Jayme McLellan: Art scenes and Cultural Producers Change the World
Art scenes are living things. They are not the buildings or spaces they inhabit. They are organic, amorphous systems comprised of clusters of people – creators and patrons, leaders and followers, givers and takers, innovators and status quo seekers. These people are rooted in all parts of society. The art scene, then, is made up of members from all scenes: Political, artistic, scholarly, corporate, anarchistic, mundane – everyone is connected to the creative.
In the healthiest sense of true and blessed rebellion, no cultural scene adheres congruently to a set of rules. It, like art, is constantly in flux, evolving through change and transition. Similarly, spaces – including museums and galleries – come and go.
As we have seen with the death of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, even venerable, aged institutions can perish. Money flows in and out, and bad management can cripple possibility and intention; yet a few things remain constant: 1) Artists will make art, and cultural producers will support them; and 2) There will never be enough money or time or space or curators or galleries or museums, yet art will happen anyway.
The art scenes of Washington, DC and Ljubljana, Slovenia share many similarities. Both are abundant with artists working through ideas in a variety of media and materials. Both cities have thriving, under-funded artist communities, including spaces, schools, galleries, and museums hosting exhibitions, community discussions, workshops, and lectures.
In each region – as is often true in cities without a specific urban plan for inclusion – artists who used to call the city center home are being pushed further out by rent increases. H&M and McDonalds are taking over the mom and pop store, the gallery, and the studio.
While fortunate enough to have intensely creative artists living there, both cities lack a diverse financial support base for artists, including – but not limited to – public and government funding; collectors and patrons who actively buy art; and public and private grants for risky, innovative art making (or any art making at all).
Cultural producers in both regions – curators, gallerists, artists who organize shows, professors – are often over-worked, under-paid, and multi-tasked to the point of exhaustion. And yet, in both locales, there are more artists than ever before, and they are fighting for fewer resources.
In a community comprised of individuals with shared needs, it is a dog-eat-dog world, with each person fighting for what little he or she can get. And when artists seek to organize, progress is slow, with little obvious success. It is often hard to find consensus, create an agenda for change, and commit to its realization. Change takes time, patience, and perseverance.
Different than Ljubljana, Washington, DC is a very wealthy city with development booming, rents skyrocketing, and a monied middle-class moving back into a city pulsing with life. DC is having a major renaissance. Yet the most compelling contemporary art by the best of its artists living within the city limits stays at the margins, existing on the backs of a few patrons and funding partners. It seems that no matter how much money greases the wheels of the city, artists still beg for scraps.
One example is the new “5 x 5” initiative, a competitive grant for curators, funded by the D.C. Commission on Arts & Humanities. This is the third year of the project, and the first year that hasn’t included a single D.C. based curator. Despite giving each curator $50,000 and being a taxpayer-funded initiative, not only are none of the curators from DC, but very few artists included in the project are from the area. And this is an effort run by our town.
Another example is the thriving scene that regularly fills galleries to capacity during exhibition openings. Very few of these individuals buy art or contribute financially to the health of these spaces. In fact, doing so doesn’t even occur to them, and they are rarely asked to do so. They come, drink the free wine, look at the art, and move on. Why is it that they never think of themselves as financial supporters? Doing so doesn’t take much. Perhaps setting aside the money they would spend on dining out for a month would afford them the ability to start collecting artwork?
It seems that we must ask the question: Is there an ideal structure for supporting the art and artists of our respective regions in societies that are very comfortable relegating their emergence to the margins? And if so, how do we move toward it as a group in an effective way? The problem is not merely financial. It is also rooted in a lack of vision, an organized plan, and a community united to push that plan into action. But why is this the case and does it have to be?
Artists, by nature, like to work alone or in small groups. There are usually a few who are political and motivated to action; but not many, and certainly not the majority. Existing bureaucracies give away a bit of money and seek to organize some community events, but the artists and cultural producers most active in the scene grow weary from the snail’s pace of these institutions, and often end up going it alone, scraping it together themselves. In the end, they burn out, get full-time jobs, or move to a different city. When new blood comes in – i.e., artists or cultural producers new to the region become active – the cycle begins again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Does it matter that we rarely get anywhere as a community?
In April 2014, I was invited by the SCCA-Llubljana, a former Soros Center for Contemporary Art, to visit the region. As a Washington, DC-based curator, educator, and gallery director familiar with the ex-Yugoslavian art scene, I was asked to give a talk and lead a workshop about different organizational models for supporting art and artists from a U.S. perspective.
I was to discuss successes and failures in supporting artists and curating exhibitions, and elaborate upon the so-called “rebellious” galleries and artist-centered spaces that play by their own rules in my own community: The DIY or do-it-yourself spaces, like mine, Civilian Art Projects (www.civilianartprojects.com), and a non-profit space I co-founded with Victoria Reis in 2002, Transformer (www.transformerdc.org).
In two days of well-attended workshops, the participants and I presented and shared the practical experiences found in our work, and discussed the idea of creating new – and hopefully more sustainable – structures. To this end, my presentation analyzed different modes of operation, especially how to establish and run diverse platforms in support of contemporary art. We discussed the structure of for-profit or commercial galleries, non-profit arts organizations, public and private museums, and pop-up or DIY spaces. I presented comparative analysis based on practical aspects of my curatorial and gallery work. And we discussed, in depth, support for diverse organizations and independent projects, both in terms of what was lacking financially, and possible strategies of how to get funding.
In the workshop, we compared art systems in the U.S. and the ex-Yugoslavia, and tried to answer questions about how to set up successful conditions and platforms for new and existing entities in the art world. Participants discussed theory and practice, how to align the critical with the logistical. We also addressed the reality of the Slovene economy and the lack of collectors interested in buying the work of emerging artists, a problem shared in both regions.
In the lecture and workshops, we discussed the overall arts ecosystem in DC and Ljubljana and we posed the question: What comprises a healthy ecosystem? What are some specific elements?
It was agreed that this system should include at least one museum. Also needed are galleries; alternative/non-profit spaces; artist studio spaces that host events and open studio days; newspaper critics and a platform for critical response and writing; patrons who support the scene through buying work, grants, and pro-bono space; and viewers – many, many viewers are needed for critical response, feedback, retaliation, or whatever it takes to inspire and catalyse the art idea.
An artist ecosystem needs teaching opportunities for artists, affordable studio space, shared gallery nights, well-publicized events, and gainful employment.
Of course, a healthy arts ecosystem also needs many artists working with and talking to each other. Some of these artists, like John Graham in thirties New York or Igor Zabel in Ljubljana, will hopefully be leaders and teachers, connecting emerging artists to members of the art establishment. This is critical; yet, with the emergence of social media, artists can also rely upon the strength of their own artwork, if they are at all media savvy.
Next, in terms of space, thriving art scenes usually have a center: A nucleus of artistic activity where artists, patrons, and the general public gather to meet, view the newest work of the community, and perhaps integrate work happening outside the community within this thriving whole.
This center usually presents relevant exhibitions and programming fostering discussion, debate, and new ideas. One could argue that the center for art is quickly becoming a virtual one; but for now, so much of what happens in an art scene still happens face to face. For the purposes of this text, we will still embrace as central the in-person connection in support of art and artists. A scene needs face time and a place to gather; it breeds confidence. Promotion happens virtually, but the energy exchange often happens in the room.
In the best of all possible scenarios, this center is a museum: A living, breathing entity, comprised of its people, and designed to connect the creative community with the wider society. This connection fertilizes the creative. The museum-as-center is the place that literally and figuratively keeps the culture, both in terms of objects stored within its walls, and opportunities for the creative community to gather. A museum must be rich in cultural capital, with deep connections to the community and a wider vision of its place in the world.
One disturbing example of a loss of a community museum is the recent dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design in Washington, DC. All of the necessary components comprising a healthy art scene were housed in its walls: Artists, an unrivalled collection of American art, educators, curatorial scholars, ample exhibition and studio space, and employment for artists and cultural producers. Its loss is devastating to the community, and we cannot yet be certain what it means – how it will impact us.
Through years of mismanagement and a tragic downward spiral, a small group of trustees and senior staff saw to it that this independent creative institution, the third oldest museum in the United States and the oldest in Washington, was dissolved into the National Gallery and a large university, George Washington.
A small, independent art college – the only one in DC – is now being digested by a large, research-based university. And most of a collection of art built over the past 150 years is being absorbed by the National Gallery, with the remainder going to other institutions in DC and beyond.
This dissolution was fought by a small group of “interveners,” as we were called in court, also known as Save the Corcoran (www.savethecorcoran.org). Our legal case argued that the current trustees were derelict in their fundraising and management duties – basically halting fundraising over the past five years.
In court, Save the Corcoran’s legal team, led by Andrew Tulumello, Managing Partner of the Washington Office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, presented two alternative paths forward that did not include dissolving the institution. There was enough money and time to create a new and stronger board of trustees. The institution could be saved.
After an arduous battle, including many more details than I will write about here – and although the judge said his decision was “painful to make” – the original founding deed that established the Corcoran 145 years ago was broken. The Corcoran, as we knew it, is now gone.
This judge and this small team of “leaders” have set a dangerous precedent for other museums and benefactors who want to bequeath collections to museums. But this is a conversation better left for the book I will write.
The Corcoran died after the cultural community witnessed the near destruction of LA MOCA, where donors came together to raise millions for the institution, saving it from a stint of mismanagement and irrelevant programming. We are seeing the same thing happen with the Detroit Institute of the Arts.
These success stories, unfortunately, are balanced by the failures of not only the Corcoran, but also other American museums selling work from their collections to survive. Could this be the beginning of a trend? Whether it is or not, it is cause for any museum to examine its strengths and weaknesses, while honing its road map for a successful future. And it is cause for those communities to evaluate how they support their artists.
Cultural Producers and Key Actors:
Again, even with a healthy museum, a scene is not a building, or a space, or the combination of many. Yes, they are needed, and losing the Corcoran is a major blow to the DC art community – but a scene is comprised of people, not bricks and mortar.
At the end of a week of workshops, discussions, meetings, etc., and after nearly twenty years working in the DC art scene, I still believe that the most important element, in tandem with the artists, are the people that make things happen: The glue that holds the whole thing together. These people, like Sasa Nabergoj at the SCCA, are the molars in the mouth of the scene. Pull one out, and the whole thing could cave in. They bring people like me to the art scene in Ljubljana. They connect with artists in countries around the world. They keep pace with what is happening everywhere, and they bring it home to the artists working on the ground every day.
In Washington, we are lucky to have many cultural producers; many art spaces; and a few museums, both public and private. However, none of the museums supported and engaged the local community like the Corcoran did. But out of death comes something new. We wait to see what that may be.
Besides this great loss, we share the similar challenges of the need for space and money. Resources must be tapped for artists to realize new ideas; and centrally located, dependable, affordable space for presentation of works, studios, and gatherings should be secured. New collectors and supporters must be cultivated to support artists.
What is the answer? Is there a solution?
Art making, creative problem solving, design thinking – these things matter. They enhance the fabric of our lives and our community. Humans have been making art for thousands of years, yet art making is an unsure career path in most cultures. There isn’t a person alive who has not been influenced or inspired by the creative. Colors awaken a child’s young mind, a song can hit right at the heart of things where words cannot, a painting can change the way one sees the world.
Today, conceptual, idea-driven work challenges political systems and power structures. As Ezra Pound said, artists are the antenna of the society. Art matters. Yet it is constantly the first funding area to be cut by local and national governments. Funding of controversial projects is always a political lightning rod. Yet art is pervasive. It is everywhere – in the movie theatre; on all social media; in corporate advertising; and, yes, in the museum and gallery.
Art is a mirror. The strength of our artist communities is an indicator of our ability to think outside of our own reality, our own limiting lives full of responsibility and obligation. It allows us to collectively dream. At its best, good art connects us to each other and questions our own shared humanity. It builds stronger communities through confronting the difficult as well as the sublime.
There is no better place to address the challenges of our community than through creative exchange. Art is not merely an object on the wall; it is an opportunity for discussion and growth. The importance of this cannot be minimized. And if the premise that started this essay is true – that art will happen anyway – we are okay. But there are ways to strengthen its presence in our lives. There are ways to be “enlightened leaders,” embracing tried and true structures and systems that will grow respect for artists and support for the spaces they and the community need to nurture a scene. It’s not that hard to do.
Based on my work in the community with artists for twenty years, here are some modest suggestions that may help to build a stronger art scene:
- Strengthen relationships and grow all networks. Everyone has relationships and everyone has a network. We have our own professional circles, friend circles, and family circles. Your mailing list starts here. Invite everyone, and make a commitment to educating them about what is going on. Art can no longer be alienating. It has to embrace all. No one should feel alienated when walking into a museum or gallery. They should feel curious and welcome. Our end game must be to share, educate, and survive, reaching out to as many as possible. In truth, most artists are terrible at this, and rely on others to do the work. Artist – this is your work too.
- Get organized and collaborate. Invest in a few big projects, as a community. Yes, organizing creative types can be like herding cats, but there are ways to do it without everyone necessarily getting along or seeing eye to eye. Agree on a few things, set some goals, assign deadlines, and hold each other accountable.
- Promote what you do and how you do it. There has never been an easier time to share your work. Your art community, or your small nucleus of friends, or you yourself as an artist. You need a good website, a bit of social media marketing, and a lot of face time. Talk to others about what you are doing. Strengthen existing relationships and build new ones, especially with leaders who hold the keys to financial support and broader systemic change. Societies are made of individuals – and if each one has been impacted by the creative then each should have an interest in its support and advancement. There’s a part of everyone that cares about the cultural community. We do not have to fight over the bone on the floor when there is a pot roast on the table.
Is it the job of the artist, or the cultural community, to help society evolve toward a more enlightened path? A path that saves our planet, or at least faces its pressing challenges, from climate change to the devastation of war, pollution, poverty, and disease.
The stakes are high for all of us. Yet, we have many more advantages then disadvantages in today’s world, and many more opportunities to connect and share the power inherent to our practice. We are not solitary beings; we are connected in this shared pursuit.
This is bigger than the key actors and independent cultural producers who are integral to expanding the voice and vision of the artist in society. But we can start with them, as a collective voice asking for what we need to help the creative thrive to the benefit of all. The challenge is figuring out how to do so, and taking the time to make it better for all. It’s possible.
Jayme McLellan is the founding director of Civilian Art Projects, a DC gallery supporting emerging and established artists. Prior to Civilian, McLellan co-founded and served as co-director of Transformer (2002–2006), a non-profit arts organization dedicated to serving emerging artists.
In addition to running Civilian, McLellan teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she leads classes on professional development for visual artists and curators. For the past seven years she has led classes on professional development, curatorial practice and art history at institutions such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Corcoran College of Art, American University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
She is also project manager and co-curator for HARD ART DC 1979 (Akashic Books), a book and traveling exhibition about the birth of the D.C. punk/DIY movement. The exhibition was on view at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University from May until October 2014 and will be in Paris in September 2015.
Finally, McLellan founded Save the Corcoran in June 2012, in an attempt to save D.C.’s oldest community museum. The battle was lost, but the community is very grateful for the work of Save the Corcoran in fighting for this important, historic institution. It did not just disappear in the night.
McLellan has worked in the arts since the mid-nineties, curating hundreds of exhibitions and organizing events in galleries, museums, and alternative spaces in DC, Baltimore, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York, Miami, Canada and Europe. Her first major art project brought artists from the ex-Yugoslavia to Washington, DC for a residency and an exhibition in the year 2000. It was called The Tandem Project.
In Slovene translation published: Jayme McLellan, Umetniške scene in kulturni producenti spreminjajo svet, Artwords, No. 100 (Winter 2014), pp. 67-71.
 The Soros Center for Contemporary Art was envisioned as a network of art centers created by George Soros after the Balkan War. These centers were started to coalesce the fragmented art scenes of countries with once prolific art communities. Almost 20 years later, many SCCAs have dissolved or morphed into new organizations. But the SCCA-Llubljana has remained a vibrant arts organization at the center of a powerful and historic art scene in a town in the heart of Europe.
 The workshop was a part of the 2014 World of Art public programme, which is being prepared by the SCCA–Ljubljana and the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory. The programme is supported by: U.S. Embassy Ljubljana, the City of Ljubljana – Department for Culture and ERSTE Foundation.