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Sculpture October1998 Vol.17 No. 8

Community Re-investment: A Project for Artists?

by Joyce Fernandes

When I moved to Chicago in the late ’70s, I quickly zeroed in on a short span of Hubbard Street near State, where it was apparent to any casual observer of the art "scene" that this was where it was "happening." Friday nights were communal gatherings, roving parties, and cacophonous debates as we moved from gallery to gallery, drinking beer and socializing. Several not-for-profit facilities created a vortex of activity that fortuitously co-existed for a short number of years. Viewers were makers, makers were organizers, and organizers were viewers, generating an energy that, in retrospect, meant community. It was a paradigmatic moment that artists, developers, the tourist industry, and others seek to duplicate and reproduce internationally.

In the years since, I have often heard nostalgic reminiscing about the magic of these artist spaces—NAME, Artemisia, ARC, Chicago Filmmakers, RAW Space, and West Hubbard Galleries—and the work that was produced. Many have appeared, disappeared, and relocated; in 1997 we witnessed the death of both NAME and Randolph Street Galleries, signaling a distressing absence in our community.

Moments of collective creative energy that I call "artist community" and others refer to as a "scene," have occurred throughout the world at different times and places and will continue to erupt occasionally. Nevertheless, the current social and economic condition of the cultural sphere in Chicago and elsewhere invites questioning. Is the current void within artist communities in many cities more than the usual sequential replacement of galleries to new and less expensive neighborhoods? What has happened to the community of artists that created exhibition and performance spaces with such urgency during the ’70s and ’80s—and how important are the spaces themselves to the creation of an artists’ community?

The notion of alternative artist spaces is generally thought to have been born in the ’60s and ’70s, although earlier artist-initiated exhibition spaces have been documented.1 As described by Charlotte Murphy in the introduction to Organizing Artists, "Artists’ organizations are not easily defined beyond the following criteria: that they be nonprofit; committed to paying artists’ fees; dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art, and that they insure complete artistic freedom…The common thread is an activist approach to presenting contemporary art that grew out of the idealism and self determination of the sixties which was fostered by the Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent Anti-Vietnam War, Feminist and Gay Rights Movements."2 Like many art world phenomena, the artist-space movement began in New York City in the late ’60s when artists founded several storefront exhibition spaces. A few years later, the same thing occurred across the country.

These spaces were conceived as artist-run alternatives to mainstream museums and often referred to as "alternative galleries." Artists echoed the general hippie counterculture known for creating its own institutions—publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog and "head" commix, lifestyle shops and festivals, not to mention fashion and music. As artists took on the roles of gallery and museum directors, renting space, publicizing exhibitions, and providing their own critique, the home grown, do-it-yourself attitude of hippie counterculture was replicated. If you could rebuild a VW engine from a self-published manual, then certainly you could open a gallery and run it well enough to show the new work of younger artists. Taking control of culture was an act of revolution; even the eventually necessary grant writing, fundraising, and acceptance of government support were seen as blows against the empire. Federal and state dollars were spent with the panache of the so-called revolution.

While exhibition spaces were being opened as alternatives to mainstream institutions, identity politics generated its own brand of artist organization. The women’s movement produced an entire system of galleries, publications, critique groups, video and filmmaking collectives, often with separatist intentions. Women nationwide gathered to form their own means of recognizing and supporting women’s self-knowledge, creativity, and growth. Resources were pooled in cooperative efforts having their basis in feminist philosophy. This effectively nurtured an entire generation of female artists and launched a movement that has had considerable aesthetic and critical impact on art in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. "One goal of the many alternative exhibitions and women’s galleries established during the 1970s was to show that women artists were actively producing good work, thereby putting pressure on mainstream institutions to include more exhibitions of work by women artists. Another goal was to provide women artists with an emotional and intellectual support system to help overcome their feelings of isolation. A third, more radical goal was to provide venues for showing feminist art that could not be seen elsewhere."3

Women’s galleries looked to the government for support, but with a different attitude than their counterculture counterparts. Government funding was seen more as a political win in which women were beginning to receive their fair share from a system that had long neglected them. But even with some government support, women’s galleries primarily relied, like most community-based institutions, on a system of mutual support and exchange that included payment of monthly fees by members.

Another impulse for the generation of artist spaces can be found in the artwork of the time. As modernism streamlined the aesthetic impulse to a reductive formalism, artists began to consider the space in which art occurs. The physical attributes of the exhibition space, or the "white cube," so clearly articulated by Brian O’Doherty in three 1976 Artforum articles,4 became important to the work itself, creating a need for artists to control their own space. Several of the early artist-run spaces were founded by conceptual artists whose aesthetic commanded entire rooms and was not limited to the confines of a discrete object.

As Jacki Apple wrote, introducing an exhibition about the artist space movement,

The issues of "intent and context" and "art and life"—phrases that were so much a part of the vocabulary of that time—exemplify the direct relationship between the emergence of the artist-generated alternative spaces and the form and content of the work that took place in those spaces. A majority of the works were process oriented and situationally specific, involving a relationship between materials, concepts, actions, and locations…Galleries and museums could not and did not recognize and accommodate this kind of work. In response…artists out of necessity created and took control of their own contexts.5

The artist space movement has thrived for about 30 years, stimulating and sustaining a generation of artists across America. At Hallwalls in Buffalo, Artists Space in New York, LACE in Los Angeles, Diverse Works in Houston, CAGE in Cincinnati, and many others, artists and curators with ideas that wouldn’t fit into existing institutions found a place from which to create Culture. Even as this movement unfolded, many heralded its demise, citing funding difficulties (since the early ’80s), death by institutionalization, and constriction by the forces of "multicultural awareness." This recurring obituary elicits speculation about the current state of affairs: is this truly the end, or just another temporary impasse before the next incarnation of artists rises and organizes?

Organizations and institutions are living phenomena—energized by cycles of growth, conflict, discourse, and debate. Of the spectrum of impulses that triggered the inception of the artist space movement, some have become irrelevant, some have been transformed, and others manifest the same, or even greater, sense of urgency than they did in an earlier era. Looking at the history of artist spaces and analyzing the relationships between the strength of the spaces themselves and the vitality of artist communities provides suggestions for arts policy that may galvanize and support future artists.

The aesthetic imperatives that gave birth to artist spaces have become irrelevant. Museums, with the help of top architects, quickly fulfilled minimalist needs for a controlled environment. Sculpture from the ’60s and ’70s resides comfortably in contemporary art museums. In addition, the artist space movement has devoted exhibition spaces exclusively to specific genres of work such as installation (the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh and Capp Street Project in San Francisco) and performance (Highways in Santa Monica and Sushi in San Diego, for example). But the artist space movement has not focused only on the accommodation of specific forms and genres of art. More importantly, artist spaces have evolved around an essential commitment to the support of artistic processes rather than the collection, maintenance, and display of objects. While contemporary art museums can adequately house Minimalist objects, video installations, and performances, they are not (unfortunately) places of creation.

The white cube exhibition space has become more than an idealized, ahistoric setting replete with its own set of design standards. Site-specificity is now politicized so that the white cube as an isolated environment is defunct, and the exhibition space itself has become a contested place of social, cultural, and historic significance. In the moments during and after Minimalism, the white cube gallery space was a necessary accomplice to the art. But subsequent discourses of Postmodernism and multiculturalism politicized exhibition practices. The white cube regained its color and context became an overriding issue for artists to confront in their work.

The very concept of "alternative" has been challenged by postmodern theory. In dismissing the notion of an avant-garde, Postmodernism has emphasized pluralism over alterity. Culture is posited as a multiplicity of simultaneous impulses rather than the hierarchical and linear displacement of the "old" by a constantly regenerated "new." By defining artist spaces solely in opposition to mainstream institutions, creative solutions for these organizations are inevitably limited. Inherent to an oppositional analysis is the elevation of the mainstream institution; that which is opposed assumes a disproportionate importance to the oppositional activity itself. This hierarchical approach constricts the definition of "alternative," making it dependent on the characteristics of mainstream cultural institutions.

As the alternative space movement matured, it became clear that there are many definitions of an artist space and a multiplicity of needs, interests, and audiences served by such spaces. To restrict the conceptualization of artist spaces to that which opposes the mainstream museum relinquishes the anarchistic sense of possibility that distinguished this movement from its inception. Those who mourn the institutionalization of the artist space and blame its failure on an aping of the museum confine their analysis to a dichotomy between museums and artist spaces, which severely limits possibilities for growth or change and especially, for the re-invention of the artist-run space. In fact, the National Association of Artists’ Organizations has grown to include spaces that identify themselves according to race, gender, ethnicity, geographic location, medium, a shared aesthetic, or any number of other characteristics. As the discourse of Postmodernism has evolved, the conception of the artist space as a place "in opposition" has been replaced by a more inclusive idea that embraces artists and exhibition spaces earlier known as community centers. This inclusive definition of artist spaces marks a shift in awareness from a micro-focus on artists and their needs, to a nascent understanding of audiences and a larger social sphere. This shift is crucial to the vitality of artist communities; successful relationships between artists and audiences are as important as those between organizations and their constituencies. Rather than interpreting artist spaces as they relate to larger institutions, it is far more useful to understand the relationship between artist spaces and the artist community that they serve as well as the relationship between artist spaces and their multiple audiences.

As places created by and for artists, artist spaces have fulfilled a role whose relevance fluctuates with artists’ willingness to define themselves as a community. Given the unreliable cohesion of groups of artists, it is useful to consider the role of spaces that have served the needs of a specific, identity-based community of artists. Women’s galleries such as ARC, Artemisia, AIR, and WARM were opened to serve the needs of a marginalized community. Created to provide a public venue for work based in a localized discourse and not necessarily in opposition to a fictional "mainstream," women’s galleries have become the survivors of the ’90s (specifically in Chicago). Groups of women continue to pay their own rent and run their own shows as their more "cutting edge" counterparts close their doors. The management practices of women’s galleries, formerly considered indiscreet, unethical, or just plain uncool are now being looked at anew given the resilience of women’s institutions. Practices of curatorial inclusiveness, so-called "vanity" galleries in which space is rented in order to pay the bills, and decisions to show one’s own work and that of a few close friends formerly bore the brunt of art world gossip and dismissal by high-minded funders. Regardless of management practices, these galleries survive because they are necessary.

Like any disenfranchised community, young women of the ’90s benefit from the security of these supportive, separatist environments. Even as feminist theory has matured, sexism itself has not disappeared from American culture nor from the art world. The need for a space in which women can confront the specificity of their difference within a supportive environment remains, just as the need for separatist racial and ethnic institutions still exists in our racist culture. Although women’s galleries may not provide an exact model for future artist spaces, the relationship between these spaces and their community of women artists bears comparison with more broadly defined spaces (such as the late lamented NAME and Randolph Street Gallery) and their community of artists.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, the artist space movement struggled to confront its own elitism and embrace multicultural awareness. Encouraged by the NEA and private foundation policies emphasizing diversity and community-based programming, artist spaces began to shift their focus from the internal workings of the art world, recognizing that artists and their spaces exist in relationship to broad social, cultural, and economic interests. Although this expanded viewpoint was essential to the health of artist spaces, most have been unable to balance the needs and interests of the artist community with the need to make connections to "other" communities. In fact, some have argued that funders’ shift in emphasis from artists to communities (which, in the parlance of funders refers to anything other than the artist community), has caused the demise of the artist space movement. Others, like Tomas Ybarra Frausto of the Rockefeller Foundation, argue for a multiple and simultaneous approach which he refers to as "glocal" and "intrasectorial." "I think that it is in the collision of the local, the regional, and the global that we have the possibility of new languages for artists and new languages for understanding what is really happening—for new circuits of circulation of ideas."6 During PUENTES: Bridging Cultural Communities, a conference in Chicago, June 1 –14, 1997, Frausto articulated funders’ interests in projects that take place between different sectors rather than simply funding a unified art sector.

At one point artists were really afraid of business. We sell out if we work with business. We are not a corporate culture; we come from another source. The newer artists seem to be making interesting connections between the business/for-profit and the not-for-profit sectors—working together instead of in opposition.7

There are many reasons that artists pioneered exhibition spaces and even more reasons that these spaces failed. However, the contribution of the artist space movement to the vitality of artist communities cannot be dismissed. It is important to ascertain which aspects of the movement are currently relevant and can contribute to the re-invention of artist spaces rather than their nostalgic replication. To create and sustain a community of artists is a complex process, and economic influences are the greatest unacknowledged factor contributing to the success of any artists’ community.

One weakness of the artist-space movement was its isolated formation and insulation with the help of support from the NEA. Grant Kester has written about the early years of the Endowment, during which artist/program officers and peer panels strongly influenced and supported the formation of the artist space movement. He states,

As opposed to the opera companies, symphonies, ballets, and major museums that receive the bulk of the Endowment’s funding, most of these organizations either didn’t exist prior to the establishment of the NEA, or could not have reached their present level of development without drastic increases in Endowment spending during the 1970s.8

Government dollars allowed artist spaces to function during the ’70s and early ’80s in a self-created world without much outside input or awareness. As Kester elaborates,

the ‘artist-run space’—has functioned to buttress the autonomy of the alternative arts sector at the same time that it has provided a site largely insulated from direct political and economic (market) pressures within which a critical aesthetic discourse could take root. Yet ultimately this same insulation has mitigated the ability of arts organizations to develop a strong public constituency outside the alternative arts community itself. It is in part the lack of such a constituency that has made the alternative art sector particularly vulnerable to conservative charges of elitism.9

The massive gulf between artists/ artist spaces and the public widened dramatically during the 1980s when contemporary artists became the center of national concern over cultural standards and public funding of the arts. Charges of elitism have dogged the artist community and reflect the centrality of economics to understanding the role of artists in society and how artists might survive the next decades.

Historically, various publicly funded programs of the American government have guaranteed the participation of artists from lower class backgrounds, thereby enriching our cultural heritage. An excellent example is that after World War II, Chicago’s art schools were filled with returning soldiers subsidized by the GI Bill; this influx altered art history in Chicago. There are other examples of programs—the short-lived WPA program of the 1940s and the CETA program of the 1970s—that were intended to reduce unemployment, but often functioned as important sources of support for artists whose contributions would otherwise have been limited.

Chicago’s economic history, like that of many other cities, centers on the transition from local industry to global capital. The clearest manifestation of this transition within the art world can be seen in the rapid gentrification of artist neighborhoods during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. In Chicago, as in New York, large industrial buildings have been converted for use by artists and the art industry. Entire neighborhoods have turned over with the somewhat naive participation of artists. The commercial development of Soho and the Lower East Side in New York and Wicker Park in Chicago is inextricably linked to artist-initiated housing, business, and not-for-profit ventures. In this way, artists have become essential to urban development and the flow of capital through the art world has become complicit with the complex and powerful transition from an industrial to a global economy. As elaborated by art historian and critic Rosalyn Deutsche,

New York’s cultural apparatus played, sometimes unwittingly, a variety of instrumental roles in the redevelopment process. For example, commercial galleries moving into the Lower East Side facilitated gentrification by raising rents and upgrading the area’s image for other members of the gentrifying class. In addition, works of art, sometimes even entire museum branches, were routinely placed in "public" areas of new corporate buildings and luxury apartment complexes. Whether sponsored by the state or the private sector, they elevated property values and legitimated private speculation by presenting an image of new constructions as beautification programs that furnish cultural benefits to New York’s populace.10

The removal of NEA support for artist-run spaces and subsequently for individual artists, has enabled corporate control of artistic capital. By funding large institutions rather than artists, the risk and unreliability of artists are avoided. In fact, the image of artists as unpredictable and infantile has contributed significantly to the economic undermining of artist communities and loss of government support.

Oddly enough, as artists in the ’80s have taken on issues of identity politics over and over again in their work, the identities of artists themselves have remained cloaked in a universalizing and romanticized rhetoric. Artists, as a group, require a structure of support that not only encourages creative work, but recognizes the need for artists to function within our market economy and to act as citizens within our democracy. Artists, as individuals, need places to live, food to eat, space in which to make work, transportation, insurance, and the ability to support a family. Unfortunately, artists themselves have resisted attempts to define themselves as a group, preferring a distancing construction of identity that insists on obsessive individuality and unreal economics. This mythologizing of artists’ identity contributes to the very functioning of the culture industry and is therefore difficult to deconstruct.

Grant Kester has discussed the construction of artist identity as it relates specifically to the artist space movement.

A key component of the institutional model of the artists space was the invention of a new civil subject—the ‘cultural worker.’ With the cultural worker model artist/administrators appropriated the existing language of Great Society programs that sought to ‘empower’ the poor and working class beneficiaries of government assistance by directly involving them in funding decisions. They performed a strategic substitution in which the artist became the disenfranchised citizen in need of ‘empowerment.’ Alternative sector artists were taken to constitute a special class of citizens who were being systematically exploited or ignored by the art market.11

This superficial melding of artistic and class identities has created a dangerous situation in which the actual class backgrounds of artists are suppressed. In fact, a person’s class status is often different from their income bracket. The insulating construction of the artist-space movement created an identity for artists based on income bracket rather than class, and in many cases the lower income levels of artists constitute a self-chosen status assumed willingly in order to participate in the vagaries of the artist community.

It is widely assumed that artists, as a whole, are of an upper-class, privileged background. This in fact, should be the exact argument in favor of government and private economic support for artists, not just in the form of NEA support, but even more importantly, in the form of work programs like WPA and CETA and education programs like the GI Bill and other financial aid initiatives for students. As employment and education programs have dwindled during the ’80s and ’90s, the overall class composition of the artist community has indeed, shifted to those whose families can afford to support their education and career interests in art. Cultural anemia or an elitist monoculture results.

On the other hand, by ideologically removing themselves from members of their own class, artists exacerbate the gap between the artist community and the "public." In addition, the assimilation of working class rhetoric into the alternative arts sector/artist community removes artists from the economic responsibility of supporting their own communities. Even if an artist is from a privileged economic background, in order to maintain the image of an artist, that person cannot afford to visibly expend capital, even if that expenditure might benefit the community as a whole.

This spurious identification of artists with the working class also separates the art community from the benefits of its participation in global capital. Artists not only participate unwittingly in the gentrification of their neighborhoods, they remain purposefully unorganized and unable to exert economic influence to their own benefit. Artists endure an endless cycle of renting inexpensive space in "undesirable" neighborhoods, only to be forced to move as these neighborhoods gain desirability and economic value. Unless they are truly from an upper class background and can afford a down payment and renovation costs (quietly of course, in order to maintain image), artists are simply pawns in the City’s never-ending mania for "economic development." Clearly, the presence of artists increases property values, filling the coffers of developers and changing the face of neighborhoods so that the City benefits from increased revenues via property taxes, tourism, and business interests. These are all excellent arguments in favor of private and government support of artists and artist-run spaces, but artists fail to act collectively and wield the political clout generated by the economic impact of artistic capital.

How have the successes and failures of the artist space movement contributed to the vitality of our art communities? How shall we approach the project of building a healthy art community as we enter the new millennium? Can the marketplace, with its incessant ups and downs, sustain a viable artist community? How can artists participate effectively in democracy and contribute to society?

I would suggest that we need to recognize the importance of artist spaces for their support of the artist community and for their ability to create programs that connect artists with society. I suggest we also need to acknowledge the multiplicity of artist identities so that we, as a culture, can effectively support cultural production. We should recognize the enormous economic impact of the arts and, as a society, discover ways to support artists that transcend the insular sphere of cultural production fostered by the alternative space movement and the NEA. It is my contention that a more concrete analysis of artists’ identities will feed the development of such programs—programs that are not merely handouts for artists based on notions of aesthetic quality, but programs that enable artists to buy houses, have children, go to work, and function as productive citizens. And finally, it is imperative that we begin to understand that it is not "the arts" that create economic development, but rather the survival and contributions of living artists.


1 Lynne Warren, Alternative Spaces, Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.

2 Organizing Artists: A Document and Directory of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, Washington, D.C.: National Association of Artists’ Organizations, 1992, p. 3.

3 The Power of Feminist Art, ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, New York: Abrams, 1994, p. 104.

4 Brian O’Doherty, "Inside the White Cube," Artforum, March 1976, p. 24; April 1976, p. 26; November 1976, p. 38.

5 Jacki Apple and Mary Delahoyd, Alternatives in Retrospect: an historical overview 1969-1975, New York: The New Museum, p. 5.

6 Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, from videotape of panel discussion, PUENTES; Bridging Cultural Communities, June 12, 1997, courtesy of Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Chicago.

7 Ibid.

8 Grant Kester, Rhetorical Questions: "The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public," Afterimage 20, no. 6 (Jan. 1993), p. 12.

9 Ibid.

10 Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press, 1996, p.164.

11 Grant Kester, Rhetorical Questions: "The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public," Afterimage 20, no. 6 (Jan. 1993), p. 12.

Joyce Fernandes is a writer and curator living in Chicago.

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