Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Work's the Thing

I had a rather surprising conversation with a renown gallerist the other day, someone who's, to my mind, a living legend...someone who's already in all the history books and whose gallery is known far and wide. This gallerist has, of late, however, seen other, younger galleries surpass his space in terms of the ever-shifting pecking order (publicized mostly by which art fair one gets into, but determined in other less public ways that I don't wish to delve into), and he acknowledged a bit of sour grapes about the naked ambition that defines the current era and how little that has to do with actual art. I countered, the cheerleader that I tend to be in such situations, with suggestions of how fortunes change, but more importantly how the work is the simply being in the game is its own reward. And I truly believe that.

Having said that, it can be a brutal business and I do have those moments when I consider whether I would be more content on a ranch in Wyoming (Bambino might have something to say about that, but ...), but all in all, I know I'd miss it.

Anyway, this got me to thinking (not because the gallerist above mentioned anything near this maudlin, but because it's the natural conclusion of such thinking): Nearly every gallerist I know has ups and downs and those moments of sheer panic, when you do the math for what's owed out and what's coming in and realize you might have overestimated the latter. It's a business. Likewise, nearly every gallerist I know has contemplated, if only for a brief moment, what it would feel like to be forced out of business, by a downturn in the market or some other misfortune. How long would you still fight the good fight? How drastic of measures would you take to stay in it? When do you finally call it a day and close up shop?

The thing is, we do so from a position of extreme comfort, relative to some: Meet Hasan Nassar. He owns what's very likely the last fully operating gallery in Baghdad:

Amid the violence, the crumbling economy and rising religious and political intolerance, Hasan Nassar can see a peaceful, democratic Iraq close at hand, one in which ideas, not bullets, are paramount.

The incubator for his vision is his small art gallery in northern Baghdad, which he opened in early 2006 even as most others were shutting down. He has kept it alive with a relentless rotation of exhibits, lectures, poetry readings and film screenings.

There is urgency to this schedule. Mr. Nassar believes that culture can provide a pathway out of the hate and fear overwhelming Iraq, and he is trying to marshal like-minded Iraqis to join his movement.

Few people outside the shrinking Iraqi art world know of Mr. Nassar, and the trickle of visitors to his Madarat Gallery suggests that many Iraqis would find his notion quixotic. Furthermore, the gallery, the only one left in Baghdad with frequently rotating exhibits, is far from profitable.

But Mr. Nassar persists all the same, passing his days drinking cups of sugary black tea with a scattering of artists and bohemians in the gallery’s courtyard cafe, decorated with friends’ paintings and a stand of tall ficus plants. They talk about culture, politics and their shared belief that the salvation of Iraq rests with the redeeming and ennobling virtues of art.

It's a rather sobering article, with opposing viewpoints by artists (ranging from those who now argue that "their lives as artists were better under Mr. Hussein" to those who insist "Then we were just breathing. Now we have hope, hope for a good future.”), but it's the story of Mr. Nassar and his keen understanding of what's at stake...what his gallery represents to Iraq and to himself at this point in time, that got to me:

One recent morning, in preparation for a lecture by an Iraqi sculptor, Mr. Nassar arranged two dozen plastic chairs into rows in the gallery. He said he made no guarantees to any exhibitor. “He may not make money,” Mr. Nassar said, “but at least he can say: ‘I still exist. I’m still working. I’m still alive.’ ”
This US market, too, shall pass and along with it most of its galleries (and the pecking order). But those who make their art or run their spaces because they love the work will persevere. The work itself...that's the reward...that's the thing. The



Anonymous ml said...

Courage takes many forms.

6/07/2007 10:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for posting this ed...

6/07/2007 12:18:00 PM  
Anonymous pp said...

Teach us to market art, master! -- NY Times' contribution to cultural imperialistm

Meanwhile in Montreal...

Gallerist/artblogger Zeke has been muzzled..

6/07/2007 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Nice post, Edward. Thanks for it.

6/07/2007 03:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i totally relate to the Wyoming fantasy............ sometimes it all feels so shallow ad meaningless and for what, none or little compensation.....but hey i signed up for all of this, it’s all voluntary and sometimes there are windows where it is very, very rewarding..
signed a sometimes confused gallerist

6/07/2007 04:08:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Wyoming..... huh?


6/07/2007 04:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

the bling bling is bigger in Wyoming, Bambino

the rest of you...shhh!!

6/07/2007 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

i have one answer for

little brazil in manhattan
on 46-48th streets

6/07/2007 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Suspected Homosexual said...

I read that article and having been on both sides of the art equation (both gallerist and artist though not at the same time) I fully comprehend Mr Nassar's devotion. I came to art late in life (33) and was recommended by many professionals in the art field (both educators and artists) to move to New York. I had already gotten into an exhibit at the Alternative Museum--when it was on Broadway-- so in 1994 I took the plunge moving me and my 2 dogs to Brooklyn. Within 4 days of arriving I was alerted that I had been chosen to exhibit at PS122. However, no matter how well I was prepared to pursue art I was not prepared for the amount of financial wherewithall New York required even back then. To make a long story short, I moved back to Miami the following December. My goal? To become financially independant so as to pursue art on my terms, without thinking about what people would buy etc.

6/07/2007 05:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Suspected Homosexual said...

Because when I began to sweat whether my dogs and i would have food or a roof I began to compromise my work. Today I am happy to tell you all is well. Now I have 4 dogs and 6 cats and thanks to art their is absolutely no threat to us not having food or a roof (hurricanes notwithstanding). And I get to go where I want to go artistically. Art is worth every sacrifice. And Mr. Nassar may very well be the only sane person left in Iraq. If there were some way to make a ddonation to keep him going I would be first in line.

6/07/2007 05:45:00 PM  
Anonymous even art must die said...

enobling aspects of art.




6/07/2007 07:30:00 PM  
Blogger ec said...

The Iraq perspective is utterly inspiring. It calls attention to how art communicates on a level people want and need. It sustains and challenges on a perceptual level that bypasses unecessary verbiage.
Like all worthy ventures it takes leaps of faith.
Thank you for reinforcing mine with Mr. Nassar's inspiring example.
Art is a political choice.

6/08/2007 08:49:00 AM  

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