Reviews

Art Table “State of Art/DC: A Conversation” Initiates Much Needed Discussion, Lacks Diversity and Depth of Focus

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Outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Photo Credit: AgnosticPreacherskid | Source : Wikimedia Commons.

Assessing a city’s state of affairs is not always an easy task, especially when addressing subjective matters such as art. But on November 16, 2015, ArtTable, a national non-profit organization that aims to advance women’s leadership in the visual arts, attempted to do just that. Hosted at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, ArtTable presented “State of Art/DC: A Conversation” about DC’s current visual arts landscape and about what could be true for visual arts in the DC region in five years.

Described by ArtTable as a “diverse group of leaders in the DC visual arts,” twelve speakers conducted PechaKucha style presentations sharing their perspectives on the state of art in DC. The presenters offered an array of outlooks.

Jackie Milad’s presentation, “In Between Places,” considered interstitiality as a framework for examining the future of art in the DC region. Working primarily as a curator for the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts, Milad’s personal story of cultural identity and of artist turned curator asked that we consider building partnerships by “blurring boundaries.” One way to do this is by establishing authentic working relationships between communities and cities.

Irfana Jetha Noorani from 11th Street Bridge Park echoed this idea of “blurring boundaries” by imploring art leaders to think seriously about how their projects work with the community. The 11th Street Bridge Park, regarded by some as a model for “blurring boundaries,” seeks to “bridge” communities and socioeconomic gaps from both sides of the Anacostia River. This, however, is not the only way in which the 11th Street Bridge Park seeks to blur boundaries. This project, like, Dupont Underground, as presented by Julian Hunt, seeks to reimagine and repurpose unused or abandoned transportation and architectural structures to create innovative arts spaces.

Community was a major theme throughout the State of Art/DC conversation, but as Sanjit Sethi, Director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design put it, “does our reliance on terms such as “community,” “social justice,” and “collaboration,” reduce the impact we can have on community, social justice and collaboration?” Sethi, admitting to being new to the DC area and still learning about the art scene here, offered additional questions for consideration about community, collaboration, and creativity based in his experiences in New Mexico. In imagining a future for the DC region’s visual arts scene, how can you find a fulcrum between tradition and innovation, translate knowledge into insight, and create a framework for talking about failure?

Invoking William Gibson, Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight and Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, suggested that the future is already here it is just unevenly distributed. While Merritt’s presentation primarily focused on how to make the experience of and engagement with art more accessible, her statement might also be considered in evaluating, for example, the degree of (in)accessibility that certain artists in DC have in showing their work at gallery or museum spaces, in securing face-to-face time with curators, or in just having their work recognized. As Merritt reminded us, “There is a lot of great art out there, you just have to find it.”

There are ways, however, in which art in DC is regulated. Shane Pomajambo of ArtWhino reminded us, for example, that DC has a zero tolerance for graffiti art, and that the street art scene here is not as vibrant as in other cities. Likewise, Jack Rasmussen, Director and Curator of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, observed that political and international art is missing from DC museums. “Images can be risky,” Rasmussen said, “even in an enlightened city like Washington.”

Attendees did not have an opportunity to directly contribute to the conversation by asking questions of the panelists, but they were encouraged to contribute to the conversation by writing their ideas on post-it notes and sticking them to a community board outside of the auditorium. Again, engaging the community was a predominant “post.”

Attendees did not have an opportunity to directly contribute to the conversation by asking questions of the panelists, but they were encouraged to contribute to the conversation by writing their ideas on post-it notes and sticking them to a community board outside of the auditorium. Again, engaging the community was a predominant “post.” Which communities should be considered and how communities should be engaged, however, were not really specified. Others commented about the lack of affordable studio space for artists, about the need for a more symbiotic relationship between artists and curators, and about expanding the idea of public art.

A conversation about the DC art scene is important and much needed. Overall, this was a good conversation and one that seemed to inspire and motivate much needed dialogue. While the speakers offered a number of interesting perspectives on the state of art in DC and its future, it is debatable whether or not this panel and the issues they presented “created a snapshot of” and offered a “concise yet rich look into DC’s growing visual arts landscape.” As in photography, a “snapshot” reflects a series of decisions that are informed by aesthetic, social, and political influences and preferences. What criteria were used in curating a panel of “diverse voices” for this conversation?

Issues of diversity and the work of people of color in the DC art scene were not fully addressed in the conversation. How might an African American, Latino, or Asian artist view the state of art in DC? How might LGBTQ or differently abled artists envision the future visual arts landscape in DC? What challenges do women and people of color who are artists or who are working as part of the DC art scene face in trying to implement arts projects, or in trying to have their work shown?

Of this panel of twelve, only three were listed as artists. If the majority of the panelists are regarded as “leaders” in the visual arts, is how we imagine the current and future state of art in DC, then, to be understood and assessed from a top-down perspective? Does the decision to include “leaders” from the DC art scene in this conversation automatically exclude a particular demographic working within the arts that might also have something important and interesting to say? And how do the “leaders” in the DC art scene who advocate for the involvement and participation of communities in talking about and creating art reconcile that those “communities” were not there to also voice their opinions?

It appears, though, that not having full representation from DC artists, art activists, and art leaders on a panel about the current and future state of art in DC is a bit like not having representation in Congress to talk about matters that concern and affect DC residents.

Most importantly, can you have a rich and robust conversation about the state of art in DC if some of your panelists are from “outside the beltway” or are not fully integrated in the Washington, DC specific art scene? This is not to suggest that a so-called outsider perspective cannot be valuable in assessing the state of art in DC. Learning about what is happening in other art communities can be insightful in considering how to strengthen the DC art scene. It appears, though, that not having full representation from DC artists, art activists, and art leaders on a panel about the current and future state of art in DC is a bit like not having representation in Congress to talk about matters that concern and affect DC residents.

Artist Linn Meyers’ presentation talk, “Making Art Under the Radar,” is apropos here. If, as Meyers says, DC art folks’ need for more access to art, dialogue, and space should be taken seriously, how might the State of Art/DC conversation provide a space for bringing together those artists and voices that might be “under the radar?”

A second session of State of Art/DC is slated for February 22, 2016.

Rachelle L. Williams
Authored by: Rachelle L. Williams

Rachelle L. Williams is an African American and Women’s studies scholar whose work focuses on women’s art and culture. She has a BA in history from Talladega College and a MA in women’s studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. Rachelle is also an educator who teaches arts and humanities courses to adult learners and college students. Originally from Atlanta, GA, Rachelle has been living in the Washington, DC area for almost 20 years, 8 of which have been as a resident in the Trinidad neighborhood.