-originally posted on altcrit-
The “like” and or “attention” economy has allowed me to recognize an apparent tip in the value of physical art objects. Similar the shifts in the music industry, file sharing and the digital have shifted viewership. Those of us consuming these bytes of data, and instantaneously reviewing it, are creating the new system; the audience is the new institution.
As artists, this is a tough thing to even consider, as were brought through school trained to play by the games of the gallery system that we know is hyper exclusive.
“ It’s a model designed to please one audience — an elite circle of tastemakers. And one general audience, by and large, has a perspective and vision of the world that any given artist either does or does not slip into.” – The Social Ties That Unbind by An Xiao
The system also has too many boundaries of control. A larger group and often chain of command consisting of the curator, the museum board, and filtration systems that work out total cost and revenue define a work of art’s context in a gallery or museum. These large-scale institutions need so many checks and balances- through a need for monetary exchange- that affect what is presented for the audience. If this is the case, why should the general public care as to what the bureaucratic system’s needs are for exhibitions when we can readily access the images we want to look at online.
Now the current institution of art lends itself to a structure of investors, collectors, and a need to support a work of art’s “provenance”. There is a sense of history that needs to be constantly observed. Online, it is not the case. Often an image of a work of art will have no link to the originator and it will appear in a multitude of contexts before potentially linking back to the source. With an image’s lack of provenance and increasing ubiquity, the value that the art institution places on an images scarcity (i.e. not taking images at an exhibition) is being challenged. Oddly enough, museums now are shifting to encourage smartphone use in the galleries with interactive QR codes that are meant to help engage the viewers more directly with a work of art.
In Kansas City, where I am located, the institutions are recognizing the power of bringing the community into the space of art. Museums specifically are highlighting a desire to become spaces of public incubation “ovens instead of refrigerators”. The Nelson-Atkins in particular is striving to create programming that brings a larger audience to the museum and asks that this uncommon public interact with the art. This outreach is going to open up opportunities for learning, additional public programming, and expand the museums overall donor base.
Artists as individuals may not see the value in expanding audience access. The number of reblogs your drawing gets is just a number, it won’t lead anywhere right? This is where I think that we need to take a hint at how access to music online totally shifted the industry paradigm. For the longest time, the amount of records a particular artist sold was what drove the merchandise, touring, and production costs. In the past 10 years, we have seen how illegal downloading, online streaming, and music community building has done to bands and to the labels themselves. The music, the thing that defines who they are as artists, is on the lowest end of the profit totem pole.
Bands are taking advantage of the potential of the attention economy and putting their music on Spotify, going for a pay-what-you-want model a la Radiohead-, or giving it out for free just to get listens. Most of the profit is being made through touring, merchandise, and adsense revenue from videos. It has shifted to the exact opposite structure as before, and visual artists need to take note. Last year, musician Amanda Palmer managed to raise nearly 1.2 million dollars by offering pre-ordered gifts for backers of her album, art book, and tour. Each tier of support gave something more to the supporter. The system of reciprocity worked to give her freedom and independence.
The art market is still going to favor a certain top tier of artists, and the system is broken. Rather than trying to fix the system, why don’t we take advantage of the structures we have been dealt? Let’s take a hint from the music industry: If we build value through a personal brand, let’s make that a work in itself. Let’s build up our identities by curating the things we like, let’s make art books, let’s write, lets create public programming, lets teach diy seminars, things that build communal support. If we create a brand that is strong enough to sustain an audience that not only understands our work and believes in where we are coming from then we will also create a whole new market and generation that cares about art because art actually gives something back to them. Even if it means selling 100 art books and no paintings, if we can sustain studio practices through a model of reciprocity shouldn’t we take advantage of it?
-Melaney Ann Mitchell