Yokelist Manifesto 8: We need local art history

AS220’s “NetWorks” videos premiere Sunday

The art world these days is an incredibly self-reflexive, art-history obsessed culture. But if you live outside the Circuit of international art fairs and biennials and Chelsea and Artforum, it can feel as if your community and its history are invisible, or might as well not exist. And local institutions only occasionally try to tell their place’s history—if at all. The resulting message, in art’s history obsessed culture, is that nothing made here ever mattered. And the corollary: Nothing made here ever will matter.

So if you’re trying to build a more exciting art local art community attending to your place’s history is vital. Doing local art history insists that what we do locally is important, and must be remembered. In New England, the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Massachusetts, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine have been doing solo retrospectives of local artists that piece by piece begin to add up to a local history. But the last big attempts to synthesize local history were probably the DeCordova’s “Photography in Boston: 1955-1985” and “Painting in Boston: 1950-2000” in 2003 and the RISD Museum’s more narrowly focused 2006 survey of the Providence screenprinting explosion, “Wunderground: Providence 1995 to the Present” (read our review here).

In 2008, as if sensing this need, the Providence alternative space AS220, which has so vitally fueled art making in Rhode Island, got into the act. “It is my assertion that the more conscious we are about documenting Rhode Island’s community of makers,” AS220 artistic director Bert Crenca wrote then, “the more likely that this community will be sustained and, in fact, grow.” AS220 partnered with collector Joseph Chazan and the Newport Art Museum to produce a “NetWorks” exhibit and video documenteries (screen them here) about a fledgling hall of fame roster of Rhode Island artists—though they were careful to avoid such grand terms and the whole project had something of a seat-of-the-pants style.

Now they’re back at it. They premiere video portraits by Richard Goulis of 12 new, um, “inductees” at the RISD Museum’s Chace Center, 20 North Main St., Providence, at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17. Admission is free. The Newport Art Museum then presents an exhibit of the 2009 and 2010 “NetWorks” artists from Nov. 6, 2010, to Jan. 17, 2011. The 2009 featured artists are Astrid, Stephen Brownell, Nicole Chesney, Umberto Crenca, Bob Dilworth, Steven Easton, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Tony Ramos, James Reynolds, Thomas Sgouros, William Schaff, and Neal Walsh. The 2010 roster is Ben Anderson, Leslie Bostrom, Coral Bourgeois, Donna Bruton, Daniel Clayman, Yizhak Elyashiv, Malcolm Grear, Agustín Patiño, Erminio Pinque, Kenn Speiser, Wendy Wahl, and McDonald Wright. This will be followed by a smaller, focused “NetWorks” exhibit at Gallery Z in Providence from Jan. 12 to Feb. 26, 2011.

Last winter’s DeCordova Biennial, which expanded the show’s usual focus on only emerging artists to include local old masters as well, is another example of this sort of necessary thinking. The Biennial and “NetWorks” are hybrid shows—blending what’s happening now with a historical perspective. Neither of them attempts to be comprehensive, but they’re models of the foundational work our institutions need to do to help foster a more exciting local creative community—and a more exciting community for all of us who live here.

The Yokelist Papers:
Yokelist Manifesto Number 1: Boston lacks alternative spaces?
Yokelism at the 2008 Boston Art Awards.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 2: Montreal case study.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 3: Hire locally.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 4: We need coverage of our living artists.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 5: We need local retrospectives.
Yokelism update: Coverage of our living artists: Sebastian Smee responds.
Yokelism update: Dangers of Provincialism.
Yokelism update: Re: Dangers of Provincialism.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 6: Could the CIA help?
Yokelism at the 2009 New England Art Awards.
Re: “Yokelism with your wallet out.”
Globe: The revolution begins with Harvard – a Yokelist response.
Yokelist questions Globe diss of Boston.
Yokelist Manifesto Number 7: Can you love Boston art and still love the Foster Prize?

One Response to “Yokelist Manifesto 8: We need local art history”

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head Greg, and it’s a point that really doesn’t get discussed around here. The perception is really that any Boston artist only did something worthwhile after they moved to NYC (or LA or whatever). Why create art here if nobody ever did anything worthwhile here?

    Having lived in Providence and worked at AS220 for a little while, I would say that that organization is excellently primed to document Providence art. They have money, facilities and a guiding vision. Boston is sorely lacking for a real arts organization that supports the city as a whole, that sponsors program, provides facilities and just generally makes it easier for artists to do their thing.

    It seems to me that putting together this history of Boston art would require a substantial effort. A website would be a great start, but even then it would most likely be run by run on a small—if not individual—scale. As much of a drag as institutions can be (and I would say AS220 is an example of a great institution), maintaining a history is really an institutional role. They would need some space to keep records, and hopefully art, as well of a staff that would do research and put down history as it happens. Ideally, this would all be set up in such a way so that it wouldn’t all disappear if one person lost interest or the budget got cut.

    While certainly a monumental task, it’s a truly vital pursuit if we want to establish the Boston art scene as one that produces great work.