The Art World is Flat? A Response to Symposium C6: Globalism - Crisis and Opportunity

By Melissa Matuscak and Ben Schaafsma , 9 June 2007


Playing upon the title of Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat, Victoria Burns and Lynn Sowder recently organized Symposium C6 – “The Art World is Flat: Crisis and Opportunity,” in Chicago at Millennium Park on April 26-28. The symposium was just one part of the Merchandise Mart Properties-sponsored "Artropolis" festivities that included Art Chicago, The Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art, the Antiques Show and the Bridge Art Fair, among others. According to the organizers, the symposium aimed to bring “together an international group of socially engaged artists, scientists, curators, technologists, patrons and cultural entrepreneurs who are confronting the new challenges and possibilities of our profoundly interconnected world.” Panel sessions included topics such as 'New Capital: Hegemony and Resistance in the Global Culture Economy', and 'No Borders Here?: Cultural Hybrids, Nomads and Refugees.' The symposium’s title “C6” isn’t a reference to a secret alliance of countries, but alludes to six keywords that supposedly weave the content of the panels and presentations together; Conversations, Creativity, Collaboration, Culture, Community, Chicago. The speakers and panelists ranged from the highly visible Bruce Mau, the Art Institute's curator of contemporary art James Rondeau and hometown Chicago artist Dan Peterman. Upon first glancing at the list of speakers and reading through the symposium’s website, everything seemed a bit too familiar and too good to be true to be happening during "Artropolis" and at such a high profile venue like the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry, at Millennium Park, one of the most highly privatized “public” spaces in the country with more security surveillance than a shopping mall.

Initially, the symposium was not open to the public and would only be available to those invited by Burns and Sowder ,“cultural entrepreneurs committed to the development of new audiences through innovative communications strategies, cultural initiatives, and signature art collecting programs for private and institutional collectors. We are eternal optimists [read: found a new market] and we believe deeply in the power of art and culture to transform people’s lives, changing the way they think, what matters in their lives and how they do business.”

Close to a month before C6, the organizers decided to open the event to the public – but only at the hefty ticket price of $100 a day or the "discounted" rate of $250 for all three days. The overall exclusivity and price tag associated with the event made many artists and art administrators suspicious. Those looking for answers attempted to contact the symposium's organizers via email but no replies were made.

A few weeks prior to Artropolis, I attended a panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago entitled: "The Commodization of Culture: Marketing the Arts". The panelists included gallerist Donald Young, artist Ben Gest and Victoria Burns of Burns and Sowder Arts Advisory. The title of this particular panel could have easily been shared with Symposium C6.

Burns was eager to promote her event at this panel hosted by SAIC. Once the topic of C6 came up, I attempted to get some answers. “As an arts advisory company, what is your interest in ephemeral work and work that often positions itself counter to a market and globalization?” Before I could even finish asking, I was interrupted, with a seemingly prepared response about being interested in experimentation and temporal works for art’s sake. Which is hardly surprising considering the contemporary art world’s (and market’s) current fetishization of socially engaged art. Though, this is nothing immediately new. Andrea Fraser and Fred Wilson are just as much adored on the same level as those who are at their peaking in the market.

At this point it was obvious that something else was going on that the organizers were masking with co-opted language of those most often working outside market concerns and galleries and they were not willing to engage those questioning in a conversation.

A listserv was created to centralize a conversation of how to best engage a discussion around the issues charging the symposium. Many of the participants and speakers in C6 are well respected among those skeptical of the intentions of Burns and Sowder, so it was important to articulate the contentions toward the organizers and the broader issues dealing with culture in the age of neo-liberal globalization. I, along with a few others, then created a pamphlet mimicking the official materials of the symposium, which was then distributed as a “C6 Response Guide,” inviting attendees to encourage critical discussion among the panelists.

Millennium Park has is one of the most highly surveillianced places in the country. Just because it called a “park,” doesn’t make it a public place. C6 is took place in one of Chicago’s least public parks, well known for excluding public protest and public participation in private events. So what does it mean to privatize public debate? Burns and Sowder, a for-profit art advisory company were been key in the organization of symposium C6. Why would a profit-oriented organization be interested in traditionally non-saleable artistic practices and making profit from public debate? What do we risk when private companies organize events with the appearance of public dialogue but don’t do much to include general members of the public?

The organizers “are cultural entrepreneurs committed to the development of new audiences.” Who are these new audiences? Why was the symposium not open to the public originally? How accessible is this symposium at $250 for three-day passes or $100 for single day passes? If C6 identifies Chicago as one of its key points, why make it to difficult for Chicagoans to attend?

Is the art world really flat? Should we be celebrating the forces that homogenize culture across the globe? Does C6 advocate a one-size-fits-all McArt? Who benefits from the rise of the creative class and its instrumentalization in new urban planning? Where are the voices of artists who choose not to participate in the art market?

Capitalism’s unlimited growth economics have caused devastating global climate change leading some to conclude that it has failed on a systemic level and will eventually burn itself out. Why are artists and cultural producers being called upon to put a green face on capitalism? Can we just buy our way to a better environment? Or do we need to radically change our thinking and activities?In discussions of borders, artists are often portrayed romantically as global nomads, easily moving around the world from art fairs to biennials to symposiums, like this one. Excluded from discussions of borders are the very people it affects most, people that are unable to participate in a global economic market. What is lost by not including those who don’t benefit from liberalized trade? Who are the excluded global citizens that have borders to keep them out of a dialog that affects their lives?

On Friday, day two of the symposium, three rounds of the pamphlet were distributed to the audience throughout the morning. The first two rounds were passed through the crowd and the third was placed on each seat in the auditorium during a break. After lunch, Burns and Sowder stood at the podium, acknowledged the pamphlet and delivered a response to a selection of the points. They compared the making and distribution of the pamphlet to an employee "talk back" program they developed with many of the corporate partners they typically work with to give people a chance to respond to issues and have that work published. They stressed repeatedly how thrilled they were to receive this "fabulous guerilla piece" because the issues brought up in the pamphlet were the same issues they had discussed internally while organizing the symposium.

They claimed they organized the symposium around artists that work with "process" (non-saleable) instead of "products" (saleable) simply because they would "rather do this a million times over". They claimed their "true bottom line" and long-term and short-term interest, as a company is to "expose this kind of material to as large of an audience as possible".

The overpriced cost structure was apologetically admitted as a mistake, partly due to the economics of the event (working with the Merchandise Mart Properties and the cost of renting a venue such as the Pritzker Pavilion) and the fear of overwhelming attendance in a 500-seat venue. After realizing there was a need to open it up to more people, the student discount price of $10/day was introduced four weeks prior to the event.

Burns and Sowder claimed the presenters at the symposium who deal with "green" issues do not have a primary interest in making money and the claim presented in the pamphlet was merely a misunderstanding of "who the players are". In conclusion they reiterated that they welcomed the pamphlet and welcomed more of it, ending with "bring it on". They failed to address globalization’s impact on culture, the “rise of the creative class,” and did not answer our biggest question, “Is the art world really flat?”

Even with the thinly veiled defensiveness masked as enthusiasm for the pamphlet, the welcoming of "dialogue", "discussion" and "diversity" (D6 Symposium anyone?) the problems inherent in the setting, the location, the sponsorship and the language remain apparent. The intention of Symposium C6's organizers may have been well meaning, but they seemed to be missing the point. As I attended more panels it became clear that the real discussion should have been centered on the problems with aligning artistic practice that is truly challenging the status quo (through topics, media, or systems of distribution) with the forces that co-opt these practices and turn it into profit.

I attended a panel on the first morning of the symposium entitled "New Models of Cultural Production and Distribution" chaired by Anne Pasternak (President and Artistic Director of Creative Time), and included Tiffany Holmes (a Chicago-based artist), Ruby Lerner (Director of Creative Capital) and Stanley Hainsworth (Vice President Global Creative for Starbucks Coffee Company). The problems with this are evident: Anne Pasternak gave a historical overview of the artistic uses of public spaces (such as ACT UP) in New York City while Stanley Hainsworth showed a compilation of videos on You Tube of people declaring their love for Starbucks coffee and a slideshow of musicians and artists the company has worked with in the past. Both presentations dealt with the topic of "Cultural Production and Distribution" but with very different backgrounds, intents and agendas. During the short question and answer period Pasternak brought forth the question of who benefits from the relationship between artists and Starbucks- the artists or the company?” Hainsworth replied with an answer that amounted to "neither" and then it was time for a break, “Is it Starbucks?”

This is just one example of the overall problem with the symposium: despite the self aggrandizement of Burns and Sowder, the actual discussion portion of the symposium skirted around core issues and lacked critical substance in favor of a self-congratulatory celebration. Ultimately one must ask, how excusable are good]? Although the C6 organizers most likely felt as if their Symposium was indeed “making a difference”; these intentions wear thin as it becomes apparent that in being so tied to the will of a globalized and neoliberal art market, the organizers were forced (subconsciously or not) to sidestep key issues. How can fruitful debate be expected to coalesce in a symposium environment completely dominated by those very forces the symposium itself is trying to explore? What, if any, long-term effects will the symposium really have besides upping the value of Burns Sowder Arts Advisory Inc? Could the thousands of dollars spent on the symposium have been put to better use? If these are the platforms socially engaged artists are being given to discuss their work, why continue to engage these platforms. Is it more productive to distribute ideas and work through our own independent infrastructures that are continually being built?

Many thanks to Erika Kierulf for sharing audio recordings of the symposium and Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune for help with creating the C6 Response Guide.