Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Economics of Environmental Art Panel

By Sherri Brueggemann

At left: collector Chris Burmeister and curator/moderator Nancy Zastudil
I suppose for all artists the “new normal” has always been the norm for them – how do I fund my work? Regardless of if the art is object-based, performative or conceptual, there is always the question of how to generate meaningful revenue to allow oneself to be creative and obtain the materials, time and inspiration they need and seek. From sourcing extremely rare or exotic materials to visiting locations 100 miles down the highway or around the world, how do artists, especially those who are working in social practice or non-object based expressions, navigate the precarious balance between creative expression and capitalism? 

The October 3rd panel discussion at 516 ARTS on the Economics of Environmental Art was a brief but enriching conversation about that dilemma. With two artists, a curator, collector and gallerist on the panel, and a room full of the same as audience participants, the conversation provided insights into the nuanced values of art created about, and inspired by, our environment.


In David Throsby’s 2001 treatise on Economics and Culture (2001 Cambridge University Press), six distinct values of art contribute to its cultural value: aesthetic, spiritual, social, historical, symbolic and finally, its authenticity. Once a cultural value is established, the economic value is determined by either its private ownership value or its public good value. Environmental and ecological artists – or artists who are working within those subject areas as well as other political subjects – create art that can have both a private commodity value and public good value. According to the panelists, varying contributing factors affect both of these cultural and economic values and how environmental art is funded.

In describing a specific European artist who “sells” private conversations between himself and his patrons, panelist Chris Burmeister contributed the perfect metaphor for what I see most environmental art is at its core —a special conversation with an artist about the land, water, sky or nature on this planet, the third one from the Sun. First we must value the conversation with the artist before we can value the objectification or documentation about that conversation. As the collector on the panel, Burmeister summed it up well when he said, “…what provokes sells.” Environmental artists provoke, but how do they sell?

From left: Artists Ryan Henel, Jami Porter Lara and curator Patricia Watts
Patricia Watts, seasoned curator and non-profit arts director, provided a thumbnail overview of the evolving land art/ecological art aesthetics from the 1960’s to now, moving from objective (sculptural/materials/earth-based) to non-objective (didactic documentation only) and back again. While foundations, institutions and even government generously funded the non-objective, experience based art interrogations about, and remediation of, the environment during the 1980’s, more tangible outcomes are now expected. Foundations are asking artists to go beyond just “raising awareness,” they’re looking for art projects that will affect change, permanently. This brought up the question of permanent vs. temporary art, especially those publicly funded at the local level.

Artist Ryan Henel noted that cities and government agencies have implemented such highly developed infrastructure systems that often we no longer see the environment. Henel’s personal inquiry as an artist is, “How can the artist, and therefore art be holistically integrated into the design and building of these systems to help us keep seeing the environment?” Jamie Porter Lara, on the other hand is creating portable, easily privately owned, artworks that intentionally build on the continuity of environmental materials (clay) and cultural artifacts (vessels) but are transformed into an “activist object.” She makes things out of clay that this planet already has too many of —liter-sized plastic bottles, but in the ancient tradition of the Mata Ortiz pottery of Mexico. Her objective is to respect and carry on the ancient medium and process, but to leave “an ethical trace” as reference to who and where we are now.
Some of the best questions left on the group table, unanswered, include: How does an artist not become a “brand” that can eventually be at risk of going out of style and discarded while pursuing multiple scale objects that can be purchased by a variety of supporters? Is the subject of one’s art the “type” of artist they are (read, “label”), or is it how you work as an artist that defines what “type” of artist one is? Is making an object about the environment just illustrating the (environmental) problem? How is that different than reading about it in the news? And finally, how can an artistic experience be conveyed in ways other than the object that can still yield revenue?

Panel moderator and exhibition curator, Nancy Zastudil’s passion for answers to these questions clearly stems from her unending passion and desire to support artists. I share her sentiments and through these conversations maybe we’ll all find our most creative outlets to support artists, support art enthusiasts and support the growing need for all to live a creative and art filled life. Special thanks to 516 ARTS for hosting the panel and audience discussion amidst the incredibly inspirational exhibit, Knew Normal, up now through the end of October – go see this amazing art!

Sherri Brueggemann is the City of Albuquerque Public Art Urban Enhancement Program Manager and a member of the Advisory Board of 516 ARTS.

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