Does an artist have a responsibility to the community?

In response to my recent post about the Christoph Büchel/MASS MoCA brouhaha, Joshua Field commented:

As an artist living in North Adams, MA , the town where MASS MoCA is located (I am in no way affiliated with the museum), I think it is important to note a crucial component missing from the dialog and that is the responsibility of the museum and the artist to the community in which they are working. MASS MoCA was built as an economic driver in a struggling mill town that had lost its core industry. The idea was always to try to revitalize the local economy through culture. Buchel has demonstrated a penchant for pranks that question the art business (in 2002 he sold his invite to Manifesta for $15,000 on ebay) and apparently has no regard for the working class people of this region who rely on the tourism that MASS MoCA generates for subsistance.

I am generally very protective of artists' rights but I think this is an unfortunate example of the artist not being sensitive to the situation. When do the rights of the artist supersede the responsibility that artists have within a community? I would argue that this stunt would have been more appropriately executed at a larger, more endowed institution instead. As an artist, I count on artists to enrich our society and to question authority, but not at the expense of an already economically depressed community. Either Buchel didn't do his homework or, if he did, shame on him for ignoring the impact of his actions in order to bolster his own ego.

An interesting consideration. I very much appreciated hearing from someone who is there and part of the community.

Regardless of the facts in this situation, a museum is a public trust and, as such, has great responsibility to the community. But what responsibilities does an artist have to the community?

Image (c) Joshua Field, The Devil of Salzburg.

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8 thoughts on “Does an artist have a responsibility to the community?”

  1. Alyson, thanks for posting this! It’s nice to hear from someone from the local art community. I too have been following this story for what seems like ages now, and I can’t seem to make heads or tales of it. I couldn’t be more ambivalent if I tried. But for sure, if the situation continues as is, it’s a lose lose situation for all parties involved. Can’t we all just get along?

  2. Sounds like MassMoma bit off too much with Buchel. The current conversation, Alyson, re ARtist responsibility to the community, is important. Bechel is not part of North Addams community, so he may be off the hook in this discussion. Mass Moma definitely is not off the hook. It’s in the courts now. My community on the coast of Maine is full of artists, as well as suffering industries, such as fishing, and is reinforcing the Arts and the creative economy as a whole as a tourism/quality of life attraction. Artists have weight here. Is the artist’s responsibility to the community different than anyone else’s: serve on boards, go to town meeting, contribute to local economy, express your values, and especially if you are famous, lend your notoriety to support local causes. Joshua,the people of Western Mass. have something to say about this mess, and where you go from here as a community. The Artists will want to lead the discussion and the action.

  3. Please forgive the extra-long comment to follow. Lots of thoughts on this one. First, I grew up in a struggling mill town so I feel like I understand the economic issues intimately. I’m a filmmaker and a painter and have had experiences working in both media that apply to this story. First, filmmaking… I recently completed an independent film, SISTER BEE, about six beekeepers who find startling beauty and spiritual truth in their work with honeybees. The film was made with love. And it was made WITHOUT a political agenda of any sort whatsoever. But something peculiar happened in the spring of 2006 – colony collapse disorder (massive honeybee die-offs) – inspiring a wave of interest in honeybees and beekeeping by activists. So earlier this year I started receiving invitations to show the film in conjunction with activist events. Two things happened right away. One, I noticed the activists had goals for showing the film that were different from mine. And two, they often asked me to make uncomfortable compromises – mostly related to how the film would be shown and how I’d get paid. Some made it sound like they thought they’d be doing me a favor by screening the film for free – “It’s for a good cause! It’s for the community!” For the record – the collaborations I’ve participated in so far have turned out fine enough. I always feel grateful for unexpected opportunities. But I’ve had to think lots about each one and have worked hard to stand my ground. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with good collaborators. But I can easily see how a creative collaboration between an artist and a political or cultural entity could go off the rails. And I feel absolutely clear that it’s not the artist’s job to meet the political goals of his or her collaborators (unless, of course, the artist wants it to be). Second, painting… I made a good painting last year that I ended up feeling really proud of. The painting represented a new direction in my work and it was really, really hard to make. I struggled with it for days. It didn’t come together ’til the very last minute. Anyone viewing it before it was done could have rightfully written it off as trash. If a curator had stepped in and taken it away from me before it was done I’d have been mortified. Doubly so if it had been presented to the public in it’s unfinished state. Not because I’m a control freak with a huge ego who can’t let go (I’m not). But because I’d fear my reputation would be damaged by showing work I considered unready and unfit. So I continue to side with the artist on this one even though Joshua brings up some some interesting points. A question… Since when is it the responsibility of a museum to act as a community’s economic driver? I know museums offer wonderful secondary benefits to their communities. But their first goal should always be to present quality artwork that somehow connects with its community. If this is done successfully economic success will follow. Don’t you think? I wonder what kind of pressure the curators of this museum get from their community? Could the community’s high expectations of its museum to deliver economic success have contributed to this problem?

  4. I’m the arts and entertainment editor of the North Adams Transcript and I have been covering Mass MoCA for years, spending a good portion of my time writing very lengthy portraits of the artists who show their work there. One thing I have noticed in common with many of the artists is an interest in the local culture and landscape, a desire to connect with the community, and to use local materials and inspiration in their work. This is something I have always found very special about MoCA – not only the museum’s desire to collaborate with Northern Berkshire County, but the way it bleeds into the art and artists it features. And so to add to what Joshua said, yes, Mass MoCA has a tradition of community responsibility, it has already set a precedent that the Buchel exhibit runs counter to. Essentially, you have an artist whose only interest in the community was to spend a budget four times the amount of most people’s houses here and then bail out and effectively close down a moneymaking draw. Buchel himself and a good deal of the press – the recent NYT column one of the worst offenders – treats the situation as if the museum were in the center of New York City, with a guaranteed foot traffic. This is a totally different situation and, from the vantage point of people here, Buchel comes off as vulgar, frankly. Anyhow, I’ve walked through the tarped area and wasn’t shuffled along. It’s impressive in the sense that there’s a lot of stuff and it’s wacky, but it seems less impressive if you saw the previous installation, “Amusement Park,” which was just a more tame version of the same — big structures from the outside world that are moved with great difficulty into the museum. The entire space, as anyone who is familiar with the museum knows, is dedicated to spectacle. What Buchel doesn’t seem to understand is that he is one in a line of people filling an insane gallery space – and the irony of the name of his piece is that he hasn’t provided any sense of democracy to viewers of the work or community.

  5. Alyson B. Stanfield

    Laura: Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I’m not sure the museum is trying to make a political point in this instance. It seems more as if they are laying out a case. Any museum’s code of ethics should reveal a strong responsibility to the community. Strangely, I don’t recall ethics codes mentioning responsibilities to artists. Perhaps I’d find such a mention in a contemporary museum’s code. Very interesting questions you raised. John: Thanks so much for stopping by the blog! It’s so nice to hear from someone else in the community. So, may I assume that you are on the side of the museum here? That their installation is appropriate?

  6. I mentioned all this on another thread of yours, but I am on the museum’s side in this case because they provided the materials and venue and the venue fueled the idea – almost everything that is shown in that gallery is designed especially for that gallery and is, in a sense, a collaboration between museum and artist. I’ve seen the fruitful result of this arrangement on many occasions, Buchel is the only person who seems to display a hissy fit about it. If MoCA were taking work he had completed under other circumstances and showing it without his consent, certainly he would be in the right. But MoCA is only doing what it has historically set a precedent for doing – they have always allowed viewing of art in progress. It is also a museum that is still working to become self-sustaining – and one that is really central to a whole city’s economic prosperity. MoCA reports that visits were down this summer and that it is directly relatable to the fact that the largest gallery space there is shut down by legal red tape. Buchel is not the only person to lose in this situation. Perhaps Buchel should have done his homework and known the actual practices and economic reality of the museum he was dealing with.

  7. John, You bring up some excellent points but one thing you said doesn’t make sense to me… “Essentially, you have an artist whose only interest in the community was to spend a budget four times the amount of most people’s houses here and then bail out and effectively close down a moneymaking draw. ” Come on. Do you actually believe this? I don’t. Not for a minute. It sounds like this is a case where the goals of the museum and the goals of the artist simply didn’t mesh. Why the need to demonize the artist for standing his ground?

  8. Not trying to demonize, that’s just the way Buchel comes off as a provacateur in his past work . . . pushing boundaries, testing limits. It has been suggested in various places that the legal action is part of the work itself. Is this true? Probably not, but it’s tempting to think so! Actually, that sentence was written poorly – I didn’t mean for it to sound as though the legal dispute was part of his plan, but the way I put them together does make it sound that way.

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