I recently had an idea for a way to attempt to level the playing field a bit between conventional, commercial, studio/gallery art and more socially engaged project based work. The commercial system dominates in so many ways that it makes alternative approaches hard to sometimes seem possible much less sustainable. Most art and artists are known because of their promotion by commercial galleries who have relationships with magazines, collectors, museums, etc. etc. The art world has increasingly run in tandem with art fairs and all of the conventions that they set. There have been many interesting new developments from museums, grants, residencies, and even some art fairs to attempt to be more inclusive to socially engaged work, but mostly those initiatives still reside at the margins and don’t provide enough opportunities and funding for artists to exclusively focus on socially engaged work and survive (I’m specifically talking about dynamics in the US, it could be different in more socialized countries where there is greater public support for artists).

What if there was an equivalent to commercial galleries for socially engaged, project based artists? The basic problem is of course that for the most part socially engaged artists don’t make products to be sold, and if they do make a product it could be totally ephemeral or site-based and permanent or something else that would make it inappropriate for gallery sales and distribution. Often times I look to other disciplines to see how they operate and what might be of use in my own practice. Many creative professionals like writers, actors, musicians, documentary phototgraphers etc, have agents who handle their business interactions. Could something like that also work for socially engaged, project based artists? Currently, it might be difficult because as I said before most institutional opportunities for non-commercial artwork are still minimal and on the periphery. But that could change and more opportunities could be normalized and funded if there was greater awareness about the possible roles that project based artwork and practices could have in society.

What I’m picturing is a commercial gallery without the gallery, but still with all of the other support a gallery provides. It could be a physical office where a set of administrators would work and where artists and interested people could meet, and a website with information about a set (maybe ten) of represented artists. The administrators would do the work to organize and help facilitate projects for the artists. These projects could include work with museums and art centers, but might also involve public art, grants, and commissions for non-art institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals, non-profits, government facilities, even businesses.

Part of the role of the agency administrators would be not only to connect with existing art opportunities, but would also be to create new ones. My personal experience is that often times when non-art organizations are offered the chance to work with artists they are not only often happy to do that, but they also occasionally offer funding that otherwise might have gone to something else. For example the MFA program that I run has recently developed a formalized partnership with a local K-8 public school. The school has not only agreed to give us dedicated free classroom and office space for two years (renewable) but also provides very good funding for an alumni of the program to act as a manager to help facilitate projects between the school and the MFA students.

It would be nice if there were eventually many of these socially engaged agencies co-existing with the gallery-based system while offering something totally different. The work that would be commissioned would be site-specific, participatory, and using a variety of medias and forms. Ideally, since I’m just dreaming here anyway, each agency would have its own specific character and could operate at many different levels from start up with very emerging artists to established with well recognized artists, and mixes of every kind too. An economic model could be that all of the represented artists in a given agency would put a percentage of the funds generated by the projects towards administration costs including salaries for the administrators (maybe just a director and an assistant) and also a collective pool of maybe ten percent that would be redistributed to all of the represented artists, so that even if some of the artists didn’t do as well in a given time period they would still receive some financial support.

I’ve mentioned this agency idea to a few different people over the last six months. Generally, the more involved those people are with the regular art world the more skeptical they are about idea, but people who are less involved, even well known artists, have been very enthusiastic. So if anyone wants to give it a try let me know.