In the course of my research on engaged art practices, which often operate outside of the traditional institutional frameworks and commercial circuits of contemporary art, I have become increasingly interested in how artists and art groups sustain their work over time, i.e. how they find ways (or don’t) to sustain their production economically, if they move towards increased institutionalization or professionalization; if they develop long-term plans or if they work on a project-by-project basis; and what material, organizational and interpersonal conditions motivate them to continue working and working together. In my interviews with artists in São Paulo I found that members of collectives that had worked together for upwards of a decade also had given a great deal of thought to these questions. Many discussed the public grants made available under Lula’s administration and the leadership of Gilberto Gil in the Ministry of Culture, as well as the evident and probable changes taking place under the new Ministry of Culture, as led by Ana de Holanda. Most of the artists acknowledged that this public funding had been a major source of support for their work, as evidenced in the books (published for free distribution), DVDs, documentary videos, original research, and large-scale community-based projects they had produced with funding from state agencies (and Petrobras). However, some also pointed to the negative effects the cycle of grant competitions and the specified interests of funding agencies had on artists’ abilities to develop and maintain long-term initiatives and a unified line of investigation, the fact that members of collectives often internalize costs of their work when the public money falls short (as it often does), and the possibility that the critical potential of some work is compromised by its reliance on state funding.
Alternatively, some artists also discussed benefits and challenges of having a commercial practice that helps support non-commercial work; the balance between generating income and building cultural capital; and their own decisions about what type of labor would be remunerated, how collective assets should be distributed and so on. Related to these issues (though more in the background), is the evident entrance of urban art and street art into traditional art exhibition spaces and, perhaps even more interestingly, the use of exhibitions of urban art or “art in the city” in strategies of “urban renewal,” dispossession, and real estate speculation. Several interviewees discussed specific instances where this had taken place in São Paulo, with some comparing the assimilability of different genres to such strategies, e.g. graffiti art, tagging, site-specific art, video-mapping, ephemeral actions. A timely complement to these conversations came with the opening of a major exhibition of street art at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP). The opening drew an enormous crowd, noticeably younger and more tattooed than the typical art public I’ve seen in similar institutions. But the glaring absence of any strong content in most of the works and their tendency toward more formalist and sensorial registers certainly raised questions about the domestication of work that otherwise — or in other contexts — has been defined by strong messages and a critical character.
Posted by Jennifer Flores Sternad — PhD student in American Studies at NYU