How does art-writing happen?

 

Newspaper reviews, journal articles, exhibition catalogues, gallery guides…art criticism blogs? How does art-writing happen? Who pays for it? How does anyone make a living doing it? For the most part, we don’t make a living writing about art. For example, I make my living teaching. When I help my students with guidance about doing research on artists and artworks, I guide them to journal articles and give them a caution about the beautiful picture books on the library shelves. Most of the exhibition catalogues take a very conservative approach – controversies are usually glossed over. Exhibition catalogues exist to improve the reputation and value of a museum’s collection. If you want dirt, try for journal articles from academic journals. Drawback to journal articles: it can take a while for work to get published… maybe a couple years. And nobody really gets paid for publishing in academic journals. Good art-writing is hard to find… and especially hard to find if you are interested in Native American art (historic period, traditional, or contemporary – there’s a lot of rubbish, and then there are gems mixed in with it).  I bring all this up because I just read an interesting post on the blog wittily called Bloggy

Here is the text of the post:

“Given my lack of time for blogging, and knowing more people would see it and discuss it there, I shared my notes from my rant on the last night of #class with Art Fag City. Don’t miss the comments.

Part of the point of #class was to propose solutions, not just whine, so here are my thoughts. As the number of culture critics and writers decline in the printed media, the online world is replacing them, but getting paid enough to write is a big problem, even for relatively well-known writers such as Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City. As the co-founder of Culture Pundits and Idiom, it’s something I worry about quite often, and both were founded to find some support for good writing.

My proposal: arts organizations such as The Art Dealers Association of America and the New Art Dealers Alliance should use a portion of their membership dues to fund arts writing. I’m sure similar groups exist for theater and dance as well, but the area I know best is the visual arts. In the long run, they need people to write about art, including their artists and exhibitions, and if people are too broke or busy freelancing to do so, no one wins. For a fraction of the cost of attending even a single art fair, the pooled resources could make a big difference in the quality and quantity of art criticism. Heck, perhaps some of this money could even fund some good editors to work with bloggers and other writers who would like that assistance!

Implementation details, such as an advisory committee for handing out the money, can be discussed. I would strongly recommend against a big proposal process, as I think that takes away from the time writers could use for better purposes. Writers who are interested in being considered could fill out a simple web form with a link to some samples of their writing for a committee to consider. In the interest of smoothing cash flow for all parties involved, the awards could even be monthly payments rather than lump sums. PayPal works very nicely for that.”

The Comments that follow the Bloggy post were also interesting. You should check them out.

The main objection to Bloggy’s proposal is that if those organizations are paying the writers, then the authenticity of the writing is corrupted…we turn into a bunch of gagged yes-men(and women), because what funder is going to risk having us give them BAD reviews about the artists and exhibitions they have an interest in? This argument overlooks one important fact: any press is good press. Randy Gragg, an art critic in Oregon, once told me that when he gives a show a bad review, MORE people go see the exhibition. For some reason, we are fascinated to go see what BAD art looks like. It’s not like going to a movie that you read a bad review about. Going to a gallery is usually free. Going to an art museum can be free or cheap depending on when you go. You’re also not held captive for 1.5 hours. You can leave anytime you like. Mr. Gragg said that he got thank you letters from artists, even for a bad review, because at least it was free advertising, and the artist knew more people came to see the work for themselves.

But back to Bloggy’s idea of trade organizations pooling funds to support art writing… I think it’s an interesting idea and I have been thinking about it for the last month or so, independently, but in regard to art-writing specifically about contemporary Native American art. We in the US have been operating under a handicap in comparison to the kind of support our counterparts in Canada have.  When a Native art institution in the US is looking for Native writers about Native art, they run out of writers if they are looking for more than 10 or so, and have to turn to Canadian First Nations writers. This is because we don’t have institutional support to make a living, develop our careers, or even hang on by tooth and nail here in the US (see my picture above). If IAIA,  MoCNA, the Denver Art Museum, NMAI, the Heard Museum, the Southwest Museum, SWAIA, and other institutions with a stake in Native American art pooled their funds, they could support a number of independent arts-writers, without having to start their own publishing houses. I’m just planting a seed here… someone with a better head for business could figure it out. Me, I’m here for the art, and the blogging.

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