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July 4, 2007

Visual art coverage in the Outback

Jennifer A. Smith

Not-so-secret confession: though I met my Flyover co-bloggers at the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater, I'm really a visual art person at heart. I began arts writing focusing strictly on visual art, then branched out into books and eventually theater. For me, writing about visual art presents certain challenges and pleasures that are unique to the discipline.

But surveying the state of visual arts writing in the Outback, I'm a little dismayed. While we can probably all lament the amount of coverage in local media for all arts disciplines, I sometimes wonder if visual artists don't have the worst lot (or at least art vies with dance for that dubious distinction). Either there's a dearth of staff writers and freelancers competent to cover visual art, or editors just aren't giving it much space. When it comes to the amount of coverage, I feel that theater and music generally fare better, and this is somehow tied (in ways I can't fully articulate yet) to their more communal nature - performers and audience meeting together for a shared experience, as opposed to the viewer having a solo encounter with a work of art. That one-on-one engagement with art remains either foreign or daunting to many people.

Also, while many small community theater organizations have a volunteer who handles PR, visual artists have a tough time getting coverage, particularly if they're not in a show at the moment. While it seems reasonable to have that news hook of a current show to justify a profile on an individual artist, that expectation probably is not so reasonable if the artist is living in a smaller community where venues for an emerging or mid-career artist to have an exhibition are few and far between.

Here in Madison, Wis., we've long had two main anchors of the visual arts scene: the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA, previously known as the Madison Art Center) and the Chazen Museum of Art (formerly called the Elvehjem). While MMoCA has its Triennial of contemporary Wisconsin artists and the Chazen does a quadrennial show of University of Wisconsin faculty artists--among other chances at those venues for state artists to be seen--the MMoCA and Chazen focus on artists who are relatively well established or at least accustomed to the workings of the larger art world. Another significant venue, the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, focuses exclusively on contemporary Wisconsin artists and has a strong exhibition program. At the other end of things, there are coffee-shop shows in which you might see something wonderful or something dreadful. It's that in-between level, between the funky local coffeehouse and the accredited, established museum, that is often lacking in cities like Madison. As a result, serious visual artists may find it hard to locate a suitable venue for their work, thus depriving them of that "news hook" that may gain the attention of local media.

There are some bright spots, though: artists are banding together (as I know they are in other cities) to raise their profiles. Madison Area Open Art Studios is an annual event in which roughly 150 local artists open their studios to the public over a fall weekend. It's established itself as a reliable yearly event and draws the expected and well-earned media coverage. But with 150 artists, coverage tends to be on the event as a whole, with only limited attention given to introducing any one particular artist. Group visibility sometimes comes at the price of individual visibility.

As one might expect, coverage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin's largest city, fares better. Some examples: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a talented reporter/critic (Mary Louise Schumacher) devoted exclusively to visual art, and the online magazine Susceptible to Images posts intelligent articles and discussions.

I'm not sure I've reached a cohesive, conclusive point on any of this--but that is part of why I wanted to throw this out here on the blog. I'm curious to hear from others in smaller or mid-size cities. How is visual arts coverage in your town, in terms of both quality and quantity? How does it compare to your local performing arts coverage? And if you're a visual artist in a smaller or mid-size city, what is your vision of ideal--or at least good--coverage of the local art scene?

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at July 4, 2007 6:00 AM


Montana is said to be a town with a main street 500 miles long. Another version of the same thing is that the arts here are a mile wide and about a quarter-of-an-inch deep. In short, in order to get enough critical mass to talk about the arts here, one must just about necessarily talk about the whole state at once.

Yet, the paradox is that visual art is very much Balkanized. The two university towns have their own little circles, the three or four mini-cities (Great Falls, Kalispell, Billings, Butte) and the two valley refuges of wealth and culture (Livingston and Hamilton), each have their own idea of what good art might be, their own icons, and their own aspirations.

What I know best is the sector called "Art of the American West," meaning "art that sorta reminds you of Charlie Russell." In a thinly populated state like this one, it is less represented by the few galleries and museums than it is by auctions (the one in Great Falls on Charlie's birthday in March or the Western Art Rendezvous in Helena in August) and magazines, especially "Southwest Art" and "Art of the West." Because Western art is often taken to be a record of history in the West (Remington and others came to notice by suppling art to go in newspapers before there were photographs) the Montana Historical Society magazine also serves, though at one time it came to notice that it had sunk to "pandering" to certain speculators and since has had a policy forbidding living artists. (This policy is not enforced in their museum.)

A strange ambivalent symbiosis connects Western art collectors in other more "high-rolling" places back east or in the Southwest and people who live in Montana. Partly the situation is that the collectors live in population centers where they make enough money to buy a little prestige-enhancement and the artists at least pretend to live in-country where the subject matter actually exists and the cost of living is a little lower.

But in Helena just a few blocks away from the Historical Society is the Holter Museum, contemporary, frisky, and willing to venture ideas about the future. They accept Native American art, but not "Cowboy" art. They are also much friendlier to contemporary writing and such phenomena as ceramics.

Across the state in Livingston is a genuine Renaissance man, Russell Chatham, son of a noted California impressionist. He has run a fine bistro, a publishing house, a gallery, a fine arts press, and so on -- while befriending the wild movie types who have bought ranches around there. He paints landscape in a romantic, atmospheric, yearning way that finances all his other interests and makes book covers so fabulous that I'm sure they've contributed to the success of Jim Harrison's novels. Missoula knows him as a man who attends the Montana Festival of the Book as a publisher. His art? Eh.

There is a Montana Arts Council, whose executive grew up on a grain farm outside Great Falls and who once worked for the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, and whose president (also female) is a Blackfeet Indian. They spend a lot of time thinking about money and hardly glance at "cowboy art." The past president (male) is an "art lawyer" who constantly tries to coach both artists and community about common sense business practices. Art law in the state is very weak, which encourages buccaneers.

I've been here, off and on, since 1961, and am still surprised by what turns up or turns around.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver at July 8, 2007 3:43 PM