by Dave Kyu and Mary Ebeling
The following essay, originally published as part of the Citywide exhibition catalog, stems from a conversation on fostering community. The participants were Anne Schaefer from Tiger Strikes Asteroid; Mary Smull and Jacque Liu from Grizzly Grizzly; and Christopher Gianunzio from the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. Mary Ebeling and Dave Kyu moderated the conversation.
When defining the term “community” as it relates to art practice, one can’t help but to think of Moby Dick. The term is itself a great whale, ubiquitous in discussions about the creation and exhibition of artworks, and the pursuit of its elusive definition is endless. Any discussion about communities requires two frames if one hopes to make progress. First, “community” must be narrowed to define a more specific group of people. Then one must define a course of action. Do you intend to develop communities, establish communities, or foster communities? Are you seeking to engage audiences, expand audiences, or empower audiences?
However these questions are answered, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of arts institutions are counting the people that walk through their doors. Communities, audiences, whatever you call it—these metrics matter. Arts institutions want to cast the widest net possible. In stark opposition is a group like Machine Project, based in Los Angeles. Machine Project shuns the “net” model, and instead focuses on creating memorable experiences for individual visitors. Their “Win a Musical Trip to the Dentist” program gave Machine members the opportunity to win a free dental cleaning accompanied by a private musical performance. This Citywide discussion placed Philadelphia’s artist-run spaces, and their definitions and motivations of community, between these extremes.
The discussion’s title, “Fostering Communities,” assumes that cultivating new audiences is the core interest. However, this assumption was quickly proven wrong when discussed in the context of artist-run spaces. For the artists who largely donate their time, labor, and money to artist-run spaces, value is measured instead by the investment that artists make to deepen existing bonds and relationships among themselves. As Anne Schaefer described, “It’s a way of getting new voices in the mix, and new eyes on each other’s work, [as well as] new conversation. So one motivator for us is new networks—not in a ‘networking’ kind of way, but a cross-pollination of ideas.”
One such program discussed was Community Supported Art (CSA), presented jointly in Philadelphia by Grizzly Grizzly and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in 2012. Based on local agricultural models, the CSA sold 50 shares of artworks produced by nine Philadelphia artists. While the program primarily sought to create an alternative experience of art collecting, the deepening of community between artists was a less expected, but more rewarding outcome. Mary Smull described the CSA as a “psychic investment” by the organizers in the participating artists: “We went through this process of finding nine artists and it was like, ‘Hey guys, we made a psychic investment in what you are doing. [We] don’t know what you’re going to make for this share, but we are here to support you…and we are going to find 50 more people to support you.’” For the artists involved with the spaces, the primary goal is to support one another and to invest in the work of emerging artists, and not necessarily to foster or expand a community of new collectors.
When asked to consider the general public, the discussion became much more labored. Although quick to discuss operational differences, the group found itself unable to discuss the concept of a general public. The outlier was Christopher Gianunzio from the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC). He spoke of PPAC’s program, Philly Photo Day, held annually on the organization’s anniversary. Members of the public are asked to take photographs in the city on this day and submit it to the organization. Every photo that they receive is printed, exhibited, and included in a subsequent catalog. Of the program, Jacque Liu explained, “It’s a portrait of the city on a [given] day. And, at the same time, it creates a level playing field. [It’s] one the few programs that I’ve seen that has been able to include large groups of people in a meaningful way.” Gianunzio spoke most eloquently about the concept of a general public: “We’re talking about casting a wider net, but also making a deeper cut. We opened because there was not a photo-based space [in Philadelphia] where you could make prints. So we’re filling that need and also kind of defining what it is we can offer to our community.”
It seems innate for PPAC, a member organization that relies on outside individuals for funding, to be able to define its role to its audience succinctly. They depend on this pitch. One imagines other Citywide spaces organized on a member-funded principle (Art/Assembly, BYO Print, Philly Soapbox, InLiquid) would also be as adept in defining their audiences. Alternately for self-funded spaces, audience is a vital aspect of the shows that go up and down, but the relationship between organizer and public remains abstract.
Perhaps this is a manifestation of the commitments that one makes to the artworks—publics are free to come and go, but the organizers are the ones committed to the content for the long term. In Philadelphia, where artist-run spaces do not charge admission or sell work, an abstract understanding of a public may be inevitable. Good investments are risk-averse and should be made with stable entities to ensure positive returns. General audiences are fleeting and the artist-organizers make up the more stable entity. Perhaps understanding these personal investments is as simple as understanding basic economics.
Everything is free. Artist-run communities have made this a mantra. Artists don’t get paid to make their work, and then these same artists will get together to form cooperatives and will continue to go unpaid for doing the same organizational work that institutions do—at times better and more creatively than their paid counterparts. These communities will then invite other artists to show, perform, and program their own events and, of course, these invited artists will do it for free, too. The work is always for an audience—why else would these spaces keep public hours and count the people who walk through the doors? Audiences are at the core of the work behind each artist-run space.
But audiences are also at the periphery. Seeing the difficulty in addressing a general public audience, save for a few member-funded spaces, it is no surprise that some individuals have concluded that Citywide did not expand the viewing audience. Talk to a few more individuals, or turn to other pages in this book, and you are sure to read the opposite. But in this discussion, which sought to define community and action as it pertains to this group, the frames became pretty clear. Everyone is welcome, but the relationships that matter most for artist-run spaces exist within.
MARY EBELING is associate professor of sociology at Drexel University. As a sociologist, she is interested in how complicated and messy things can become when people collectively work together to make ideas real and material. In her studies, Ebeling has looked at how people work in venues ranging from particle physics laboratories to marketing firms and artists collectives. Her work has appeared in several sociological journals, including Science Communication and Social Science and Medicine, as well as in edited volumes. Ebeling received her BFA in performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an MSJ in journalism from Northwestern University, and her PhD in sociology from the University of Surrey (UK). The Economic and Social Research Council (UK) and the National Science Foundation have supported her research, and she is an awardee of the Fulbright Fellowship. She was a resident in the Harbor at Beta-Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
DAVE KYU is an artist and co-founding/current member of PRACTICE Gallery in Philadelphia, PA. He is employed as a Project Manager for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and has advised both Philly STAKE (a micro-granting community dinner event) and the 2014 TEDxPhiladelphia conference. Kyu received his BFA in sculpture from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, and his work has been featured in Philadelphia City Paper, theartblog, and FOX29 News. Kyu is currently an artist-in-residence with the Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab, and managing the Neighborhood Time Exchange Artist Residency.