Monday, April 03, 2017

The curious case of the WPA and the race (and age) card

A while back, I discussed the curious case of DMV artist Barbara Januszkiewicz posing a question on Facebook about the Washington Project for the Art's Gala auction - a question which then received several hundred comments from all sort of DMV area artists and a rather harsh one from the WPA's Executive Director; you can read that post here.

In his response, Peter Nesbett (the WPA's ED) included this comment:
Also it is worth noting to the rest of you that the O has a bit of an axe to grind with me because when pressed by her on numerous occasions to visit her studio and to take a group show she had curated (that included her own work), I told her that I didn't really understand what she was up to in her work because it seemed to ape the work of others a-critically, and for that reason I didn't understand its value. So that is possibly what spurred her post. Who knows. I think it is important to be honest with each other so we don't waste each other's time.
Like many other commenters on the Facebook comment thread, I took exception to Nesbett using that public forum to personally criticize the originator's artwork, and suggested that he should (a) apologize to Barbara Januszkiewicz and (b) use the opportunity presented by the hundreds of commenters to perhaps host a discussion forum on the issue and involve the artist members of the WPA in a constructive dialogue. I noted in the FB comments:
With all due respect, I am a somewhat disturbed that the director of an artists' driven organization takes an open forum to personally criticize the artwork of one of its members - who by the way, as the intense series of comments testify to, has asked a very valid and clearly "needed" question. That is, if one is to judge that by the passion of the comments and thoughts. But what bothers me is that were one to also mimic your viewpoint of "ape the work of others a-critically", then I'd challenge anyone with a simple understanding of art history to not "see" a dozen artists in any and every group show on the planet, any major art fair, and any WPA Gala, regurgitating the concepts and ideas of others who came before them, which in an era of postmodernism - where anything and everything is art - I thought was not an issue... In fact it is often refreshing, as when in this year's WPA Gala I see Chuck Close, Basquiat, Jerry Uelsmann, Goldsworthy, etc. being channeled into new work. It is clear to me that this question poses an opportunity for the WPA to host a panel/discussion on the subject, and it is also clear to me that you owe Barbara Januszkiewicz an apology for angling the discussion to a personal angle... Respectfully, Lenny Campello
Subsequently, at least two local art establishments (Artists and Makers' Studios and Otis Street Project), volunteered their spaces to host a discussion on the subject.

By the way, local artists complaining about the role of the WPA in the DMV is hardly new - as Michael O'Sullivan noted in this 1997 Washington Post story:
[An arts promoter and a jewelry maker] approached a reporter with a press release, revealing that the exaggerated bidding was the scheme of 42 local art supporters, each of whom had ponied up $20 in an attempt to draw attention to their claim that the WPA and its auction have strayed from the original mission."In the past," the statement read, "The Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) seemed focused on promoting new art and artists not represented by galleries. The auction was an excellent way to showcase these new artists while engaging the public's participation. Unfortunately, we now see almost the same artists and collectors year after year."
In addition to the lack of new blood, the consortium also complained about the auction's steep new $125 admission price, which kept many of its members from participating.
"This is about inclusivity and emerging art. It's not about Erick Jackson or artificially inflating the price of his work," said [one of the organizers], who along with her husband... came up with the protest as a form of "conceptual art."
Back to the present: Triggered by the sheer amount of comments on the issue, the Washington City Paper's art scribe and fan boy of the DMV art scene, Kriston Capps interviewed Nesbett on the auction issue and the artists' reactions to it. In the original post, Capps incredibly managed to somehow skip over or miss the row over Nesbett's comment that Januszkiewicz's motive for the post was possibly related to Nesbett ignoring her work/request for a studio visit.
Thus, when the WCP interview was noticed by the FB commenters, it was immediately noticed (and commented on) that Capps had missed 50% of the issue... someone must have brought this up to the attention of the former Grammar Policeman, because subsequently an expanded interview included this question as the first question:
City Paper: Some artists in the Facebook community are upset about a critical exchange you had with Barbara Januszkiewicz, an artist in the area. You said that she had an "ax to grind with me" and that "I didn't really understand what she was up to in her work" in comments. Do you think you crossed a line?
Peter Nesbett: No, I don't. There are a few reasons.  
I don't see why having an opinion about an artist's work is a problem. I know most arts professionals would keep opinions or comments like that to themselves. That is their right. But I prefer more candor. 
I shared a series of exchanges [Barbara] and I had. She was rather aggressive with me over the course of six months about doing a studio visit with her, and showing her work, and I was very frank with her that I didn't understand how her work was anything but the aping of others' work from decades ago, with irony or critical conceit, and so I wasn't interested. She didn't like that. Still I don't want to set up up any false expectations—I want people to know where I stand so we don't waste each other's time. 
The most outspoken people on the Dotted Line are people whom I have either declined studio visits with—I am not going to do them simply as a courtesy—or they are the spouse of a former employee who I let go. I think it is important that people recognize that the motive on there end stems from a place of personal disappointment. 
Finally, have you noticed that nearly everyone who has been critical of the auction or WPA is older and white, and yet they claim to be speaking on behalf of the D.C. artist community? I actually don't think they represent the D.C. artist community today. At least not the communities I have been most involved with or interested in. Those communities are much more diverse.
So instead of apologizing for his interpretation of what had caused the avalanche of comments on the WPA Auction issue, Nesbett doubled down on his perception of the reason for Barbara's posting and repeated his unwarranted negative critical response to her work.

But then, in my opinion, he extended the discussion into a whole other realm, when he makes the completely unexpected and insulting claim that "nearly everyone who has been critical of the auction or WPA is older and white, and yet they claim to be speaking on behalf of the D.C. artist community?"


The race card (combined with the age card) makes an appearance on a discussion about the multiple inclusion of out of area artists for a local artist-driven organization!
There's so much wrong and offensive about this, that I don't know where to start... so instead I've copied what an artist in the comments' thread (who's neither white nor old) emailed me; the artist notes that:

1.Peter solicited and offered to meet with artists in the local community.
2.Barbara has stated that she contacted him with only one email inviting him to her studio. He declined and therefore never saw her work nor engaged in a personal conversation. There has been no proof of an aggressive solicitation as claimed.
3.An online question was posed regarding the auction and it was not directed at any party. It was intended as an invitation for artists to voice their concerns/opinions and to engage in community dialogue.
4.The intent of this forum was not intended to engage in personal attacks.
5.Age nor race was not an issue raised by the artists
6.Anyone who engages in the practice, procurement, sales, promotion, curatorial, purchase, review of art,  etc. should be recognized as a valued member of the art community regardless of age, gender, race or sexual orientation.
7.Personal attacks and harsh public criticism of an artist’s work and value is unwarranted.
8.‘Aping’ the work of an artist in a city that paints its streets with stripes should not be an acceptable value judgment.

Personally, now I think that Nesbett has stepped over a separate line from which there's no apology, and the maelstrom of commenters are now discussing a much harsher response to the WPA than the lost opportunity to engage the artists on a constructive dialogue.

Frankly, I am lost as to why Nesbett went on this race/age card angle? It wasn't needed, and from seeing the names of the artists involved in the hundreds of comments, it is also inaccurate.

As one commenter dryly noted: "I wonder if he feels the same about the demographics of collectors??"

What next?

Wanna go to an opening this week?

"In This Moment"

Christina Tenaglia and Anne C. Smith

March 30-June 4, 2017
Vernissage Saturday April 8 6:30-8:30
Live Music by Terraplane

3766 Howard Ave
Kensington MD 20895
Thursday-Sunday 12-5:30 and always by appointment