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The Social Life of Artistic Property


In December of 2011, Caroline Woolard reached out to a number of New York artists to "discuss potential research projects that examine value and power in the art world." The meeting took place a few weeks after the evacuation of Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park. At that moment there was a keen awareness of organizational limitations in helping enact institutional change, as well as a desire to understand how the structure of the art world could be modified to better support an artist-driven culture of social engagement in a city.

These discussions, as they progressed, slowly gravitated toward the subject of space and property. The first and crucial step toward the creation of a sustainable and independent creative community is the availability of an unencumbered physical space. The Occupy experience was a case in point of the critical importance of having space—public, moral, sheltering, creative or otherwise—in which to enact the rights to freedom of expression.

New York City, as it is well known, could not have become a key center of influence in the arts without the conditions that allowed thousands of artists to move, live and work there. The way in which artists populated lofts and warehouses in different parts of the city over the second half of the twentieth century is an ever repeated narrative of art history about how buildings and collectives enabled performances and hangouts and experimental exhibitions that became greatly influential. Without romanticizing this history, it is easy to see how the past relationship between New York artists and their city contrasts sharply with the grim reality of today, where real estate interests often squeeze creative communities out of the urban grid.

Bearing this in mind, this group agreed to reflect collectively on a variety of instances where creative communities have managed to construct self-sustaining environments of their own, along with the successes and failures these experiments generated. The original focus of the project was on physical property—stories of how artists lived alone and together, exploring the possibilities of community. We started to look at the property lives of artists more generally—from the idealizations of community and of collaboration amongst creative individuals, and rethinking of the basics of supporting an artistic practice, from the physical space to the economic parameters that sustain it.

Over the course of two and a half years, the core group included: Caroline Woolard, Pablo Helguera, Michael Mandiberg, Loren Munk, William (Bill) Powhida, Lise Solskone, Peter Walsh and Amy Whitaker. Some members of the group published and exhibited work from this conversation elsewhere. This volume includes contributions from Pablo, Caroline, Michael, Amy and Bill. Pablo chronicles the deep yet short-lived experiment of The Sullivan Institute,a community of individuals that included visual artists, academics and writers that was founded in the 1950s and which evolved into a secular cult. Caroline lived in and wrote about Ganas, on Staten Island, the oldest income-sharing community in New York City. Michael initiated a deep conversation with core members of a successful decades-old jointly owned building on the Lower East Side, and the collective projects that grew out of this shared space. Amy riffed on the idea of artists' resale rights to reimagine patronage for artists and to create a different kind of art investment.

Property for artists can mean physical property—home and studio and gathering space—and artistic property—ideas and collaborations and the work itself. Over the course of two and a half years, some parts of our conversation swung wider into more general ideas of property, often in relation to the real constraints and complexities of gentrification, corrosively profit-motivated real estate markets, artists' contracts and the changing nature of the art market itself. Many stories of artists inhabiting real estate environments and artists making work share a narrative arc: In physical property, artists are often renters who create value and then must move when rents increase beyond what they can pay. They contribute value and get priced out, unless they are owners. In artistic property, the appreciation in the financial value of works, especially in the upper echelons of the art market, often goes to collectors and investors and not to the artists themselves.

Owning property sounds kneejerk capitalistic. But some form of ownership, shared or otherwise, can be prerequisite to generosity and a foundational support for creation. Artists have been, and can be, as inventive in creating environments as in making work.

This collection of essays and stories is a record of the group's conversation and an engagement with artists' questions of how to live, how to live together and how to live in relation both to other people and to the obstacles and vectors of the market economy itself. These are stories of invention and experimentation with property—and its financial, social and artistic life.

The book is organized into two sections: Learning and Action, as the group produced three pieces of writing about experiments in group living (The Sullivan Institute, Ganas, and Rivington), and three proposals for the future of artistic property: intellectual property rights (Ownership for Artists), living space (To Be Determined) and studio space (The Yellow Building) together with artwork (The Property Group). Bound together, here is a record of the group's research and an invitation to consider the forgotten histories and plausible futures of the social life of artistic property.

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