“ALL ART IS QUITE USELESS”
What Wilde probably meant in The Picture of Dorian Gray is that art, without external principles or contexts, is no more than an object. But, as many artists and practitioners see it, it is a medium that engages, as well as initiates, critical discussions on the state of the world. Art can cut across language, socio-economic, and cultural barriers. Art is a democratic medium. Ideally. In reality, economic hurdles ranging from costs of materials to admission prices to museums have all too frequently inhibited art’s aforementioned abilities. Often, access to art requires money and social and cultural capital. The traditional art world in fact controls these points of access and does not necessarily help to alleviate the barriers.
There’s the gallery: all white walls and an attendant clad entirely in black. Unless you know what you’re doing, you might be afraid to talk above a whisper in your typical fine art gallery (that is, if you’re able to gather the courage to go in). Then there are the art fairs – like Frieze in London or Art Basel – usually accessed via an expensive ticket, and attended by celebrities and art collectors galore. At auctions, the prices of fine art are driven up and kept high. Finally, there’s the museum. Museums are a bit different. While other traditional art venues often unabashedly and openly embrace their elite clientele, museums explicitly claim to exist for the benefit of the general public. And because museums are the most popular, certainly the most visited, segment of traditional art venues, their failings as a public institution are telling of the overall problems of accessibility in art.
The Los Angeles County Museum’s mission is “to serve the public through […] works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods, and through the translation of these collections into meaningful […] experiences for the widest array of audiences.” The Museum of Modern Art in New York claims to “[…] create a dialogue between the established and the experimental, the past and the present […] while being accessible to a public that ranges from scholars to young children.” Most art museums boast similar mission statements, but what do they really mean? Are museums really a haven for educating the general public? Since their attendance peaks in 1992, the percentage of Americans visiting art museums and galleries has dropped by 21 per cent as of 2012. According to another ground breaking survey conducted by the American Association of Museums in 2008 the picture for minorities is even worse: while they make up 34 per cent of the US population, they are only 9 per cent of museum-goers. Statistics like these imply that the modern museum is an institution that remains uninviting to many, despite efforts to make museum spaces more accessible and inviting to a larger audience, such as free days, outreach efforts, and the diversification of artists represented in permanent collections.
In his recent New York Times article, “Toward a Museum of the 21st Century,” Holland Cotter reflects on the flaws of today’s museums. “Major urban museums in the United States are getting crowds in the door, but diversity isn’t coming in with them.” Duncan and Wallace propose that this begins with architecture of the museum itself: “Absorbing more manual and imaginative labor than any other type of architecture, [museums] affirm the power and social authority of a patron class.” Museums look good, are accessible for the people that have paid for them – or are supposed to pay for a future renovation. Even more obvious is the lack of diversity in museum collections themselves. Slowly, attempts are being made to amend this, as major museums like the Centre Pompidou in Paris are reorganizing their permanent exhibitions to include a body of work by a more diverse range of artists. The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York has opened an exhibition in December last year showing works previously censored by major museums for their for their depiction of LGBTQ bodies and relationships. Tate Modern’s recent World Goes Pop exhibition rejects a Western-centric understanding of Pop Art including works from Latin-American and Asian artists from the period. For many, though, museums are still pristine, expensive temples. Besides the socio-economic barriers, their marble pillars and gilded frames are no longer enticing. Even Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which rakes in the most local government funding of any American museum, and despite huge efforts to diversify their collection and audience, has still struggled over the past several years to increase attendance. Despite efforts for the better, many museums alienate huge parts of the public they claim to serve. They leave a void which artists, curators, and patrons are left to fill with new kinds of art spaces.
SEARCHING FOR ALTERNATIVES
Alternative art spaces have been popping up to fill this void for decades. Often, these spaces are created by artists themselves. A historical, over 150 year old, example that best illustrates their importance is the establishment and legacy of the Salon des Refusés and the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs in Paris. Each group was respectively requested or organized by the artists known to history as the Impressionists, in an attempt to create an alternative to the Salon, the notoriously conservative official annual or biannual art exhibition of the Academy des Beaux Arts.
The Salon is an extreme, if not antiquated, example of the limits of the formal art world. The need and desire for alternative spaces, however, has remained. Since the late nineteenth century, galleries of landscape paintings crammed next to still lives stacked upon history paintings have transformed into the clinical, calculated white walls of many of today’s galleries and museums. Although these traditional spaces have modernized, many of the fundamental problems remain.
As artists circumvent and reject the monetary barriers and formalities of the traditional art world by using non-traditional materials and spaces like discarded objects, city walls, and their bodies — alternative art spaces are born. The results, whether conscious or not, are often new kinds of exhibition spaces. These range from concrete city blocks sprayed with paint, to artists from the rural American South using hubcaps and wire, to self-published zines. Thus, the final product does not just benefit and free the artist, but also their audience by being cheaply or freely accessible, often in the public sphere. These spaces created for the non-traditional creation and exhibition of art often fundamentally result in places without the socio-economic restrictions present in museums and galleries. Another example for this is the Internet. It is still burgeoning with young artists eager to explore the relationship between art and technology and experimenting with the freedom allowed by it. Historically, the WWW has been used as an alternative, accessible, and sometimes safe place to meet and organize. Many artists, both emerging and established play off this history and use the Internet to reach out to the public, who can follow them anywhere with a WiFi connection.
But the internet is really only one of many potential alternative spaces. We want to explore this further with you. What are the limits of alternative art spaces? Do alternative art spaces exist outside the parameters of those described here (i.e. Does a luxury department store count as an alternative art space when they hold an exhibition)? Is “alternative,” even the right word, and what does that imply? Are alternative art spaces set in reaction against commercial pressure? Can we blame artists not wanting to participate in alternative art spaces for the wanting to make a living, especially when exhibiting is fundamental to some movements that also exist in alternative spaces?
While the art world continues to bustle and change, it is possible that alternative art spaces provide an antidote to the exclusivity and hegemony that has, and will continue to exist. We invite you to explore these possibilities with us. Contact strand editors Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org, Nina at email@example.com, Joséphine at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to discuss your ideas.