To help define the "common field" about to gather at the 2015 Hand-In-Glove conference in Minneapolis, Alison Gerber defined an artist as one whose practice involves "the exhibition of artworks in public." But, as Mn Artists Editor Susannah Schouweiler pointed out during "Creating Discourse, Connecting Communities," it is the relationships among artists and between artists and public that instill artists' works with meaning. Platforms that build these relationships through constructive discourse, criticism, and in-person interaction may be the most essential tools artists need to thrive.
Asserting a place for identity and equity in arts discourse
ARTS.BLACK was founded by Jessica Lynne and Taylor Renee Aldridge in order to address the lack of black voices in contemporary art criticism. If standard bearers like Art in America and ARTnews are unable or unwilling to create equity in arts discourse, Lynne and Aldridge decided the answer was to build an enduring platform for those voices themselves. "Enduring" is a key element, too: Lynne and Aldridge articulated a vision for what the 10-month old startup might be by mid-century. Citing the legacy of great African American alternative outlets like The Crisis and The Chicago Defender, ARTS.BLACK aims to be a beacon and an archive for audiences that are hungry for critical discourse centered on the African American experience. It's manifesto states simply "ARTS.BLACK is a platform for art criticism from black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue - a tool through which we question, celebrate and talk back to the global world of contemporary art rather than at the margins."
Acknowledging changing needs
Mn Artists similarly began by addressing a clearly identified need. In the early days of the internet, showing work online presented a huge new opportunity for artists. The need to be geographically near important collectors and galleries was suddenly less important for those who could use the technology well. However, it wasn't easy to create a professional portfolio site. Mn Artists was created in 2002 by the Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation to fill this gap.
Over time, editor Susannah Schouweiler and staff of the project saw that this community's needs had changed. As the internet matured, artists needed something more than merely adding their work to a visual database. They wanted help putting work in context, engaging in critical dialogue, and creating meaning. In response, Schouweiler helped guide an evolution of Mn Artists to refocus on writing, and on developing the voices of artists.
Too much bad art criticism consists of "barking at an artist and walking out of a room," Schouweiler said. Her goal as editor is to make space for artists to grow together, to explore ideas that reflect the Mn Artists community: What does it mean to be a midwestern artist? How fluid are geographic identities in an online community? Agreeing with ARTS.BLACK's co-founders, Schouweiler described mentorship as critical to successful community building. At the time of the panel, she estimated that she was in active email exchanges with 35 artists about edits and revisions to writing for the site. "It's old school apprenticeship," she said. "I want them to get good enough that they don't need me anymore."
Living in community, pairing gaps with strengths
The final panelist, Joe Ahearn is an arts advocate based in NYC. Projects he has worked on and developed include: Showpaper, a bi-weekly arts listing and fold-out art print; Silent Barn, a group house and space for music and art; Clocktower, a long-lived experimental arts laboratory and radio station; and Better, a tech platform for organizing culture work. The unifying theme across all of these projects is Ahearn's approach. Each project is in response to a clear need identified in his immediate community of artists and activists. His job—his way of operating in his community—is to develop simple sustainable solutions that fit those needs. Living in community, understanding needs, and organizing people based on individual strengths, passions, and resources are critical skills for building platforms for community dialogue. Ahern's work shows that the solutions to any particular community's issues will come from that community's unique resources.
Peer mentorship is key
In all of these examples, the importance of artists supporting and mentoring peer artists stood out:
Schouweiler of Mn Artists said, "Artists are hungry to start a conversation. They are the ones showing up at each others openings. It is important to get used to the idea that they are responding to each others work. Friction is healthy. A negative review that is really earnest is revealing more about the writer than the art, so let me see what it is that you see. Disagreements within the scene are so important. The scene is more sophisticated and more mature if it can get used to that friction."
A key part of that dialogue is mentorship, defined here as caring relationships based on honest feedback. Aldridge of ARTS.BLACK said, "Mentorship is about accountability. Our mentors have provided context, ideas, and helped shape goals. It's important to always be open to criticism from friends and allies. The ability to have one-on-one conversations is the most difficult and valuable resource we have."
In response to an audience question, moderator James McAnally of Temporary Art Review spoke to the importance of broadening participation in art discourse beyond artists and their peers with projects like Temporary Art Review's social response to Hand-in-Glove (which this post contributes to). "I'm more interetsed in the thoughts of people in the seats. Our job to make sure those people know that the platform is open to their contributions," McAnnally said.
Fertile ground at the border between arts discourse and civic engagement
Lynne of ARTS.BLACK added "Openness is not enough. It's important to be on the ground. We went back to Detroit and started talking about these ideas. The conversations have been varied. Arts criticism can be thought of as negative and criticizing if you aren't talking to the artists yourself. It's important to build face-to-face relationships."
McAnnally agreed, describing how his Saint Louis address had often felt secondary to Temporary Art Review's broad online identity until the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing protests of deep systemic racism in the region brought a geographic reference and responsibility forward.
Lynne and Aldridge backed up their dedication to this idea by announcing plans for a five-city tour to develop their offline community. "The digital divide is real," Lynne said in emphasizing the urgency of building ties with those with limited ability to engage online in the conversation they seek to grow.
Finally, Lynne added, "Arts criticism is not a substitute for political action, or civic engagement. The conditions that affect community also affect the artist, the painter."
This final point was a well received call to action for those in attendance at Hand-In-Glove, but it also leads to a welcome question about the scope of cultural critique. Where does arts discourse end and civic engagement begin? Perhaps a path towards successful broad participation in platforms like these lies in exploring this boundary: Writing about art in a way that resonates beyond artists themselves; Writing about civic concerns in a way that brings in the unique perspectives that only critically engaged artists possess.