On Regional History & Potential
By Kealey Boyd, in response to Tilt West Roundtable: Regional History & Potential
In 1881, Paul Gauguin wrote to Camille Pissarro, “There is a theory I have heard you profess, that to paint it is absolutely necessary to live in Paris, so as to keep up with the ideas.” The artist who ultimately paints his greatest work on an island in the South Pacific, pondering if he needs to be among art masters to become one himself, is beyond ironic. Historically, however, primary markets — both economic and intellectual — were highly centralized. Propinquity allowed critics to argue, enabled artists to see the work of contemporaries, and turned collectors into patrons. Ideas were produced in places like New York or Paris and diffused outward. Is this still true today? Can an artistic community feel isolated in a virtually connected world? Certainly, even a city dweller hiding behind a smart phone can feel as isolated as an artist in the Roaring Fork Valley. It boils down to the phenomenological claim that one does not really exist unless acknowledged by an outside source. In a 2011 New York Times article about the California arts festival, Pacific Standard Time, an art critic and university professor called the festival “corny” in its title, scale, and extended time line, ending with, “it’s the sort of thing that Denver would do.” The general exclusion of the Rocky Mountain region from the national art market discussion does affect more than the psyche of artists in Denver.
Denver may not be as isolated as Tahiti, but the city’s creative contributors are marginalized when one considers who actively participates in the international art world. In Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, she notes that the art world is not just a place where people work but reside full time, “a ‘symbolic economy’ where people swap thoughts and where cultural worth is debated rather than determined by brute wealth.” As Thornton highlights, “great works do not just arise; they are made.” How an artist moves from a small Denver art gallery to a museum wall is not simple or a matter of luck. That promotion requires the support of dealers, critics, curators, and collectors.
So when only a few Denver art galleries participate in one or two mid-size international art fairs, that is a concern. When many of the top art collectors in America have homes in Aspen, and the world-renowned Aspen Art Museum never shows a Colorado artist, we have a problem. When editors based in New York City, like those at ARTnews, voice concerns on professional panels about disappearing local reporters and papers from periphery art cities, killing the informational pipeline, we should pay attention, because these are the reasons our artists worry. Artists see the growth of Denver and maneuver through the consequences of urban development, but the benefits to our creative community are lagging.
According to economists Uri Gneezy and John List, people support the arts and give to charities for three reasons: the warm-glow of helping others, self-interest (tax benefits or investment), and a motive called follow-the-leader. An example of follow-the-leader is when a potential donor is incentivized to donate due to a charity starting a fundraising campaign with a high seed level. This seed money motivates the next donor for many reasons: presumably the initial donor did the research into the legitimacy of the charity; a donation places the individual in a desirable social circle; and the presence of the seed money appeals to donors who are risk-averse. Despite the recent population growth that places Colorado as one of the top seven fastest growing states and despite the increased wealth that accompanies such growth (have you seen home prices?), artists continue to complain about the lack of funding through typical avenues such as government grants, private foundations, and corporate sponsors. According to the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, artists are right. Nearly one-fifth of new money coming into the state’s cultural sector last year was in the form of federal grants. Philanthropic giving to the arts increased in 2016, but only enough to put us on pace with national trends. That means in Colorado there is no follow-the-leader impact…yet. How does the cultural sector reach new audiences in a measurable way to grow the purse?
One solution proposed at the Tilt West roundtable on Regional History and Potential was a renewed focus on the work. As the theory goes, when the art has substance and is worth protecting, the money will show up. Tell that to van Gogh. It is a shared principle in the art world that nothing is more important than the art. As author Sarah Thornton points out “some people believe this; others know it’s de rigueur.” What I hear — and agree with — is that we should embrace solutions like developing Aurora as a potential art center and relax the grip on a neighborhood like RiNo that is pricing everyone out. We should also acknowledge that discourse does not occur when we use assumptions as evidence, and better discourse is the necessary foundation for Denver to be a formidable art force. Raise your hand if you want to read on Saturday instead of ski. That is what must happen if Denver wants to take the stage as one of the next great American art cities.
The 2013 book, Art Cities of the Future: 21st-Century Avant-Gardes proposes a broadening definition of an art capital with cities like Bogotá, Johannesburg, and Vancouver demonstrating successful and unconventional infrastructures. The text highlights the tremendous potential for a place like Denver while bypassing the problematic discussion of whether our city will be the next great version of a city that already exists. For example, Redline and Lighthouse Writers Workshop provide professional development and public service that many American cities find enviable. The money raised through the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District tax is one major reason Denver’s creative community quickly recovered after the great recession and continues to add jobs to our cultural institutions. Gallery directors testify that museum curators from the state regularly walk into local galleries to see Colorado artists. Curator Jose Roca in Art Cities of the Future notes that the emerging art capitals had “no outside intervention,” and the local scenes thrived without the pressures of the art market, not in spite of its absence. It is a powerfully persuasive argument that Denver does not have to follow existing urban blueprints; it may still carve an unexpected, yet smart and satisfying route.
Kealey Boyd is an art historian, writer and museum educator. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic, a lecturer in Art History at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a museum educator at the Clyfford Still Museum. She earned her B.A. in Economics and M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago. Her research interests include methodologies for interpreting painting and other visual forms as an integral element of political and cultural discourses.
Tilt West’s mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture through live events and publishing efforts. We aim to provide a platform for inclusive community discussion and debate on a range of issues relevant to cultural production in Colorado and beyond. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions of the organization. For more information about our programs, including audio recordings of roundtable discussions, go to our website: tiltwest.org.