Paula Cleggett, Emerging Visual Artists Elect DC
It was late January…snowy streets revealed blacktop only where traffic had tread repeatedly. Despite alarms from weather-casters and transit officials, about 150 art lovers crept through Washington’s wintry weather to witness the works of 42 acclaimed artists at a University of Maryland University College opening reception.
No matter the weather, this scene plays out across the region in varying venues – pop-up galleries, fringe festivals, street fairs, museum openings, and traveling exhibitions. “People are hungry for good art,” says a DC Arts Commissioner.
Like most cities, artists, gallery owners, critics, curators, collectors and the curious weave a nebulous network to sustain a creative community. Unlike most cities, the DC art scene operates in the shadows of national monuments, free national art museums and internationally recognized art centers. Cities across the U.S. battle against the pervading myth that you can only make it as an artist in a culture-rich metropolis like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. True, DC has distinct offerings and challenges…but clear indications show that emerging artists don’t settle for DC, they choose DC.
This article explores:
- How well does the region nurture emerging visual artists?
- What efforts lead the way in opening new markets for local artists?
- Are public and private support structures in place to attract and retain talented visual artists?
- What does a Washington-based artist have to do to get noticed?
The painter, sculptor or designer needs to navigate a dynamic and unsettled world of funding, audiences, and institutions to reach a market. In a city known more for politics than paintings, finding that market will require forging new paths, engaging social media, embracing a core community, supporting fellow artists, and, oh yeah, cultivating one’s artistic talent.
UNIQUE CHALLENGES FOR THE ARTS
The DC landscape…does it nurture or constrain emerging artists?
“This is not a city that manufactures cars or grows potatoes; the industry here is government and people who want access to government,” says Tony Gittens, former Executive Director, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
And that primary industry is what claims the headlines, resulting in reduced media coverage of art events.
“The media are not paying attention to the local arts because all they’re concerned about is politics,” says Lenny Campello, chronicler of the DC art scene in Daily Campello Art News. “People usually get shocked when I tell them that the Washington Post, arguably the second most powerful newspaper in the world, has a freelance writer that writes every two weeks to write about the galleries. And they have an on-staff art critic that only writes about museums. So the arts scene, the local arts scene, gets ignored.
“And the fact that a city this size doesn’t have a publication about the arts. It’s ridiculous. You can’t compare to New York. You go to Philadelphia, there’s four or five little magazines, freebies or whatever, floating around, just about art.”
Philippa Hughes, one of 17 volunteer DC Arts Commissioners, says that, “it’s not just the Smithsonian . . . it’s the Capitol, its K Street, I mean, that’s our industry here and its powerful and overwhelming and it really does pervade everything. So, it is really hard for a creative class to really thrive, when this city actually is built on something that is not creative at all.”
OVERCOMING THOSE CHALLENGES
Despite limitations, DC’s visual art scene is evolving and expanding to support more art forms. Jewelry, glass, ceramics, even fashion are flourishing in DC, according to Tim Tate, glass sculptor and co-founder of the Washington Glass School. “For some reason, DC has become a huge center for a lot of that creativity. And everybody in those fields can really benefit from the groundswell that’s happening in the city,” he says.
“This city is so supportive of artists , because when you’re here, in this small pond . . . it’s so easy to make your mark…..and once you’re respected in a city, you can take that and brand it outside of that city. So, this is the perfect city to be an emerging artist, I think. If you’re in New York, you’re invisible. If I was in Seattle, I’d be an invisible glass artist. But because this city has so few, if you succeed, you will succeed in more places than just DC because you have the reputation that comes from coming from a regional city” says Tate.
“So, it’s a great business model. This is the best place that I can imagine to be an emerging artist. This town,” he says.
Margaret Boozer, founder of Red Dirt Studios, says of the changing DC arts scene, “I think a good indicator is to look at the content of the crowd at openings. I think what we’re starting to see is that it’s getting very diverse. Galleries now are open late at night, they have bands, or they’re open on the weekends. It used to be they were open like Monday through Friday during the day, and so who goes then?”
How art is brought to market shifted with expanded use of the Internet, connecting local talent with buyers across the planet. Artists, however, cannot rely on social media alone. Human interaction around art will always be essential to advancing the art form as well as benefiting the larger community.
Who makes a community artistically vital? Says one observer, “The energy can come from a variety of places in society, and I think in a democracy that’s what’s so vibrant about it – it can come from a Ford or a Rockefeller, or it can come from Joe Smith.”
Key to engaging more Washingtonians in shaping the region’s creative character are dynamic, highly visible grassroots efforts.
What efforts lead the way in opening new markets for local artists?
People who make things happen, “creative catalysts,” break with tradition to forge a community that fosters inclusiveness, risk-taking, diversity, and opportunities to enable artists to collaborate and learn from each other. There are many in the DC area, and they invite others to join their ranks, as each would say, a rising tide lifts all boats.
Artomatic, the crown jewel of community-led creative ventures in DC, has presented free visual art experiences for 10 years. Volunteer artists, who trade their muscle and marketing magic for exhibit space, produce the month-long extravaganza. Unjuried, the art presented – typically among multiple floors of an unused office building – reflects the broadest range in local talent.
According to founder George Koch, one of the things that Artomatic provides is an opportunity for curators, collectors and gallery owners to see lots of local artists in one location. In developing Artomatic, Koch says he began to understand the relationship of art and a community, and why community was such a problem: there was no synergy in terms of space in DC.
“There are pockets of art but there’s no real center for art,” he says. He began to see that size does matter in terms of fostering a vibrant art scene, and that Artomatic makes a significant impact on artists.
Tim Tate believes Artomatic was a huge benefit to him. “We are probably one of the biggest recipients of the benefit of what Artomatic can do for those who participate,” says Tate. He showed his glass sculpture at Artomatic in 2001, selling nine pieces, with one sculpture going to the Smithsonian. That exposure pivoted his work toward larger, more prestigious venues and higher prices.
At the Washington Glass School, Tate and his colleagues offer an educational and creative work environment in Mt. Rainer, MD. He calls his business model “community entrepreneurial,” offering classes, renting studio space, and serving as an artistic and community center; it’s a for-profit business, thriving even in these times, that does not seek government grants. “We don’t look to society to support us . . .we look to support society,” says Tate.
Before joining the ranks as a Commissioner of the D.C. Arts and Humanities Commission, Hughes (lawyer turned “Chief Creative Contrarian”) founded the Pink Line Project, a vigorous nexus for local art events, calendar and commentary.
A decisive moment for her was when she presented a group visual art show called Luster, held in a former auto brake shop in 2007. Huge, pull-up garage doors, tools still hanging on the walls, oils stains everywhere rendered a space evocative of a New York art scene. Complete with performance artists, a DJ and a giant video screen, the one-night-only event drew a big crowd. Convinced there was a need for her orchestrating talents, Hughes soldiered on, now hosting or supporting at least an art event a week.
“Part of the reason why I do a lot of things,” says Hughes, “is because one of my goals is to bring lots of different, new people into visual art, because I have this idea that art can transform your life. But it can’t transform your life if you don’t get exposed to it.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY AROUND ART
Like other catalysts in this area, Hughes frames the challenge as: how are we ever going to expand our art scene and make it cool and actually attract and keep artists here, many of whom graduate from the distinguished art schools in DC, Maryland and Virginia. Some of them stick around for a little while, but many end up going to New York or Los Angeles.
She eventually realized that she could have the most impact by building community around the idea of art.
Red Dirt Studios’ Margaret Boozer taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design before expanding her talents in a venue perfect for her teaching concept.
Her students witness not only her creative process in making sculpture, but the technical issues that she struggles with, including proposal writing and documentation. “I can share everything about my process, like whether I’m building a crate to ship work somewhere,” she says. “So, I get to share all that as part of a teaching tool, and also what happens is there’s this sort of incredible networking thing that happens. Everyone who participates sort of bring their world and resources here.”
Her program is designed specially to be an incubator; you don’t move in permanently. “If you’re really participating you’re going to outgrow it, and you’re going to need your own studio space. So, one thing that’s happened is we’ve sort of made some arrangements with other warehouses here so that when somebody ‘graduates’ there’s a place for them to go and still stay in the area, still sort of contribute to that groundswell of Mt. Rainier becoming known as an area for ceramics,” she says.
ART DURING THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN
Are public and private support structures in place to attract and retain talented visual artists?
Affordable space for living and working remain high on the list of the types of support needed by emerging artists. While some would question why artists – and not, say, firefighters or teachers – would deserve special consideration, others would point to their potential for economic return as well as community stability, attraction, and identity.
Boozer and Tate are neighbors in the arts enclave of Mt. Rainer, and both have a strong education component in their programming. “Because artists don’t create energy but education of artists does create energy,” says Tate. “Artists are notoriously reclusive and obstinate and difficult – ask anybody! Ask my co-workers!”
Part of the Gateway Arts District, Mt. Rainier, as well as neighboring Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville, is viewed as a catalyst for commercial revitalization in the area.
Aside from the tax benefits she receives from living and working in an arts district, Boozer says, “This is an amazing area actually because it’s close in to DC and it’s industrial. I mean it’s a warehouse; I have a loading dock and a ramp. And my steel supplier is out here; the glass distributor is out here; Robert’s Oxygen to get gas for the welder, tool rental, everything you could want being a sculptor and an artist.”
When people think of an arts district, cutesy coffee shops come to mind, “but no, in fact these are the businesses that have historically been here and they might be ugly, but they are critical to why I’m here. The roofers are next door and they’ve got welding stuff. I needed to make a vent for my kiln, they helped me make it. And it’s what makes working here work, she adds.”
The Gateway Arts District, however, has not seen the growth it anticipated, due partially to the economic downturn. In this economy, most cities have favored basic services over arts funding, further eclipsing opportunities for artists.
In the first full year of the recession, artists sustained heavy job losses. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the average unemployment rate for all artists climbed to 9.5 percent in 2009, far surpassing the percentage unemployed among all professionals (4.4 percent at that time). By the first quarter of 2010, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for all artists was 11.5%, while the rate for professionals was 4.6%, and the rate for all civilian workers was 9.8%.
According to DC’s Creative Action Agenda, approximately 75,000 individuals working in DC make their living in the arts. Of these, 7,000 are self-employed individuals who act as sole proprietors. As of 2007, there were 2,116 visual arts jobs in the District, 1,200 of which are self-employed individuals.
Locally, about a half-dozen commercial galleries have closed or retreated to less expensive spaces – even virtual spaces – over the past three years.
Like the rest of the country, local municipalities are constraining their art support as city budgets decline. During his tenure from 1996 to 2008, Tony Gittens says the DC Arts and Humanities budget went from $2.5 million to $11.5 million for grant programs, public art and art education programs. However, that budget now stands at just under $8 million for fiscal year 2010.
“Any one arts commission can’t do everything,” says Lenny Campello. “In all the successful cities where art has really blossomed and become a leading thing, like in Santa Fe, what you find is there’s like a marriage between the nonprofits, the academia, the galleries, the for profits – they make it attractive for artists to go and live there.”
Hopeful signs are appearing however. Some art galleries have re-surfaced in different neighborhoods, adding artistic vibrancy and economic appeal: the newest being the Atlas district, centered around the revitalized Atlas Theater in Northeast Washington.
The Arlington County art commissioners and the Rosslyn Business Improvement District are hoping big audiences flock to Artisphere, a new cultural center in Arlington featuring three art galleries, two theaters and a 4,000-square-foot ballroom.
Among the variety of public or private mechanisms to support visual artists, Tim Tate believes the most important thing is to help them find audiences for their work. Some artists will never be huge, but, “they’re still doing the best they can. So in my mind, if you’re doing the best thing you can, if you’re growing, then I’m happy as can be and I’ll support whatever you do. It’s not necessarily about being the next Jeff Koons, it’s about making sure you find an audience for what you do,” he says.
“And then your job as that artist is to find the people who share your aesthetic. That’s what makes successful artists versus non-successful artists; you build a following.”
“It’s not whose artwork is best . . . no, no, no, no! Its how do you find a big enough audience to support what you are making. So if you can find that fan base, then you’ll be fine,” says Tate.
What does a Washington-based artist have to do to get noticed?
The imposing presence of Washington’s free national art museums and internationally recognized art centers affects the local art scene but does not diminish its vitality. New avenues and alliances are appearing just as less effective routes to art markets are declining. For the emerging visual artist, the path to their biggest market will require a creative fortitude equal to that of their artwork.
Tim Tate and his colleagues formed a covenant, pulling in other artists whose work they respect. They recommend one another for media interviews or artistic opportunities or potential sales.
“Artists believe that they can’t share any of the benefits that they have because they’ll be stolen by other artists,” says Tate. “We try to remove that from our thinking, we believe that if everybody’s watching out for each other’s success, and everyone’s happy even if it’s not your success, and can maintain that, everybody benefits. And indeed that is exactly what has been happening.”
Artists are emerging now because of social networks like Facebook and Twitter; online marketplaces like ETSY, and alternative arts and crafts fairs like Crafty Bastards. “All these ground movements and all these social network movements . . . that’s where the next people are coming,” says Tate.
According to him, the best thing that’s happened to the art scene is the diminishment of “gatekeepers;” curators and gallery owners once decided the fates of artists. “And unless you could get past the gatekeepers, you were screwed. And people in Washington threw themselves against the gate, all the time, trying to get in.”
“So, with the institution of things like Artomatic, the gatekeepers are gone. And the public comes in and suddenly the gatekeepers’ opinion is reduced. Because everyone else is there saying, ‘my God, this is incredible.’ These un-juried events, and Facebooks, and Twitters and all the other ones, are now the same type of thing as Artomatic – an unjuried format to get your work known.
Tate also points to the big art shows transforming how art is marketed. “Say you have Art Basel Miami, and in that, instead of one gallery with 12 little things, you have a hundred galleries – ten thousand artists – the best that they have to offer. And then, from the other end, the event draws the collectors with the most money. And so you’ve brought them together. So it’s too efficient for both not to be the next model for the art world,” he says.
There are quite a few artists in Washington that are internationally known. “Not just Sam Gilliam, Lou Stovall, Martin Puryear or the late Gene Davis, now lots of other artists are out there,” says Tate. “And that’s a huge change. Now there are so many models on how to succeed. So many people in DC are leaders in the world now . . . so that’s a great and wonderful thing to see DC actually become on the map all of a sudden.”
“Artists think there is one moment that will get them known,” continues Tate, “you’ll be in the front page of the Washington Post, they’re going to do a documentary on you, you’re going to be in a museum show . . . whatever it is, nothing catapults you into fame, except for 5,000 baby steps and working hard for years and years.”
Fine artist and native Washingtonian Joseph Holston agrees. “It takes years and years of commitment on the part of an artist to build a solid reputation,” says Holston. To cultivate a following, he advises that artists maintain and nurture their patron base, work consistently to provide them with what they need to spread your name further, and continue to grow – never allowing yourself to become static. “I believe people in Washington respect artists who continue to challenge themselves and whose work never stops evolving,” he says.
For many local artists, DC’s unique offerings – from monuments to embassies to festivals – energize their work, while contributing to a livable, engaging environment. “I love to go to New York; I don’t want to live in New York. It like takes so much energy. To me Washington is the perfect mix of great stuff to do,” says Red Dirt Studios Boozer. “I think it’s a really exciting time to be making art in Washington.”
DC artists share similar struggles with their counterparts across the country – advancing their craft, finding audiences, educating themselves. Art havens like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago will continue to hold particular significance for the art world, but for many artists here, DC is not a second choice…artists can flourish here. It is not just the “big fish in a small pond” syndrome; this pond has different nutrients and a different ecosystem.
Associate Director for Policy, The Curb Center for Arts, Enterprise, and Public Policy, Vanderbilt University