Art Dividends

The over-sized lawn sign announcing the Milwaukee Domes Art Fair caught my eye. The placard was located just off the bike path in Veterans Park, which is part of the city’s (largely) non-commercialized shoreline and miles from the actual Domes. The Domes, also known as the Mitchell Park Conservatory, showcase a lush variety of plants and flowers in three beehive-shaped glass domes. I had no idea the Domes hosted an art fair, which wasn’t surprising given the number of arts events taking place—coupled with the fact that this one wasn’t likely to be my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Domes, but an art fair amidst such horticultural splendor may be too floral for my tastes. Of course, every event has its respective audience. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people would attend the Domes Art Fair. Money would change hands and prizes would be awarded—artists would participate in capital economy and in that sense we understand what is at stake. But making a living as an artist is another question. I wondered, as I rode north towards my home and past Bradford Beach—with it’s almost socialist ratio of sand to profit—what is at stake for so many artists who have so little chance of earning a living for their effort?

It’s a question that gains significance the further away one moves from the places where art ecosystems generate enough money to house and feed artists, gallerists, studio assistants, and those in related niche industries like fabrication facilities, conservation, installation, shipping, and handling. Milwaukee is a far cry from such milk and honey. And though the city shares frugal fortitude with many other rust-belt cities, it’s the perfect example of an art scene that—as if by magic—creates with little recompense.

So what is at stake? I suggest that social transaction is the commodity of exchange—a premise that gives weight to interactions between artists, organizers, and audience—making those interactions, and the events where they take place, valuable indeed. In the introduction to The Blackwell Reader in Contemporary Social Theory, Anthony Elliot writes, “But Bourdieu certainly wishes to to emphasize the influence of specific social contexts (or what he calls the ‘fields’ or ‘markets’ of the social domain).” Of course, we’re familiar, to the point of depression, with the business mantra of “networking,” but there are more nuanced exchanges: friendships take root, sparring partners help evolve one’s thinking, overlapping interests create mutual research or, at times, beg for finer individuation. All of which orient an artist to their work as well as her or his role in something larger than self. To be clear, I use “social transaction” to refer to general human interaction rather than a specialized usage associated with trending disciplines such as Social Practice. If there’s value in social transactions, non-monetary as it may be, it’s reasonable to assume there are expectations. What might those expectations say about a city? Do they, as much as other market conditions, define Milwaukee’s perception of itself in relation to other (larger) urban centers?

Was there a way to crunch numbers for something as elusive as the transacted energy of bringing people together for the experience of art? Were there unmet expectations for audience in a city the size of Milwaukee? I set out to solicit information from individuals who facilitate art’s public presentation—directors, gallery owners, curators. I came up with four simple questions and sent them to an eclectic range of such intermediaries.

What follows are highly condensed responses to my questions: 1. How many people show up? 2. How satisfied are you with turnout and degree of engagement? 3. Are you working on outreach and increasing your audience? 4. Is there distinction between anticipation and expectation regarding audience? This question hoped to get at subtle distinctions of expectancy given a prevailing Midwestern temperament of polite humility. It created some confusion, but also some illuminating comments, and so was left in.  My goal was an anecdotal snapshot rather than hard-data metrics. The survey, in essay form, glosses over many significant details such as whether events are free or ticketed. I reached out to only a small fraction of organizers in Milwaukee, those who responded represent a wide-range of endeavors from comfortably endowed to precariously DIY.

Hal Rammel, music curator for Alternating Currents Live, answered on behalf of Milwaukee’s internationally-celebrated Woodland Pattern. For question 1, he said as few as ten people, though a recent event brought in sixty people. Regarding question 2, he felt confident that the audience for experimental music in Milwaukee was comparable in size and quality of engagement to other urban centers, including New York. And for number 4, he cited competition from other events (as did Polly Morris of Lynden Sculpture Garden) as one reason it was difficult to anticipate audience turnout.

John Riepenhoff, speaking for the well-connected Green Gallery, offered extremely brief, self-confident replies to the effect that everything was going great.

Sara Krajewski, Director and Curator at INOVA, hinted, in response to question 3, at developing new initiatives to build audiences. She seemed to allude to something more than just increased social media presence, which will no doubt be of interest to other cultural venues with overlapping audiences. For question 4, Krajewski acknowledged that INOVA programs for a specialized audience familiar with contemporary art, and immediately followed that up by emphasizing her institution’s mission to better educate regarding these forms.

Keith Nelson opened Useable Space in 2013. He doesn’t have numerical goals for attendance and has been happy at the turnout and with audience engagement. Generally, over 100 visitors show up for openings. He was perfectly content to let word-of-mouth build awareness of the venue.

Pegi Christiansen is a freelance organizer, writer, educator, and performance artist. Christiansen founded the Performance Art Showcase in 2004. Echoing a sentiment by Sara Krajewski, she said that audience maxed out at 300—only reaching that number after moving the Showcase to a mainstream venue. Elaborating on question 1, Christiansen notes that the audience for her temporary Public Art efforts (IN:SITE and My Vote Performs) is in the thousands, citing the many people who see the work in passing. As someone personally invested in locating work in the context of people’s daily routines, this point raised the most nuanced questions to come from my solicitation: how passive can an encounter be and still warrant the term audience, or transaction? Does exposure to art, however fleeting and peripheral, build toward engagement?

Polly Morris, Director, Lynden Sculpture Garden, said the organization served about 10,000 people in 2013—a statistical determination that most DIY venues wouldn’t even think of calculating much less be able, volume-wise, to achieve. Morris has the distinction of overseeing the widest range of cultural offerings, Lynden has programs aimed at schoolchildren, poets, dog owners, and amateur astronomers, to name a few. In responding to Question 2, she hinted at a not-surprising but still incredibly relevant phenomenon saying the more focused and intimate the event, the better chance for quality engagement. Regarding question 3, she treats Lynden as a laboratory, working with artists, educators, students and audiences to determine what Lynden can be.

In 2014, Demitra Copoulos and Marla Sanvick organized Temporary Resurfacing—a one-night outdoor video-fest comprised of site specific projections. It was their first collaborative event and it was an unequivocal success. Encouraged by the exceedingly positive response, they quickly started making plans for next year’s event. They had hoped to attract 300 viewers and more than 400 showed up. Going forward, they hope to attract 600-800 people.

Also in 2014, Los Angeles artist, Linda Pollack, brought her well-traveled Habeas Lounge to be in residence at the Riverwest Art Association. The Habeas Lounge was the perfect fit for the task of connecting a venerable, if somewhat static, organization to new audiences. Pollack set up shop in the RAA’s Jazz Gallery, and started holding daily coffee klatches. In response to question 1, Pollack emphasized that her priority was not keeping track of numbers but making a welcoming space. Her audience grew from three to thirty, in part, through strategic alliances that motivated participation. A weekend potluck, which I attended, attracted fifty people. While there, I heard mention that an artist who had given a talk earlier in Habeas’ programming was somewhat thrown off by low turn out. Pollack was unfazed, choosing to focus on the potential for even the most intimate events to build upon themselves.

I returned to the lakefront to think through my treatment of respondent’s answers. The highly-reductive paraphrasing left so much out. Maybe that brought something else into focus? Was there a summary to be made from my approach? I realized I should have asked a fifth question: why do artists persevere without pay? I became distracted by Lake Michigan. The shoreline is nothing if not a respite, an escape from business as usual—from the commercial transactions that engulf us. For over one-hundred-fifty years, miles of Milwaukee waterfront have been spared the practical demands of real-estate development (thanks to forward-thinking bylaws put in place by the city’s founders). Instead, the shoreline offers something primal, romantic, sublime. On a good visit, it can buoy one from financial exigencies; it’s a good place for artists taking a break from the studio, planning future projects, or on their way to the next opening.

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