some time ago, when Nowhere Close to Normal was getting set to open here at the Figge Art Museum, i was hard at work sending press releases to local newspapers and radio shows. during my email blitz, i received a response from Times columnist David Burke that bothered me. Here it is:
Hey, when you get a larger show up, can you let me know? I'd be interested in doing a bigger story.
i wasn't bothered in a "blow to the ego" way; i was bothered because compared to most arts reporting i see here, this was a big deal. David often writes about any artist he wants to, which is fine. however, sometimes he even writes several articles on the same artist, even if the artist (or theatre group) has nothing going on to to truly report on (kind of that "random studio visit" type of an article). so, things didn't jive within the context of what i knew about his articles. i didn't understand why a wide-reaching project such as ours was getting ignored.
but i digress. fast forward to yesterday, when David writes a column asking "What are we in the Quad Cities still missing from our arts scenes?"
i saw this as a welcome opportunity to get a much-needed discussion going, and thought i'd share my letter here on the blog. oh, and by the way, i've decided to not get into my past gripe, except for a mentioning of larger issues with the press.
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Hi, David. I read your “Are We in the QC Missing Something?” column Sunday and thought I’d chime in with my two cents about the visual arts scene. I’ll try to focus my words on one main “thing” without going into a long, winding, myriad of other thoughts I’ve had on my mind lately.
To answer your question, I’d say a particular “something” we’re missing is a larger amount of artist-run spaces and shows.
I don’t hold anything against the programming at our local mainstays such as Midcoast Fine Arts or Quad City Arts, but I do think it’s problematic to rely on them as the sole visual arts venues that support our local artists. The work shown at these venues goes through a juried selection process that uses both outside art professionals and inside staff to judge what is best suited for the walls of our spaces. This is not unheard of and is not bad — it’s the way things go with art centers. However, the possibility for the development of an in-crowd comes up, and the process seems to manifest itself via an exhibition calendar that features a very homogenized aesthetic. At the worst, we’re seeing the same artists in and out of the calendar slots like a revolving door, while other strong artists living in the Quad Cities are slighted. At the best, we are seeing some new names on the walls, but the work is still conservative, safe, and focused more on an honing of technique than an exploration of content. I’m not saying we need an influx of Serra-esque performances where people throw molten lead all over the walls of Bucktown, but I would like to see a more dynamic range of work being shown here, and I think more artist autonomy would make this happen.
I understand that places like the Kanga cooperative and the Peanut Gallery have come and gone throughout the years, either due to financial issues, someone moving, or an unfortunate fire, but every time something under the artist-driven, collaborative, and/or DIY model pops up, good things come from it. Some recent examples:
• The Sound & Vision space, downtown Moline (an artist-run hybrid space for art and music)
• The EX-CH-AN-GE and Nowhere Close to Normal shows from this past fall (artists getting together in collaboration, and in the case of the latter, an exhibit that eventually traveled from here to Denver, Los Angeles, and other locales)
• Clear Your Mind –(the handsome glass show curated by Mark Fowler) it culled work from all over, and the Figge actually decided it should be placed within the walls of their formal, main galleries (artist as curator)
I would argue that if an environment existed where artists were better able to take the power into their own hands — doing their own shows with their own resources and own artist-networks — these artists would not only help create a much more dynamic visual arts scene, they would also begin to see themselves as stakeholders in the scene. Heck, we might begin to finally retain the graduates of our local collegiate art programs. By the time some of these students hit their senior year, they have already decided they will move elsewhere, because the younger, “hipper” facets of nearby art scenes happen to be thriving better than they are here. I’m somewhat distanced from this crowd (I’m in my mid 30s), but wouldn’t it be nice for everyone if the next generations of artists stuck around instead of moving to Chicago?
I realize I’m offering a lot of examples of a problem, and not many examples of proposed solutions. The obvious answer to my wishes is for me to get my butt to work on finding my dream space and turning it into a gallery where I exhibit the work of local artists along-side the work of other artists I know from around the country (or hell, I'll bring some Canadian artist friends of mine here). But there is a limited availability of affordable space for these types of ideas, and that is definitely a roadblock towards the success of these endeavors. With all the talk about our downtown revivals, are there nice spaces available for short-term leases, under some sort of a program that sets aside some rentals to these types of arts ideas? Are there city grants that would help supplement the funding of such ideas? I’ve heard East Moline is actually working on this, and I know some businesses in this vein have recently opened up there. I’ve read about the plans ArtSpace and the city of Rock Island have worked on together, and I’m eager to learn more. I suppose I’ll have to keep my ears open and see what transpires.
If you’d ever like to discuss this any further, I’d enjoy more conversation. There are definitely other issues we have in our arts scene, related to peer support and even a cricket-chirping lack of press coverage, but neither of those seemed to fit within the discussion you’re inviting. Let me know if you’d like to talk more.