Henri Murger (left) was part of a group of artists who called themselves “the water drinkers”. Apparently, back in Murger’s day telling someone they drank water (instead of wine) was like saying they got their clothes from JJ Give Away. Murger and friends basically invented the idea of ‘the starving artist’, the artist too concerned with his work to be bothered by money. However, Murger himself said that he sold his prose “at the rate of eighty francs an acre” – any garbage that’d make a franc!
A hungry Munger crafting junk so he can make ends meet is sad. But an entire community of artists concentrating on making ends meet instead of making art is a serious cultural problem. I can think of two ways to tackle this problem, and only one I take seriously. First, the implausible one.
Building our own Chelsea
This is the “build it and they will come” solution. That is, build an arts destination that attracts the segment of the art world enamored with contemporary art and emerging artists. Miami did this successfully (though perhaps accidentally) with its Wynwood Arts District. Granted, downtown St. Pete is growing into its own formidable arts destination.
I have a feeling, though that two of St. Pete’s best galleries, Mindy Solomon and C. Emerson Fine Arts, still make the majority of their sales (if not all of them) outside of Pinellas County. What that indicates is that people come here to see Dali and Chihuly, but go to Miami to buy art. The St. Pete arts area is still young, though. There is the danger of St. Pete pandering to art tourists with showy, big name, and/or substanceless art. If that’s the eventuality the exciting portion of the Bay area art scene will shift entirely to Tampa.
However, St. Pete can also emphasize its local art scene, showcase its peculiarly Floridian perspective, highlight national and international work, and build a sustainable community that’s the foundation of an arts destination worth seeing.
We have the seeds of a second solution sprouting around the Bay area. Seeds like the West Tampa Center for the Arts, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center, Tempus Projects, the Morean Arts Center, and Hampton Arts Management among others. With good art becoming harder to sell (i.e. video art, performance art, new media art, installation, etc.) artists are more often turning away from collectors and galleries and toward other artists and alternative spaces.
It’s a lot like the difference between banks and credit unions. Artist co-ops and collectives do a lot of the same things as commercial galleries but with slightly different intentions. I will say, though, that galleries aren’t a typical business – curators typically choose not only art they think may sell, but more often art they love. Being a curator is nothing like being a car salesman.
Still, when artists learn to rely on each other in alternative art spaces the work often pushes the envelope further. More importantly, it fosters relationships between artists based on collaboration. A community of artists that work with and for each other make up a solid scene that can better weather financial downturns (among other problems).
The Tampa Bay art scene is already a very tightly knit community. I would love to see it further embrace existing alternative spaces and encourage the growth of more spaces in the area – to keep the art exciting and everyone moving forward.