Holland Cotter asks (& answers) why such a diverse city has an art world that’s “a bastion of whiteness”

In his piece “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex,” New York Times art critic Holland Cotter asks:

And on the subject of integration, why, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities, does the art world continue to be a bastion of whiteness? Why are African-American curators and administrators, and especially directors, all but absent from our big museums? Why are there still so few black — and Latino, and Asian-American — critics and editors?

And the answer, in part, lies here:

Political art brings me back to where I started, with artists, and one final, baffled complaint, this one about art schools, which seem, in their present form, designed to accommodate the general art economy and its competitive, caste-system values. Programs are increasingly specialized, jamming students into ever narrower and flakier disciplinary tracks. Tuitions are prodigious, leaving artists indentured to creditors for years.

The art world loves to skewer institutions supposedly at the top of the art world ecosystem, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, for putting on shows bereft of diversity, but we can look elsewhere, too. Cotter devotes much of his article to the art market and New York City’s cost of living - he says each has their effect on the art created here, but we can look further down the food chain. We can’t ignore (although we often do) the privilege that enables an individual to have the choice to become an art student in an economically inequitable society like our own. Cotter’s use of the term “caste-system” is apt.

Will we ever know how much we’ve missed by largely ignoring everything created outside New York City after World War II?

Perhaps not without a time machine, but “L.A. Raw: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945–1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art traces the development of art imbued with the politics that so many taste-makers seemed adverse to in the decades after World War II. Like many exhibitions organized under the auspices of the Pacific Standard Time festival, the show offers another slice of American history that mainstream art history scholarship often ignores.

"The exhibition’s significant contributions," wrote Greg Cook in the May/June issue of Art New England, “are to tease out links between [painter Rico] Lebrun and the present, as well as to illuminate another regional perspective in the often-untold history of the past century of American art outside of New York.”

As usual, Cook doesn’t pull any punches regarding the modern art myopia of the New York money machine, but this quote he includes from a 1959 Time Magazine article is a gem: “While abstract expressionism rules the cash register in Manhattan’s prospering art galleries, young artists across the land are turning back to images—but with a difference.”

Art and activism in the heyday of Greenberg-ian modernism. Who knew?
Rico Lebrun, Untitled (Three figures), 1960, ink wash on paper. 18 × 18½". Private collection.
Pictured: Rico Lebrun, Untitled (Three figures), 1960, ink wash on paper. 18 x 18½”. Private collection.

L.A. Raw" was on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art From January through May 2012 as part of the Pacific Standard Time festival.

A campaign to make Brooklyn seem less hip so artists want to leave and move back to their hometowns.

I’m thinking about launching a campaign to make Brooklyn seem less hip so artists want to leave and move back to their hometowns.

Think about it. Most artists (visual, musical, wordical, etc.) are poor, and yet so many live in - or aspire to live in - Brooklyn or somewhere else New York City, one of the most expensive cities on the planet. The idea is that there’s more opportunity, more culture, a more verdant community, yada yada yada, yet most young artists never make the big time. They make work in their free time and pay their emaciation-inducing rents waiting tables or working for Jeff Koons. Some move to Japan to teach English, some move back home with their parents, and others give up and take the less entrepreneurial route of going to graduate school, accruing more debt.

But what if these young artists never moved to Brooklyn and instead stayed closer to their hometowns or moved to smaller cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Portland[ia], etcetera? There are many more affordable places to live than Brooklyn, paying less rent means more time to make art, and artists provide significant economic boons to less affluent communities, and moreover, their economic impact is long-term. Win/win/win/win.

A highschool friend of mine, Jestis Deuerlein, and I had a conversation about this on Facebook.

Our conversation started with my following tweet (and corresponding Facebook post): “I think we can all agree that NYC thinks it’s the center of everything. Q: What harm does this do beyond hurting non-NY’ers feelings?”

“I suppose it only does harm if people living outside of NYC also begin to feel like NYC is the center of it all. Which could mean hurt feelings, or just a general itchiness that they’re in the wrong place,” Jestis wrote. (I’ve truncated her response slightly for efficiency.)

Dan Levy, an editor at Sparksheet, inhabitant of the great city of Montreal, and alumnus of the same grad-school program as me, suggested that one problem in the NYC-centered-ness of so much cultural production (art and media of all types) is a location, or convenience bias: we gravitate toward sources of culture that are geographically closer.

NYC-as-the-center-ness also means less opportunity for non-NYC artists on bigger stages, for what it’s worth. Dealers, curators, and writers/critics don’t often seek art beyond NYC, but that shouldn’t be artists’ problem.

“This definitely is the case amongst some of my artist friends who feel like they have to be in NYC to remain relevant—even though Philly gives them the time and affordability to simply make art,” Jestis wrote, and she added that NYC siphons off some of Philly’s best talent. I lived in Boston for 14 years and the brain drain is something we experienced as well.

It was at this time in our conversation that I thought of the anti-Brooklyn campaign. What if vast swaths of American youths suddenly started thinking that Brooklyn was no longer, like, you know, the coolest place to live on the planet?

I came up with a couple slogans:

1: “Brooklyn: Responsible for the mullet’s second coming.” (This could also be reused for creepy mustaches or any aesthetically displeasing fashion for that matter. The interesting thing about creepy mustaches is that they saw at least two rebirths in Brooklyn: In the 70’s and later in the early 00’s.)

2: “Brooklyn: Where knock-off Skidz with Jets logos came from.”

But Jestis nailed both the potential campaign concept and its slogan:

“New York City: That was so 25-62 years ago.”

“You start with the beat poets, folk in the Village in the 60’s, Bowie and Freddie partying in the 70’s and early 80’s, and you end with Larry levan and the end of Paradise garage in ‘87,” she wrote. “What have you done since, NY? I’ll accept Wu and Biggie but that’s where it ends.”

Brilliant, especially for the yet to be 25-62 set.

Jestis later told me that our Facebook exchange propelled her to start a book club in Philly about Philly, and she already has 12 members. “our book list is pretty great—people are really stoked about it!” she wrote.

UPDATE, 24 April, 3:20 p.m.: It seems that Travel + Leisure magazine in its April 2012 issue ranked New York City #12 in its list of “America’s Best Cities for Hipsters,” behind Seattle, Portland, OR, San Francisco, New Orleans, Portland, ME, Providence, Austin, San Juan, PR, Philadelphia, Denver, and Savannah. Not all artists are hipsters and not all hipsters are artists, but there is significant overlap in the two categories that we should recognize when considering within which cities they might thrive - and New York City isn’t number one.