Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Gauntlet

The 2012 Amagansett Fine Arts Festival has started into motion, and with it comes all of the nervous excitement of another big product launch as all of the methods and motives have been developed and articulated. In some ways, I'm just a small human element in the clock-like machinery of the festival. Most things fall into place with a Swiss watchmaker's precision, while other things are grown and cultivated like the tomato plants that are now withering on the deck in the chill of October.

Here in my quiet little place in the woods, I'm actually part of a fairly dynamic and angst-ridden artist group. Together we have an informal series of artist crits, culminating with a series of interconnected open studios spanning two not-so-far points in Chester county, known as the Chester County Studio Tour. Initially it was described as a "ragtag group of arguing pseudo-intellectuals", which started as a "casual monthly discussion". After dinner last night with my fellow pseudo-intellectual Jeff Schaller and his wife and family, I realized how it all really began.

A long time ago, in an art show far, far away, Jeff and I were both on a fledgling flight in the center of Rittenhouse Square Park. Like frail little birds, we tested the breeze, our nubby little wings trembling in the crisp and cool air of an early morning in June. We were separated by a short walk past a giant statue of a lion desperately and ferociously pinning a writhing snake to the ground under its claws, both of them locked in a mortal struggle for dominance and survival. As each day of that first art festival dragged endlessly on, we started throwing punches. He had great hair, I had better jokes, when I started selling one painting after another, he berated me for using large black trash bags to wrap my work for the clients. Back and forth, on and on, our stamina to defy each other was relentless. By the end of the weekend, we had spent enough time squaring off that we realized the fight was on, the gauntlet had been thrown down, that we were just getting warmed up. Over the years, we've made a huge amount of noise, with our wit and humor being sharpened and refined to keep up with our insight and experience. While I'm endlessly mixing colors, he's running circles around me, layering concepts and textures. When I talk about balance and harmony, he's talking about jazz and cacophany. I say "make nice", and he says "there's no money in it". On and on and on, Jesus-God don't make me stop this car.

After only a few years of doing the Rittenhouse Square Art Show together, our paths reached a fork in the road. Jeff dropped his interest in outdoor festivals to pursue relationships with galleries, while I started driving further and further across the country, to explore more and more new outdoor festival markets. In the meantime, my galleries dwindled and gathered dust. By the time we were neighbors living in the same stretch of forest spanning Downingtown and West Chester, we would catch up less than once a month to compare notes between our jaunts around the country and across the world.

Just to create an agenda that had the potential to stir up some dust again, the Chester County Studio Crit was formed. In the guise of a true artist's critique, we squared off again, only this time the mosh pit of bodies between us provided a fertile foundation of thought-provoking carnage and tears. The underlying motivation for the crit was to create a forum for networking, in addition to the thinktank that seemed to create more than the sum of its parts. The very notion of the crit itself became a double-edged sword, and the spiritually maimed and wounded artists would thin out and replacements would wait in the wings for their invitation to join. Over the years we've learned how to approach hobbyists, mentalists, perfectionists and slackers. Some of the most amazing artists have taken part in some of the meetings, and each have enlightened us with their own versions of brilliance and accomplishment. The Studio Crit spawned the Studio Tour, some group shows, and an ongoing series of collaborative projects. But of course, we all just want more.

I suppose it's something in human nature, that we want to build something, and when it works, we want to make it bigger and better. As the Chester County Studio Tour goes into its fourth year, the next phase begins to develop. As the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival goes into its second year, I can't help but envision all the ways I can do a better job. When we built the studio tour, I realized how a festival is just an intelligent combination of the components of artists and promotion, and building a festival is just a more evolved version of the same formula. I'm not saying it's easy, but it sure is a good challenge.

We're acting a little more like grownups now, but Jeff and I still can get pretty loud when we start comparing notes. Here you can read Jeff Schaller's rant about the most recent artist crit.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Final Thoughts on the Festival

The first annual Amagansett Fine Arts Festival was a great success.

I spent quite a bit of time talking to all of the exhibiting artists, and I couldn't help but be deeply impressed by the exceptional level of quality and integrity from one presentation to the next. Every artist was more than happy to talk about their process, and I gained a deep appreciation of each of their challenges and triumphs, as described in detail with the examples on display. I can't help be proud of this first small group, to realize that this hand-selected bunch all embraced the most important aspect of being an exhibitor--that they understood the importance of educating the public. This is where artists of integrity will rise up to be teachers, to illuminate their audience with insight and perspective. To educate the public is a crucial part of building the foundation for a solid marketing base. The few times I could walk the show and quietly observe, I was thrilled to see artists discussing their work, and not merely selling their products. This is what I want to see this show become, a destination event for our audience to be enlightened by each and every one of these noble visionaries.

Of course we've set the bar high with this first event, and soon it will be time to raise it even higher for next year. I have to thank the American Legion for their help and generosity, Cheryl for arranging details and for feeding the hungry masses, Steve Oliver for his cool and unwavering assistance despite the hurdles of getting the event off the ground, and above all, the artists that put their trust in me, and drove the whole way out to the end of the world to take a chance on a sun-drenched grassy field in the heat of July. And of course lastly, my lovely wife, for being by my side through it all, as well as being such a gracious hostess to all of the artists.

And of course Frank, just for being Frank.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Know Before Whom Thou Standest

Initially I was going to name this post "Who is working for Whom?", but for some reason I thought of the words on the wooden arch stretching across the ceiling of the sanctuary at the temple from my childhood, several thousand years ago in the ancient land of Lancaster. I would sit for hours and ponder my endless doubts of the concept of someone sitting high up above, looking down, and doing nothing.

It seems there's some confusion concerning where the power falls in the employee/employer relationship. While putting together the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival I can't help but feel that I'm taking on a new job, with no less than 40 or 50 new bosses, and all of this without any actual monetary compensation from any of them.

It seems that the great diaspora of all the foreign populations to this great melting pot of the United States comes with a deeply seated sense of independence. We celebrate the concept of independence oddly enough on the very weekend of the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival. We own our yard, and the fence around our yard that separates ours from all the others. We can't wait to get our driver's licence, to get out of our parents' home and make our own decisions and live our own lives and make our own mistakes. Our own place to live and our own job gives us the satisfaction of independence.

What is a job, without a boss, a task, a sense of sacrifice and duty and dedication? It's easy enough to say we work for our boss, for the company, in compensation for the paycheck. As long as there's someone else that might want our job, the boss can always consider us as the next tier down on the chain of servitude.

Enter the self-employed. Suddenly the concept of "who are you working for?" becomes more abstract. Working for a bank, for a mortgage company, for your bills, for the grocery store, all of these things become faceless versions of your "boss". When you take on assistants, you're now faced with the task of keeping them busy, and more importantly, paid. The people that are helping you wind up being the same people you're working for, to provide some sense of job security by thinking ahead to more than what you need, but with considerations for a much bigger picture that includes the people you hired. This notion of interdependence is probably the most binding factor for human communities.

The Amish are known to pull together and raise a barn so that one family can be a more intrinsically useful component to the financial support system of the entire community. In Thailand they have what's called "som nok boon koon", which is essentially an unspoken "favor bank". The perceived debt for favors given in good faith and generosity is what provides the foundation for respect among each person. In the modern world it's too easy to view the employer/employee relationship as some version of a caste system. Acquiring a position includes a sense of entitlement and privilege that didn't exist before, and the value of "earning" an advancement is the insulation it provides against the necessary respect and kindness that binds people of varying levels of opportunity together.

I've seen some art festivals grow and flourish through care and consideration, and festivals that are just vast and complex money machines. At what point does a show promoter stop thanking the artists that make an event? At what point does the financial venture of promotion overshadow consideration of the individual artists that make the event a reality?

Artists invest in an art festival as a marketing base. From one year to the next, the marketing base will grow and develop and mature. As long as an artist can understand this concept, each event will be nothing short of a plethora of opportunities. This investment in an art festival is crucial to the joint venture between the event promoter and the artists that support the event with their attendance (and more importantly, with their booth fee). An artist-friendly or artist-run event will always figure out ways to continue next year, in an agreement as binding as an unspoken debt between the members of a respectful community. No single artist would consider profiting from their fellow exhibitors, but instead would work together as a cooperative union of similar business interests to always consider future growth and prosperity.

Most artists like to whine. It's a sad fact, but every one of them (or I should say "us") will complain about some higher power that decides on their misfortune and discomfort. Maybe they should spend some time staring up at the ceiling of the sanctuary mentioned in the beginning of this entry. I can usually bring any conversation with artists to an awkward close by asking "What's the difference between puppies and artists?", and the answer "puppies eventually stop whining" usually gets a chuckle for the split second before realization of the subtle insult sinks in. Get over it, there's always something to whine about, but in the grand scope of things we're all living the life, enjoying the thrill of risk and reward, embracing our creativity and enjoying the vindication of our efforts as measured by the response of our audience.

It's up to us to make the most of what we have, and for me, the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival will be what I'm offering to a select group of artists as a grand vessel of opportunity.

Who am I working for? Obviously...every single one of these artists.

Part Deux: Decisions

It suddenly seems that there's no way to promote a show without becoming a target. The Amagansett Fine Arts Festival started out as a chorus of many voices, each one rising up in harmony to express discontent and a need to do something better. Everyone chimes in with their own version of the ultimate solution for the ultimate exhibit. When a show suddenly doesn't exist, everyone is suddenly whispering in the silence, because now there is a big open space, and the bravery and boldness pales when faced with a wide open space. In wide open spaces one can fail, one can be conspicuous, every action and sound is suddenly amplified tenfold. And then, in steps my hero complex.

The first American hero was Nathaniel "Natty" Bumppo, of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. For the first time, the hero doesn't kiss the woman and become domestic and tend to the farm, instead he kisses the horse, and rides off into the sunset. The vast openness of the frontier symbolizes the lack of limits, staying at the homestead to be responsible represents the acceptance of limits. One definition of maturity is the acceptance of limits, so the Great First American Hero defied maturity and responsibility by riding off into the great beyond. Ever the child, ever the exploring free spirit. The hero then evolved to be the masked man, who would do the good and selfless deed before his trademark disappearance. With a tip of his hat, he became the envy of every little boy, the mysterious hero that would enter from stage right, save the day and exit through stage left. I always wanted to be that hero, to swoop in and save the day.

I really do mean to be helpful and kind and generous, but invariably someone falls through the cracks. While grappling with the notion that no good deed is without fallacy, I decided that my decisions should support the act of becoming. To wish and want and hope is not to change anything, but through observation we can transcend who we are by becoming what we do, and what I do is to endlessly strive to better myself as a painter, as a man, and as a husband. The easiest and the hardest of the three is to only improve as a painter, for no measurement is as valid as the measurements we impose on ourselves, so the notion of staging the Amagansett Fine Arts Festival should, in the end, make me a better painter.

So like a hero, I stood up and gathered the tools of information, and piece by piece I started assembling the components that make a fine art festival. The very notion of a fine art festival suddenly creates a polarity of what is and what is not. Is a fine art product actually the product of a fine artist? Functional art gets the fuzzy definition of craft, while the term "fine" can be used to describe things that are the exact opposite of "fine", in directions of "rough" and "crude" and "rude" and "audacious". Once you manage the moral calisthenics of straddling a view of what is fine art, you have to investigate presentation. In the typical art festival jury system, this is based on what is known as the "booth slide", or now that nobody uses slides anymore, it's called "the booth shot". In an event such as this one, the booth shot does not convey enough, for me, for what I want to stage as an exhibition.

No mortal really has the right to decide what is proper conduct and presentation. There are several artforms that are insulated from any visible artifacts, such as photography. So many people can take a great photograph, yet when someone stands up and proclaims responsibility for photographic images, we can only trust that this person did indeed understand all the myriad of controls and processing to have taken these images. Painters have spots of paint on their shoes, sculptors have sinewy arms and biceps of steel, and printmakers have the look of weariness and toil in their eyes. Jewelers become permanently hunched and pinched, and you can see the familiarity they have with being resigned to viewing the world of detail through reading glasses or a jeweler's loop. Photographers are always just so cool and calm, that if they didn't express a deep knowledge of gear and processing and the logistics of travel we'd never be able to tell them from accountants or even just tourists relaxing while on vacation. If we dig into a photographer's website, we'd like to see some explanation of philosophy and vision, or at the very least to see a love for the things and places and people that show up in their images. Painters will gush endlessly about how much they love everything, the paint, the light, the air, the atmosphere. On some level, I guess I'd like to see a love for what one does. Maybe this is how the fine art is actually the product of the fine artist, specifically born of love of life, of process and challenge.

And in the very nature of decisions, some are decided in, and others are decided out. In my greatest efforts to be good, invariably someone believes I'm bad.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In the Beginning

Aside from the fun of it all, my interest in putting on this show is fairly selfish. In the grandest scope of things, we all do things that make us happy. If it makes us happy, we do it, and we become happy. Of course I can't really say I'm happy so far, let's just say I'm happy enough, so far.

The town of East Hampton has its own special brand of chill. They've found their own formula to deal with anxiety, usually in the form of a long sigh of resignation. The people are beautiful, like tempered steel, to have survived an escape from the harrows of Manhattan, to weather the brutal biting winds of winter, to have resigned themselves to tolerating the idiotic masses that mill through their little slice of calm and order.

Initially the notion of staging a fine art festival in East Hampton seemed to be daunting, the local Art Guild has their own version of an art fair, with piles of artwork leaning against every wall and table and chair, stacked 6 deep with no sense of propriety or presentation. East Hampton takes it all in stride, picking a treasure out of the stack of artwork is akin to finding a particularly beautiful shell on the vast windswept beach.

Aside from the stratospherically expensive storefronts and town parks that maintain the manicure of Japanese moss gardens, a fine art fair in East Hampton is all but impossible. So...start driving out of the town, heading....east. Head toward the sunrise, head to where the forest fades out and the road is flanked on both sides by water, head out toward the very end of Long Island, toward the town of Montauk (aka "the end") and the very next town is the very charming hamlet of Amagansett.

Just east of the village of East Hampton, along the Montauk Highway, lies the town of Amagansett. Amagansett derives its name from the Native American Montaukett name for "place of good water". I've never found the "good water", but my guess is that any fresh water spring was better than seawater way back then.

In 1942 the beach at Amagansett was the landing point for German saboteurs, who buried enough explosives and fuses to support a two-year campaign of sabotage and tomfoolery called "Operation Pastorius". The plan failed, and the beaches of Amagansett are once again serene and safe from the threat of German invasion.

However, Amagansett is not safe from the invasion of artists in an operation called The First Annual Amagansett Fine Arts Festival and instead of arriving by sea the invading forces will arrive by land. Instead of incendiaries and explosives the necessary artillery will be paintings and sculptures, and the staging point shall be a small grassy field by the American Legion Post #419 at the address of 15 Montauk Highway, in Amagansett, NY. Just to make the event truly commemorative, the invasion will take place on the day of celebration of United States independence from foreign rule, aka 4th of July weekend.