Cupcakes have become the “in” thing in the culinary world: They’re sweet, have lots of gooey frosting, are easy to eat and hassle-free, no plate or fork required. They do, however, lack the elegance of a torte or the substance of a pound cake. But what does all this have to do with the local art scene?
In 1987 the Asheville Citizen-Times published Robert Godfrey’s classic piece, “Is Asheville in Danger of Becoming Cupcake Land?” In this short essay, Godfrey posed the question, “How does a community avoid what is simply popular culture and wedge in ideas and artifacts which are challenging, perhaps controversial?”
Having recently visited seven of Asheville’s commercial galleries, I think there’s little question that our fair city has edged closer to confection. There are plenty of well-crafted paintings, but few that would provoke a lengthy philosophical discussion. All but one of these galleries seemed to be taking the “something for everyone” approach: a mélange of artists working in totally different styles, with different intents and uneven results. In most cases, there was nothing to tie the work together. Indeed, in some cases, there was little indication that the gallery had any vision or purpose beyond trying to sell something.
Owning an art gallery is not as easy as it might appear. There’s a lot more involved than just getting dressed up for an opening and smiling at potential patrons. Decisions on which works to show and how many risks one can afford to take with exhibits can be heart-wrenching: Should you use your costly space to showcase work that’s not readily accessible, that requires more than a fleeting glance in order to be understood?
Some artists, of course, have instant, broad appeal. They execute their work in the color scheme that’s currently in favor, and they demand no serious contemplation from collectors. In short, the work is marketable: The gallery can keep the lights on and pay the rent. Galleries must take these things into consideration; no one is served if they close their doors.
Artists face the same dilemma: Should they make art that challenges and maybe even disturbs, but feeds their own soul and honestly expresses their ideas? Or should they tone it down, producing something pretty that enables them to pay their studio rent on time?
At no time in recent memory has the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce sent out a brochure that did not promote Asheville as an art mecca. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations and shops all benefit from the perception that Asheville is an “arts destination.” Extensive—and expensive—studies and surveys have been conducted by HandMade in America, Appalachian State University and the North Carolina Arts Council to document the local arts scene’s economic impact—but is that really why we should value art and artists?
Robert Godfrey and Kevin Hogan are two of Asheville’s most mature and professional artists, yet neither has exhibited work here in years. When I asked him why, Godfrey just said, “No comment.”
Hogan, meanwhile, remembers that 20 years ago he’d be asked, “Why don’t you show in Asheville?” Now, he says, he’s asked, “Why is there no place in Asheville for you to show?”
Hogan believes there’s a growing awareness among collectors of the overcommodification of art here, coupled with an absolute lack of representation for art with a serious intellectual aspect. “It’s just a market, a grocery store,” he says. “There is no focus on quality—all we have is Bob Ingle. It may be OK for peanut butter, but for art with any real meaning, we have to move past Laura Lynn. Eventually, if people come here because of all the art hype and see that it’s all hype and no substance, they will stop coming.” Hogan, however, says he hangs on to the old-fashioned notion that “the commercial world taints the work.”
Ursula Gullow, a young painter who’s active in the local arts community, says, “Asheville artists can be isolated.” A graduate program at a nearby college or university, she maintains, “could bring visiting artists with influence from the larger art world to inspire and encourage us. This is a small town—everyone wants to be safe and polite—and so no one pushes the envelope. There is no serious dialogue or criticism of other artists or of the galleries.”
Gullow has many ambitious and perhaps unrealistic ideas about how to improve the situation for local artists: better press coverage of non-mainstream arts events; expanded outreach and more challenging museum exhibits; meaningful grants and health care for artists whose work is not commercially viable. Arts education, she believes, is the key to collectors being willing to explore art that’s edgy or dark. “But a commercial gallery with tunnel vision won’t stop people from making their art,” she notes. “It just might force them to find more interesting and creative outlets to produce and sell their work.”
Still, a new year always brings new hope. JoAnna Fireman, for example, creates small ceramic sculptures. Raw and vulnerable, they depict creatures half-formed or in a state of disintegration. “The intention of my work is to awaken the senses and the heart-disturb, to provoke and ignite the imagination … enticing the viewer to wonder about our place in the family of things,” her artist’s statement reads.
Fireman’s work is showing in the Blue Spiral’s Focus Gallery this month. The gallery has shown courage in hanging these intriguing little in-your-face pieces. Now let’s see if there’s anyone here with the courage and insight to buy one.
[Asheville-based painter and writer Connie Bostic formerly owned Zone One Contemporary gallery on Biltmore Avenue.]