Yes, We Can?
These days, even art might need a government bailout
The students, faculty and staff (myself included, as I work at the college’s Fine Arts Gallery) at the College of Santa Fe are presently waiting to hear the fate of the private school, founded in 1859 by the Lasallian Christian Brothers. Last year’s proposed buyout of the college fell through, and the short of it is that CSF needs a financial partner in order to remain solvent. By the time Christmas rolls around, the college may be on a path to becoming a part of New Mexico Highlands University or UNM, or perhaps on the path to closure—though, I think the latter scenario is doubtful. My vote is that CSF becomes a part of one of the state schools, retaining its continued focus on the arts, which I think is what the community at the college and greater Santa Fe are hoping for as well.
But surely there was someone among the mass of people at the opening of Mind the Gap at Eight Modern in Santa Fe that could shell out the dough or make a phone call to save the school (though funds have become available for the school to continue through next semester). The show, curated by the Center for Contemporary Arts’ Visual Arts Director Cyndi Conn, featured the work of Rita Bard, Katherine Lee, Tuscany Wenger, Kim Russo, Jennifer Hoag and Fay Ku.
Lee’s oil and spray paint works stand out technically, but I was thoroughly taken by the mysterious, whimsical packages that Wenger was showing in the main hall. These packages—the vac-u-formed plastic you’d find holding a new faucet or electric razor—were stuffed with yarn, toy dinosaurs, small pictures, felt, rulers or fake flowers. The materials, and the relationships they offered, were squeezed into the parameters of emptied recycled packaging. Rather than build a new compositional structure on a plane or in the round, the works were limited by their pasts, by what they used to contain.
Truth is most local artists have devised clever ways of maintaining a lifestyle that allows them to eat, pay rent and still make their art. Whether it’s picking up two or three adjunct teaching gigs at the community college, slinging drywall or archiving films part time, the artists I know live modestly—it’s almost as if the recent economic poop-storm simply makes non-artists do the same. But we might be at that point where broader support—a school bailout included—is necessary. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
New Mexico is directly mentioned on page 288 of Nick Taylor’s book American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA. The WPA—the Works Progress Administration—was created by FDR in 1935 as an effort to create jobs for millions of out-of-work Americans. Apart from providing employment, the government sought to document, catalogue and collect the country’s cultural resources—whether in architecture, writing, art, music or crafts. The Federal Art Project (FAP) was created under the WPA and put thousands of artists to work through the middle of World War II. These artists brought their skills to bear on projects such as public murals, arts education and the photo-documentation of American landmarks (nearly every state had a guide written and printed by the WPA). Artists like Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Berenice Abbott and Stuart Davis worked for the WPA in some capacity.
I began toying with the idea of the Obama administration creating a similar initiative, an entity that could be included in his proposed 2.5 million jobs to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure and public works. The main problem with the idea, I suppose, is the skepticism most people have about the arts in general. Though artists are often dismissed for their elitist or intellectually insular natures, the truth is they have carved out select ways of living within the same larger, consumer-driven culture as every one else. They have to cope with the same crises that stem from depressed wages and waning access to health care.
Historically, the shifts that have been made in the arts since the ’40s are demonstrative of how anything and everything has risen up and expanded the edges of what we accept as art practice—from making giant inflatable sculptures to following strangers out on the street or even eating in public. Honestly, it’s hard to see contemporary artists—removed as many of them are from traditional forms of art practice like painting and sculpture—getting employment in similar numbers as the artists under the FAP. Though, the idea of Lisa Yuskavage making a mural with her hyper-sexualized women to commemorate any aspect of American history is mind-bogglingly appealing.
Of course, in my naive musings, I leave out the fact that any backing from the government would compromise the free-flow of ideas through the probable conformation of certain forms, images and models to a “more acceptable condition.” But (there’s always a but) it could reinvigorate public engagement of contemporary art—this happens in my ideal world. Most people stopped thinking about contemporary art after the Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe-fueled culture wars of the ’90s, but maybe the simple notion of creating beautiful and relevant things that somehow make us see the beautiful and relevant things that are already around us would invigorate a broader dialogue about our engagement with art, architecture and other ideations that bind or unbind us.
Many artists like Olafur Eliasson or Rirkrit Tiravanija have already moved in that direction. And not that I want every American artist to become like Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko, silenced by the government or making propaganda, but I think there would be something gained through a deepened connection to what we do. Surely having to gaze at that Yuskavage mural over the entrance to your local library would be a start.
In some way, the trouble at CSF is a shot across the bow, an opportunity to define what art means to our state and which institutions are needed to maintain and support that position. Of course, a federal art program is far-fetched, but certainly creativity and intellectual curiosity should have a place at the table as the country attempts to re-align itself and take stock of who and what it is.
David Leigh is the Director of the College of Santa Fe’s Fine Arts Gallery.