I spent the better part of last week at a camp in the woods with a group of artists and organizers who, like Colin & myself, lead artist spaces, projects or organizations in cities and rural communities across the US. The goal of this RETREAT was to begin the work of creating a new national alliance of artist-centric spaces and projects, in order to provide peer-to-peer research, knowledge-sharing, support and advocacy. The feeling was that although there are already a bunch of national networks for arts non-profits and administrators, the work we’re all doing is peripheral to these established fields, and the resources and support these networks provide are insufficient to meet our needs.
In many ways, it was a national counterpart to a project Colin and I are just beginning to organize here, in response to a similar realization about our local arts ecosystem. It was super interesting to experience an ambitious project like this coming together in its early phases, and I’m thankful that they invited us to participate (and even let us bring along a 6-month-old, whose organizing abilities are pretty limited).
The group that came together was really diverse in terms of experience and geography. There were about 30 folks there. A few of them helped to run a now-defunct artist alliance in the 1980s & 90s, and their historical perspectives were fascinating. There were organizers from established non-profits that began as small artist-led projects, many of them funded by the Warhol Initiative (the Warhol Foundation is also funding this new organizing effort). There were a handful of people like us, who are pursuing new and emerging models that are hard to define (and even harder to support) and much of the conversation centered around how to better include projects like ours in learning and leadership roles without the expectation that we “graduate” into “real organizations” by gaining non-profit status.
In one-on-one conversations, I learned about what my peers are up to in Detroit, New Orleans, Boston, rural Alabama, California, Kansas and other places. Compared to many of these places, the Twin Cities have a pretty robust system of support for emerging artist-led projects. What we don’t have now is a Warhol Regional Regranting Program, which seems like a valuable resource for many of these groups.
What kinds of resources and supports could a new national alliance provide?
Colin and I, as we think about the future of our work, keep coming up against the problem of how best to define what we do and its value, both to contemporary art and to the communities in which we live and work. This isn’t an easy prospect, since we’re learning as we go, with very little time to reflect, much less write about it. This was something a lot of folks at this RETREAT expressed, the precariousness of working in the grey areas between established practices and models, and the difficulty of communication in the midst of an intense and ongoing creative process. It’s something a national alliance could help to address, by providing an evolving community of practice.
Another question that kept coming up is how to foster opportunities for artists and organizers that are just emerging, and doing so in ways that can be confounding at times. In the small-group discussion about this particular question, a woman from an established non-profit asked those of us leading emerging projects whether we think about sustainability. It was an “a-ha!” moment when all of us said basically the same thing: yes, but not the way you probably think about it as a non-profit. What we want to sustain is an equitable way of living, learning and working - for ourselves and others - and not necessarily a particular project or organization. For this reason, supporting our work in the same or similar way as a non-profit doesn’t make sense. We’re also not (just) business entrepreneurs, and are resistant to the “professionalization will fix everything” model of support. This seems to be an important part of these new practices, an understanding that projects have a life-cycle, and that it’s important to support the people behind them to learn, evolve and invent new ways of working.
With only three days in the woods, the group was able to draft a rough vision statement, to form working groups and to decide on some next steps to take together. Colin and I learned a lot from the process that we can now bring into our work here at home, so it was doubly valuable. Thank you to the organizers for your work and commitment!