Dear Fellow Artists and Art Lovers,
A few weekends ago, we presented Debtfair at Art League Houston. We met as many people as possible, and visited some of the impressive art sites in town. The project quickly transformed from virtual proposal to social reality as we entered into conversations that touched on the intricacies of an artist’s life in Houston today, where its sweet spots lie, and some of the heavy challenges ahead, such as increasing gentrification, under-resourcing of local artists, and a lot of debt. In response to our presentation, we encountered views that were both enthusiastic and also highly critical of the project, leading to heated debate. Due to the charged nature of our subject, we were not surprised. This (rather long, sorry) letter is our attempt to clarify the project as much as possible at this stage.
Why focus on debt? Art communities in cities across the country face daunting challenges concerning debt, with seven out of ten of the most expensive colleges being art schools. The sense of shame often associated with debt has been a roadblock in creating the solidarity necessary to challenge the institutions that profit from ever- higher loans. Debtfair proposes to engage these challenges directly and explicitly. While it certainly does not claim to offer easy or immediate solutions, it does offer a unique platform and, we hope, a creative spark for you to respond to these challenges through the act of creating and exhibiting art. We invite you to join us in this artistic experiment.
The Debtfair exhibition concept is the following: An open call released last week encourages artists to create new pieces or submit existing works. Some artists may choose to respond through to the issue of sustainability for arts communities, which is Debtfair’s overall theme. Interpret the theme in any way your imagination takes you (representational, abstract, ironic, earnest, critical, etc). At Art League Houston’s main gallery, the work will be hung in a very tight “salon-style”, but there are two main differences from most group shows:. Firstly, the works will be hung inside the walls as opposed to on top of them, and, secondly, they will be arranged in groupings that we call “bundles.” These bundles are organized not by content or theme, but according to information on our online questionnaire. The questionnaire is part of the registration process that initiates your involvement in Debtfair. It asks a number of questions about each artist’s economic realities.
Using this information, “bundles” of artists with shared economic conditions will be organized together and put for sale. Each artwork in the bundle will be valued at the same level as your monthly debt payment, but the bundles will only be sold as a collective. One bundle, for example, may consist of artists indebted to the same bank or university. We see this as a potentially powerful tactic; the visual alignment of your work with the work of others who share the same economic challenges opens new spaces for visibility and leverage--visibility, because expression in numbers has a symbolic impact, and, when organized around specific institutions, leverage for change can be found.
Debtfair shines a light on two unavoidable and unappealing aspects of many artists’ lives: debt burdens and the speculative trend exemplified by art fairs. Why, you might ask, would we choose to bring the raw negativity of debt and finance into the space of art? Why organize art into “bundles” when that word reminds us of Wall Street's toxic debt derivatives? The answer is that we hope to transform this negative concept into something empowering through the magic of art. Let us be clear that we believe art is a human and inspiring practice that does not always need to reflect political positions, and that has its own intrinsic value, which has nothing to do with money. However, we also believe that its sometimes necessary to face problems head on, at their core: the hacker’s strategy. We believe that Art is both resilient and powerful enough to step into uneasy territory and inspire social change.
We are aware that this is a challenging, initially counter-intuitive project. Many people have good reasons for not disclosing their economic realities, and we respect that. We understand that this project will not be for everyone and that criticism of our framework is part of the diversity of visions that makes the art world so engaging. But we feel that this project reflects a current moment where artists are searching for agency, and note that Art League Houston has taken a leading role nationally in this by being one of the first institutions toWAGE certify, and incubating projects like Debtfair in Houston. We invite you to join an exciting and energetic visualization of the struggles that artists and communities at large are facing nationally. We think that Debtfair will be a meaningful artistic experience for all involved.
You can get started by joining the Debtfair website here. Please note that since receiving feedback from Houston artists, we have also been making adjustments to the project based on what we heard, and they can be found here. If you have any questions first or along the way, email us at email@example.com and we can arrange a time to talk by phone. We will return to Houston in coming weeks to host another conversation and look forward to the continued conversation.
In art, experiment, and solidarity,