Big picture: Hope for Art and Arts Institutions

Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

Many discussions about the arts in crisis focus on the need for institutions to adapt. One report even suggests the arts are doing fine, it’s the institutions that are having problems.

But can you separate arts from arts institutions? And, if so, what would the arts look like? With those questions in mind, I visited Troy Night Out last month. This is what I saw.

At 71 Fourth St., the space that was once the Kismet Gallery, art hung on dingy walls, a DJ played tunes and art lovers mingled. It looked like a guerrilla street-art one-night happening, bringing life to an otherwise vacant space. The venue wasn’t even listed on the evening’s map.

The works of one of the highlighted artists, Chip Fasciana, were abstract blobs on fields of sombre colors, and one, with more geometric shapes, on a yellow field seemed to explode with movement. This, I thought, is what art without an institution looks like.

Then I remembered that Fasciana had recently had a piece honored as “the masterpiece” in the “Tomorrow’s Masters Today” exhibit at Albany Institute of History & Art, an institution that has been around since 1791.

So art institutions may be inescapable because they can legitimize an artist. But even art institutions may not be what we think they are. The Clement Art Gallery and Frame Shop, for example, is the kind of dual-purpose space that is not only common in the region, but also already satisfies the need for art institutions to adapt.

Of course, Kismet tried to the same thing, but it closed. What’s the difference? Where Kismet focused on giving young artists a chance, Clement often shows well-respected and veteran artists. For example, landscapes by Harry Orlyk, Len Tantillo and Robert Moylan were on the walls last month. The shop was also filled with picture frames, prints, paintings and even pages from mid-19th-century Harper’s Weeklys, suitable for framing, giving the space a staid elegance, where frames support the art.

At the Arts Center of the Capital Region, the main gallery was crammed with art hanging salon-style for its annual “Fence Show.” (Full disclosure: my wife and stepson have work in the show.) The show has been around for more than 40 years, and got its name when members hung work on the iron fence surrounding Washington Park, where the center was previously located.

Though that literal blurring of non-institution and institution may be gone, the gallery show retains that open spirit with a wild array of work in terms of subject, medium and quality. Any member of the arts center can have work in the show, and anyone can become a member for just $35.

But the show is also juried, which is what institutions do best: establish hierarchies. This year’s juror is Ian Berry, the director and curator of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. He selects a limited number of works for the “Fence Select” show, which begins later this month. I recommend seeing the show while the vast array of art is still on the walls. That way, you can see what was selected and what wasn’t and ask: Why this piece instead of that one? Does it reflect an identifiable standard? Does it reflect Berry’s sensibilities?

One part of the show won’t change: the student division. This seems right. Youngsters in the early stages of their artistic lives shouldn’t be subject to the same hierarchies.

I’ve always enjoyed the student show, because the work often shows a wealth of imagination, and was intrigued by a portrait in which the face seemed cobbled together with red, green and blue. The artist, Ceili Conway of Bethlehem, has a couple paintings in the show. She said she’s taken classes at the center and has been making art since she was 3. She’ll be going into the seventh grade in the fall.

At her age, the family refrigerator is often the place where art gets displayed. A public display in an arts institution, however, lets students know that they, too, are engaged in a tradition like the artists around them.

“Ceili shows strong drawing ability for her age level,” said Caroline Corrigan, the education and exhibits manager at the center. She called one of her paintings “very brave, considering the challenging foreshortening of the face in the image. Not many artists (young or old) are willing to tackle that point of view.”

Ceili also showed deep insight when I asked her why she made art. Her answer is probably true for many people making art, and is one reason why there is hope for art — and arts institutions.

“You can kind of do anything you want,” Ceili said, adding, “It’s mostly how I express myself.”


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