How Things Work, Part 1December 16, 2009
Originally, I set out to focus exclusively on answering these questions. New Langton holds a very significant position in my personal trajectory. I briefly worked there in 2004 as the gallery assistant. Langton was where I first saw work by Felipe Dulzaides and Robin Rhode in Busted: New Works; by Harrell Fletcher in Happiness Follows Us Like a Shadow; and the Tony Labat retrospective, Trust Me. As I reflected on Langton's shuttering, I began to think of the community based, artist-driven non-profit model on which this organization was based. Was this an isolated incident of one non-profit arts organization closing in San Francisco or indicative of an escalating trend? Instead of speculating on the particular details of one space, I decided to open up the discussion to the model of the non-profit arts organization in San Francisco and its future viability.
As a long-standing member of this arts community, I am using my personal, professional and academic experience—as well as my relationships with other people in this community—to highlight particular facets of the non-profit alternative art space. By focusing a critical lens on the closing of New Langton Arts and the choices facing other spaces today, this article intends to be a forum to articulate the challenges facing these organizations. It specifically looks at the following elements of their identities: the early forms of the organizations, the role of the board of directors in the health of the space, the realities facing the arts workers who maintain these spaces, and new models currently under development.
New Langton Arts was part of a network of arts organizations that formed between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, and which also included Intersection for the Arts (1965), Southern Exposure (1974), SF Camerawork (1974), Galeria de la Raza (1970), The Lab (1984), and The Luggage Store (1989). Although these organizations have independent histories and began for distinct reasons, they have all become pillars of the non-profit visual and performing arts community in San Francisco. They have multi-purpose sites based in the communities they serve, and they continue to thrive in the face of the economic challenges that plagued Langton as well as the community at large. These organizations formed as a call and response from the arts community to have spaces dedicated to showing local artists, women, artists from diverse backgrounds, and those engaged in experimental art practices. For all intents and purposes, these spaces were necessary for the arts communities in San Francisco. They were laboratories for artists of different disciplines to program exhibitions and events together at a time when they and their colleagues did not have the support of larger institutions or the mainstream press. These were the sites for artists to meet each other, see new work, and have that work become part of the San Francisco culture. In the 2002 book, Epicenter: San Francisco Bay Area Art Now, Mark Johnstone commented on the circumstances that allowed for these spaces to organize in an official capacity:
In the mid-1970s the limited exhibition opportunities at museums and commercial galleries, the increasing number of artists graduating from universities and art schools, and the growth of new genres such as installation, performance, and video contributed to the formation of non-profit alternative art organizations across the country. The development can be traced in part, to the establishment of several national agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, which gave fellowships to individual artists, supported catalogue publications and new genre, and made grants to alternative spaces. Artists banded together and set up non-profit organizations that provided space and opportunities (money, equipment, staff) for performances, exhibitions, installations, lectures, and communal support.1
As each of these spaces incorporated as non-profit organizations, they hired staff, created boards of directors, and solicited funding. They continued to show great work. In the last thirty or more years, each of these organizations has grown into something very particular, responding to specific, albeit overlapping, facets and needs of the people who have supported them through the years. They sustain themselves by explicitly supporting the community of artists, writers, volunteers, and funders who make up their audience, their auxiliary work force, and their sources of income. The question remains, though, how long this level of support will continue. More importantly, is the question of how this type of support, which can be characterized in fiscal and programmatic terms, evolve with the changing tides of institutional funding and community needs.
Community as Asset
The recent situation that ultimately led to New Langton Art's closure was not the first time this organization (or others) had faced financial trouble. As it is with most non-profits, Langton experienced the ups and downs of the economy, the whims of government arts funding, and the struggle to secure enough income to maintain stability throughout their 34-year history. What seemed to be different in this most recent situation was the organization's inability to take advantage of its most valuable asset, its community. New Langton Arts had a large network of artists and funders, and a loyal audience who, either in acknowledgement of Langton's role in their career or the development of their relationships with other artists, had always rallied to keep Langton solvent in challenging times. This network of people actively contributed to the development of the organization and the advancement of exhibition programming. So why wasn't this network utilized during this most recent crisis?
Maintaining the longevity of the non-profit arts organization in San Francisco is possible only by tending to this network, keeping artists on the board of directors, and inviting younger artists to contribute to major projects and institutional changes. This perpetual state of exchange allows for innovation to occur at any organization. It seems Langton lost its relationship to its network, and in turn lost the organization itself.
I witnessed this relationship begin to fall away through a series of events. The last publication released was the exhibition catalog for the 2005 Tony Labat retrospective. They stopped mailing material to its members without an clear strategy on how to continue communication with them. The staff configuration changed dramatically. The board of directors stopped voting on exhibition programming selections when they created a staff curator position. Langton’s vision underwent a transformation that shifted away from the experimental, multi-disciplinary model on which it was created into one that was poorly communicated to the community and poorly executed by the organization. Langton’s director and board took a huge risk by pushing the mission in a new direction. This kind of brave action allows for all of these non-profit spaces to materialize in the first place, and is certainly not without great merit. However, there was not enough financial stability or community resources to support Langton when the risk did not pay off.
Julian Myers, whose entries on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog chronicled the community’s response to Langton’s closing, wrote a review for Frieze of the 2007 project by the collective Tercerunquinto, in which the group put Langton’s entire archive up for sale and displayed it en masse in the gallery. Of course, now we can look at this project with an uncanny foreshowing, but in 2007, this project posited Langton’s past as its most valuable asset, not its present community or future possibilities. In Myers’ review of the exhibition, he notes:
For non-profit organizations such as New Langton, ‘economic uncertainty’ is inevitable. Founded in the 1970s to capitalize on new forms of federal funding in the USA, these institutions found themselves high and dry when that funding largely dried up around 1990. There are other kinds of uncertainty too: New Langton’s founding purpose was to foster forms of art practice not then supported by museums: performance art. Conceptual art, video, installation, improvised and electronic music, poetry and so on. Now these forms have faded from view or been incorporated into the larger and more established museums, leaving the non-profit just one exhibition space among many. In the present New Langton must do more than support itself – it must figure out why it should survive.2
The Space Issue
Another series of massive changes occurred with the physical remodel of Langton's space at 1246 Folsom Street in 2008 and its transformation to a beautiful, open, and clean environment. The potential for large-scale projects was palpable and this kind of reconsideration of physical space is certainly vital. In 2005, SF Camerawork moved out of the Folsom Street space it rented from and shared with Langton for almost six years into a much larger one downtown at 657 Mission Street that now allows them to mount multiple exhibitions simultaneously with additional room for their education and other programs. Another example of bold changes is Southern Exposure. They went positively nomadic for three years until they moved into their new home on 20th and Alabama, which affords them enough room to foster public events, education, and exhibition programming.3
New space is good, but new space with long-term planning for financial security is better. Both SF Camerawork and Southern Exposure mounted comprehensive capital campaigns and involved deep cross-sections of their communities, as well as the public at large, in the planning and implementation of their moves, while creating awareness of what the subsequent consequences these physical changes would have on their programming. On the other hand, it is not clear if Langton ever implemented similar planning or—and perhaps more fundamentally—found a replacement for the rental income lost with SF Camerawork’s vacancy. Coupled with the cancellation of Langton's theater rental program, it is not entirely clear how New Langton Arts built long-term financial support for their ambitious remodel or compensated for their significant loss of income.
Unfortunately, answers to these questions are not easy to come by, as many of the individuals with whom I spoke would do so only off the record. The New Langton Arts website still displays the plea for support they sent out via email in July when it became clear they would close. A planned public town hall meeting intended to garner public support for the organization was not held at the newly remodeled space, but online. I wonder if the irony was lost on the director and board of Langton that their final attempts to reach out to the community was hosted virtually and ultimately did not even appear on their own site. It instead materialized on SFMOMA's Open Space blog.
Stability: The Board/Staff Relationship and a Healthy Organization
A combination of federal, state, and city support; private grants; fundraisers; membership campaigns; and private donations sustain the non-profit art organizations in San Francisco. Ideally, an organization wants equitable shares of income from grants, fundraisers, and donations. Unfortunately, this is always not the case. Directors, who (with a few exceptions) are largely responsible for the vision and voice of the programming of the organizations they lead, are now nearly wholly burdened with the business of income generation, including annual events, grant writing, membership development, and courting funders. This obligation takes away from the programming that they are tirelessly working to financially maintain.
There is a growing tension between tending to the programming needs of the organization and maintaining its fiscal stability. In the early history of these spaces, executive directors were the voice and vision of the organization, but because of the demands of the current economic climate, the amount of income (available from a shrinking pool of resources) necessary to be solvent, they must spend increasingly more of their time raising money and less guiding the mission of the organization. This tension is present at all levels of the staff (covered later in this essay). The responsibilities and workloads have grown so vast that balancing time between administrative duties and fostering artistic programming is very challenging. Without the support of board members, funders, and contributing members, the tone of the organization and the agency of the exhibited work, may be lost in running the business of an art space.
The lack of a final measure of financial accountability outside of the relationship of the director and the board complicates the challenges of financial solvency. There are no public shareholders and no regulated, independent oversight, although many arts organizations do voluntarily pay for annual audits conducted by outside firms as a way to document their financial stability to funders. The survival of many of these venues rests on the tenuous relationship between the executive staff of the organization and the board of directors.
As was specifically the case with New Langton Arts, Southern Exposure and SF Camerawork, the board of directors includes interested parties, artists with a desire to see a space emerge and evolve, or people with financial incentives for a space where new forms of art might rise to public prominence. Currently, the strategy of board development manifests in the paradox between a ‘money board’ or an ‘artist board’. Boards perpetually weigh the pros and cons of courting either potentially strong funders or dedicated artists. If artists comprise the governing body of the institution, the programming choices will likely remain sound. Conversely, wealthy business people are in the financial and social situations to bring consistent and significant funds into the organization, serving its financial future. If an executive director makes the decision to cultivate a board of wealthy interested parties instead of artists with a connection to the space, how will that impact the tone of the organization? There exists a risk that wealthy, corporate-minded board members could transform the audience of the organization, and subsequently alter the programming—in response to the interests of the new audience—in ways that ultimately drive the institution away from its mission to serve a specific community of artists.
Some of the local spaces have tried, with success, to reach a compromise on this issue by entirely separating the governing from the programming board, giving each very specific roles: either fundraising and advocacy or exhibition planning and curation. This dichotomy still can be troubling since the board of directors holds the ultimate votes on major decisions. This is why the relationship between the board and the staff is vital for the long-term success of any space. However, clear mechanisms and effective modes of communication don’t necessarily exist in which the board may accurately comprehend the needs of the staff and in turn, the organization itself.. We are so often concerned with the agency and rights of the artists involved in the space, but the people who run these spaces, the arts workers, deserve the same amount of concern.
The Arts Worker
I am an arts worker. I currently work at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and have spent the last eight years volunteering, interning or employed at New Langton Arts, SF Camerawork and Southern Exposure. The communities fostered by these organizations and others like it in San Francisco were largely responsible for why I moved to San Francisco, chose to attend school here, and still continue to live here.
The proliferation of arts administration programs at the college level, as well as curatorial practice and critical studies programs at the graduate level, produce individuals ready to participate in the rigor of visual arts presentation, curation and dialogue. These components certainly are parts of the job for some arts workers, but so are database management, bookkeeping, graphic design, print production, project management, press communications, fundraising, strategic planning, board development, event management, web development, toilet scrubbing, setting up chairs, putting chairs away, asking people not to smoke crack in the gallery, taking interns who have had too much to drink home after events, bartending, painting, framing, entertaining, and career management for artists (all before lunch). As the number of staff members at many organizations has remained relatively stable since the 1990s, the requirements of the jobs have grown exponentially. Brilliant arts programmers must also be deft administrators, while natural administrators must be able to engage in thoughtful dialogue around the current programming.
An opportunity rarely exists for the staff to have any tangible equity in the organization beyond passion for their work, deep appreciation from supporters, and the satisfaction from seeing artists they support have success. This is certainly not to belittle these benefits. Few people in the world have jobs in which they know they are encouraging creative pursuits and the cultivation of a life beyond mere capitalistic gains. There is equity in living a life surrounded by artists, writers, and creative work. This makes it all the more difficult to confront the issues facing the dwindling numbers of people involved in non-profit visual arts administration.
Simply put, it is not an easy life to live sometimes. Salaries for arts workers, from executive directors to entry-level positions, are woefully low in relation to the number of responsibilities and amount of time and energy expended. . The hours are often long, and the small staff numbers makes taking time off nearly impossible. Few to none of these organizations have retirement or pension plans to offer, although most do carry health insurance for their employees. These issues are not signs of a culture that promotes poor management or disregard for the arts workers in general. These are consequences of overburdened budgets that simply do not have enough funding to cover the demands of running an art space and appropriately supporting a staff.
Consequently, this burden has become the flesh of the community, its badge of honor as well as the chip on its shoulder. As arts workers we proudly exclaim how we pulled off shows with little to no money. We trade stories of re-used frames; found and borrowed equipment; donated goods; and volunteer labor. How long can we sustain this necessary pace? Is it fair of this arts community to ask these people to work in this way? It is a great challenge to talk about the manner in which we work independently from the content of our work. Currently, there is not an effective language to address the specific needs and issues of the non-profit workplace, without resorting to the incompatible lingo of corporate management training.
With the proliferation of socially based art practices in San Francisco, the long-term burdens of non-profit organizations have given way to temporary spaces, hallway galleries, and one-night events. The new arts worker is freed from the weight of monthly board meetings, financial reporting, and long-term audience development. She can now concentrate on one project at a time, work with whomever inspires her, and host events on a rolling schedule. There is no requirement to fill a space year round with diverse and compelling visual work supported by public programs. There is no need for an auction.
These liminal spaces—zines, websites, spare rooms, and empty storefronts—are growing in the cracks of the sidewalks in front of the non-profit spaces, underneath their anniversary banners. Can we look at the closure of New Langton Arts and see a new generation of community organization rising up? Perhaps the long term evolution of art practice within artist communities is now taking a backseat to this kind of short-term, open-ended strategy of arts presentation.
This form of practice and presentation is certainly alive here in the city. There also is another stratum of community-based arts organizations that operates somewhere between the non-profit institution and the underground spaces. This successful hybrid in San Francisco (and Oakland) integrates the innovative risk-taking project based elements of the traditional non-profit model with a business model that allows an organization to earn income without the obligations of the legal requirements of the non-profit. They have the flexibility to support new and experimental forms of practice.
One of the most notable examples of this model is San Francisco-based venue Triple Base, which is a successful commercial gallery that attends art fairs, represent artists, sells work, and host traditional gallery shows on a regular basis. Triple Base is also fiscally sponsored through The Lab. This allows them to solicit funds in the same way the non-profit organizations do. In 2008, Triple Base received a $50,000 grant from the Wattis Foundation and funding through Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure grant. This income enables them to introduce experimental projects in the public sphere, augment their space with installation projects in their basement, and host residencies for local artists. Triple Base successfully supports their growing community and their business outside of the non-profit model.
Other spaces operate in similar ways. Receiver Gallery runs a commercial design business and an exhibition space. Electric Works and Gallery 16 both have bustling print shops, as well as publication programs and project spaces for emerging artists. Fecal Face uses revenue from its website to support its small gallery space. The growing list of artists organizing in this way demonstrates that the non-profit model that gave rise to a group of epic organizations and voice to generations of artists may not be the model that sustains the San Francisco visual arts community of the future.
No matter what the outcomes of the next generation of community-based arts organizations will be, it is clear that there are strong and vital established spaces operating in concert with the new models of artist-run organizations in San Francisco today. Additionally, there is a vibrant swell of artists creating daring alternatives to these alternative non-profit spaces. It seems that, for now, multiple models are holding ground together in this community. However, the issues raised here demand our consideration and beyond that, our action. Critically examining these questions, and clarifying the relationships on which we build our networks will only better serve the goals of art practice, arts work and Community.
Aimee Le Duc received her MA in Visual Criticism from California College of the Arts in 2003 and her MFA degree in their Creative Writing program in 2004. She is currently the Gallery Manager at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and was the Associate Director of Southern Exposure, San Francisco from 2006 to 2008. Her critical writing appears in publications including Sculpture, Contemporary Arts Quarterly, the Journal for Aesthetics and Protest, Artweek, and Camerawork: A Journal of Photographic Arts.