by Kelsey Halliday Johnson

Title Magazine publishes ( INDEX ( MODEL ( POSSIBLE ART WORLDS))) by curator, writer, and artist Kelsey Halliday Johnson, an essay that excavates the conceptual art collective Art & Language’s 1970 call for a plurality of art worlds. Exploring anecdotes ranging from the personal to socioeconomic, Johnson critically evaluates how contemporary art worlds are constructed through words, privilege, and organizing tactics. 

This piece was commissioned by Title Magazine as part of Field Perspectives 2019, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field. Field Perspectives 2019 invites thinking that reflects on the future of the artist organizing field. The program, a collaboration between Common Field and nine arts publications, is published in two parts. Part 2 includes texts by The Artblog,  BmoreArt, Momus, Terremoto, The Third Rail and Title Magazine. Part 1 included texts by Chicago Artist Writers, The Rib and Sixty Inches from Center. Generous support for Field Perspectives is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

Title editors acknowledge Common Field for their support of this piece.

(card l) I. Any description of ‘the art-world’ is a description of a possible art-world.

(card 2) II. What we often mistake for the art-world is a particular description of it such that this description is a possible art-world.

(card 3) III. A possible art-world appears to have some kind of relationship to the art-world. – But under no conditions is it the art world.

-Art & Language, ( INDEX ( MODEL (…))), 1970, Rolodex with 188 collaged typescript cards, collection of the National Gallery of Australia

In 1970, Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden of the British-born conceptual art collective Art & Language produced a small and curious text-object in the form of a common black Rolodex. Held within were one hundred and twenty six cards with a typescript essayistic missive and an appendix of a bibliographical reference map on sixty-two additional cards of references.

Cards both charted and dismantled the institutions and grand narratives of art, demanding a plurality of art worlds, art languages, art objects, and artistic approaches informed by the collective’s expanding international scope in multiple creative communities.[1] Combining approaches both speculative and declaratory, Art & Language[2] pointed to a multiplicity of artistic narratives to aspire to and perpetually complicate. This vision could still be brought to bear by removing the bondage of art market considerations and ceasing to worship histories elevated and limited by privileged narrators.

( INDEX ( MODEL (…)))) was a stunning work of early institutional critique[3], and the Rolodex-as-medium was a subversive readymade for presenting a text pointing to the limitless potentiality of art. The title playfully makes nods to parenthetical citation as well operative modes of the Rolodex: an index/reference catalog as well as an inherently restrictive model of a world built by the creator’s own experiential limits. Despite this cheeky satire, many American art worlds still find themselves, decades later, tethered to limited Rolodexes (academic programs, gallery “stables,” artist collectives); meanwhile, exciting frontiers of curatorial practice are creating long-overdue platforms for underrecognized creative pioneers and contextualizing the contributions of female, queer, POC, indigenous, Central, and South American counterparts—expanding the rigid colonial definition of “American” art. The work ahead is to dismantle the art world Rolodex as the default for programmatic opportunities, art collections, and realms of cultural experience.

While endeavoring to critically engage with contemporary art worlds, art language, and artist organizing in the year 2019, it is crucial to be acutely conscious of the increased wealth disparity among artistic practitioners. Art has always been a field representing a spectrum from the anointed few, patronized by kings and magnates, to visionaries who pursued their expressive passion regardless of resources. And to be sure, wealth inequality is a global problem; ranked among international peers, the US rates better according to public numbers than dozens of countries (the operative word being “public” as secretive oligarchies and offshore accounts are not considered). However, among the many statistics that should be cause for alarm: since 1980, the median American household income has increased by 16% with inflation, while the top 1% of Americans have had their average income (including capital gains) increase by 190%.[4] The cultural sector is not immune to such trends and all the while must combat a long history of systematic socio-economic exclusion.

How this growing imbalance plays out in a range of possible art worlds is compounded by Rolodex-like phenomena that have been the focus of significant recent studies. Columbia Business School’s Paul Ingram and HEC Paris’ Mitali Banerjee concluded last fall that social networking has been more valuable than artistic innovation in artists’ careers.[5] Who can afford to be an artist and access the professional Rolodexes necessary to launch a financially viable career? There are elite subsets of artists whose families have afforded the rising price of art school or liberal arts education in the service of building early career-crucial networks and still there are many on the generation-paralyzing financial treadmill of excessive student loans.[6] By paying to play for an academic foundation, many creative practitioners have crippled their trajectory of resource and asset generation in the process. 

Guerrilla Girls, Women In America Earn Only 2/3 Of What Men Do, 1985,
Screenprint on paper.

In the spirit of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and free ideas, it is time for a critical mass of universities, grant makers, investors/buyers, and art organizations with opportunities to represent diverse intersectionality, leverage resources with equity, and consider new organizing tactics that disrupt old dynamics[7]. It is time to disregard the limitations of old Rolodexes, and beckon in the new. SFMOMA’s spring sale of Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1960) to raise funds (an estimated $35-$50 million) to fill gaps in its collection, with a particular focus on work by women and artists of color, is both heartening and grotesque in its magnitude.[8] With the market bubble as inflated for Rothko as it is, and female and POC artists’ prices at pennies on the dollar of their white male peers,[9] it means both an incidental collection expansion and an ironic perpetuation of market inequality built on systematic sexism and racism. For too long I have personally spoken about news like this as if it sets the standards and norms for my art world. That art world is not a possible art world that will nourish and sustain a critical mass of creatives in the future.

Newspaper clipping from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 1970, showing a billboard by the chamber of commerce.

I was born in Philadelphia and spent the decade after college there, rediscovering a magnetic pull each time my career or mind strayed elsewhere. Philadelphia had a lot to offer me as a young artist and art historian[10]: affordable rent for the geographically flexible, intellectual engagement, proximity to New York, an astounding potential for self-made opportunities for young artists, dynamic and slightly-obscured histories of contemporary artistic practice that were ripe for championing, and progressive activism. As a city, Philadelphia also has an inventory[11] of struggles: deep systemic poverty, regular reckonings with its racial representation in its leading institutions, limited avenues for the growth of more established artists, a depressed job market, and the looming shadows of opportunity and attention from New York. Philadelphia contains many art worlds and was a place that taught me of the value of espousing a local curatorial practice while endeavoring to articulate alternative art histories that are not the dominant narrative.[12]

Five years ago, I was invited to participate on a panel, “If You Leave – A Panel Discussion on Artist Retention in Philadelphia,” moderated by Title Magazine editor and painter Meredith Sellers and sculptor Jonathan Santoro for The St. Claire’s Homeschool[13] program. Within the panel, and among friends, I lamented the drain of a community in the shadow of New York but fundamentally always advocated to stay. It’s important to remember: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”

The considerations of the panel were prophetic—if one doesn’t have the privilege to stay and remain in an un(der)paid, overworked cultural sector job, one might just have to leave for a livelihood. Under the stress of student loan repayment and with a bit of wanderlust, I left. Discussions of relocation to New York or Los Angeles have always felt cyclical among my peers, yet somehow never struck my imagination. So instead, I relocated for a job in Portland, Maine. Maine is a state that is unfortunately over-represented nationally in Congress[14] and more productively, one that is over-represented internally by creatives in our year-round and seasonal communities. Echoes of the Duchampian underground[15] have resonated for me, but I also find myself consumed with concerns of how to contribute to new models of financial sustainability for a creative community. Like many smaller cities around this country, Portland lacks a proportional creative job market, zoning protection for studios, diverse avenues for arts criticism, and multiple streams of truly sustainable arts funding for the sheer amount of talent and the rising cost of living in a rapidly gentrifying city. Despite these familiar issues, I’ve come to recognize that geographic specificity and sensitivity when finding solutions is an approach increasingly needed to resist a homogenizing world. 

Occupy Museums, Artists Speak Out, Digital print, 2017.

Within disparate communities, and as we try to speak about ourselves (inter)nationally as a “field,” each of us must further assess: What resources are we organizing with? What change will be required to ensure access to the same resources from institutions despite the gender, geography, sexuality, color, or ability needs of the artist? Is it still an effective strategy to pool resources collectively? How can we each participate in collective bargaining for the resources the broader field needs? What are the financial structures needed to build art worlds outside of the image of American capitalism that consolidates wealth among an anointed few?[16] What are the best tactics to extricate possible art worlds from part and parcel of the art world?

In the spirit of deepening culture understanding and the true freedom of expression that should be the foundation of an artistic field, it is urgent to confront trends where the wealthy dominate creative and curatorial practices within art histories and present narratives. All the while, the mythology of the starving artist has continued to flourish within the justifications used to prop up late capitalism. Structural inequities are increasingly excused via generational identities,[17] the popularly proliferated (mis)assumption[18] that culture is a luxury, and the heroization (and gendered correlation) of “genius”[19] as a means to justify wealth consolidation among billionaires and in art markets. This implicates the for-profit and nonprofit art worlds alike.

Virginia J. Mason, Survival! 2nd [second] american artists congress,1975, Poster work on paper

Organizing tactics towards new possible art worlds have to begin with critical reexamination and activism around the American education system. Personal opportunity should not be tethered to systematic inequality via school districting, with local property taxes funding public schools. Art education, unstructured creative time, and critical thinking skills must be celebrated as the cornerstones of our societal obsession with innovation; we must pivot from STEM to STEAM models. Meanwhile, collectors must be trained to thirst for art worlds that are not the art world to foster localized artists and art incubators. Organizations, grant makers, and exhibition venues need accountability as proposed by historic and contemporary groups like The American Artists’ Congress, The Guerrilla Art Action Group, The Guerilla Girls, W.A.G.E., Artists Thrive, and the long legacy of self-advocacy from individual artist activists. Collective organizers (rooted in 20th century alternative models) must also ask themselves how to ethically pool resources as a tactic that does not perpetuate exclusion, inequity, and the building of closed Rolodexes. It is time to fully move towards the expansive project-centered and idea-oriented frontiers of expansive diversification that will realize alternate power structures and more critical dialogue. Within any future power structures, disagreement, dissent, and differing needs among unique communities must be radically embraced.

Returning to Art & Language, the collective swelled from thirty to fifty members over the course of the 1970s and had collaborated with countless more internationally; yet for all of the group’s critical capacity, it admittedly lacked a critical vision for radical inclusivity within its composition. Still, they foresaw a plurality of art worlds that could organize their affairs not only differently but also incommensurably, similarly recognizing that political action in one art world might not be recognized (or even critically engaged with) as such in another art world. Their uniting philosophy has been that language permits “index words” with phases of relevancy and whose meanings morph, allowing the analysis of them over time and the proposal of new definitions by different individuals. In August of 1976, member Terry Smith wrote of how individuals were able to “work oppositionally” within universities and alternative gallery models they create because they want to build a new kind of institution. “What’s left are people who, because of contradictions in the bourgeois takeover, are produced as opponents, and in that opposition is where the hope for the future lies.”[20] Oppositional strategies fostered the conceptual critique at the heart of Art & Language. Despite Smith’s “hope” for the future, opposition inevitably led to the social fibers of its New York branch coming unraveled in 1976 and founding members left for direct political or organizing activity.[21] Like many art worlds with limited opportunity, resources for their platform and competing interests inevitably dissolved collaborative binds, changing the aspirations of an international scope of the collective forever.[22]

Artists are fundamentally world-builders, and an ethos of abundance alongside resources to sustain those worlds must be fostered and demanded on the cusp of this new decade. Foundations should offer more unrestricted grant funds directly to artists and cultural organizers, along with contingency overhead to their awards in order to allow for change, risk, and the evolution of ideas. Collectives should seek professional training on organizing tactics and communications skills in order to hold multiple, if not differing, priorities in their work. Artist-run spaces need to ground themselves in racial, pay, and labor equity. Individual artists need to find space to be self critical about the gentrifying pitfalls of “creative placemaking,” while striving to persist and demanding visibility in the face of their own gentrification. Wider publics must answer the call to be humanists in the face of the age of automation and find time to turn away from social media and towards creative community, striving for original interpersonal knowledge production.[23] Communities should foster critical survey opportunities to not merely laud the major figures of their scene but instead to elevate major thematic dialogues and contrast it with ideas further afield. White practitioners should embrace, respect, and foster overdue shifts towards POC-majority spaces, from organizational structures to the forthcoming Whitney Biennial. All art worlds should leverage resources for independent publishing and criticism models. And last, but certainly not least, let us all continue to empower artists to redefine our words and our worlds.


I.    Any description of a possible art world should replace descriptions of ‘the art world.’

II.  What we often mistake for a possible art world can be mimicry of the systematic inequalities of the art-world.

III.  A possible art world should strive to have a renewed relationship to the abundant real world. – But under no conditions is it bound by the imagination of the real world.

IV.    Possible art-worlds must take care to model themselves in opposition to the traditional capitalist-enclaves of the art world.

V.   Art worlds are by their very nature, full of possibility. This includes (but is not limited to) the possibility to invent, for connection, to restore, for catharsis, to motivate, for justice, and to build generative sustainable futures.

VI. Local art worlds and our neighbors must be equally celebrated within the international and digital scopes of our current global networks.

VII. The currencies of possible art worlds are ideas and experiences, not goods and services.

VIII. Currencies of the real world are barriers to entry in possible art worlds.

IX. Criticism, writing, and public discourse are the thriving life blood and gateways to all possible art worlds.

X. Risk is a sister of innovation.

[1]  For further reading see: Robert Bailey, Art & Language International: Conceptual Art Between Worlds, (Duke University Press, 2016).

[2] Art & Language’s earliest collaborations date from before 1968, when members first adopted a group moniker as the name for their collective artistic practice. Subsequently, the first issue of their eponymous journal, Art-Language, was published in England. Founding members included Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell; by the 1970s over fifty international artists were known collaborators and the journal was widely influential in dialogue about conceptual art practice. Taking oppositional stances against such dominant critical voices like Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg, the group experimented with both “nonlinguistic” forms of visual art as well as text based conceptual or philosophical works.

[3] The term “institutional critique” is incidentally first used by A&L member Mel Ramsden. He is credited with this first in Alexander Alberro, “Institutions, Critique, and Institutional Critique” in Alberro and Stimson, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, (The MIT Press, 1999) p. 8. Mel Ramsden, “On Practice,” The Fox 1. (1975) pp. 66-83, reprinted in Alberro and Stimson, eds., pp. 170-205.

[4] Dave Gilson and Edwin Rios, “Charts That Show Income Inequality Isn’t Getting Better Anytime Soon,” Mother Jones (December 22, 2016).

[5] Banerjee Mitali and Paul L. Ingram, “Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art,” (August 1, 2018). HEC Paris Research Paper No. SPE-2018-1305; Columbia Business School Research Paper No. 18-74.

[6] See national artist student loan survey data at Occupy Museum’s Debtfair

[7] Some institutional models to look to: Project Row Houses in Houston, community media initiatives nationally like Philadelphia’s Scribe Media Center, Idea Swap by the New England Foundation for the Arts, The Wadsworth Atheneum Matrix solo exhibition program, Community Supported art “art share” initiatives, The Andy Warhol Regional Regranting Network, Decolonize This Place, The Laundromat Project, adjunct unionization efforts, Open Engagement, The Ford/Andrew W. Mellon/Alice J. Walton Foundation initiative to expand museum board diversity, institutional partnerships with artist-run spaces like No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents at the Tate and First Among Equals at the ICA Philadelphia, The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Residency program, no-application fee juried exhibitions and opportunities, the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, the Rush Philanthropic Arts Organization, Visual AIDS, Deep Lab, Minnesota Street Project, and the mobile-dreamer wanderers ranging from truck galleries like Gas to Virginia MFA’s 1953 Artmobile. (List is not intended for any kind of comprehensive scope or in any particular order).

[8] Robin Pogrebin, “SFMoMA to Sell 1960 Rothko to Help Diversify its Holdings,” The New York Times (February 15, 2019).

[9]Guerrilla Girls, “Women In America Earn Only 2/3 Of What Men Do,” (1985). Collection of The Tate.

[10] Daniel Gerwin, “An Ecology of Philadelphia’s Art Scene,” On-Verge (December 15, 2015).

[11] See also: Nicole Wilson, “The Longevity Conundrum,” The St. Claire (July 8, 2012).

Jeffrey Bussmann, “Beyond Behemoths: Fundraising & Small Arts Organizations in Philadelphia,” Title Magazine (November 2013).

Sid Sachs “Dedicated to E. J. S. (R.I.P.)” Title Magazine, (May 2014).

Hammam Aldouri, “Finding Philadelphia – Locating Contemporary Art Discourse Between the Local and the Global,” The Artblog, (August 20, 2016).

Solomon Jones, “Philly is the epicenter for racial discussion in America. Let’s be honest about who we are,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, (April 25, 2018).

[12] Hannah Stamler, “Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art, & Technology (1968-85),” Artforum, (January, 2018).

[13] The Home School seminar series produced by The St. Claire

[14] As an over-represented citizen: please write your representatives to abolish the Electoral College.

[15] Marcel Ducahamp, “Where do we go from here?” March 1961

[16] For further inquiry consider, Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, (MIT Press: 2005).

[17] Anne Helen Petersen, “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation,” Buzzfeed (January 7 , 2019). & Linda Nochlin, “Why Have there Been No Great Female Artists?” Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness (Basic Books, 1971).

[18] Miranda Campbell, “Culture Isn’t Free,” Jacobin (July 2015).

[19] Louise Matsakis, “MacKenzie Bezos and the Myth of the Lone Genius Founder,” Wired (January 11, 2019).

[20] Terry Smith, “Session I—Wednesday 4 August ’76,” Terry Smith papers, National Library of Australia 1.4.

[21] Michael Corris, “Inside a New York Art Gang: Selected Documents of Art & Language, New York,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson. (MIT Press, 1999), 60-71.

[22] Art & Language became widely known outside of their personal circles and publication distribution with the installation Index 01 at documenta 5 in 1972, which was comprised of an aggregation of their writings in eight filing cabinets presented on four eye level plinths. By 1973, a short lived satellite group had formed in New York, meeting weekly as a discussion group, and contributing its own journals and exhibition projects. Into the late 1970s, remaining members were formally collaborating on conceptual releases with musical collaborators such as Houston’s experimental psychedelic rock outfit, The Red Crayola. After a series of solo exhibitions and inclusion in group shows, in 1986, remaining British collaborators were nominated for the Turner Prize as Art & Language. Throughout the nineties and into projects of the last decade, some of those members have continued collaborations and exhibitions under the Art & Language name.

[23] Consider James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, (Verso Books, 2018).

Kelsey Halliday Johnson is a cultural strategist, researcher, and creative, born in Philadelphia, PA. She is currently based in Portland, ME, where she is the Executive Director of the multidisciplinary art center, SPACE. Her writing has been published by The University of Pennsylvania Press, Performa Magazine, Title Magazine, Locks Art Publications, Mural Arts Philadelphia, among others. While not building or tinkering with possible art worlds, Johnson volunteers for environmental justice, queer rights, and reproductive justice causes.