Common Field -- Where Arts Organizers Convene, Exchange, Vision
Arts organizers face a unique set of problems, probably similar to that of a circus ringleader. You need diplomacy, imagination, creativity, flexibility. You also have to be incredibly practical - managing budgets, funders, logistics. You’re often working with volunteers and supporters who need to receive non-economic benefits and feel engaged and excited. Communication is key.
First, what is “the field” we’re talking about? Artist-run spaces, experimental venues, artists creating platforms and opportunities for other artists, and organizations that put supporting artists’ work at the heart and center of their mission. We operate across a wide range of organizing principles - from being a 501(c)3 organization to a co-operative or collective, from long-running institutions to short-term projects - but we all struggle with a similar set of questions. Why is supporting experimental visual art practice important? Who are our audiences and partners? What are our tactics and strategies? What does sustainability look like? How can articulate more broadly the values and impacts emerging from this work?
There are lots of histories to draw from, though few clear guideposts for finding them. So, we’ve set out to tell the history of this field and figure out how to move it forwards. The goal is to work symbiotically with art world movements, to make more room for them, to consider new forms of access, to link newcomers with old-timers. We see too much and too little re-inventing the wheel all at once. We don’t know the tools and instruments other people are using. At the same time projects tend to be so site-specific, so grounded in communities and configurations, that many issues are reflections of particular social and political dynamics. It’s not clear for how it all fits together. And since there is never enough time, its hard to make time for the big questions amongst all the little ones.
What is Common Field?
Over the course of the last year, a group of arts leaders--Abby Satinsky and Shannon Stratton of Threewalls, Courtney Fink of Southern Exposure, Nat May of SPACE Gallery, Elizabeth Chodos of Oxbow, and Stephanie Sherman of Elsewhere--have been collaborating with leaders of alternative art spaces and projects across the country to develop a national network of arts organizers called Common Field. The idea of Common Field is to found a coalition raising the visibility and viability of non-profit spaces and projects with an artist-centered ethos who are bringing vibrant projects to publics. Common Field will be a platform for exchanges, mentorship, information, learning, resources, and advocacy between these organizations.
Why did we develop it?
Common Field emerges from a range of experiences with these organizers, including previous associations with the National Association of Artist Organizations (NAAO), an advocacy group for this field that ended in the mid-1990s and at the Warhol Initiative, which was a capacity building program of the Warhol Foundation. The Foundation would host these amazing convenings with workshops, dinners, presentations that provided formal and informal outlets for arts leaders, and everyone would go home bursting with new energy and ideas. We wanted to take that private gathering and turn it into a public conversation. Threewalls then produced the Hand in Glove conference, which continued these conversations, which has become an ongoing itinerant conference with iterations in New Orleans in 2011, hosted by Press Street, and an upcoming one in September 2015 in Minneapolis, hosted by The Soap Factory and Works Progress.
Most importantly, these initiatives are places to talk about issues in the radical arts organizing on the grassroots level, a world that is largely unknown to people outside its trenches. Most of these projects, while deeply embedded in their communities, experience isolation in terms of strategies and building capacity.
On a personal level, we both share common interest in creating platforms that amplify the voices of these groups, and in building simple systems for arts organizing that reflect the ideas and practices of artists themselves. These platforms enable emergence, coincidence, tinkering, pretending, and intimacy. We combine a do-it-together attitude inspired by collectives and collaboratives, tactics of grassroots movement and coalition building, with a practical business sense that recognizes the need for leadership, clarity, and vision in communicating with the non-artists world. Coming into the field, we both had the sense of slowly figuring it out on our own--what other people were doing and how they make it work--and it would have been incredibly helpful and meaningful to have a resource that made processes and protocols more transparent and open. The hope is that the field becomes stronger in the future, that artists can be directly supported through these efforts, and that other collaborators, funders, and the general public can see the power of this cultural production more clearly.
We’re planning on fully launching our membership in January, but in the meantime we’re collecting feedback from people on what they’d like to see happen and how they might be a part. Save the date for our annual conference Hand in Glove, happening September 18-20, 2015 in Minneapolis, hosted by the Soap Factory and Works Progress. Check out our site at commonfield.org, we’d love to hear from you.