What happens when the artists are vulnerable?
From financial fallout to a lack of facilities, acts of God and an empty Armory, 2017 has not been kind to Rochester's arts organizations. Last Thursday, Café Steam and Matt Stolle of the Post-Bulletin hosted a discussion around these and other issues with representatives from Rochester’s varying arts efforts, self-identified outliers and non-practicing advocates for the arts. After the initial discussion, some of the participants attended the opening of Tracee Vetting Wolf’s “Art Everyday, Everyday Art”, hosted by People’s Food Co-op in partnership with Rochester Art Center.
Ms. Wolf’s exhibit features nearly 1,000 small pieces chronologically displayed in the co-op's dining area. Since her son began kindergarten in 2011, the artist has committed herself to spending 30 minutes every school day to creating a small piece of art with a written note on the back that she packed for him along with his lunch. Each day her son brought them home, never accidentally throwing one in the trash, misplacing, or giving one away. Animals, abstract experiments, portraits and pastorals, the individual pieces represent a mother day after day attempting to connect with her son through the inexhaustible possibilities of art making.
In her Q&A with attendee’s Ms. Wolf shared feeling a sense of vulnerability during the installation of her exhibit. What was once a private exchange between herself and her son was on display for the public. It is this vulnerability that makes her exhibit unmediated, brave, beautiful, and unabashedly alive.
If the arts in Rochester is in disarray, if our groups and artists find themselves feeling vulnerable in our current climate, let’s explore how embracing vulnerabilities can benefit the individual artist as well as the community around them.
An artist becomes vulnerable when they communicate. Connect, share, teach a class, write an op-ed, a letter, ask for help, ask someone if they need help, confront what frightens you with ink, oil, lens or yarn. Stand up. Say no! What great art said, please? What great art asked politely for a place at the table? Replace convincing with conviction. Thinking with thanking. Gratitude too often suffers cynical and offhanded criticism, disregarded as sentimentality. But honest gratitude broadcast against a current of defeatism and capitalist self-interest can turn a tide or two.
I am grateful for Sean and Annie Allen's continued support of Gallery 24 at Forager Brewing Company; Hunter and Traci Downs for turning the beautiful brick walls of Café Steam into an evolving public gallery space; the People's Food Co-op for their recent partnership with the RAC; and our Parks and Rec Department for their commitment of materials, time, and staff, as is evident in the Cascade Lake Master Plan and this year’s expanded Art4Trails programming.
An artist is vulnerable when they maintain their independence from totalizing bodies, affiliations, committees and all our little safe systems predicated on the promise of strength in numbers. These groups potentially offer institutional capacities needed to facilitate long term goals shared by like-minded artists, but in and of themselves they will not produce great art. Refuse to be reducible to prescribed limitations inherent in canons, movements, brands or buildings. The illusion of security in a unified voice often leads to very real and underwhelming homogeny.
An artist becomes vulnerable when they admit they can't create in isolation. "I don't care who it is that has or does influence me so long as it isn't myself." - Picasso
An artist is vulnerable when they are accountable. If you are invested in Rochester’s future art scene, attend the Rochester Art Center’s Annual Meeting & Member Celebration on May 24, which has been made open to the public in response to recent events. And, if you do attend, do not go solely to bang whatever drum you've been tightening for the last two years. Listen to what the RAC’s leadership has to say. Considering the bad press they have received in the last few months, many organizations in their position would have postponed this meeting. Their failures have been cited, if not flaunted, by the media. They know the public is angry, concerned, confused. I applaud their willingness to face the public, to attempt accountability.
The word account can be traced back to its Latin origin, toward reckoning. And maybe that’s what the RAC needs, a reckoning. Lay it all out and move forward. But accounts are often subjective. Which perspective will engender a more prosperous future for the RAC and Rochester’s artists? Some accounts may be based on desperation. Others envy.
Some will see the Executive Board’s bruises laid as bare as their second-floor gallery now that Warhol's shadow has been replaced with MPR’s appropriation of Ms. Johnston's. Another account may begin with empathy. To quote Marilynne Robinson, “People are beautiful, brilliant, fallible, and forgivable. It takes courage to show this.”
An artist is vulnerable when they resist closure, the simple solution, the agreed upon path. Great art strives to pose better questions, to oneself, to your audience and to society. In a word, it remains open. In the open, abstract, unfinished and not yet there is freedom. Begin with the desire to create, not to know. Do not name, animate. Begin again. Make art every day, and every day into art, for yourself, for someone else, if only to share with them art’s inexhaustible possibilities. The sound of hooves isn't always the cavalry. Indeed, it may be zebras, a stump of vine charcoal shading a plane, or, perhaps, an anxious child's fingers drumming on his school desk, anticipating lunch, imagining what new world his mother made for him today.
Eric Anderson is an artist and writer living in Rochester.