A Gathering of Artists and Arts Professionals Thirty Years of Age and Under

During the summer of 1996, the National Association of Artists' Organizations (NAAO) conducted a series of "regional think-tank sessions" with NAAO members and their constituencies in twelve cities across the country. A concern heard throughout "A Dozen Dialogues" was the need to develop, nurture, and support artists and arts professionals who are new to the field. As an initial response, NAAO brought together ten young people under the age of thirty who were identified by NAAO members as emerging leaders. At a meeting held on November 15 and 16, 1996, the ten participants were asked to discuss their visions of the arts world and to investigate ways to mentor and develop leadership among their peers.

The following text is excerpted from discussions during the two-day meeting. It relies heavily on a documentary report produced by Roberto Bedoya and Victoria Reis, and is published with permission from NAAO and the participants.

The meeting was held in New York City with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Moderators were Victoria Reis, Director of Programs and Member Services, NAAO; Sara Kellner, Visual Art Curator, Hallwalls, NAAO board member; and Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director, NAAO. Participants included Michelle Coffey, Teen Arts Coordinator, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Julie Deamer, Director, Four Walls, San Francisco; Vincente Nepomuceno Golveo, visual artist/new technologies, Los Angeles; Alexander Gray, Program Associate, ArtPace, A Foundation for Contemporary Art, San Antonio; Andrew McFarland, visual artist, Program Associate, Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Washington D.C.; Sheelah Murthy, interdisciplinary artist, Chicago; Mario Ontiveros, writer, art historian, Los Angeles; Andrew Simonet, Headlong Dance Company, Philadelphia; Joanna Spitzner, Gallery Coordinator, Art in General, New York City; and Jess Marie Walker, performance artist, activist, Birmingham, Alabama. Joan Shigekawa and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto of the Rockefeller Foundation attended the session on the first day.

A series of questions, articulated in advance, provided a framework for the discussion. The questions were grouped according to four broad topics: “juice” (the energy that compels the work), “circulation of ideas,” “systems of support,” and “Millennium R Us.”

McFarland: What compelled me to work in the arts? I've often thought about that. It was really no more and no less than somebody saying, “What you just drew was good.” I remember getting a compliment early on. Someone said, “Oh, that's really nice.” And I remember I had traced it...but I didn't tell them. All the same, it was significant in terms of affording a sense of self or of peace. It is so important to me now. All it takes is simply for somebody to say, “That's good,” or “What you have to say is valid.” The most important thing I got out of four years of art school was simply the knowledge, or the confidence, to say that what I have produced or what I have to say is important.

Spitzner: I remember when I knew. I always wanted to do everything, and then I went into a summer art program, and that's when I really connected with art. Art is this wonderful space where I can explore anything. Politically, it's a space where I can explore relationships or change people. I'm not interested in the gallery show with the art on the walls and people coming in and thinking it's beautiful and all that. I'm really interested in a space where a group of people can come together and think of other ways to work together, a space you can come into and find a different way of living or being as a society...or something like that. Art is an open doorway—so vague in some ways that it's really empowering.

Also, somewhere I started shying away from the whole idea of an individual. What does it mean to be anonymous? Why are people doing things anonymously? Why are they doing things in groups? I'm really resisting the whole genius, ego thing. I'm going into other areas, spinning so many wheels and jumping from one thing to another, working with people from different areas all the time—that's what is really exciting to me.

Walker: Where I went to school there was definitely the whole genius ego mystique that came from, I think, a generation of teachers who many of us have encountered in one way or the other.

Kellner: I went to a summer school program that was a humongous revelation, especially those moments of being together with peers and discovering the...the power. For me, the last five years has been a discovery of what relatively modest groups of people can accomplish...absolutely extraordinary things, with no money. It's been the greatest adventure.

Murthy: Back to the question—so, what makes you keep coming back, when you're low on money or whatever? Looking back on my life, I don't feel I've had a lot of strokes that encouraged me to follow what I'm doing, except, maybe, a little compliment here and there. When I'm totally questioning why I'm doing this, feeling like it's completely empty and meaningless, the thing that encourages me is a sense of community, and that I could be letting other people down. Seeing somebody else working in their corner, working their ass off putting up a show or whatever, can really inspire me to keep going. It seems easier to keep moving forward when I feel a sense of community, when I feel that I'm not alone in this.

Walker: This whole country is built on people getting in their corner and doing for themselves. It's not built on community. That's why when you talk to the general public about a collective and a community in the art world, they can't...they have no relationship to that idea.

Gray: Our society is working in this kind of independent mode that I feel is systemically really unhealthy. And when we were investigating what to do after college, the message being sent out by the media was, “Co-dependency is a bad thing.” And it's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.

Murthy: On one level, I owe something to my parents. I want to carry on certain traditions. I want to honor certain values that they've passed on to me. But, then, on another level...I read Generation X, Copeland's book, and I thought, “Yeah, I want a piece of the action, too. They need to move. I want Social Security.” I'm hearing talk that I might not get a nice fat pension when I retire. I won't retire. I'll have to work cutting people's lawns when I'm seventy years old. The conversation's influencing my attitude. But, then, there are also many things about my heritage and what I grew up with that I want to honor and keep with me.

Ontiveros: Generation and age are all relative. I was talking with a graffiti artist in Los Angeles the other day who just turned twenty-one, and he told me that he's old. It just tripped me. He's twenty-one years old and he's talking like he's seventy.

To go back to an earlier comment about generations—from modernism we learned that the default is always to overthrow...to slam and squash the people ahead of you. Although I always try to resist talking about autobiographical stuff, I grew up with a family that didn't want to talk about its history. If I were to squash that generation, and my father, for using the word “Hispanic,” for example, I would cut off something. I'm not trying to overthrow, I'm trying to learn from. I realize that I just think—not necessarily in a new way and not necessarily even alternatively. I try not to get into “us versus them.” I really resist it. So if someone wants to say “Hispanic,” then I allow that space. I don't feel like I need to convert them to be “Chicano” or “Latino.”

Golveo: I agree with Mario—it's so much about MTV culture all around us. It's a modernist thing, an ideological thing about this society, to look at history that way.

Ontiveros: It's an ideology that we've all consumed, that the “new and improved” is much better just because it has better graphics than the laundry soap we've been using for five years.

Walker: I have a really hard time with some things about my generation of artists. It may be because I live in Alabama, and we move very slowly in Alabama. We're moving away from the freedom of time and the privilege to set our own pace. It seems to me that to get my foot in anywhere the expectations of me and what I've done are really high, even at age twenty-six. I had an inside source who told me an Alabama grant panel said, “She's somebody to watch, you know. Her work's good, but...” Another criticism was that I was “too avant-garde for Alabama.” Even the fact that they used the term “avant-garde” said something. That's not really a word we use any more, we talk about “edgy art” or “unsafe art” or...

I've had to search for my roots because I was taken from them at a young age, taken to a place that I did not know. So, through my art work I've be able to address the “living chain of memory” [a term that emerged early in the discussion]. It also happens that my mentor and main collaborator for the last six years, Karen Graphia, is of the forties generation. When we come together, it's an amazing thing. I get tears in my eyes because I've got her memories and she's got my memories and they're put together in the same place.

Simonet: In dance, there's so little record that our only connection to the past generation is person-to-person—seeing performance or taking classes. I have the privilege of actually working with a lot of the past generation and dancing with them. The kind of information and wisdom that comes through that kind of work, through the physical contact, is very intense.

Steve Paxton, a very influential choreographer in the 60s and 70s, asked me, “What's your generation doing? No one seems to be doing anything. There's no interesting work coming out. Is there anyone interesting? What do you care about? What are you doing?” A few other people from his time have asked me the same question. And it is true, there are almost no famous choreographers under thirty or thirty-five right now. People puzzle over why.

What I said was, “Well, Steve, you're looking for us to give the finger to dance history in some way and start off in a completely new direction. But that's not what we're doing. You all did that so beautifully and in such a crucial way. Now we're taking all of those tools that you fought so hard to make available, and we're making whatever the hell we want to make with them. We're harnessing those tools to the projects we're interested in.

It might seem that there's no unified aesthetic, no movement coming through, and no nice headline for what's going on in dance right now. But a) that's probably always been true, and the headlines have probably always been the invention of some dance critic; and b) what you fought for, for so long, is what we have now: freedom to make work that we want with the tools we want. We can use any movement and we dance to any music and we get up on stage and talk and shout. And we can show very different kinds of people dancing who don't have a certain kind of body and who aren't a certain kind of person. You should feel gratified. The reason we're not rebelling is that you handed us such a rich palette that we just want to take it and run with it.

Golveo: A big word that comes to my mind is advocacy, in relation to a lot of things—like leadership. We as leaders must learn how to advocate and be politicians. I have gone to a few leadership training sessions, and they're all about a corporate-structure type of leadership. There's no activism. Activism arises from working in the streets or on things that come up as a crisis—AIDS, for example. That's where a lot of activists learn their tools, not in corporate-sponsored leadership training sessions. This makes me think of a person I met at Getty who said she was an activist. She went to work for a nonprofit, thinking that the nonprofit would be an extension of her activism. And she found out, “Oh, my God, it is actually a corporate structure.”

Ontiveros: A person I work with said something similar. She asked, “When you went to work for a nonprofit, didn't you expect that it was going to be an extension of your advocacy? And, then you got there, and realized that it was an extension of a corporate system, it was a completely different thing.”

Golveo: When I step into what are called nonprofits, even community-based ones, I feel this whole aura of trying to pretty things up, of trying to insulate the community from people in the upper class—who would rather not see it. I wish there were more programs to educate—not just the people in the community—but also the people giving the money.

Whales and Money
Simonet: I had one brush with a foundation that actually put out a message saying, “We have extra money we are looking to give to the dance community in your city. What do you need?” A bunch of choreographers and dance community people came together, and our response, largely, was: “You can remove the barriers to making art. You can remove the things that prevent people from being able to make work, the work they want to make.”

It turned out that the big complaint from the foundation was a feeling that the level and quality of the work was not high enough. “We give all this money and still think the work isn't good enough.” I just do not think you can fund your way into good art. I think it's an ecology. If you want to help the whales and the big fish in the art sea, you don't do it by throwing money at them. You do it by making the whole environment more livable. What makes great art? Who knows. It takes a hundred terrible dances to make one good dance. And you just have to make them. You have to make the bad dances. You have to fund them and perform them. And I have to watch them. You can't start by asking, “What do I have to do to make the art better?”

Gray: Foundation money is a relatively small piece of the pie. The money is not drying up. There is plenty out there. Certainly, our generation spends an enormous amount of disposable income on fashion, music, fast foods—there is a reason we are so marketed to. What Julie is doing at Four Walls, nurturing collectors to spend $100 or $200 on a piece of art, is a key. I am much more interested in money coming in that way than money coming in from Rockefeller or the NEA or whatever.

We have to look at our own spending habits and look at where we commit our resources. In New York it might cost $80 to catch a cab, meet somebody at the Angelika [movie theater], get a ticket, popcorn, soda, go out for a drink and dinner, then taxi home. I could just as well spend that $80 on a benefit with free food and an open bar, and it would be new money going to the kinds of spaces we need. I am less interested in pointing a finger at large foundations—I want us to find the money so we are invested in it and don't expect somebody to bail us out.

Reis: My point is that there is money in the foundation community. We
see new museums—huge monstrosities—being funded and built all over the country. If there's money to fund these huge institutions, why isn't there money for the small 501(c)(3)s and small accessible funds for artists.

Deamer: I think people are scared to buy art. It is intimidating. A hierarchy is there that implies only rich people can afford it. On our Web page we say, “Buy art! It's fun, it's cheap. Come to Four Walls.” It does not have to be an elitist venture. If you buy ten CDs you eventually get tired of them anyway. You might as well own something that really moves you, that you feel strongly about. That's how I see it. There is still a lot of negativity toward commercial galleries. And, I ride that line. I would like to shed the “alternative” label, but at the same time I think that's why Four Walls feels like an approachable place—because it's not your traditional commercial space.

Walker: In our community, the collector population is small, very small. In Birmingham, the collectors are kind of like celebrities, and everybody is trying to meet them. Collectors, though, are often collecting work that is related to their own lives. I know of one couple who are using their money on a big piece in their house—a dinner table with TV monitors, dance, video. It is a beautiful thing, but my work is not relevant to them.

Gray: But that to me is big money. The small money is the relationships with the restaurants, with the little gift shops and the downtown that is being redeveloped because artists live there. It is building relationships with like organizations that are not necessarily nonprofit, where reciprocal arrangements can be made.

Kellner: In Buffalo, there is no big money. In Birmingham there is no big money either. If you are committed to staying in a particular community and not going to New York where people who want big money go, that is one thing. In my organization, we do a biennial festival called “Ways of Being Gay.” Not too many foundations or corporations are interested in giving us big sponsorships for this festival. But there are a lot of small businesses run by people committed to the work we do, and to this particular work. We put this festival on by gathering together lots of donations—platters of food and offers to put up artists. This is a way that my organization has developed over the last few years to maintain the diligence and focus of presenting work that the NEA does not really want to know about. The way we do it is by gathering together enough small money to do a big project. Being able to put on huge projects without major outside supporters, gives us and our artists the freedom to do anything.

Philanthropy and Self-reliance
Gray: We also need to model philanthropy on our own. If you have given something to a nonprofit, whether it is a check or a piece of art, you'd better be talking about it every chance you get—“Last month, I made a contribution to Planned Parenthood,” or whatever—because that holds out a model for our peers and builds grassroots support. We have the luxury of looking at these systemic problems now while we are young, putting our money were our mouths are, and nurturing our peers and friends to be responsible citizens. Hopefully, by the time we're all twenty-nine, the problems will be taken care of because we have invested in them.

Coffey: On the other hand, how long can we keep that kind of pace? We cannot replace, socially, the institution of the NEA. We cannot replace the institution of federal funding. We cannot replace Social Security.

Murthy: Yesterday, I think, somebody mentioned that with the demise of the NEA there's a lot of cynicism towards large funding organizations. I don't think artists put funders on the pedestal they might have in the past. [Raising small money] doesn't mean we shouldn't keep knocking at big money's door, saying, “Hey, we're here. Look at us.” I think you're probably right with the idea of going to individuals and looking for smaller monies, but I don't want that to be an excuse to let the others off the hook.

McFarland: Many artists are getting less and less funding and are still surprisingly good at doing what they do and doing it without money. But, they would probably be able to do it better with the money.

Simonet: There are ways not to become a supplicant. You are going to continue your programs whether they fund you or not. You come from the standpoint of self-sufficiency. Though it might be bare-bones, you don't come on your knees. In my dance company, we have a no begging policy. We didn't beg our supporters for help with our summer dance program. We just did it ourselves without any funding. The next year we went around and said, “Look, we did this without any funding. If you give us money, we'd be able to pay the artists a little bit, pay for food, da-da-da. But we'll tell you right now that we're going to do this whether you fund us or not.” There's not a contradiction here. To say, “I'm determined and self-reliant enough to survive,” does not contradict, “My work deserves support.”

Golveo: I grew up watching forty hours of TV a week. That's an experience particular to our generation. It might not have been as common in the '60s, or maybe it was. There's certainly a push-button, hip-hop vibe going on.

Ontiveros: A hip-hop vibe gets across the idea of sampling, of taking something from the '60s or even earlier, like a speech, and reconfiguring it into the mix today. It allows that “link of memory.” Identity politics helps, too—it made a lot of connecting links. What disrupts the connections is a Prop 209 or Proposition 187 [California ballot propositions limiting affirmative action and immigration respectively]. A theorist, a white feminist, said to me the other day, “This idea of identity politics, it's so '70s, so feminist, so.... What we need is post-identity politics.” And, I was thinking, “Well, we're only ‘post-identity’ because 209 and all slams it in our faces.” These are the trends that break our “living memory.”

McFarland: About the twenty-one year old who was thinking he was already old—the notion is engendered by technology that started when we were very young. We're in the crest of that wave. And, now, it's like a deluge on the generation beneath us—like, “I don't have to see that because I saw it on the Web, I don't have to experience it because I already know it.” There's a false sense of age, of experience, of wisdom, that comes from hitting a few buttons on your keyboard. There's a commercial out now for some Web tool, a search engine or whatever. An old man is walking around in the park. He's saying, “What a wonderful time to be a child,” and he hits a button and there's all this MTV flashing on the screen. I felt, “Whoa!” I understand it on a certain level, but part of me thinks, I wouldn't want to be a child. I don't think I'd want to be on the receiving end of this wave coming down right now. It would drive me crazy.

Walker: We are running up against an overstimulated culture. If you have ever raised children, you know that when kids are overstimulated, especially babies, they freak. They cry, they scream, and they totally reject whatever is over-stimulating them. This is happening across the board, all over the place in this culture. People are like, “Man, I just want to get on my couch, turn off the TV, and turn off the lights.” Should we be respectful of this?”

Gray: I was at a seminar thing on public relations—bicultural, acculturated, bilingual public relations. It was really heinous. But a market research guy was there, talking about how increasing the quality of living and finding stress-free zones are what the 1990s are about. There is an explosive growth in yoga classes and stuff, because of the stress. I asked how arts and culture fit into the search for quality of life and quiet time—turning off the TV, getting out of the car, etc. The response was really positive. I would like to think that our overstimulated culture—that's a great term—actually sets up a situation that is really good for the arts and people making art. People are looking for a moment of truth in a painting or in a movement or in a sound. We need to go out there and say, “It is here. You need that peace and that beauty, you need that down mode. Art can do that for you.” Art can do other things as well. But it could be a first step, and reaching our age peers is one way to get there.

The excerpts included here do not begin to reflect the full scope of topics discussed. Anyone interested in reading the more complete report produced by Bedoya and Reis should contact NAAO, 918 F Street N.W., Washington D.C., 20002, 202-347-6350. The cost is $10. The report was also published in the summer 1997 issue of the NAAO Bulletin.