I wrote an anecdote-filled essay at the time of learning about my Nexus Award back in January, intended to allow me to mention all the people I thought were equally deserving of having been one of the two first recipients thereof.
A good many of the anecdotes turned out, on second reading, to be less entertaining than I had thought. I rewrote the piece as an expanded acceptance speech accordingly, only to learn that I had five minutes for remarks in what turned out to be a ten- or twelve-minute speech. Back to the delete key, plus rewrite.
A number of people wanted a permanent record of what I said, but a good many remarks were extemporaneous. The following is more or less the script from which I deviated.
Meetings With Remarkable Women and Men: A Retrospective Look at My Life in Art (and the Standard Rhetorical Reverse)
The Atlanta art world, to which I have now devoted an entire quarter-century, is a curious place. It is a place where the vast majority of participants, whether working artists, alternative-space directors, art show organizers, or working art writers, are expected to do what they do after they have got done earning a living doing something else. This week I am in the final stages of co-creating a site-specific installation in a former church building adjacent to this weekend's Inman Park Festival with Neil Fried, Evan Levy, Priscilla Smith, and a few helpers, none of whom are receiving any more financial reward for doing it than the i45 gallery owners who sponsored it are for having had the idea in the first place. Like the much-appreciated patrons who form the boards of our nonprofits, and like the unsalaried staff of the smaller nonprofits, they are trying to make things happen in the artworld in between their paying gigs.
I feel very privileged that for more than twenty years both my day job and my freelance nights-and-weekends job involved writing about and editing other people's writing about over a thousand such self-sacrificing individuals, plus a few museum shows when somebody else didn't already have that slot covered. Now that the print media's arts coverage has dwindled and I no longer derive any significant income from art writing, I find I can't break the habit of writing about artists and keeping up with what they do. But at this point, the digital world pays no one for such services.
The new dispensation isn't a completely radical departure; it was standard practice for the curator and/or catalogue essayist to donate the promised fee as matching funds for the grant money. Today we continue to have independent art centers and art reviewing websites in which the only money changing hands goes to the landlord or the internet service provider.
But without them, and without this city's more adventurous owners of commercial galleries, our artworld would be little more than a subset of interior design. Adventurous designers also deserve to be celebrated, incidentally. Almost as much as architects, they take risks that are sometimes compensated by nothing more than professional recognition.
I hear complaints about our poverty mentality, but if we waited for compensation before we did anything, this would be a much more culturally impoverished city.
If I am one of the two initial recipients of this award, it is only because somebody had to go first, and I'm glad it happened to me because I need a platform to market my collaborative electronic-music CD with Dick Robinson that will be launched on May 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, not to mention my other....uhhhhhhhhhhhh no, on second thought I think I'll leave that for some other time. That is what e-mail lists are for. Sorry, I don't twitter if I can help it.
Seriously, I do want to blow my own horn for the remainder of these all too un-brief remarks, by recounting my past art exploits in a way that will let me name some of the remarkable men and women with whom I have worked over the years, many of whom cannot be here tonight because they could not afford the forty dollar admission fee.
In the mid-1970s, freshly Ph.D’d and with few prospects in a recessionary economy, I joined Harriette Grissom in creating the letterpress-based Omnivore Press chapbook series. The linoleum print I cut for one chapbook cover was my first-ever work of visual art (experiments in Chinese brush painting were the second and third).
Though I had been friends with artists ever since college, I never expected to be writing about art except as a subset of the history of consciousness. In 1984, however, Art Papers editor Xenia Zed succeeded in convincing me that it was possible for me to write about art that didn't yet possess secondary source materials. Feeling that anyone who produced such critical commentaries ought himself to be subject to critique, I began to produce art myself again shortly afterward, in both conceptual and traditional media.
I also found myself guest-editing two special issues of Art Papers and assisting Robert Cheatham in interviewing Jacques Derrida, but that is another story. Robert Cheatham can tell it in his own time.
Soon after that I found myself curating my first gallery show (a shout-out here to Lynn Loftin), and not long after that, on the recommendation of Virginia Warren Smith, I began writing freelance reviews for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. At about the same time, Evan Levy made it possible for the artists' group we had organized to present an alternative-space show on the top floor of the IBM Tower. It was the first of many opportunities to learn how few resources and how much effort it required to produce amazing results that would create momentary excitement and no lasting impact. (Ask the surviving members of the Mattress Group.)
Somehow, the doubtful advantages of an interdisciplinary Ph.D. led to a productive life on the margins, and eventually I co-curated with Tina Dunkley a show of Atlanta artists that traveled to European venues during the Olympic year of 1996. (Gilla Juette's grass-roots efforts made that one possible. I also assisted with Gilla’s international artist program, which brought to Atlanta, among others, the artist who was the Republic of Georgia’s representative in that year’s Venice Biennale (thanks to Cay Sophie Rabinowitz). Mamuka interacted brilliantly with the members of Neil Fried’s Railroad Earth collaborative, who co-hosted the monthly Artists in Residence International art and performance events then, and who have now revived Artists in Residence International for new events beginning this very weekend with the "Skies Over Atlanta" installation at 580 Euclid Avenue during the Inman Park Festival, and continuing May 15 with an iron pour at Railroad Earth.)
As Xenia Zed once put it, Atlanta artists and curators and critics can spend their whole lives emerging. But the advantages of the margin included the fact that at the time, things that would have been impossible in a more hierarchically organized scene could be produced on minimal budgets with volunteer labor.
I did what I could to interpret that condition (and to overcome its limitations), and in my spare time curated shows for Georgia State University (thank you, Teri Williams, for co-organizing and nearly killing yourself with work in the process), Agnes Scott (thank you, Lisa Alembik, for doing the same), the Artists in Georgia exhibition in Savannah, and so on.
I insisted, and still insist, that the only way to understand a local scene was to place it in the context of the challenges experienced by comparable scenes elsewhere (a concept once known as "international regionalism" and now not known as anything at all, as far as I know). This was what led to the two or three international trips of my career that were not self-financed. (The dirty little secret is that art writers don't get travel budgets, and are barred by conflict of interest rules from accepting press junkets. The redoubtable African-American artist Mildred Thompson got both of us to Berlin on an independent reporting trip in December 1989, courtesy of the Goethe-Institut.)
That was the decade or so when I was donating my full-time services to Art Papers. After I had got done circa 1997 with such editorial adventures as translating a Gerardo Mosquera essay with edits done via a dicey international phone connection, I left the editorial decisions to my superiors and devoted myself almost exclusively to analyzing and reviewing the local, Atlanta having by then spawned almost too many galleries for anyone to visit all the openings. (But I tried, most recently courtesy of rides with friends like Carole Lawrence and Shawn Marie Story.)
There have been too many incidental enterprises to mention without trying your patience. Rhode Fraser and I inaugurated a video series that lasted for only one incarnation. Carol LaFayette made me star and scriptwriter of a video of our own.
I was always going to look for a standard-issue job someday instead of cobbling together a living from bits and pieces, but as I have now said three times, bits and pieces are how most artists and intellectuals of my generation have always gotten by in Atlanta. Besides, there were always things that needed to be done, and no one else immediately visible to do them. Now there are, and not a minute too soon.