Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Location and Cultural Import.

Now that I have some time to reflect on this past summer's trips to the East Coast, it occurs to me just how culturally central that area is to the priorities in my life. I was reading Edward Winkelman's blog today. He owns a gallery in Chelsea (NYC) called Plus Ultra. His latest entry hammers my point home- there are 129 gallery openings in Chelsea over the next seven days. And that's just a portion of the overall art venues throughout the Five Boroughs. The only type of business in Pittsburgh that there are more than 129 of are bars (ok... maybe restaurants too).

The further you get (in the US) from large urban centers, the more culturally marginalized you get. I'm talking about the big ones- L.A., NYC, San Francisco, DC, Chicago...etc. I hadn't been to "the City" in six or seven years, and in that time it was easy for me to fool myself into thinking differently. As much optimism as I have that one can make a contribution to the evolution of culture from anywhere... I am starting to have serious doubts. Certainly the Internet has provided a platform to get ideas and product to a larger audience. And it's also true that it gives me virtual access to some of the events in the big cities... but there are some things about actual day-to-day existence in such places that can never be approximated virtually- immersion and scope, among them.

The centers of culture teem with ideas and personalities that carry them. There is always an opportunity to leave your personal space and confront others grappling with the same themes and concepts that you are working through. There are demographic niches that dwarf what you could find in a medium-sized city. The art scene in a smaller city is a hodgepodge of folks working in such disparate mediums that they often marginalize themselves, even at an arts venue or event. They see the few folks that "matter" in any artistic form, and hone in on them to the exclusion of others. That's doesn't happen in the great cities- there are so many things happening on any given day that people can be more discriminating. But at the same time, they are dealing with new faces every day, and because the environment is such a hothouse, it's risky to write anyone off. Anyone could be on a rapid ascendancy.

The gatekeepers in the medium city have the opportunity to get entrenched. The art critic at the local newspaper becomes immensely important as an image-maker... and the quality (or lack of same) of the publication, or its commitment to art, just don't mitigate that importance. If one of these pillars of the art community decides not to like you or your work, it means a lot. It makes the scene a bit stagnant, because it stifles innovation. The same process applies if there is a recognized local academic institution that is recognized for its "uncontested sophistication" in any given medium or form.

There are serious obstacles and tribulations to living in those great cultural centers... cost of living and real estate, congestion, crime, pollution... and there is something to say for the personal level on which things operate in the smaller places. But despite all the very real "quality-of-life" benefits of the smaller and medium cities (such as Pittsburgh, and Portland, and Columbus... ), you still need to get your work shown in the big city before you can expect a place of influence in the larger cultural dialogue.


Blogger John Morris said...

This is a very big subject and one that i now have a big stake in.

I think that after living and trying to work in NY, I have an entirely different perspective. Years ago, NY's art scene had what is known as verticle integration. It was good place not only for major galleries and auction houses but also for all kinds of alterative spaces and most important for the producers of the work. This is not the case today at all.

My question is-- Don't artists have any active role to play in choosing which places become creative capitals? Or are they just completly passive victims that sit around and wait to be picked by a major gallery. what rational economic incentive do artists have in keeping the NY scene alive if it is not a viable place for them to do thier work.

This new role of artist as passive victim and bootlicker gross. Pittsburgh as a city has many of the ingredients needed to make something great happen, what it needs is people willing to put the hard work in.

This is the path, lick someones boots for aliving or create a place in which you don't have to.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I obviously respect and appreciate what you are trying to do in Pittsburgh. I have my moments of doubt. There is no shortage of quality art or artists in this town. The problem is on the consumer end. The money and the money people are concentrated in those big urban centers. That's where the discretionary funds lie. How do you get them to take notice? Is it a problem of organization in Pittsburgh, or what?

6:10 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Quote from heart as arena in a recent post.

"Simply put: LA is on fire in a way that NY is not. Something's missing here, and it begins with how unlivable the city's becoming for young artists. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had in the last year with young artists who were thinking about moving to Philly or Baltimore or Chicago or Houston or Pittsburgh. Why work 50 hours a week at a day job here to scrape by with a small apartment and studio when you can live somewhere else, work 15-20 hours at a record shop and land a spacious studio and apartment. The problem of livability is not limited to the young though. I often wonder about how more time and space would free the hearts and hands of older artists living here. (And just for the record: When I say "older" I just mean "not younger.")

Again, don't get me wrong. I love the art scene here. I feel downright privileged to see as much excellent new art as I see every year. I'm not saying the art is crap or that NYC is in danger of being knocked from its lofty perch. That's prediction and I'll leave that dead game to the pros. I'm just saying that something's missing right now, and it was keenly felt when I visited Los Angeles. I fully expect Chelsea to have its swollen tongue down my throat tomorrow night, but in the back of that intoxicated moment I know I'm going to be thinking about what we've lost"

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a great believer that often when talking about a place, its benefits are also its curses. One of the great things about Pittsburgh is obviously its incredible affordability and ease of living a very high quality of life. It's also very accessible in terms of its arts community--literally anyone could show nearly anything if they put in some minimum amount of legwork to get it done.

But one of the reasons it's so affordable is that there aren't a lot of people with money here. One of the reasons it's so easy to show work is that we've got this surplus of cheap/unused real estate--we've been losing population for the last 50 years. Nobody's really selling art, so there's no great competition for wall space.

I think that what that means to me is that Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to live, and I think it's a great place to MAKE art--but I doubt that it will be a great place to live off your art anytime soon.

There's a rule in the Internet world that generally in each market there is one key site that commands at least 50% of that business, usually 2 others that take up the next 30-40%, and then a bunch of bit players that do specialty business and clean up the crumbs--quick, how many online auction sites can you name? how about online book sellers?

Trying to convince people to come to Pittsburgh to take art seriously is like trying to convince people to go to Milwaukee, or Davenport, or Walla Walla, or wherever (all of which, I'm sure, have some fine art coming out of them)--it's just a tremendous public consciousness and name recognition hurdle to try to associate the art world with anywhere else besides its few established centers.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Very well said.

4:43 PM  

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