Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Did the Advocate Moon Leslie Shaffer?

I was, safe to say, very concerned when I read Freda Moon's article in the New Haven Advocate two weeks ago about new Artspace Director Leslie Shaffer and City-Wide Open Studios. The headline—"Is City-Wide Open Studios the latest New Haven gentrification project? Read between the carefully drawn lines"—did not bode well. In the article, Shaffer comes off as something of a corporate elitist who is conspiring to turn this month-long celebration of local art and artists into a domesticated career fair with pretensions.

But rather than air my concerns first and ask questions later, I decided to not comment until I had a chance to talk to Shaffer myself, which I did this past Monday.

Doing so has mostly assuaged my fears. I say "mostly" because Shaffer does have a tendency to slip into corporate-speak gobbledygook—referring to the patrons of Artspace and visitors to CWOS as "consumers," for example, or to rearranging how the alternative space might be navigated as a "way-finding strategy." Corporate-speak always gives this anti-corporate writer the willies. Corporate structures are destroying our world and their semantic infiltration of remaining outposts of poetic feeling should be resisted. Still, Shaffer's heart seems to be in the right place if not necessarily her vocabulary.

My first question was whether Shaffer felt the article was accurate, whether the quotes were accurate or whether it was fair.

"It was unfair to make assumptions and make assumptions about Artspace's future. I haven't made assumptions about the future yet," Shaffer told me. "I'm approaching the festival with an open mind. Research and evaluation are an important part of our working practice. I'm committed to an informed approach to programming and there may or may not be changes. The future of Artspace will be based on collective information and discussion—with community members, artists and those involved."

One of the reasons I withheld judgment before posting about this is that I had concerns that Moon seemed to be putting a very definitive spin on Shaffer's words. Or even the blood flow to Shaffer's face. Moon wrote, "When she talks about Open Studios being 'uncensored,' she practically blushes." Well, she is or she isn't. And if she isn't, don't write that she is. There was a strong whiff of a reporter with an agenda at work there.

A couple of the most contentious points revolved around the alternative space. Shaffer plans to group artists to some extent by media this year. In addition, Moon made an issue of the fact that Shaffer said that artists must "leave the space better than we found it." The inference that Moon derived from this was that "The sort of alterations artists have often made to their temporary studios—painting them with elaborate murals, mounting chairs in a sculptural pattern from floor to ceiling—won't be allowed this year. " Not so, according to Shaffer. In fact, artists who painted their rooms or otherwise altered the premises last year also had to restore them to the status quo ante after the weekend was over.

"There will be a number of installations. We have four artists-in-residence and a handful of other artists who will be doing installations. But we are committed to leave the place in the same condition we found it just as you would in any situation. It's really just a courtesy to the town of Hamden and anyone who generously lends us 100,000 square feet free of charge," she said, with a quick laugh. "It's not a new policy." Artists have been informed of the policy and are free to decorate the walls as long as they un-decorate them after the event.

When it came to grouping artists by media, I mentioned to Shaffer that one of the charms of the alternative space for me in the past had been the way different things bumped up against each other. She said that will "still happen—it's not completely by media."

"I'm a career educator and curator and my experience has been in designing products that consider both parties as they experience the event—both artist and visitor. Prior to Open Studios, I met with dozens of artists, literally, and community members who participated in the past. They made clear that visitors were not getting to all the studios," said Shaffer. "It was an attempt to offer a different way to navigate the event, through grouping and color. It's a strategy used widely by different organizations from commercial to non-profit as a way-finding strategy."

"It is also something we can do to make the experience different from last year," added Shaffer. "It's a challenge to think about a similar event with similar artists in a similar place in a new way."

Shaffer told me "a lot of the quotes were contextualized in a very interesting way." Specifically—and this had drawn my attention when reading the article and caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up—were the words "professionalism" or "professionalize." As contextualized in the article, "professionalizing" CWOS sounded like code for jurying the event—and, in particular, the alternative space portion of it—at the expense of many of the non-accredited or amateur, self-designated artists.

"The idea of 'professionalism'—I thought that was a strange word that kept popping up. Professionalism is not a strategy to inhibit creativity. It's a strategy to support creativity," said Shaffer. "We have City-Wide Open Studios attracting 400 artists, all these visitors and many, many volunteers. We have an obligation to be responsible, clear, safe and fun for everybody involved. It's just logistics. How we receive registrations, create systems of flow."

I noted that readers, such as I did, may have interpreted the quotes as referring to a "professionalizing" of which artists could participate.

"No, no. Clearly, that was mis-taken. It wasn't about that. It was only about logistics," responded Shaffer. "The way we present the event, the way we in the background have to present the event. It's on everybody. Artists getting work in on time, registering on time. It involves volunteers, visitors telling us how we can improve. It doesn't have anything to do with the quality of work or the level of an artist."

Shaffer said she has seen how excited the community of New Haven is to have an unjuried program. She sees "no reason to change it because it allows the possibility to connect an artist with an audience, not a certain level of artist to an audience."

"I think it was really misunderstood. I'm not going to presume to know what artists' work is like at the alternative space because I haven't been there yet. When I said we were going to 'thematize' the event, I meant pull together connections to help see things in a new way," said Shaffer. "I'm an educator. I think about helping people interpret. I have no imposition of my own opinion.

"I come from an objective point of view. If you've signed up as an artist, you've designated yourself as an artist. I'm not going to say you're not an artist or you're not a good artist," continued Shaffer. "In this particular case, I think unjuried is the beautiful part about it."


Blogger Sam said...

Well, I think Shaffer sounds like she knows what she's doing. "Good business is the best art." -Andy Warhol.

12:10 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy Warhol was not an artist. He was a window dresser.

2:40 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaffer is a corporate hack; neither she nor Moon, nor the blogger for that matter, mention the salient point -- Open Studios is no longer open, just an embellished juried show. The public is not invited. Shaffer's disingenuous corporate double-speak cannot hide her elitist, exclusionary agenda. Open Studios is dead! Long live Open Studios!

9:29 PM


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