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When Critical Discourse is anything but: A Midwest call out of art scenes and community

What does "critical" and "discourse" and "art" and "community" outside of academic and institutional buzzwords mean, even?
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/Courtesy of GRTV

/Briana Ureña-Ravelo

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Last night found me at the the second Artprize Critical Discourse and the first of the series’ panels, Unapologetically Midwest: Artist-Run Art Spaces, at the Artprize Hub at 41 Sheldon. It featured Midwest-based artists Jehra Patrick, Mike Wolf, Alexander Herzog and Robert Elmes, and spoke largely about the inner workings, power and need for artist-run spaces.

Jehra Patrick, Program Director for and founder of Waiting Room in Minneapolis was the panel moderator. She was inoffensive enough, introducing the space and the artists seamlessly and talking professionally and crisply about her work for Mn Artists.

Mike Wolf, a board member for the Division Avenue of the Arts Collective (DAAC) based here in Grand Rapids, didn’t give the audience as much of a comprehensive intro to the DAAC as he could have, nor insight on the history of the space and all ages/do it yourself/do it together organizing and culture in the Midwest in general. Being a former board member and privy to a lot of the incredible bands, art, creators, work and people that have gone through its doors in the 10 years of its existence on South Division myself, it left me more than a little disappointed.

He fumbled through posing potentially good questions about artistic hierarchies, gentrification, diversity and inclusion, but, funny enough, framed them more as criticisms of other artistic spaces and Critical Discourse itself without indicting the DAAC in the critique as well.

Alexander Herzog of the The Suburban in Milwaukee was the most engaging of the group at least on the topic of speaking to the inception and history of The Suburban, a micro-gallery in suburban Chicago. He offered clever perspectives on the challenging and varied work and ethos of The Suburban’s founders, Brad Killam and Michelle Grabner, the artists shown in the space, and the evolution of the space and the way artists and the surrounding community in Oakdale, Illinois, where The Suburban is centrally located, engage it. His “severe belief” in their work neared friendly reverence and was a highlight of the panel.

Sculptor Robert Elmes, Director of the Galapagos Art Space in Detroit, spoke about the space’s journey from the aggro-hipster, hyper-gentrified Williamsburg to their work in DUMBO, an area in Brooklyn that is now also gentrified, their near-predatory successful hunt to exploit Detroit’s crumbled infrastructure. He shared it all with the convincing charisma of the devil, or at the very least his PR guy, using all the correct jingo of a seasoned artist from a gentrified hipster enclave of New York. With preening candor, he spoke nothing of the role of art or artists in a community, much less the Midwest.

Instead he spoke more about the struggle of ownership and real estate and the need for developers and everyone not rich enough to stay in their vicinity to realize the economic power of artists’ spaces, which came off more as threatening than positive. He rattled deftly through without an ounce of self-awareness or irony about the cheapness of buying space left behind by the torturous downfall of the city and the “emptiness” of Detroit.

Whether he was truly convinced of his passion and work or merely putting on a show has yet to be seen, though he bristled and dismissed queries and questions about gentrification and the responsibility artists have in a community, especially one they’re taking advantage of.

Some good conversation about the need for alternatives outside of instutitional norms of what galleries and artists' spaces were brought up. From The Suburban's non-business plan that "relies neither on commercial considerations nor nonprofit grants" to Galapagos' Williamsburg location acting as a community space with art exhibits, where the community could also drink beer, listen to good music, hang out, fall in love and break up. He talked about the need for artists to have creative and financial freedom outside of grants- and the strict and economically-minded push of commercial spaces was adamantly espoused.

However, in the end, most of the panel time was spent on these overall lackluster and self-effacing introductions and less on, perhaps, the actual conversation of art in the Midwest, its place and role. At one point, Patrick asks the panel to dispel the often touted belief that an artist must go to a coast and become successful there before returning to the Midwest to be legitimized. No one could really provide a satisfactory response or engagement. Wolf's own queries about the responsibility an artist has to not act as a colonizing force in impoverished, often Black and Brown communities was met with equally dissapointing lackluster responses.

Which begs the question: what happens when critical discourse becomes everyone in the room talking about how awesome they are, patting each other on the back, and ignoring or eloquently avoiding the actual tough, critical, insightful questions? This concern was exemplified almost perfectly when Patrick herself quipped cheerfully at one of the presenters “That’s agreeable, I can’t argue that!”

What happens when people’s interpretation of displacement and artistic colonialism when words like “untapped,” “innovation,” “drive” and “expression” are slapped onto it, calling it successful. 

There are a lot of assumptions happening in the space: that everyone understands and does art similarly, that there are similar goals, similar backgrounds, similar politics, similar understandings- that everyone is coming from similar perspectives and experiences. When speaking to the process of gentrification and the question of displacement of poor communities that artists often find themselves in, Patrick thought the poor pre-existing communities in question meant poor art college graduates.

A recent article in Everyday Feminism titled “Nine Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and Inaccessible” talks about the ways communities working to be inclusive and supportive actually end up being the opposite. It got me thinking about where those changes happen. I have realized that there is a difference between a "scene" and a "community."

Scenes are about being seen, about performing, about keeping people to an exclusive standard and only allowing those who meet that standard in. Scenes are about who you aren't. Meanwhile, communities are about living and existing with one another with similar ideological and inclusive values in mind while at the same allowing for growth, variety, dissent and differences. Community is about being who you are, especially in relation and according to how you act in community with others.

So, are we about creating artist scenes or artistic communities?

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