An Ecology of the Art World

“ARTISTS ARE AT THE TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN,” the late Ella King Torrey liked to say. This by way of reminding her colleagues at the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, which she directed from its start in 1991 to 1994, who it was they were working for. Not for the givers (a branch of one of the most powerful foundations in America), but for the gifted (those individuals the fellowship program was designed to support). Over the past 12 years, the fellowship program has awarded a total of $8 million to 162 visual, performing, and literary artists. At $50,000, the sheer amount of the grant—among the largest an artist can receive—confers priority, of which none of us in the cultural “food chain” should lose sight. Who needs curators without painters? Editors without writers? Publishers without poets? Producers without playwrights? Programmers without musicians? Festival directors without filmmakers? Patrons without culture to fund? Torrey saw the fellowship program as a link between artists and a resource that would help facilitate their work—but that wasn’t absolutely necessary to its creation. At the same time, she recognized that feeding artists fueled the larger agenda of the Trusts’ culture program. Only artists in the Philadelphia region can apply for a fellowship, which is given, like a salary, or stipend, over a one to two-year period. And yet, food chains are linear in a way that culture is not. It takes more than just having artists comfortably eating in a community’s midst to make culture. It takes many kinds, and levels, of participation and support, all acting interdependently. It takes more than a chain, it takes a dynamic ecology. Now that the Pew Fellowships in the Arts has been part of Philadelphia’s culture for over decade, it seems like a good time to look at its potential impact on the local ecology. But first, a little Dirty Water.

While other children played Operation! Twister!, and Mystery Date, my sister and I played Dirty Water. This 1970s board game was a sort of Monopoly of its day, the goal being, not to amass real estate, but to build a healthy pond. Starting with single-celled amoeba (Baltic and Mediterranean Avenues), the first person to stock a bass (Park Place) won. The thing was, you couldn’t “afford” a bass until you had enough rotifers and duckweed in your pond to support it. Meanwhile, you were in constant jeopardy of landing in “Dirty Water,” in which case a chemical dump or a population explosion among the minnows could wipe out your entire ecology. The game was a lesson in environmental thinking— about large and inconspicuous populations energizing one another, and the need for balance, proportion, and diversity throughout any system. A similar thinking is called into play by this question of a cultural ecology.

Who and what constitutes an art world? And here let me preface this by saying that the model I am about to build is based on my own experience in the field (or pond) of visual arts; but hopefully it suggests enough of a template to begin to describe other areas of contemporary culturę. Let’s begin with the artist (bass) population. As with any species, the young, or emerging artist seems to be at an advantage in a world that is always looking for fresh new work to promote. The most difficult stage comes mid-career after some initial critical impact or commercial breakthrough has occurred, when an artist is left basically alone to sustain and develop their work into something that is both personally and culturally significant. Sometimes just surviving this long middle period is enough to achieve the status of an established artist, whose work commands authority and support. A healthy art world finds artists at every level of experience working in all mediums (from watercolors to video), and scales (from outdoor monuments to printed matter), advancing academic traditions and radical new approaches, as well as working idiosyncratically outside any mainstream.

The work produced needs an equally diverse range of venues to present it. In the arts, profit and not-for-profit spaces are often perceived as two different, sometimes adversarial worlds. But galleries are one of the most essential middle-grounds (with dealers being the middlemen and women) between in their studios and the rest of the art world. They can’t be the only place to see art, look at slides, and gather information, just as money can’t be the only form of validation. But in a healthy system, the more galleries thrive in their business of representing and selling artists’ work, the more the system rends to thrive as a whole. Not that it isn’t a challenge for an artist to get commercial representation. This is why the system needs to comprise a range of alternative, commercial and institutional spaces in which to see and show work. There must be bastions of culture, private salons, public sites, and spots where anything can happen, indoors and out—all with the requisite persons of vision and drive to run them.

But what’s the point of making and exhibiting art if there are no means of interpreting and discussing it? There is no greater disappointment for an artist than to see an exhibition end without receiving at least one review. Ideally for the artist, a positive one, but even better for the art world are a number of reviews expressing differing opinions. In order for it to build consensus, spark debate, or just be kept in mind, art must be contextualized and re-contextualized. (To stop looking at and discussing a thing is to forget about it or worse, to take it for granted, which is also a form of ignoring it.) Creating frameworks in which to consider art is the role of curators and critics, writers and editors, scholars and educators, all of whom have a place in the pond. Room need also be made for the collectors, conservators, archivists, publishers, preparators, photographers, and handlers, whose special charge it is to care for culture’s objects and artifacts.

To support this vast system of artists, spaces, professionals, exhibitions, publications, and storage, it takes a lot of money circulating through it. Money must come from government and foundation sources, from corporate and individual contributions, and from the sale and commissioning of art itself. It’s rare for artists to earn a living strictly from the sale of their work, and even when they do, many artists teach. Thus art schools serve as a vital source of income for artists. They are also where artists transmit their experience to other artists in the form of education. Indeed, at every level of learning, art enriches the larger ecology of the entire community. Children who grow up with culture as part of their curriculum are more creative thinkers all round. They are also more likely to participate in the art world when they grow up, if not as practitioners, professionals, or patrons, then as audience members.

How can an art world thrive without an audience? As artist Marcel Duchamp put it, “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”1 It’s that basic. It’s also that complicated, because neither is ever a given. Lari Pittman is a Los Angeles-based artist, who enjoys critical and commercial success for his painting, teaches at UCLA, and collects the work of his peers. Speaking at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a few years ago, he said that art should be deemed neither the province, nor the responsibility of privilege or government. You may not be able to afford a painting by Jackson Pollock, or for that matter, Lari Pittman. But artists everywhere are showing their first work at affordable prices, publishing inexpensive multiples, or selling drawings from their studio. Support them! If you have an idea for a show, find a space and do it. Write about art, talk about it, look at it. Join a local museum. Subscribe to at least one magazine. Pittman was advocating artists’’ participation as a form of self-interest: How can you expect anyone to be interested in what you’re doing in your studio, if you don’t take an interest in what’s happening outside of it? By no means think to that it’s up to artists alone to support culture, though they can be its most enriching advocates. As critic Lucy Lippard so beautifully pointed out of the Minimalist artist Sol Lewitt:

No single American artist has been so supportive of other (unknown, young, neglected, women, minority) artists. First his ideas and his openness to other’s ideas {helped formulate a new approach to artmaking}. As he became known, his emotional/intellectual support for other artists became still more valuable, and as his economic situation improved, he often extended that support to the financial domain, buying small works across a broad stylistic span. The generosity that characterizes his friendship, honest criticism and feedback, also informs his art. There is a hopeful, optimistic element in the permutational form he has chosen, which is one reason his work wears so well. It stays fresh because it remains in touch with the world?

Pittman’s words, coupled with the example of Lewitt, could serve as oxygen for the whole system. An art world’s ecology thrives best when all of its coexisting populations are active, engaged, and sustain one another in the making and experiencing of culture—when all of its micro-systems are permutational,

Model ecologies are perfectly proportioned and uniform; real ones adapt to regional conditions to yield local variations. So what are the features of Philadelphia’s are world ecology? For starters: its location less than two hours (by car) from New York City. To be in such proximity to one of the cosmopolitan capitols of an increasing global culture, just to be able to see first hand what’s going on in the bigger ecology—is an incredible amenity. But it also is the source of some ambivalence. In terms of national perception, Philadelphia artists are never accorded the same regional autonomy as artists in, say, Chicago or San Francisco, which are similar in scale, but not overshadowed by New York. The critic Barbara Rose refers to Manhattan as the souk, the great bazaar of the art world, where everyone goes to buy. It’s where Philadelphia collectors spend most of their money, as reflected by the city’s relatively small commercial gallery system.2

On the other hand, Philadelphia is teeming with diverse museum collections and exhibition spaces, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (a great encyclopedic collection and pilgrimage destination for anyone interested in Marcel Duchamp), to the Mutter Museum of Medical History (where artists routinely intervene with their collections); from the Fabric Museum and Workshop (commissioning local and international artists to create new work in new materials since 1977) to the Goldie Paley Galleries at Moore College (where the Moore International exhibition introduces to American audiences the work of established artists from around the world). The first city to implement “one-percent for art” initiatives in 1959, and home of the Fairmont Park Art Association, Philadelphia is renowned for its pioneering public art programs, as well as its penitentiary. The first panopticon prison in America, Eastern State is now a national park property that presents site-specific installations by artists. And this is just a smattering of the many venues for visual art in the city, which, curatorially-speaking, can boast another extraordinary asset. Also funded by the Pew Charitable Trust (and one of the Trusts six regional artistic initiatives that includes the fellowships 3 ), the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative (PEI) has, in just five years, raised the standard and ambition of curatorial work in the city by funding exhibitions and contributing to local curators’ professional development. For artists, this initiative means a growing awareness of the larger contexts, including historical and international ones, in which their work operates. PEI generates a lively discourse amidst the curatorial community that seems to have yet to carry over into the critical arena. Philadelphia, like most cities, spills very little ink on culture. And though the writers we do have are strong and established voices, they are too few. It was heartening to learn that the city’s new alternative newspaper, the Philadelphia Independent, will be starting a reviews column. But there is an urgent need for more reporting and reviews from within the community, in part to stimulate more consistent national coverage.

Another important feature of Philadelphia’s ecology is its schools. There are five major art schools here, including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA, the nation’s first), Tyler School of Art, and University of the Arts, among others, as well as many art departments within area universities. After graduation, students typically made beelines to New York. However, in recent years, there has been a shift in that trend. Students are staying on, and young artists are coming here from other cities to settle. The artists who form the collective Space 1026, named for the address of their studios and gallery at 1026 Arch Street are, by and large, graduates of Rhode Island School of Design. Large spaces and cheap rents, and proximity to New York, are all incentives. But so is the Pew Fellowship. At least 77 of the Fellows are local alumni, who can literally testify: it pays to stay in Philadelphia.

In search of other signs of impact on the local ecology, I spoke to Fellows and panelists. In response to my basic question, “What did the Pew mean to you?” I heard a surprisingly nuanced series of accounts. Apparently getting $50,000 isn’t a simple bonanza. In every case, artists’ experiences were quite personal, depending mainly on what point they were at in their work and career when they became a fellow. The painter Sarah McEneaney (1993) had been showing steadily in Philadelphia for over 24 years, since graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. When she got what she recalls to have been a very thin envelope notifying her of her fellowship, she said, “I was flabbergasted. But knew I deserved it!” It was the first major grant she had ever received and, as many concurred, it seems to have opened the door to receiving other grants and residencies. (Since McEneaney’s subject is autobiography, her residencies have gone on to constitute important imagery in her work.) There is a truth to the phenomena that grants-gotten seem to make artists appear more worthy for grant-getting.

More profoundly, the Pew grants artists validation in their own eyes. Land artist Stacy Levy (1992) says that is was only after she became a Fellow that she stopped apologetically referring to herself as an “urban forester” and assumed the identity of artist. “I don’t know if I would have gotten there without the Pew,” she said. For two years, it covered the rent, the phone bill, and a small salary for Levy to think of her projects professionally. Up to that point, she had considered them, as many artists do, moonlighting—the work one does in the evenings, after coming home from a respectable (i.e., paying) day-job. “At the end of two years, I was sad to see the Pew go, but it had given me the time to build my work into an everyday practice—a practice which I had also had the time to develop into the creed that still guides me to make natural processes more apparent.”

Artists for whom it was not their first major grant also spoke of having been validated by the Pew. Earlier in his career, the   Emmer Gowin (1994) had received major grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. “But at that time, I was always so concerned to get something done.” With a young family and a teaching job, he made his art during the summers, traveling locally for places to photograph. “I did take a semester off with the Guggenheim. But a lot of tension comes with these circumstances. And that’s what was so vivid about the Pew.” After 22 years of teaching, he could take a year off for undivided work. Gowin used the year to bring to completion “Changing the Earth,” a body of work that started in 1986 and which culminated in 1997, where he became the first individual to make aerial photographs of the Nevada Test Site. He attributes the Pew, among other affiliations, with gaining him access to the Department of Energy: “Suddenly, you’re seen not just as a person,” he said somewhat laughingly, “you’re a ‘deserving entity,’ dignified by this lovely foundation, in a way that’s common in the sciences, but almost unheard of in the arts.” He also used the time to travel with no particular purpose to Australia and Indonesia. “To create something truly new, you can’t know what you’re doing. It has to be a process of discovery.” Nine years later, Gowin says the spirit of the Pew, which freed him from so much responsibility and opened up future work, remains with him today.

When asked if the Pew is different from other grants, the answer was affirmative and unanimous. It’s one of the only grants in existence that comes completely unrestricted. Especially since the NEA disassembled, it’s almost impossible for an artist to receive a grant without strings attached. Residencies can provide a welcome break, if you are in the position to cake them, but they rarely come with living stipends. As Levy notes, “It’s like there’s this infantilized view of artists as not having real world responsibilities, like a family, or a monthly mortgage to pay. That’s something I continually appreciate about the Pew—it allowed me to be an artist without becoming indentured to some outside initiative or single project.” This is something many artists commenced on, the degree to which the Pew was about facilitating their work, whether it meant spending the money on childcare or covering a medical emergency. Photographer Eileen Neff remembers thinking that if she ever got the Pew, she wouldn’t be one of those artists who spend it on just taking care of life’s everyday business. She would invest it in new equipment, and travel, or some other way of taking her work to a whole new place. “Then two major things happened. I was in a car accident and I got the Pew.” During a long period of recuperation, she said, “The grant gavę mę unexpected and extended time for my own thoughts. So that when I returned to the studio, I was prepared.” Neff arrived back at work already knowing that she couldn’t physically continue with the installations she had been constructing prior to the accident, but she was already thinking on a more discrete scale. So, in the end her work did change, but not in ways that she ever anticipated.

In this most extreme account of “what did the Pew mean to you,” Neff said that it wasn’t just the money that sustained her, it was the honor of the fellowship itself. “Ella’s letter telling me that I had gotten the Pew included a very personal note—I’m sure everyone got one like it—but there was a sense that my fellowship really meant something to her and the community.” The poet Susan Stewart (1995) is another Fellow co comment on the humanity of the fellowship and its director, in her case Melissa Franklin, who currently heads the program, Stewart recalls it being such a surprise to get the grant, “Poets aren’t like visual artists, we don’t need many materials. But we do need time and my children were still small.” She says that Franklin encouraged her to use the grant to buy herself time to think, “The Pew is astute about the particular circumstances of Fellows’ lives. It’s very humane.” Stewart had received a Guggenheim in 1986 and was at the Getty as a fellow when she learned that she got the Pew. It, combined with a writing award from the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund for a literary project, enabled her to take a year’s leave of absence from her teaching job at Temple University. During that time, she completed her book The Forest, started work on what would become a book of criticism, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, and drafted some of the earliest poems for her most recent book, Columbarium. “You always wonder what you will do next. The Pew was unlike other grants, less of an honorific, and more of a working grant. It let me complete one thing and move on to the next,” Stewart also commented that the grant complements the nature of being an artist in Philadelphia. “One of the virtues of being in a smaller, somewhat provincial, city is that you aren’t bound to the accelerated demands of the more commercial publishing that seems to dominate larger places, and so you can take the time to do more complex work.” According to this model, the large amount of money a Fellow receives is a reflection of the depth of culture one might contribute.

By being unrestricted, the Pew enables process on every level. The filmmaker Louis Massiah (1994) was in the midst of making his documentary on W.E.B. Du Bois, when he became a Fellow. “It helped me stay above water when I would have been financially drowning in Du Bois. And it enabled me to shoot some smaller projects, some of which are still being edited.” One of these projects turned out to be the seed of one of Massiah’s current projects. The Tenants of Lenapehocking began with his desire to make a film that was completely personal in its conception. But what scared as a documentary about the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Massiah grew up, which he has called Lenapehocking—”The Lenape were part of the Algonquin Confederacy that settled Philadelphia, and ‘hocking’ is a Lenape word meaning ‘place of’ ‘”—eventually morphed into Precious Places, an oral history project about twenty of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, produced in collaboration with Scribe Video Center. Each neighborhood is teamed with a humanities scholar and an independent filmmaker, creating twenty short films, due to be completed in July 2004.

The composer Jennifer Higdon (1999) regards the Pew as “the doorway” to realizing her creative ambition. “It changed everything,” she said. Higdon was able to cut back on a fulltime teaching load at The Curtis Music Institute and buy a house, where she could set up her own publishing business. In the music world, the ability to print and bind your own scores is an invaluable asset. Not only did it give Higdon more financial control over her production, it freed up her time to think about creative work. “It altered my very relationship to work. I scared to write for instruments I had never written for, and to write much more in general.” She says the Pew also gave her time for that most essential ingredient in any artist’s production: the time to think. “The creative process takes a lot of time to ferment. To create bigger works, I learned, you need even bigger pieces of time for nothing but the time to be inspired.” During her fellowship, Higdon wrote her large orchestral work. When we spoke on the phone to conduct this interview, she was preparing for a day in a recording studio in Atlanta, one of the two cities to open their season with Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Higdon knew how to use her time well, having grown up in a family of freelance artists. Thar discipline was part of her upbringing. For other artists, the Pew’s gift of time came with an unexpected challenge. The photographer Richard Torchia (1994) said, “We’re led to think that money is the great panacea of all an artist’s woes. As if all that stood between me and making my work was, say, $50,000. Then I got the Pew Fellowship, and realized what a pipedream!” Torchia quit his job, hit the studio, and had a crisis. “I realized that I had never cultivated the identity and routine of an artist. I had never gone to art school and suddenly I had all this unstructured time, with no previous experience of how difficult it is to generate energy day after day to make art. I found myself doing lots of errands! As the Pew checks kept coming and I saw that the transformation wasn’t happening as effectively as I’d hoped, I realized that it takes more than time and money to move to the next rung of being an artist.” This insight alone seems to have liberated him from the pressure to produce something definitive. Torchia spent the last months of his fellowship simply building up a body of work, which subsequently advanced his on-going project around the camera obscura. “The premise of the Pew,” he reflected, “is that artists lead the art world, but sometimes they get stuck and there are periods of not knowing where you’re going.” By making the grant un-conditional, the Pew allows artists to continue developing through their fallow periods—to experiment in the studio, to be productive or not—for whatever density of time it takes to build the connections to envision their next work of art.

So what about failure? With its dedication to process, the Pew admits the potential that any work can end in failure. But what about an artist failing to realize his or her potential? Does the Pew give some artists a chance to recognize that they perhaps are not as talented, or as dedicated as they thought? Of course, I am stating this as a general observation: but going to the mat with your work can be a burden as well as a gift. A healthy artworld ecology allows both artists and artworks not to succeed. It must nurture failure. This is a paradox, which, for the Pew, Emmet Gowin sees with particular optimism: “Never think that a person does not deserve, because the fellowship can make them deserving. If you blow a Guggenheim, which comes with so much pressure and national prestige, you might never do anything again. The localness of the Pew means a chance to see what you’re made of. The Pew operates in a very special way.”

All of the Fellows I spoke to hold the Pew in special regard for the sense of community it inspires. “The most remarkable thing it does is make a community of local artists and writers. It’s not really institutional,” said Susan Stewart. It’s a concerted public and social effort. There is an annual ceremony to welcome the year’s new fellows and the publication of a catalog, like this one, to represent their work, which is contextualized in a commissioned essay by an outside writer. Outside the official hoopla, there are occasional dinners to bring together any of the years’ Fellows who wish to attend. This year saw the first newsletter, slated to come out biannually to cover local culture, profile individuals, and post news of Fellows’ publications, performances, and exhibitions. The recent issue featured an essay on the organization “One Book, One Philadelphia” and their selection of a novel by Lorene Cary (1995), entitled The Price of a Child for citywide reading; an interview with painter Stuart Netsky (1995); and a memorial for ceramicist Rudolf Staffel (1996) who recently died at the age of ninety-one. The writers were voices from throughout the community, from critic Gerard Brown, to PEI director Paula Marincola, to dealer Helen Drutt-English. Their participation, along the tracking of Fellows into the artworld at large, extends an interest in the Pew’s impact beyond its immediate pool into the local ecology and beyond.

Fellows expressed gratitude to the Pew for expanding their awareness of Philadelphia culture. At one of the informal dinners Susan Stewart met the artist Neysa Grassi (1995) resulting in a poet/painter collaboration. “It was through getting to know a larger community of artists that I got more deeply involved in writing about art,” said Stewart. Jennifer Higdon said she now attends more art exhibitions in Philadelphia. Speaking of the Louis Kahn syndrome—one of the world’s eminent architects, Kahn’s work went under-recognized in his hometown—Louis Massiah observed, “Philadelphia is a funny place. Lots of artists here do better nationally than locally. It really means a lot to be recognized by your local community. Not that I, as an artist, consider the Pew my neighbor: it’s part of the power elite. But it also is one of the most important gatekeepers in the city. It opens doors locally and nationally. As one of the visionaries at the Fellowship program, Ella King Torrey got that about community art scenes: when art happening outside of patronized, market-driven places is sanctioned by the elite, it strengthens the entire community.”

Getting an outsider’s perspective can be another community strengthener. This is where the panelists, who are convened from all over the country to represent their fields, come into the picture. Every year three different disciplines—including choreography, crafts, fiction and creative nonfiction, folk and traditional arts, media arts, music composition, painting, performance art, poetry, scriptworks, sculpture and installation, and works on paper—are up for consideration. Applications are reviewed in a two-step selection process. First, three single-discipline panels meer for 2-3 days, to winnow their pool to a short-list. These go before an interdisciplinary panel of 5-6 people and one chair that takes another 3 days to select 12 new fellows. When asked if the Pew differed from other panels, the answer was, perhaps not surprisingly at this point, a resounding yes. The composer and co-artistic director of Bang on a Can, Julia Wolfe confided, “I don’t always love panels, but this was fun. It’s very rewarding to give this kind of money, with no strings attached, to an individual artist. The Pew hasn’t backed away from that kind of commitment.” Wolfe also commenced on the caliber of her co-panelists, including colleagues she rarely got to see, let alone exchange ideas with. The composer, trombonist, and MacArthur fellow George Lewis said he found the interdisciplinary panel most informative, “A good panel is about good process, which in my field is about listening. It was very enlightening to learn what constituted the issues in other disciplines by listening to my peers.” Levis attributed the quality of the conversation to the Pew’s selection of panelists who were already open to an expanded notion of the arts. “The chemistry was excellent,” he said. Wolfe also appreciated the panel’s direction, “We had a lot of music to listen to, but it was paced such that we never got too fuzzy.” And it wasn’t just about knowing when to break for lunch, or open a window; panelists said the acumen of the staff about the various disciplines and how they are experienced was appreciable.

Don’t think that being a panelist, even for the Pew, is all fun and games. It’s also a grueling process that involves being yanked away from one’s own work (and life) for a period of days to go to a strange city and hang out with people you don’t know. The artist Kiki Smith told director Melissa Franklin that she basically hated having to leave her studio to spend time anywhere being locked up in a dark room looking at slides all day, but that she considered this part of her job as an artist: a way of giving back to the system that has been so supportive of her own work. In other words, performing the responsibilities of being a panelist is part of the ecology of the artworld. Bringing in outsiders who are renowned in their fields, lends prestige to the whole community. Especially if panelists take away a rewarding experience from the review process and a good impression of the work itself. And what about the work? Wolfe said that, as a festival director, she listens to a lot of music from all over the country. “None of the artists whose work we reviewed were particularly established, but as a panelist I was behind all of those who received the fellowship one hundred percent. They deserved their awards.”

George Lewis, who has received and judged the CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, which grants $50,000 to individual artists, said that he took the responsibility of selecting the Pew Fellowships quite personally. “The award is announced with your name on it. You gave your imprimatur, which makes you, in some ways, an ambassador.” Whether or not a panelist will go on to promote an artist they supported through the review process depends on the individuals involved. Having served on many panels myself (though not on the Pew), I can’t say that I am looking to discover new work, but to gain a better awareness of what’s going on in a region. Generally speaking, it takes an artist more than winning a grant for their reputation to move outside the local ecology. Nonetheless, a grant might be just the validation an artist needs to take their work to another place.

In ecology, you learn that too much sunshine can be a bad thing—the duckweed goes into hyper-photosynthesis and chokes the pond. Or, that all that heat can produce a drought. In the ecology of the artworld of Philadelphia, is the Pew too rich a food for too small a system? There’s an unspoken anxiety about who gets the Pew. Artists have to prove their residency in the Philadelphia region for at least two years before they can apply. (The region is designated as the five-county Philadelphia area including Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties). There are no laws to prohibit you from instantly absconding upon completing your Fellowship; you won’t be arrested crossing the border. But when an artist does take the money and run, there is a sense of local violation. After all, this grant is intended to enrich culture in Philadelphia, not Los Angeles—if that’s where a Fellow chooses to go. And yet, a closed system risks becoming a stagnating system. As Richard Torchia observed, “Every art world has its constellation of stars. The thing is, they shouldn’t become too fixed.” More than one Fellow expressed concern that the Pew Fellowship pool was pretty close to full with all of the available talent. Several suggested that it could support artists at various points in their careers, and encourage their continuing achievement, in the same way that the Guggenheim Foundation does, by allowing Fellows to receive the grant more than once. Another trepidatiously floated the idea of opening up the fellowship to New Jersey. The prospect of the grant going national was roundly dismissed for transforming something unique in its specificity into yet another big prize for big names. Far better that the Pew serve as a template for other regions to enrich their local ecologies. I personally advocate allowing those who may not live here, but who teach in the Philadelphia region to apply. They are already contributing to the ecology; why not acknowledge their membership in the community? For the artist and teacher Joseph Beuys, art was a communicative property, a form of energy that failed if it did not flow. If the Pew creates incentive for artists to circulate through Philadelphia, it also fuels the art world as a whole. An artist who participates in, and is supported by the local culture goes out into the world as a connection back to that community.

In his captivating book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, the poet Lewis Hyde presents a model of creative culture based not on ecology, but on economy. Nor is it a cash economy of buying and selling, granting and getting. The book harks back to fairytales (in which a simple act of giving can be all that stands between lifelong happiness and a fate worse than death) and potlatch rituals (in which the sanctity of whole societies depend on how much stuff they can afford to give away, or burn). It shows economies in which the receipt and giving of gifts, along with the gratitude gifts inspire, are deemed valuable in their own right. In this economy, a gift can be a thing (the last piece of bread given to a beggar, a pile of a thousand blankets tossed into the sea), or a talent (a genius, the gift of imagination). But it is the artistic gift that holds special place, because it is by definition not a commodity. It circulates outside the marketplace, and thus to receive it means stepping outside the system of exchange (and profit) that otherwise increasingly dominates every other aspect of our lives:

That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price… We feel fortunate, even redeemed. The daily commerce of our lives—”sugar for sugar and salt for sale” as the blues singers say—proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul. When we are moved by a work of art we are grateful that the artist lived, graceful that he labored in the service of his gifts.”4

Hyde’s economy implies that the true impact of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts is that it too, circulates as a gift. A gift to the artists who receive it and whose own gifts are ostensibly made stronger, more accessible by the opportunity to work (hard) at the labor of cultivating and developing talent. A gift to the culture that is enriched by the artist’s gifts. And finally, a gift to the Fellowship itself, which is made all the more affluent by its ability to give generously, and with no strings attached, to the entire ecology of the artworld.

 

Endnotes:

  1. From "The Creative Act," a talk by Duchamp in Houston at the meeting of the American Federation of Arts, April 1957, quoted from The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, eds.), New York: De Capo Press, 1989, p. 140.
  2. Lucy Lippard, “Intersections," Flykspunkter/Vanishing Points. Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1984, p. 28.
  3. The other cultural initiatives art Dance Advance, the Heritage Philadelphia Program, the Philadelphia Music Project, and the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative.
  4. Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, New York: Vintage Books, 1979, p. xii.