The Art of Marketing Art in the Age of Total Economic Annihilation
This week on the Slog, The Stranger’s art critic Jen Graves reports two seemingly unrelated pieces of information. In the first, Graves speculates as to the future of Lawrimore Project, whose five year lease is nearing its close. In the post, she obliquely refers to an email from owner Scott Lawrimore (which I also received), advising collectors that now is the time to get in on the ground floor with gallery artist Elias Hansen‘s work. In the second, Graves announces that SOIL member artist Chauney Peck is officially giving away the work in her current exhibition.
These two bits of news, it would seem, are coming from universes apart in terms of intention and economic impact. Yet both reflect a relatively newfound awareness on the part of artists and dealers alike that the old rules of art marketing are apparently becoming obsolete.
In November of 2007, Jen Graves wrote a feature for the Stranger about how Scott Lawrimore’s then-newish gallery had “changed the course of contemporary art in Seattle.” Lawrimore had, and still has, an uncommon knack for hand-selecting the artists whose careers are about to shift into hyperdrive. Or is it Lawrimore’s stamp of approval that causes the shift? In this case, it’s probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. It’s true that Lawrimore’s artists are conceptually smart, technologically innovative, and ambitious in the arena of awards, honors and international exhibitions. But Lawrimore is also something of a starmaker. His care, when combined with his artists’ intrinsic talent and drive, creates a synergy that is even more than the sum of its ample parts.
But what if the bottom fell out of the world as we know it? What if the stock market crashed, the banks failed, and even in Seattle—whose mountainous remoteness and industrial diversification has kept its residents comparatively shielded from previous recessions—galleries began to close? And the galleries that remained struggled just to scrape by from month to month? Then no one would be immune to failure. Lawrimore Project’s business model (namely marketing the work of predominantly local and regional rising stars to international clients at “emerging” artist prices) may have been airtight in an era of economic expansion. But today even the most successful commercial galleries are fighting tooth and nail over the very limited pool of “big spenders” who are still spending.
I have no doubt that Lawrimore Project will weather this storm with characteristic grace. (As Jen Graves points out in her post, gallerists in Seattle clearly aren’t in it for the money. Scott Lawrimore’s youth, flexibility and commitment to his uncommonly good stable of artists will see him through whatever it is that’s happening, one way or another.) But the larger question of how to continue to effectively “market” contemporary art in an economy that shows only tenuous signs of improving is one whose contours we are only beginning to make out. Nobody likes a Negative Nancy, but you know the score as well as I do. If and when the economy “improves,” it will be doing so on borrowed time. Market capitalism is irreparably broken. Our culture is fundamentally unsustainable. Until there is a massive overhaul in our entire system of the commodification of goods and services, all our efforts at progress are so many Band-Aids on a bullet hole. (Oops! I’m being depressing. But sorry, it’s true.)
Which brings us to SOIL. Where, less than a mile from Lawrimore Project’s 8000 square feet of exhibition space, Chauney Peck is giving her art away for free. Conceptually, the act makes sense. The work in Bang, Universe, Everything is inspired by an exhibition of African fetish objects the artist viewed at Musée du quai Branly in Paris. These spiritually and socially significant objects are not designed with the intention of acquiring value as commodities in a market economy and neither are Peck’s (at least for the time being.) As Amanda Manitach writes in a review on her blog:
For [Peck] the act of giving without lucrative exchange creates an emotional or spiritual reward that’s unattainable through commercial transactions. The time and labor invested in these objects translate into a substantial and pleasurable sacrifice in their being, in Bataillean terms, wasted. Her interest in this kind of gift-giving economy of course called to mind the tradition of the Potlatch ceremony, something which Bataille addressed in his economic theory and which seems compounded in its relevance to Chauney’s work considering the tradition originated in the Pacific Northwest,
The act of giving art away for free is conceptually poignant, and it’s also where the equation comes full circle. SOIL is one of the city’s most notable artist-run spaces. It is where many of Scott Lawrimore’s artists received their earliest exposure, because it is the place where emerging artists show the work they’ve made for free in the hopes that one day a commercial art gallery will elect to bet on their sustained marketability. But if we are to take the whole of Chauney Peck’s statement at face value, we must allow ourselves to remember that the making and exchanging of art is an activity that may exist—and even thrive—in the absence a marketing apparatus. In this case, the expense of producing is the burden of the artist (hope you like that day job!) and may be offset in the form of a barter or the occasional sale. We must remember that the drive to create objects imbued with the self-referential meaning of the act of creation itself is the only given in the equation of artmaking. The motivations of artists are evidence that for some reason or another, the universe has in it the continual need to blow off steam in the form of ongoing creation. (Compare Manitach’s discussion of Peck’s show in terms of Bataille’s ‘general economy’.) If a gallery is worthy of survival, it is because the activities of the gallery facilitate and support the needs of its artists, i.e. the agents of the inherent needs of the universe, i.e. God’s Will.
Where do collectors fit into this equation? Collecting art is the act of receiving an object as a token of gratitude for investing in the ongoing economy of artmaking. Which, as an eternal game, was actually doing just fine without you, thank you very much. But which also appreciates your contribution. As soon as possible. Thank you very much.