Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Happens When The Market Moves On?

Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe.

I'm still processing some of the material from the exhausting day-long seminar at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe that Ms Ché and I attended yesterday. Oh, and I rallied and went marching at lunchtime with the People's Climate rallyers and marchers. It was a full day.

The main issue alluded to but never entirely clarified was that The Market (for Art) has moved on and those who don't move with it and don't move quickly enough are shit out of luck.

There was only one working artist on the panel who I could be sure was making a living from his art, Tony Abeyta, all the rest were reliant on academic or institutional positions for their day to day wherewithal and succor.

Now that's sad. Or perhaps not.

There were a number of artists on exhibit at the Museum, none of which were acknowledged during the seminar, this despite the fact that the work of one, Ric Gendron, surrounded the symposites who were so deeply discussing the matter of Art and specifically "Indian Art" inside an institution dedicated to the notion that Contemporary Native Art is... a thing. That is to say, artists of the Native persuasion have a vital contemporary perception and voice and they use them in ways that don't necessarily fit the standards and expectations of The Market or the dominant-culture institutions such as the New Mexico Museum of Art on the other side of the Plaza.

The fact that none of the artists on exhibit at MoCNA was mentioned, nor were any of the exhibits acknowledged in any way by the panelists -- or even by the Museum's own curator-hostess -- was the first clue to me that the seminar lacked grounding. It was instead at best an abstract and academic exercise.That's what made it exhausting and ultimately empty in my view.

Without grounding in The Art and the Artists Themselves, everything else is suspect.

And so it went.

This was not unlike the series of lectures we attended at the New Mexico Museum of Art last year and into the spring, in which the history of Art in New Mexico was highlighted -- well, the Legend was -- but without really connecting with the huge quantity of Art possessed by the Museum, some of which surrounded the attendees but went unmentioned unless someone attending (me?) asked about it.

The problem, as I saw it, is that The Market has moved on, and although Santa Fe is still one of the chief art markets in the United States, it ain't what it used to be, the level of competition among artists for attention, let alone making a living is insane, and the Market for Southwest Art isn't sufficient to support so many artists on the one hand, and Santa Fe's galleries and other art market outlets are concentrating their efforts and interests on art and artists from elsewhere, whether Europe or Africa or wherever.

The New Mexico Museum of Art has -- or had -- a vast collection of Southwest Art dating from the era of the First New Mexico Artists Blumenschein and Phillips (ahem) to very recently. They've sold off a good deal of what they had in order to acquire more contemporary works, expand their collections into more diverse styles and to acquire works by artists from other eras, genres and locations.

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts also has a vast collection, most of which stays unseen like that of the New Mexico Museum of Art and practically every other museum I know of. The museum Market demands it be so, unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately depending on your point of view. If the entire collections were available to view by the public, after all, it would be overwhelming on the one hand, and it would prevent the Museums from fostering/highlighting/promoting certain artists and elements in their collections while diminishing or ignoring others. But that's how the Market works, and every museum that wishes to be taken seriously must play the game by the rules of the Museum Marketplace or be ignored and defunded by the People Who Matter.

It's a terrible game they must play, but play it they do, or eventually they perish.

As I mentioned, Tony Abeyta was the only artist on the panels I was sure was not dependent on the Institution or the Academy in order to make a living. He makes a handsome living from his art. Not many artists in any field of any ethnicity can do that anymore -- if they ever could. He is a business, an enterprise, a factory. In other words, he knows how to work The Market to his advantage.

Most artists, at least in my experience, don't have the temperament or skill to do what Tony does, and he mentioned during his talk that when he came up to Santa Fe in the '80s to do his time at IAIA, the place was jam-packed with some of the most highly regarded and financially successful Native artists ever, and he mentioned some of them: Allan Houser, Harry Fonseca, RC Gorman, and so on, and he said that all of these artists were mentors to him and to other Native artists, and they provided the kind of richness of experience that he feels obligated to share with the artists he mentors, but it's not the same anymore.

It's not the same any more because the ferment driven by financial success isn't there any more. Only a few are able to make ends meet and have a little extra from the sale of their art, everyone else has to do something else to get by. Art for them, essentially by definition, is a 'hobby' not a career. Because they can't possibly make a living at it.

It doesn't matter whether they are skilled and creative as all get out; the fact is, The Market rules, and The Market has no interest in them, no room for their work, and most of all, The Market doesn't care a whit whether they succeed or fail. At various times, in the '80s when Tony Abeyta was coming up for example, The Market in Santa Fe and elsewhere was in love with Indian Artists and some were financially successful in ways not seen since.

As I process what came through the seminar yesterday, I recall with some clarity what The Market was like back then, and how that era has passed. It isn't like that any more. Not only are the (Indian) artists who were so prominent back then mostly passed to the other side, the interests and demands of The Market are quite different now.

So. What are Indian artists to do? And it's an important question. One for which there was no answer yesterday, one for which there may be no answer in the end.

Part of the thrust of the discussion -- to the extent there was a thrust -- had to do with whether one was an artist or an Indian first. If there was a resolution, and I'm not sure there was, one is both -- if one is an Indian artist. It's self-evident, but the question must be asked, over and over again, in part because "Indian Art" isn't the same thing as standard and expected Western (ie: Market) Art, and Indians are thought to be always torn between their ancient traditions and their contemporary reality. An "Indian Artist" may work in "traditional" or "contemporary" styles, may combine them or utilize both of them in different contexts, the possibilities are endless. But ultimately, according to those who know and those who matter, the individual must decide whether to be an Artist (outside ethnicity and tradition?) or to be an Indian (outside of Art in the Western and Market sense?)

As Tony Abeyta put it (probably a bad paraphrase): "I'm an artist and I can't not be an Indian."

There isn't an either/or, there's a constant Both.

There was talk of the Boarding School Era and the suppression of Indian culture that went with it, and there's a constant background fear that something like that or worse could happen again. Indians are free-er now than they have ever been under the United States, but there is still the lingering fear that the dominant culture will perpetrate something awful simply because they can, and that Indians will suffer for it. Most white people never experience and can't imagine living under that kind of deeply seated fear, but I will say this: more and more are learning to.

Consequently, some Indian artists (how many, I don't know) would rather not be identified as "Indian" but would rather go to Market as Artists, devoid of ethnic baggage. Some can do that, I suppose, but why should they?

Some writers, too.

The issue isn't that they are Indians, though they are that. It is that they are Artists most of all.

If there is a Market niche for such people, good enough. But so far as I can tell, there really isn't. A freemartin Art Market is not a reality.

There was talk of Globalizing Indigenous Art and Artists, becoming a global movement somehow. And I thought, "Really?" There was fierce talk of collaborating with and coming to know and understand the breadth and depth of Indigenous Art world wide, and I thought, "For whom?" Talk of Bienniales filled the room, particularly the Venice Bienniale, where Indians and other Indigenous apparently have quite a presence among People Who Matter, and there was resistance.

Oh good, I thought. "Why should we go to these so-called 'Bienniales?' Why don't we have our own? Why don't they come here?"

Yes, well... can't do that. You see, that's not how The Market works. We don't tell it where to go or what to do, we follow it wherever it leads. If that means Venice or Rio or Sydney, that's where we go. It doesn't come here. Pshaw.

Except that's not entirely... true.

The Bienniale system is a way for People Who Matter to have some control and say over the Art Market, and to force artists to submit as supplicants to the demands and dictates of that segment of People Who Matter. It is perhaps the very definition of "colonization." One becomes the creature of the other, the servant, the handmaiden, the worshipful outsider seeking and perhaps by chance finding the smile and nod from one's Betters. If one is accepted at one of these Bienniales, one achieves a certain cachet and stature, but one is always subservient to Those Who Matter.

For one of the supplicants to declare independence and to suggest that the Bienniale system should hie itself hitherwards is near-heresy. That's not how it works. The supplicants do not declare a Bienniale, only the People Who Matter can do that, and they will declare a Bienniale where and when they want, without regard to the interests or wishes of Those Who Don't Matter. Got it? Good.

The issue of an Indian Artists Manifesto was briefly touched on. Not well or comprehensively, I must say. It was more of a gloss. "Is it time and should there be a manifesto?" Some of the panelists said yes, some said no. But what an artists' manifesto is and why they come about seemed too deep a consideration for the experts on the panel.

But in Santa Fe, you can't really sidestep or escape the question. Manifestos and art movements have been fundamental from the Beginning, whether you date that Beginning to Blumenschein and Phillips and their Broken Wagon Wheel above Taos in 1898 or to Carlos Vierra's purchase of a photo studio on the Santa Fe Plaza in 1904 or 05 or to the Cinco Pintores or what have you.

The point of these many manifestos and movements is the development and marketing of distinctive styles of art. In other words, the manifesto and movement in the art world is almost always a factor of being excluded from and forcing penetration of The Market.

Sometimes they work. Often they don't.

But without the unity provided by the manifesto and the movement, exclusion from The Market is almost guaranteed to be permanent.

Of course, Indian artists are not excluded from The Market, in fact, in Santa Fe, there are a number of specifically Indian Art Markets that are immense and highly regarded nationally and globally. The ones we have attended are literally overwhelming. Exclusion is not the issue. The problem is that The Market -- which determines "success" through sales -- is over-saturated, too many artists, too much stuff. The Market cannot support the numbers of artists involved.

A manifesto and movement (or their plurals) could separate out a certain segment of the now over-saturated Indian Art Market to make it distinctive. The SWAIA Indian Market in Santa Fe, for example, recently underwent a split, partly because it had grown too large and many of the artists involved felt they were being neglected and there was too little chance for new artists to emerge. The other factor, of course, is that the SWAIA Market could not support the number of artists involved.

The discussion yesterday almost completely avoided any of that consideration however, and the queston of a Manifesto was pretty much sidestepped.

At the end of the morning session, however, the issue of Native/Indigenous Art as it relates to social, economic and environmental conscience and justice was brought up, and for the first time, I felt that the symposium was actually connecting with reality and with the future.

Yesterday, there was a rally and march in Santa Fe in concert with the People's Climate Movement that is holding a series of demonstrations in New York in concert with the UN's climate conference to be held next week. There is also a Indigenous People's World Conference at the UN beginning this weekend.

It's a confluence of interests and activism, and some of those at the seminar recognized that the "movement" that some were advocating for Indian artists was already underway: it is the climate/environmental/indigenous peoples movement which for the moment is represented by events like the Peoples Climate events all over the country and the world.

At the Climate Rally in Santa Fe.
As the seminar broke for lunch, I went out to the Plaza to join the rally and march. There were speeches and exhortations and a New Orleans marching band and maybe a thousand people -- mostly white and a lot of them middle aged it seemed to me -- gathered together to share one another's presence and march to the Cathedral where someone was having a wedding the way they do on weekends in Santa Fe. Then they marched down San Francisco Street, and it was tremendously festive.

Hardly anyone on the street or at the seminar had any clue to what was going on.

Their focus has been so narrowed, they could barely imagine something of this sort taking place, nor could they imagine the linkages.

A man from out of town was trying to parallel park in front of the Cathedral; he smashed his car into another vehicle with New Jersey plates while the other driver watched from the sidewalk. Many witnesses including me saw what happened. The man who caused the wreck got out to check the damage. The other driver stood there in a kind of shock while she inspected the parking ticket she'd pulled off her windshield. The man checked the damage, mostly to his car, while the woman read her parking ticket. She looked at the man: "Would you mind moving your car so I can see what happened to my car?" The man looked at her: "Is this your car?" "Yes, I saw it all." "Oh." The man, who was from Missouri, moved his car a few inches forward, and the woman took a look at the damage to her car. It wasn't more than a couple of short scrapes. The man was standing beside her ready to give her his insurance and personal information, and she said: "Oh forget it. The car's a 2006 and those scrapes hardly show. There's more damage to your car. Just let it go." His car had a good-sized dimple in the rear bumper. "Just let it go," she said, "it isn't worth the bother." The man said thanks, got in his car and drove away.

Oddly enough, no one jockeyed to get into the parking place he left open. Parking places on the street are like gold during the height of tourist season, even if you get a ticket. The woman whose car had been hit went off toward the Palace of the Governors. I think she'd been at the seminar earlier.

Later, I spoke to the woman who'd presented the climate/environmental/social justice segment, and I told her how much I appreciated the fact that she brought it up, because I didn't think anyone that day was going to mention it. She nodded agreement. I told her that I thought it was important for people to make and understand the connections, but I doubted very many in attendance did. Nevertheless, it was important to make the point.

She sighed. "It's another step..."

There's much more I could say about what happened yesterday, but at the moment, today Amy Goodman is covering the march in New York, and lots of celebrities are turning up among the indigenous marchers.

As we know, nothing is more important than celebrity gets...

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