A couple of weeks ago, there was a book launch event for Pete Gershon’s book Collision: The Contemporary Art Scene in Houston, 1972-1985 at the Glassell School’s new building in Houston. The book chronicles the Houston art scene during a vital time, and the crowd at the Glassell skewed older, and was primarily made up of artists and other art-scene people who are mentioned in the book or can remember the events recounted in the book. As I snuck into the huge group photo (thank you Aaron) arranged on the prominent concrete steps in the building’s foyer, for photographer George Hixon to capture, I realized I was probably one of the few young artists there. Not just in the photo, but even in attendance at the accompanying lecture and panel discussion, and to get my book signed by the author and artists. And that got me thinking about artists’ shared and individual histories, and legacy, and how we are all in the business of not being forgotten.
Ultimately, I think we artists need to make friends with more art historians, curators, journalists, and PhD candidates. These key art-scene people need to receive VIP invitations and tickets to our exhibitions, talks, studio tours, Christmas-card mailing lists, etc. These will be the people to actually make sense of what we are doing, and to synthesize it for others and for history. They are in the business of remembering, analyzing, and archiving. They are here to tell our stories.
Let me back up: Of course, curators have long been in this position. They’re the ones we artists fawn over, in hopes that they attend our opening. Or stumble into our studio on a rainy day. Maybe a massive flood event occurs during said studio visit, and the curator is forced to hang out with you and your work and fall in love with both (a rom-com in the making!). But by the nature of what a museum is and does, curators understand the museum’s mission, are (in a sense) in the pockets of board members and other patrons, and they understand attendance numbers. What art brings the biggest crowds through their doors? Sure, it’s likely Picasso, or KAWS, or one of the post-Impressionists.
But for many artists, the ultimate goal is to land work in a museum collection. There’s the instant provenance, and the work will (presumably) be cared for in perpetuity. It will be more likely that your work will survive you. For a youngish artist like myself, with a still-pubescent career of maybe 15 years, I’ve almost given up on that goal.
As my mother would say, I shouldn’t be so negative; all it takes is one curator at one museum to believe in my work. But even if a museum curator took interest in my work and secured a piece of it for his or her museum’s collection, they won’t take all of my stuff. I have works stored in my small converted shipping container studio as well as in my attic. And, even here in humid Houston, I refuse to pay for climate-controlled storage. And I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I’m not a painter, or a sculptor of fussy things. I make soft sculptures, which fold up nicely, and create installations (which get destroyed upon deinstallation), as well as flat works. But who will take care of any of this when I’m gone? Even if it sells to individuals, aging collectors are struggling with this same problem: Who will look after this work when they die? And if it’s thrown away, who will remember the artist?
While I don’t know the answer to this question, I don’t think renting a storage unit is it. But Gershon’s new book, and books like it, are onto something. Gershon himself knew he was onto something when he realized the depth and breadth of Houston artist Bert Long’s vast archive of recent Houston art history, and Gershon used it as a jumping-off point for his massive writing and research project. Key here for artists: take that extra step to archive your existence, your art career and its surrounding community, and the ephemera that it produces.
As the world becomes more immaterial — where everything is digital and subscription-based — seeing actual art works in person seems less urgent to many viewers. But for those who are interested in not only art and art scenes but also the context they create and that created them — what happened, who we were with, and what we did for each other — will speak volumes. (Pun intended.)
The book-launch scene at the Glassell School of Art was moving. It drove home the point that we are all in the business of not being forgotten. Let’s remember that.