Sunday, May 10, 2009

Anatomy of a Fledgling Contemporary "Art World" : Open Thread

The "art world" in the United States is much larger than it was only 50 years ago or so. There are now many more opportunities for people to create, exhibit, curate, collect and write about art. Not only is it conceivable (if, perhaps recently, a bit less likely) for an artist to go straight from university to a commercial career that earns them a decent living, but there is a structure in place that serves to nurture those artists still working up to that goal. This structure is stronger in some regions of the country than others, but nationally speaking it's remarkably well developed.

What an accomplishment this is became much more apparent to me, as did (in particular) how much we take that structure for granted, in talking with Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev (whom we call M&G for short, and who we're delighted to have back with us in New York for a few weeks) about a new initiative they've launched in their hometown, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.


To appreciate the significance of this initiative, though, a quick bit of background is probably helpful. M&G went to great art universities in Moscow and then-Leningrad, having grown up when Kyrgyzstan was still a republic of the Soviet Union. This was typical for artists in the outlying regions of the USSR, and seen as an advantage of the socialist system there (regardless of where you were born, if you had artistic talent, you got a grade A education). But the concentration of the Soviet art education structure in a few Russian metropolises resulted in virtually no higher art education opportunities being developed elsewhere and thus no realistic options for non-Russian artists at university age once the Soviet Union collapsed.

There were, of course, a network of Russian-trained artists who had returned home to the former republics, but no structure in place to train the next generation and, for all but a few of the lucky countries with oil or other expensive natural resources, no funds to launch one.


At the point they are in their career, M&G would typically be expected to move to Europe or the US, but they choose to remain in Kyrgyzstan and work diligently to bring the rest of the global art community to their country (with a series of highly acclaimed international biennials in Bishkek) and try to build a structure for the next generation of Kyrgyz artists. This isn't easy. Not only is Kyrgyzstan a rather poor nation, but, again, there's not much of a foundation for doing so.

But so important is this mission to the husband-wife team that they often put their own careers on the back burner to further it. One recent effort in this mission was the foundation of
the Bishkek-based ArtEast School of Contemporary Art. It was a pilot program only, supported generously by Arts Collaboratory (which was established by Hivos and the DOEN Foundation) and it was conceived as follows:
The School of Contemporary Art is pilot project of ArtEast. Duration is 6 months (January -June 2009). Supervisors are Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev.

The main purpose of the project is maximal adaptation of higher art education (bachelor degree) to the World level of education using the effective methods of education.

Educational program includes:
- Theoretical part (lectures and discussions on the history of modern and contemporary art, the main tendencies and directions)
- Practical part (different skills for implementation of own art work, articulation of own statement and own projects)

M&G told me that the pilot culminated in an exhibition at the French Embassy in Bishkek and that they hope to expand upon it to include arts writers/critics next.

This led us to a conversation about what exactly goes into the making of a Contemporary "art world" structure in any country. What are the important foundations and then the next steps. Would, for example, I asked, the school branch out to include curatorial studies? Gulnara said, no time soon. That you needed a fairly large system to support individuals focusing on curating, as opposed to having people curate in addition to making art or writing about art.

That led me to asking what they thought was the right timing/role of commercial art galleries. They indicated that a fledgling gallery had launched recently in Bishkek but it followed a bit of a collective-style format. Artist-funded, it rented out the space to local artists for exhibitions. Sales, as you might expect, were rare.

All of which got me to wondering about the most effective order of building such a world. Like those computer games in which you found a colony and have to make basic decisions about where to build the transporation hub and where to build your defenses against invaders, always with an eye toward the most efficient path for growth of course, I wondered how many artists and exhibition venues you need before it makes sense to have someone specialize on criticism. At what point does having curatorial experts become sustainable? Is there a rational order to such progressions, or is each new "art world" unique?

I don't mean to make light of M&G's efforts in Bishkek, mind you. Their project remains one of the most impressive efforts anywhere in the world, IMO. In particular, given how remote their hometown is--it's 27 hours door to door from New York--it's fairly amazing to me to think how far their dedication has taken them (they're screening and discussing their work at MoMA next Monday, by the way...please stop in if you can). I simply see their goal of building a support system for Kyrgyz artists from the ground up as an opportunity to think about whether there are any methods/paths more successful than others.

Consider this an open thread on what it means to build a contemporary "art world."

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13 Comments:

Blogger Art said...

What an ambitious project they have! Your questions remind me a bit of a question on Joanna Matter's blog this morning: Are there too many artists? Not that I have exact answer to that but it brings up the point that once you train good artists, it's still difficult to make a living, especially, I imagine, in Kyrgyzstan compared to a place like New York.

5/11/2009 02:15:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

A contemporary art world can't exist without a robust support structure of nearby bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

5/11/2009 07:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Julian Lorber said...

It is fairly extraordinary what M&G are trying to accomplish. Also your comment about lucky countries with oil or other rich natural resources is quite interesting as well. Building a contemporary "art world"... hmm

Here in the west we are spoiled having a long and grand history of patronage going back to the renaissance. You have to wonder when a country or group of countries that make up the EU go through this sort of trial by fire, fueled by money, war, poverty and depression and then back to more money and more war and modernization; if it lends to the ability of the patrons and institutions to take risks thinking they won't (can't) get burnt.
On the other hand contemporary art communities that spring up suddenly supported by these western ones are fueled by only money, they are heavily controlled and are run and crash just as quickly as wall street stock. Looking at the asian art markets and how they were fostered like delicious new doughnuts that everyone wants just before people become concerned with trans fats.
India and Pakistan are now on the rise as their artists are gaining international popularity (sound familiar). This related article was first broadcast on NPR but can be read at this link, I found it interesting.
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16538802

I would guess that contemporary art world are made by artists that don't discard the lesson's of the past and try to build and grow on those lessons with their own process and personal taste for expression. Obviously they are bought and exhibited by wealthy persons that create buzz and alter how they are viewed from ideas and physical expression but also commodities that can become popular objects to be traded, sold or donated. Replicating these environments is an idea that one can never be sure about. In the way anything evolves, if it is done over a second time it would always develop differently. Perhaps it is the same as Francis Bacon described how one becomes an artist. I suppose this may also be timely with the show for his work opening "I don’t think people are born artists; I think it comes from a mixture of your surroundings, the people you meet, and luck." -Francis Bacon

5/11/2009 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Apropos of business (cultural/economic) communities within capitolism - I know the Virgin Megastore on Union Square in Manhattan is leaving - actually all their music stores are closing. This is a wise decision.

The store never knew if it was a bookstore (Borders Barnes and Noble), a video store(Blockbuster, Kims), a clothing outlet(Urban Outfitters, Hot Topic), a cofee shop (starbucks) or an electronics store (Best Buy, Radio Shack). It could have been any one of these - but not all of them.

In the same way, the art world can't be all things to all people - but it can be more things to fewer people, or fewer things to more people.

The art world could cater to the king - and eveyone could agree that there was only one person who mattered and a few insiders. Like a cult.

Or the art world could cater to everyone, and make only a few things that everyone could understand. Like a religion.

But if you create chaos, as has happened, you whitness social balkanization - and I think it's deeper than the market - though with no place for artists to live and work, how can there be artists? And surely there were always recognized and successful (eventually) artists who managed to make work despite having no money?
Or do we only recognize those elected by the guild system or through peer review? Is that the best way? Or simply the one that is presdetermined by group psychology?

Maybe the larger art world is an illusion, and there really only was a small bounded ordered hive sheltered from chaotic storms.

Or maybe the circus has grown, but is in need of a new organizing principle. Maybe I just cant see that this is already the case, and that gravity is working as I write to create a more stable, better organized supersystem, a more egalitarian, intuitive, sincere and productive world, where art solves problems and everyone gives me money to make it happen, because I am Jesus. Had to throw that in there. My ego is fragile.

5/11/2009 11:55:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

There are some interesting parallels between Kyrgyzstan and New Zealand. Both are small isolated countries.

From Auckland, New Zealand, to New York is 20 hours. From Auckland to London is 24 hours.

Kyrgyzstan has about 5 and half million people; New Zealand just over 4 million.

New Zealand's 'art world' probably dates back to the 60s, with the establishment of the first professional dealer galleries (one of which is still going – the Peter McLeavey Gallery).

I suggest that a dedicated professional dealer gallery to champion, show, and sell artists' work is very important as a starting point, not art schools.

You don't need to go to school, but you do need somewhere to show.

5/11/2009 11:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

I would forget about developing a market. I would focus on developing ICA's, where international artists are invited and mixed with local artists. If a system of art centers can develop (hopefully not too far from each other at first), than contacts made with the rest of the world is good (that's the role of ICA's), and from there, any good artist have chances to find success abroad (they will be invited in return) and with luck develop a market.

Many countries function without much of a market (Canada, France, etc). The "star" artists are represented by english, american or german dealers (there is about 2 equivalent to Yvon Lambert in Paris, but most artists function by funds). But are the "star"
artists the only interesting artists? Absolutely not. Market is not an essence if you develop a great sense of curiosity and a good funding base. Doesnt Kyrgyztan wish to provide itself with quality entertainment? (art for me means quality entertainment).

So when one claims "art world", I hope they are aware that they are many "artworlds". Don't trust Artforum, that's just the tip of the iceberg (and unbelievably new-york-centric).


One taboo question that needs answering is: how do people can focus about art if they don't know if tommorrow they'll have something to eat. I call art "quality entertainment" because I find it mostly a luxury. But for some (and I'm tempted to include myself at times), it's also a necessity. How do you balance that? I find that art is perfect in a place where people have a little too much time and are thoroughly bored.


Cedric Casp

5/12/2009 12:18:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Why the Hell can't anyone say to Hell with artworlds; art networks; curators; critics; socially useful; politically correct; art bloggers; collectors; cultural aspirations & the rest of the sad blah ? The making of art, especially painting, is a fumbly way to try & find out not only who one is but also more profoundly what nature of creature we are. After that the great vacuum cleaner of vanity sucks in all within its path. Obviously what they do has merit -the sadness is that the non-doers will attempt to draw off some of the kudos of that 'merit' by association & in so doing will no doubt dilute its value by their participation.

5/12/2009 07:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

The making of art, especially painting, is a fumbly way to try & find out not only who one is but also more profoundly what nature of creature we are.And there's nothing stopping anyone from doing so, privately, without ever showing it to anyone else. It's when an artist wishes to share what they've created with the rest of us that the networks begin to form, particularly if what they share is interesting to others. If the artist doesn't wish the "non-doers" to draw off any of their kudos, I suggest they never show them their work. It's human nature to do so (something an artist should be able to appreciate on some level)...not anything to say "to Hell with" in my opinion.

5/12/2009 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

Edward you're right, so reasonably right in what you say. One quibble & one question. First the quibble:

"If the artist doesn't wish the non-doers" to draw off any of their kudos,,,,"

What I wrote did not associate the notion of their work as artists, or any artist for that matter, to 'non-doers'/ kudos. It was more in line with what, as art initiators/administrators, they feel obliged to do (which is no doubt financially necessary) in coming to the West & with what that entails. Cultural collectivisation/ colonisation perhaps ?

And now to the question:

A couple of years ago I met somebody of Russian descent from Bishkek & the political conditions then seemed anything but conducive to not merely freedom of expression but freedom of any sort. Have things changed so radically there ? Can anybody help ?

5/12/2009 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Start with the internet, the most revolutionary technology of the new century. The very fact we are even discussing Kyrgyzstan is a result of the internet, a bit over a decade ago, it would have never happened.

I believe that the world is slowly forming a global electronic community which
will allow artists to share cultural, theoretical and aesthetic issues in a way which has never before been possible.

Four years ago I discovered the blog New Images by Hans Heiner Buhr, a German artist living in Tbilisi, Georgia and Berlin. Tbilisi is about the same size a city as Bishkek. See also: The Art Club Caucasus International an electronic community started by Hans.

5/12/2009 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

What I wrote did not associate the notion of their work as artists, or any artist for that matter, to 'non-doers'/ kudos. It was more in line with what, as art initiators/administrators, they feel obliged to do (which is no doubt financially necessary) in coming to the West & with what that entails.

I think I'm still somewhat confused here, Tony.

And perhaps it's because I'm not being clear that M&G's primary goal is to 1) support Kyrgyz artists and 2) continue to promote Kyrgyz culture through that means.

he political conditions then seemed anything but conducive to not merely freedom of expression but freedom of any sort

The 2005 revolution seemed to have freed things up a fair bit, although the new President seemed to fall into the old one's bad habits rather quickly. Fortunately, there's a precedent now for kicking out the President if he becomes too tyrannical, so in general I think things are a bit better.

It remains a somewhat rough and tumble place, politically though.

Having said that, when I visited in 2006, artists seemed fairly confident that they could make the work they wanted to.

5/12/2009 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

You're not the only one who is confused, Edward - you can put my name down too.

I think it comes down to the question of how can one maintain a balance between being detached/attached; independent/apart , and is the search for such a balance even desirable as we trundle towards George's 'global electronic community'.

PS Thanks for the update on the current situation there, Edward.

5/12/2009 09:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You belong to a small, select group of confused people."
From a fortune cookie.

Vger.

5/14/2009 11:58:00 AM  

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