One of my aims for this research trip has been to explore the kinds of residency models available here in LA, and to look at what opportunities there may be for UK based artists to come and spend some time working here. At Islington Mill, we have been running an innovative residency model since 2010 in the form of an artist-led B&B, where guests of the B&B subsidise artist-in-residence costs. Our goal is long-term sustainability and financial stability, independent of fluctuations in art subsidies. With our new capital development, we plan to expand our residency capacity from our 3 current rooms to 8 new rooms on the 6th floor of our building. Our intention for this project is to explore new and underserved areas within residencies, including those specifically tailored for collectives and residencies with a focus on rest and recuperation rather than production and outputs.
With this in mind, I was interested to find out more about what kinds of models are being employed here in LA. I met with Anthony Carfello, deputy director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture – a long running residency across 2 sites designed by renowned Austrian architect Rudolph M Schindler (1887 – 1953). ‘The Schindler House’ (the architect’s former home) was designed in 1922 as an experiment in communal living for 2 couples to share. This building is owned by the ‘Friends of the Schindler House’ foundation, who in 1994 entered into a cooperation agreement with the MAK/Austrian Museum of Applied Arts for the creation of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Funding from the Austrian Government has covered the costs of 8 residencies per year plus core funding for the staff team here since this time. The organisation fundraises on top of this for their exhibition and events program. The residencies are open to both artists and architects, and whilst it is in theory open to anyone to apply to, in practice it tends to be artists with a connection to Austria that are successful, Anthony tells me. Because of the 6 month residency duration, Anthony tells me that the applications tend to come from younger emerging artists who perhaps have more flexibility to spend an extended period in LA. The MAK Center experimented with shorter 2 month residencies some time ago which tended to attract older artists. This is in itself an indication of how the durational aspect of residencies may mean that many practitioners are excluded. The Mak’s reasoning for having the longer 6 month program is so that the participants have ample time to be present in and respond to LA in a more meaningful way than 2 months would perhaps allow for. In order to help with this, Anthony organises social events where he introduces new residents to his network of LA based practitioners.
A few days after my meeting with the Mak Center, I meet with Anuradha Vikram and Jan Williamson, directors of 18th Street Arts Center, one of the longest running artist-led spaces in California and cited as one of the top 20 artist residencies in the US. Their program is in 3 sections – visiting artists/curators/writers/musicians who stay in four live/work artist studios for 1 to 3 months at a time, mid term residencies open to local artists who wish to rent either live/work or day studios at the Center for terms of 1-3 years – these studios are subsidized in part by 18th Street Arts Center, in an effort to provide artists with affordable rental properties within Santa Monica. The institution also provides long term residencies open to individual artists and art organisations. These “anchor tenants” help to define the character and scope of the organisation through programmatic partnerships and community-building. Many of these residents have been with the organisation since it was founded in 1988. 18th Street also has ‘organisations-in-residence’ including OTIS MFA in Public Practice led by long-term resident, artist Suzanne Lacy.
While waiting to meet Anuaradha and Jan, I bump into resident artist, William Wells who has just arrived from Cairo, where he is director of The Townhouse Gallery. William shows me his live/work space which is large and well equipped with bed and cooking facilities, generous workspace with a wash-up sink and a full complement of basic tools. When I meet Anuradha and Jan, they tell me that their visiting artists come from all over the world, though the majority are self-funding, often through grants that they receive from funding bodies in their own countries. They tell me that cuts to arts funding in Northern European countries has had a knock on effect on their program, but nonetheless they still have a full program of visiting artists. They tell me that they are open to applications from artists with ‘strong practices’ who are able to self-fund their residency.
What I begin to realise from these meetings is that UK based artists may have difficulty coming to LA on an artist residency, unless they can bring funding, sourced from the UK, or elsewhere. From my research here, there doesn’t seem to be any directly funded international residencies available from within LA. At the moment, the only fund that I am aware of for international travel for UK artists is the ‘Artists International Development Fund’ which is aimed at artists who have had some initial experience of working abroad and who would like to develop this further. While it’s a great option for those that fit this criteria, I have had artist friends knocked back for this grant with the feedback that they already have too much experience of working abroad, when only having done a few international residencies for example. This suggests that we may need to look at developing other funding streams within the UK if we want to enable artists to develop international careers. There is a slight worry that we are moving away from a Northern European model of arts funding (which seems to continue to see the benefit in subsidising artists to work abroad) and instead shifting more towards a US model of subsidy, where there are currently little to no funds available to subsidise artists to work abroad – many of the LA based artists that I meet confirm this.
Throughout my trip here, something I pick up on is that I recognise very few of the names of artists participating in exhibitions here. Looking more closely at their CV’s, it seems that not many have shown their work in the UK or indeed in Europe at all, which perhaps accounts for this. With so few opportunities for artists from both the UK and the US to travel to each other’s countries, it is perhaps no surprise.
We often hear how we are all participants within a globalised art world with 100’s of international biennales and art fairs, and with instant access to the work that artists are producing from every corner of the world via the internet. I wonder how much of a reality this is for the majority of artists? The internet does allow for a distanced overview – to get a general sense of the kind of work that galleries may be showing in a particular place. But I’ve found that it really is a much more fulfilling experience to spend even a short amount of time somewhere, to see and experience the work in a wider context – the kinds of things that don’t make it onto Instagram or ‘Contemporary Art Daily. I’ve found it a privilege to be here, even for such a short time. I would love to come back to spend longer, I’m just not sure how that would be possible yet!
Could Black Mountain College exist today? – a question that has been asked many times of Ruth Erickson, co-curator of ‘Leap before you Look’ – the first comprehensive museum exhibition in the US to examine the history and legacy of the experimental art school that has had such a pivotal role to play in the development of Western art of the 20th century. The answer I receive is a resounding no – according to Erickson, the presence of mind demanded of its students by BMC would be impossible to achieve in today’s information-heavy world, with so much stimulus occupying our attention 24/7. In her interviews with BMC alumni, many talked about how the remote context enabled a fully absorbing and engaged experience – “We had so much time there” was the line that kept coming up. However, Erickson isn’t too pessimistic about this – the constant access to information and experience that technology brings us simply presents a new and different set of challenges and opportunities. Fair enough I suppose. However, the story around ever-diminishing time and space will feel painfully familiar to most artists and art students today. In my own work I seem to be continually juggling commitments, grabbing a few spare hours here and there to take care of my practice. I’m constantly wondering when there will be enough time to process all of the information, ideas and conversations.
The exhibition at The Hammer Museum has been both carefully and beautifully put together, showcasing the impressive extent of the work produced by students and faculty members at BMC. Full wall size documentary photographs of the college in action are utilised as a framing device for archive display cases to sit in front of, creating a visual motif that runs through the show, which helps to hold together the diverse array of material on display. Personal highlights are an early abstract painting by Ray Johnson, more famous as one of the originators of mail art, Ruth Asawa’s mobile wire sculptures and a full size dance floor installed in the gallery for performances of dance pieces by Merce Cunningham.
Something I notice across the works in the show is a certain modesty of scale – while there are some larger works, there is nothing that could be described as monumental. I wonder if this may be in part to do with the style of teaching led by Josef Albers at BMC, where the ethos was ‘learning by doing’ – students were encouraged to produce study after study in an unending process of refining ideas. Another facet of the teaching was in setting assignments where each student would be given the same ‘problem’ – the various solutions arrived at would be examined and discussed together afterwards. It strikes me that there is something particularly collaborative about this approach, where the learning process is placed firmly within a common experience. This seems a world away from today’s arts schools where each person develops their own isolated line of enquiry – the process of learning together is largely relegated to the theoretical discussion that takes place about an individual’s own particular aesthetic struggle, which everyone else hasn’t shared in, so can only speak about from a relatively distanced perspective. It leaves me wondering if the BMC approach introduced a more empathetic aspect to the learning experience.
Some of these thoughts are echoed later when I meet with Piero Golia, one of the founders of ‘The Mountain School of Arts’ – taking its name from the Mountain Bar that became a base for its activities when it began in 2005. Piero tells me that students are encouraged to suspend their production but not their practice when they come to join the School. Over a 3 month term students put to one side their regular studio/work production and engage in discussions and activity centred around invited speakers drawn from a range of specialisms and fields, including but not limited to the arts. The school is entirely free, which means that Piero and co-founder Eric Wesley pull together an impressive curriculum of activity from their own generosity and that of their network within LA and internationally who contribute to making the school happen each year. Piero tells me that he can spend up to 15 solid days before term begins on the phone pulling together a program of speakers. When I ask if the school could exist without him, his responds by saying that if it cannot, it will be a failure in his eyes. While it is clearly sustained by his incessant energy and dynamic personality, it seems that the project has already achieved a huge amount having existed for 12 years, much longer than the average life-span of an artist-led project.
The sense of not needing to wait for external validation that is at the heart of the Mountain School is also central to the work of artist Karen Atkinson, who I meet the next day. Karen is a member of faculty at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) and founder of GYST (Getting Your Sh*t Together) – an independent initiative with the goal of enabling artists to become better aware of art world operations so that they can continue to stay practicing for longer. Karen tells me that she began the project because she could see that artists for the larger part were ‘dismally unaware of how things work’. Having witnessed so many of her peers and students fall at the first hurdle, she resolved to create GYST, which offers an incredible range of services including software to keep track of artworks, assistance with funding bids, archiving, fabrication, websites, legals etc etc. The goal of GYST, however is not simply to train people up for a career in the art market – Karen is interested in developing what she calls ‘Hybrid Practices’ – whereby the artist derives part of their income from work that is tangentially related to their core practice. She gives as example, the artist Bernard Brunon whose house-painting business, That’s Painting Productions, (with the motto: “With Less to Look At, There’s More To Think About.” ) creates ‘paintings’ that stand outside the codes of representation and merge the economic fields of art and life. Many of the GYST services are accessible online, including a fantastic free archive of over 300 interviews with artists talking about how they have managed to develop and maintain a practice. It’s a pleasure to meet Karen, and great to see someone directly addressing these important issues.
My journey to LA didn’t turn out quite as planned. A storm in London meant my flight from Manchester was delayed, resulting in a missed connecting flight to LA. 33 long hours later I arrived in LA. It seemed as though one freakish weather event triggered a further domino-like series of ‘system errors’ – lost luggage, delayed buses, tire blowout, missed appointments here in LA.
On the plus side, the extra long journey left me with plenty of time to reflect. I found myself thinking about systems – what it means for something to work efficiently, while leaving enough room for flexibility and variance. A-N’s travel bursary has enabled me to come to LA to see the first major museum show dedicated to Black Mountain College (BMC) at The Hammer Museum. Something I’ve been interested in about BMC (an experimental art college in North Carolina from 1933 to 1957) is the notion that it flew in the face of the rigid systems found in mainstream education at the time (something which is of course more relevant for education now than ever). The impetus for BMC came about through its founder John Rice having been sacked from Rollins College, California for his progressive ideas about the purpose of education – that of provoking open enquiry and critical thinking.
As a founder of an independent art school myself (Islington Mill Art Academy (IMAA) 2007- ongoing), I want to better understand this key chapter in the history of arts education. I’m interested to consider what elements of the BMC story might still be applicable to our context as a peer-led, self-directed ‘alternative’ educational project today. IMAA approaches its 10th anniversary next year, which has naturally led us to imagine what its future might consist of, so this trip comes at a timely moment.
Before seeing the BMC show, which is far across town at the Hammer Museum, I notice that there is a show at MoCA Geffen Contemporary nearby, showing art in its collection from the 1990’s. Intrigued, I head there pretty much straight from arriving to take advantage of their free entry Thursday evenings. The show attempts to make sense of the 1990’s through work collected by MoCA during this time. It is largely work by LA based artists, which demonstrates that the institution has a commitment to collecting work by artists who live locally (something that many UK collecting institutions could take heed of). The show is grouped into themes: Installation; The Outmoded; Noir America; Place and Identity; Touch, Intimacy, and Queerness; and Space, Place, and Scale. The accompanying text lists key political, social and cultural events of the decade without particularly discussing how the artworks on display relate to these, and indeed it’s hard to see how they do. There is something to cater for all aesthetic tastes, in terms of the styles and media represented in the show – and perhaps this is as emblematic of the 1990’s as it gets. The museum itself is one of 3 sites operated by MoCA, a huge multi-level former warehouse space in the Little Tokyo district, opened in 1995.
More updates to follow soon!