I’ve been negligent about writing for a year or two, these things happen. I’m going to try to get back into writing regularly again.
Ok, so here is a topic—the potential positive relationship between studio art and artists and projects by artists doing social practice type work. There has always been some level of antagonism between these two groups, and some of it is understandable. From the perspective of the orthodoxy (studio/gallery artists) any new approach can be threatening. As an artist that is invested in a conventional way of working (even if that way isn’t functioning from a support perspective) it can be challenging when artists working in other ways that may seem to involve less labor and hoop jumping receive recognition and support. It’s destabilizing, and frustrating, and all of those things. And from the perspective of the upstart socially engaged artist the dominance of the studio/gallery model seems unfair and marginalizing, and in various ways those dominant conventions sometimes indicate that socially engaged work might not even be art (and its never fun to be told that your art isn’t art). In the end the two approaches don’t really have a lot of overlap, they are about as different as painting is from documentary filmmaking, and in that same way should not be seen as competition to each other.
This is a generalization, but usually studio artists want to primarily show their object-based work in gallery spaces (in galleries, art centers, and museums) where as artists doing social practice often work outside of conventional art spaces, and even when they do make work for art contexts they are frequently more interested in non-gallery locations within the institution or in making work that happens only temporarily in gallery spaces while studio-based art is being displayed. Sometimes that work might be responding to a museum’s collection or the work of an artist being shown in the gallery space. In that sense the social practice work can be seen as an augmentation of what is already being presented adding new perspectives to typical exhibition dynamics.
But there is another way that socially engaged art is sometimes mutually supportive of studio-based work. Some social practice projects are designed to contain studio-based work. For an example I’ll use King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), which is a contemporary art museum located inside of a Portland public school. The project, which I created with Lisa Jarrett and now also includes many other collaborators, was constructed conceptually as a large, expanding, and ongoing social practice project. But inside of that framework is the need and desire to present work by studio-based artists in a variety of ways. The primary and longest standing version of that is a rotating set of exhibitions in which well known studio-based artists show their original work, but also do lectures and workshops with students at the school as well.
We have now engaged numerous studio based artists in the KSMoCA project over the last four years or so and all of them have been excited to have the opportunity to show their work in an unusual context with an audience that they don’t normally reach. They have also enjoyed interacting directly with the students at the school. Generally, studio-based artists are not ever asked to leave their status quo environments for making and showing work, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t respond well to that possibility when it is given. I think there is a lot more room for that sort of thing to happen in all kinds of contexts, giving studio artists many more chances to show their work than in the limited set of traditional galleries and museums that exist in any given location.
The benefit in this symbiotic relationship for the socially engaged artist creating a structure like KSMoCA is that it is necessary to have work to show and artists to engage with inside of the framework that they have created. Obviously, not all socially engaged projects need the content of studio-based artists, many of them work with non-artists or with people who don’t consider themselves artists. But in some cases social engaged artists can function like unconventional curators for studio-based artists, facilitating the presentation of their work in contexts that go way outside of the normal capacity of more traditional curators.
(A side question that might come up then is why don’t socially engaged artists just call themselves curators? The answer from my perspective is that curatorial strategies are just one among many approaches that a socially engaged artist can use in producing a project, so being labeled solely as a curator would be limiting, where as working as an artist (at least in my definition) can include switch around roles, cross lines, and hybridize in ways like almost no other practice.)
This same type of supportive relationship dynamic that I’m describing between socially engaged art and studio-based art can also apply to socially engaged art and performance, film, literature, music, architecture, etc. Basically, conventional artists of all sorts have nothing to fear in regards to socially engaged art, and potentially a lot to gain from it.