The Role of Organizations in Artist Communities
In my role as editor of the Vermont Art Guide and in my writing about regionalism in a modernist context, I am interested in communities and the art they produce. The exhibition, “Connection: the Art of Coming Together”, is an extension of that work, but where my focus tends to be on works of art, this exhibition is focused on the artist as an individual participating in a network of artists. As an experiment, I asked four artists or professionals from different corners of the state to submit the name of an artist they feel is part of their community or network. I then went to those people and so on until we had enough people to fill the exhibition.
I learned two things: Arts organizations play a vital role in artist networks. Nearly all of the artists cited some organization or event as the reason they knew their selection. Often we forget how important galleries, art events, cooperatives, working groups, and councils are to the fabric of art communities. Not only do these organizations engage the public, they provide important opportunities for artists to bond with each other.
I also learned that artists think of the people they are affiliated in a variety of ways. All the artists selected people whose artwork they deeply admire. Some artists chose people whose work they felt was undervalued and needed a spotlight. Others chose artists they wanted to exhibit with. Some artists chose people they have known for decades, other artists selected someone they didn’t know well, but knew their reputation and were familiar with their work. Regardless, admiration and mutual respect runs deep in Vermont’s art community.
“Connection: the Art of Coming Together” is a survey of Vermont art. All of the work was made in the last ten years. An array of media is represented—painting, photography, monoprints, and a quilt. The art on view also shows the diversity of the artists’ approaches, from painters rendering abstraction found in the natural world to photographers documenting people in their towns to various interpretations of landscape from traditional to surreal. Sometimes with art, the story behind the work is as important as the work itself. This exhibition asks viewers to consider those stories.
I spent most of May speaking with artists about their community. I feel lucky. My purpose was to curate a survey of Vermont contemporary art organized around artists’ connections to one another by asking artists to select someone for the exhibition. The results of this experiment, the exhibition “Connection: the Art of Coming Together” were on view June 5th through October 6th, 2017 at the Vermont Arts Council Spotlight Gallery in Montpelier.
Art communities rarely get the attention they deserve. It’s easy to conceptualize them when they are rooted in geography. The histories of art towns like Provincetown and Rockport are well documented. More often than not, artists operate in networks. It is a subtle but important difference. Communities live and die by the people in them. Participants rely on one another to maintain a social structure, protect and save each other in times of crisis, and nurture and celebrate each other in good times. Geography always defines a community because it forces definitions and interactions. Networks may function in a similar way, but without geography, participants are free to engage or withdraw at their discretion. One can choose not to speak to their neighbor, but one cannot choose to be free of the consequences of living next to them. If a social network is not nurtured, it dies and goes away. This is particularly true of artist networks which trade on mutual admiration and shared engagement to maintain themselves.