This is almost certainly my last post on the Pitt site. I was the one responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the Pitt starting in early 2010, after some sudden cuts in provincial arts funding, when we were presumed dead by many in our community. Following the shutdown of the Helen Pitt Gallery’s Alexander Street location in late 2009, a dedicated board of directors kept the organization alive, and I was hired in February 2010 to take care of “administration, maybe two days a week” as it was explained to me.
What this gave me was a chance to envision a relaunch of the Pitt, not starting with a blank slate obviously because there was (at that time) 35 years of history behind every move the organization made, but a re-imagining that drew on the parts of its history that seemed to be needed in the moment where we found ourselves.
If you’re expecting me to write an accounting of the things that followed, my apologies. Anyone who would like to see a list of the exhibitions, publication launches, talks, and public actions that happened while I was here can consult our Past Events page, which is reasonably complete. I’m not going to count the number of guest curators, artists, poets, first solo exhibitions and projects, and everything else. (I think it’s a reasonably high number, but really, I’m not counting. It seemed like a lot.)
Here’s what I want to talk about instead: what are our obligations as artists and cultural workers in an era of increasing inequality, environmental collapse, and rising fascism internationally?
No, it’s not an easy question. I don’t have the answers, but it is important that we carry on this discussion, which is already in progress in places, as a group — as maybe, a collective of collectives — and keep trying new strategies and tactics and reflecting on ones we have already tried.
We are trained in art school, and by received ideas about genius, to regard ourselves as being involved in solitary labour, waiting for a big opportunity that will enable us to vault to the next tier of the art world where our individual virtue will be recognized. In other words, almost all of us are being set up for failure and also being set up to consider that failure our own.
This is not what I believe. I believe, based on everything I have seen in my past decades of being involved with the creation of art and music and poetry, that culture is something that we produce collectively. For every exalted genius, there are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of artists and cultural workers doing the work that enables them to occupy the top of the status pyramid.
One thing we often fail to realize is that the collective structures of art production contain untapped power. If we could refocus even part of the energy we currently spend on maintaining the system that creates individual (usually male) genius as its apex product, and devote it to some of the truly awful problems facing us, wouldn’t that be a good thing? This is part of the promise of artist-run culture, a promise that remains unfulfilled whenever artist-run culture serves as a feeder system and free curatorial research resource for the “legitimate” world of public art galleries and international art dealers, and whenever artist-run culture insists on mimicking stale administrative and corporate structures.
I believe that the most important potential of artist-run culture for affecting the world around us is collective potential. Whether we can learn to work more effectively together, respecting above all the diversity of our community and the wrongs that need to be redressed, is an open question. Best of luck, plus love and respect, to new Executive Director Brit Bachmann, and the board of directors, in working with this question.
Bye for now.