Artist Andy Sturdevant’s latest work, a quasi-performance piece, has him assuming the role of something between an auctioneer and a professor. Armed with a Sharpie in hand and plenty of poster paper, Sturdevant stands before a group of about twenty strangers who have gathered inside the Practice Gallery of Philadelphia. Their task is straightforward but immense: rank 125 American cities in one of five tiers based on their importance to contemporary art. Scribbled by Sturdevant upon one of the sheets of paper that coat the wall, the criteria for ranking cities perpetually hang in view, fencing in the lively debate of the crowd. They are commonsensical and comprehensive: population, collector base, MFA programs, diversity, grant availability, institutions, media, etc. Tier one is the highest, five the lowest.
Tonight’s voting takes place on “First Friday,” an evening of free galleries and cheap booze. While everyone in the room is dedicated to the noble task, most clutch probably their second or third or eighth two-dollar PBR. By the time I arrive about an hour into the program, the majority of small to midsized metropolises have been dealt with.
“Next up, what tier is Houston?” booms Sturdevant as he cools off beside the room’s tiny AC which provides a brief respite from the sticky heat coating the gallery. Sturdevant is a man of average height with a bushy beard, suspenders and John Lennon-esque spectacles. He commands the event with indefatigable ease, an impressive feat considering the sheer number of cities being judged. Houston, Texas (Population 2,145,146) is the 119th city to be ranked that night. Philadelphia will be the 120th. Five cities later looms New York.
“Houston? Tier five,” a man’s voice shouts from the back. Most people respond with a smile. Houston has its own major art fair and an impressive contemporary art museum; assigning it to tier five is quite an insult.
“You must be drunk,” replies a voice from the crowd.
“Well, yeah,” the first man agrees bluntly, to the genial laughter of the group. Given this exchange, it is unsurprising that the idea of ranking cities came to Sturvendent from the pure, spirited, occasionally arbitrary conversations in which artists engage while out drinking at bars.
“There’s this continual sense of comparison going on between different cities,” Sturdevant says. But beneath the debates is an all-important underlying question: where should an artist live to be the most successful?
Sturdevant likes to say that the results of his project are “wildly unscientific.” Yet in the arts, as in other fields, an impression can be true even if facts indicate otherwise. If the majority of the arts community viewed Houston as a tier five city, it would likely drop in ranking, devoid of many artists fleeing for the sake of their careers.
This is the second time Sturdevant has staged the project. The first was in Minneapolis with a much smaller, more tightly controlled group of thirty artists. The results, however, are markedly similar – especially when ranking the large cities.
How exactly these rankings reflect the manifold and complex ways in which the arts interact with cities is impossible to uniformly pin down. Within Philadelphia, arts and community fuse most publicly in the dozens of murals scrawled upon sides of buildings throughout the city. Muralists play a part in creating and telling Philadelphia’s many stories. Their subjects are no less than the history, the future and the present of Philadelphia.
Sometimes, however, history, art and city are fused less directly, though not less meaningfully. For an example, one need only look at French photographer Louis Daguerre’s haunting photograph “Boulevard du Temple,” which, as it approaches its 175th birthday, is at once a memory of a place that will never be again and one inseparable from the aura of modern day Paris. It is the earliest photograph of a person, yet the people in it appear as small shadows, operating within the stalwart buildings of their creation. It prompts one to ask: before photography, how was place perceived by those looking backwards in time? Or, more precisely, what did history look like before photography?
With the camera’s advent and proliferation, art took on time and place as its subjects in new ways. The societal and political shifts in New York City during the 1960 and 70s are inseparable from the artists, such as Hans Haccke, Andy Warhol and others, who both documented and empowered them. While the contributions and ideas of artists such as Warhol may be global, Warhol is New York City. As if to physicalize this reverie for Warhol, a chrome statue of him was erected in Union Square.
It is doubtful that Warhol, had he lived in a tier five city, for instance, would have produced art of the caliber he did (this is not be a mind blowing realization – if things were different of course they wouldn’t be the same). Standing testament to Warhol’s connection with the New York is his eight-hour long, 1964 film of the Empire State Building. Representing both New York’s influence upon Warhol and Warhol’s contribution to New York’s enduring image, watching Empire is to “see time go by.”
With the work comes a doubling of time, of memory, maintained by the continuous presence of the Empire State Building. Time passes within the film and the viewer struggles to remember what the scene looked like when they first began watching perhaps ten minutes prior (The same? Maybe it was a little lighter out? That light blinked? I can’t remember). But time has passed outside of the film as well, and the New York City of 1984, of Empire, is not the New York City of 2013. Yet they remain inexorably connected.
Los Angeles, determined to demonstrate the value of its history as on par with that of its cold weather rival across the continent, mounted the first ever “Pacific Standard Time” (PST) festival last year. PST’s stated goal was to celebrate L.A.’s postwar history through a “contemporary lens” (note again, the language of photography here and how tied it is to history). The Hammer Museum’s 2011 PST show titled “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles“ was a comprehensive look at the work of African American artists in L.A., including, among others, David Hammons and Senga Nengudi, who were responding to racial issues that persist to this day.
Like Sturdevant’s project, the Hammer show also discussed the important contributions made by art history scholars, curators and gallerists, groups that are sometimes either overlooked or treated as opportunists lucky to piggyback on an artist’s genius.
As Hammer director Ann Philbin states, “the deep and remarkable history [the exhibit] explores serves as a foundation for the thriving creative community of artists living and working here today.” One might go farther than Ms. Philbin and say it serves as a foundation not solely for artists but for everyone. To perhaps both the benefit and the detriment of the arts, the field is inseparable from the social milieu in which it operates.
When the contemporary art culture of today syncs with the history books written decades in the future – Sturdevant’s project is almost like collecting raw data for the former – will a city’s ranking correspond to its general historical importance? Can you have a strong arts community in a boring, uneventful town? What trends do cities with strong, enduring and important artistic communities experience? While an artist discussing which city is “best” may be considering their career, for the non-artist residents of a city, having artists means a more robust understanding of place and time, of the present, the past and the future. Contemporary America is susceptible to repeated amnesia when it comes to the past. Artists offer a certain type of memory.
As an example of this particular type of memory, one thinks of Gerhard Richter’s reclamation of police photographs. To simplify the work somewhat brutally, the premise was that Richter took harsh, evidentiary photography of prison suicides (literally very historical photographs meant to preserve factual information) and repainted them with a blur, giving the grizzly scenes a thicker aura, real in a way different than unaltered documentation. A “sweet residue – half memory, half forgetfulness,” as Proust might say. This reclamation of past is nourishing and cathartic for those who see it.
The results of Sturdevants’ caucuses may lack in direct tangible consequence beyond the white cube of the gallery, but the audience is invested in the outcome. The energy is palpable. The electorate, in this case, is well informed and drunk, a wonderful combination. For most of the highly populated cities, people in the audience have spent time there, bringing with them facts and impressions from the ground. Specific galleries are name-dropped, local artists are referenced and notable MFA programs are insulted.
The Houston debate has pattered out and an informal vote is taken through a raising of hands. The consensus is in: Houston is tier three. Sturdevant dutifully records the result on one of his poster sheets before turning and announcing what most have already realized.
“Ok,” he begins with a smile. “The moment we’ve been waiting for. Philadelphia.”