reaches beyond the confines of my state and country.
Nicholas Szymanski

For artists who attend art school, and especially an MFA program, an in-built community exists within the institution, which then may continue afterward through networks of galleries, artist collectives, or cooperative studio spaces. A genuine education continues in these places. But increasingly, the way many artists keep in touch these days, and expand their networks, is via the internet. And the internet provides a fantastic array of -- often free! --  tools for visibility, but has also been around long enough that there are billions of images of artwork out there, and more artists’ websites that we can possibly count. Galleries and institutions, as well as individual artists, can easily launch Facebook pages, Instagram galleries, and Twitter accounts. So when everyone is using these tools, isn’t it still just as difficult to be seen? An online community is an amazing asset, but it doesn't replace what we can find right next door, so to speak.

Using the internet, especially social media channels like Instagram, for interaction with the community, is a good way to build and expand networks. Transforming those contacts into real life projects is nevertheless very challenging. ... Positive feedback from the professional art community is definitely rewarding, besides the positive, and sometimes healing, feeling that the creation process triggers in myself.
Aaron Scheer

Communities of artists who organize spaces, produce publications, create alternative education opportunities, and more, will increasingly test the established contemporary art world model as we know it. More lines will blur; there will be more artist-curators, curator-producers, organizer-artists, publisher-producers, and so on. Systems may be developed to actually support and sustain (yes, financially) these kinds of crossover projects and, in fact, services. There are increasingly diverse ways to freelance as an artist -- as a creative entrepreneur. So many different hats!

Only in the last few decades have we seen a shift toward more and more self-organization, and it will be interesting to see where and how, in ten or fifteen years, both physical and online communities, extend, overlap, activate, and experiment to truly challenge the powers that be.

Kate Mothes

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(1) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Etienne Wenger, Cambridge, 1998.

(2) Artist-Run Spaces, eds. Gabriele Detterer & Maurizio Nannuci, JRP|Ringier & Les Presses Du Reel, 2012, p. 20.

(3) Self-Organised, eds. Stine Hebert & Anne Szefer Karlsen, Open Editions, 2013, p. 12-13.

Header image: Josef Albers' drawing class, 1939/40 via black-mountain-research.com.

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