Article

Art critic and veteran arts administrator Michael Fallon offers an unflinching, candid, and mournful personal essay on the current arts economy in Minnesota and his own checkered history trying to make a difference there.
By Michael Fallon
September 9, 2008

Photo of the author

FOR YOURS TRULY, JULY 15, 2008, WAS A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME, red-banner day. It was The Day the Music Died, the time of my own private Ground Zero, the moment I got kicked off American Idol, and the instant that my address changed from Stardust Avenue to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. July 15, 2008, was the day I finally realized I would never have an answer to the question my mother had asked twenty years before: “What are you going to do with an art degree?”

To explain fully, I need to take you back a decade (bear with me) to the year of 1998, which was exactly ten years after I had finished an undergraduate degree in art at UC Berkeley. For those who are too young to remember, the late '90s were the culmination of a lot of hot and steamy cultural and economic build-up, my little lost generation’s big orgasmic moment. Back then, the NASDAQ was spiking so far upward it was phallic, daily spitting out be-nerded, cash-rich Dot-coms almost as often as Monica Lewinsky was visiting the dry-cleaner. The Internet was full of endless nirvanic potential, with little of the sinister tinge it’d have later—no pop-up ads, computer viruses or worms, no Trojan Horses, online predators or trolls, no spambots or spamtraps, no offshore gambling sites, no online social networks, and no blogosphere. 1998 was a good year to be alive in this country—with Seinfeld still on the air, Jordan hitting his shots at the buzzer, McGwire hitting #62, the government balancing its budget (for the first time in 30-plus years), and Pfizer finally getting Sildenafil Citrate on the market. And even with the onrushing economic e-jaculation of what they were calling the New Internet Economy, in 1998 all the various components of the American informational and entertainment industries (thriving civic newspapers, a booming music industry, independent bookstores and video stores, mainstream network television programming) were still flourishing and seemed likely to continue their productive, informative, entertaining ways for years to come. Culture still mattered in America in 1998, and American culture still mattered in the world.

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1998, the year I planted my proud flag in Minnesota, was right in the middle of those
heady times when culture still mattered in America and American culture still
mattered in the world.

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In this heady atmosphere, just past the midpoint of the year, I planted my proud flag in the Twin Cities—in the state of Minnesota, where the economy had been performing, at least for the last few decades, better than the national average and where the unemployment rate was, at 2.7%, half the national. After a decade of struggle to establish myself in the arts, during which I strung together a series of part-time teaching jobs that (barely) supported my evening habit of painting, book design, printmaking, and papermaking, I was ecstatic to be in such a place as Minnesota, which seemed so rich with possibility—both economic and cultural—and with a real, honest-to-goodness, functioning art scene. “OK,” I thought, “finally, I’m going to have something to show Mom!”

 

And in short order, in 1998 I obtained: an artist residency at a community art center, an opportunity to write (for pay!) on art for the local newsweekly, a number of art exhibitions (both group and solo), an offer to teach one adjunct course at a local art college, and a day job doing book layout and design. I even sold enough art here and there to keep me in Stabilo pencils and Arches Aquarelle, and later won a few of the locally prized grants and fellowships.

The year I arrived in Minnesota, I finally felt I was well on my way. Any day now, I thought, it was all going to come together, and all the years of hard art study (undertaken in lieu of my family’s dreams for me to study medicine or engineering) were actually, at long last, going to pay off.

LET US NOW FAST-FORWARD TEN YEARS —to July 15, 2008. What a completely different picture we see. On this day in particular, I woke up to a swirl of dark clouds of dread and worry hanging over my head. The back spasms plaguing me for the past few months (a consequence of the stress at my job in the arts) were particularly acute. It took every bit of mental energy I had, on this day, to drag myself out of bed and clean myself up enough to be presentable at work.

During the morning commute, what I heard on the radio didn’t help matters. Minnesota Public Radio had broken away to special coverage of George Bush’s July 15, 2008, press conference on the continuing mortgage-meltdown, and in the build-up to the president’s address commentators recounted the litany of bad news of the day: the government's 11th-hour bail out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the the value of the dollar increasingly low against the Euro; oil selling at all-time high prices; international investors selling off US bonds overseas; the US trade deficit at a record high; inflation worsening; stock prices falling; banks failing (and FDIC increasingly worried); General Motors facing severe losses and plans to layoff thousands of workers. And on and on and on. Bush, when he came on, couldn’t disguise his own dire mood, speaking in clipped sentences chipper with superficial optimism that sounded skeptical even of themselves.

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Fast forward ten years: I wake with a swirl of dark clouds of dread and worry hanging over my head and acute back spasms (a consequence of the stress at my job in the arts). It takes every bit of mental energy I have to drag myself out of bed and clean myself up enough to be presentable at work.
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The news on this day certainly meshed with what I had been observing on the ground. Minnesota’s once enviable economy had largely deflated; its unemployment rate, at 5.8%, was now twice what it had been in 1998 and was above the national average for the first time in decades. (We felt that personally: my wife had recently been laid off). Meanwhile, over the past several years even the once-vaunted arts community that had first attracted me to Minnesota was beginning to show signs of surprising decay. You can trace it back, most directly, to 2005 and 2006, to the financial implosion of numerous well-established and long-standing arts organizations and institutions.

 

Since then, the growing list of local art failures includes: Minnesota Film Arts, which, facing massive deficits, shuttered its beloved repertory theater, the Oak Street Cinema; the Minnesota Craft Council, which folded after 32 years of distinguished existence; the American National Ballet company out of Duluth and Ballet Arts Minnesota out of Minneapolis, both of which simply failed; and the collapse of the highly regarded Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Minnesota Center for Photography. With significant downturns in charitable giving, government support, and audience participation, suddenly a wide swath of well-established, mid-sized local galleries and theaters were struggling like almost never before. I’ve been hearing rumors even now—unverified and uncertain—that at least two more mid-sized organizations beyond these listed are likely struggling under the weight of more than a million dollars of debt. Under the circumstances, it seems like additional organizational failures are, even now, almost inevitable.

Even if one has no way of foreseeing the outcome of financial factors that threaten the ongoing health of arts organizations in Minnesota, one can guess at the problems to come. The growing list of high-level administrative resignations, defections, and layoffs in the local arts between 2006 and 2008 make it clear that we've not seen the last of the turmoil yet. In this time period, an anomalously high number of leaders, curators, and administrators simply left behind their jobs at local organizations such as the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the State Arts Board, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, and dozens of smaller organizations. One organization, the Southern Theater, reeling from its “huge financial deficit, a building badly in need of repair, faulty and problematic accounting practices, personnel issues, low staff morale, and complaints from artists,” laid off its artistic director of more than 30 years —much to the shock and dismay of the local community. At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts— the state’s, and very nearly the region’s, flagship arts institution—a newly hired director, William Griswold, walked away from his position after only 18 months on the job. At just about the same time, a director at the State Arts Board, Thomas Proehl, who had been hired to fill the position after it was vacant for more than a year (due to inability to attract a candidate), left after only one year on the job. The struggles of countless local arts organizations and institutions have been serious and constant in recent months, and rumors are rampant that much more failure, capitulation, and devastation is yet to come.

One can only guess what factors led Griswold and Proehl, for instance, to bail so quickly on their crucial—to the Minnesota arts community, at least—leadership posts. I suppose it simply could be that they got better offers elsewhere. Griswold went to New York to head the Morgan Library and Museum, and Proehl went to San Francisco to head the American Conservatory Theater. Officially, both were gracious about having been where they were. “This was agonizing, in a sense, because I hate to leave the Twin Cities,” said Griswold, “(but) I felt that this was really the only decision for me.” But perhaps, too, these leaders—and others like them—left their local positions because they saw, on the horizon, the massive tidal wave of failure, struggle, downsizing, and bankruptcy that was approaching Minnesota’s arts organizations, and they had the simple good sense to seek higher ground.

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One can only guess why so many of Minnesota's arts administrators, curators, and leaders in the field have left in recent years. You have to wonder if it's because they saw, on the horizon, the massive tidal wave of failure, struggle, downsizing, and bankruptcy that was approaching the state's arts organizations and had the simple good sense to seek higher ground.
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Whatever their reasons, I certainly couldn’t fault them for leaving Minnesota and its wayward arts community. I couldn’t because I, too, did the same. That is, after ten years of struggle to make good on the promise I saw back in 1998, this day was my last paid day making a living in the arts. On July 15, 2008, I officially gave up the idea that I’d be able to continue facing the “challenge” of keeping a mid-sized Minnesota arts organization afloat. On this day, I stepped down from a job that I had thought was going to be a culmination of my work in the arts, but which I discovered, almost immediately, was just another Bad Job. I resigned on July 15, after nearly two years on the job, my position as executive director of the Northfield Arts Guild.

We’ve all had Bad Jobs—ones that we’ve known, almost as soon as we’ve settled in, were just not right for us. At one time or another, we've all had to decide how to manage such jobs: Do I quit or bide my time? Do I throw myself into the work (in hopes things may eventually improve), or do I petition my boss immediately for change? And there are all kinds of Bad Jobs: Demeaningly Bad Jobs, Exhaustingly Bad Jobs, Wrong-Kind-of-Work-for-Me Bad Jobs, Badly Supervised Bad Jobs, and so on. The worst kind of Bad Job, however, may well be the job that doesn’t live up to the high hopes we have for it, the one that simply can’t provide us with a certain ineffable something that we thought we lacked.

I was so ecstatic about becoming director of this arts organization, that my enthusiasm and sense of arrival may well have blinded me to the fact that I couldn’t have chosen a worse time—2006 to 2008—to step into such a position. Before I came, the organization had seen a worrisome uptick in its regular annual deficits (a fact that was glossed over when I interviewed for the job); within a few months of my settling into the office, the State Arts Board announced (mainly because of its concerns about these deficits I’d inherited) it would be cutting its annual support of the organization by nearly 50 percent. This one loss, combined with the fact that the economic downturn caused long-time business supporters to fall off, individual support to waver, and paid receipts (for theater shows, mostly) to shrink along with families’ tightened budgets, made my working life, immediately, immensely more difficult than it should have been.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I could have been relishing my arrival in a job that, at last, allowed me to make some important contributions—after ten years of hard work researching arts issues, organizing arts organizations and programs and writing about every aspect of the local arts—to the overall welfare of the arts in my adopted home state. I should have been employing lessons learned over a near-lifetime of work of all sorts in the arts to make a difference in the lives of this state’s artists. Instead, the job—day after day—was a misery of tough decisions over nickel-and-dime details and worry over the effects of the natural tendency toward entropy: broken elevators, crumbling mortar on a 19th-century building, spotty furnaces, dead fuse-boxes, disintegrating dance floors, collapsing ceilings, cracked front steps, and so on. I wanted to work at inspiring local artists to pool resources, to mount their combined efforts, and to push the organization into a new, more productive and integral era. Instead, I felt like I was under near-constant bombardment from artists who were selfishly seeking support, money, and attention—but only for their individual activities. I'd hoped to galvanize the community to support and prop up this unique, vibrant regional resource; instead, it was nearly impossible to get anyone in the community who was in a position to help the organization even to take my phone calls.

For more than a year, I had the same nightmare over and over: I dreamed I was trying to dig myself out of a hole that was filling faster than I could empty it, all the while knowing I would eventually, inevitably be buried alive. I somehow managed to keep the lights on as director of this organization (largely by cutting costs to keep us from going into the red), and I was able to do so despite a precipitous fall in income and in spite of an infrastructure stressed by years of debt. But the struggle was slowly killing me. In the end, I had no choice but to quit this Bad Job that had been my last Dream Job in the arts.

IT TOOK THESE TEN LONG YEARS for me to lose, after years of battling the hard realities of working in art, the last of my youthful optimism about the field. I’m not alone, of course, in this realization —just one of the latest to come by it. The great German painter Gerhard Richter, for instance, said as much when he proclaimed: “Art is always to a large extent about need, despair and hopelessness.” The great American painter Jasper Johns said, about his early career as an artist: “I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn't matter—that would be my life.” The American Realist painter William Bailey said: “…frankly, I believe that every painter is in a state of continual failure. The only constant in a painter's life is failure.”

There are lot of platitudes that I could spout off here—about what one should do when given a bowl full of lemons, about what one should do if at first one doesn’t succeed, etc—but let’s be realistic for a moment. On July 15, 2008, after more than ten years of high-level struggle to make it in the arts here, I’ve come to realize, at a fairly steep price, that my expectations for art will never be met, that I will never be quite the success in art I’ve long hoped to be; I've realized that the arts community will never rise to the levels that I hope for it.

For me, there’s just no good way to spin what I see as the prospects for a post-July 15 world. The only solace, perhaps, are words by the Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden, who said, “Sometimes a noble failure serves the world as faithfully as a distinguished success.” From my perspective, perhaps July 15, 2008, simply had to happen so I, and you, could look at the artless world around us with new, and clearer eyes, and so we might realize that failure just is our lot if we work in the arts. And if that's the way it is, maybe we should just get on with it.

And perhaps with this renewed and resigned vision I can finally tell my mother, in answer to what I am going to do with all my art degrees: “I’ve been doing it.”

About the author: Since 1998, Michael Fallon has written from Minnesota more than 170 reviews, feature articles, essays, and profiles for publications as City Pages, Art Papers, the Orange County Weekly, Review (out of Kansas City), Modernism, the Pittsburgh City Paper, Fiberarts, Public Art Review, Art in America, and Hope. In 2000, Michael joined the American chapter of the International Art Critic’s Association, and in 2002 he founded a local arts writers association, the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM), with whom he was instrumental in setting up several programs fostering local arts criticism—including a lecture series at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and a partnership publication of arts criticism with the local book review journal Rain Taxi. In 2003, Michael was asked by the editor of mnartists.org, a project of the Walker Art Center and McKnight Foundation, to write a regular column on art and a range of other subjects.

This last gig, which Michael continues today nearly four years later, was a perfect chance for him to practice a variety of different approaches to art criticism and to explore the range of issues that had begun to concern him. In particular, in 2001 Michael had written two stories for City Pages on two local mainstay (and talented) artists who had fallen on difficult times, and who fit the stereotype of the “starving artist.” The stories, while a fascinating chance to examine the life of working artists in a Middle American town, caused the writer to begin to wonder if perhaps this were not just an isolated phenomenon. By 2003, Michael began traveling whenever possible to other locales—Kansas City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New York, rural Colorado, and so on—to find aging hard-luck artists and to tell their stories (some of this work was supported by a travel grant from Jerome Foundation) in order to shed light on their struggle.

This goal–to shed light on the struggle of aging artists–led Michael in 2005 to enroll in the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Here, among other activities, he established and led a four-month group research project called “Essential Services for Aging Artists” (ESAA), which made use of focus-group discussions of artists in New York, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, a survey of more than 1,300 artists currently working nation-wide, a study of existing information about the state of artists and research into what services currently exist for artists, and a group analysis of the data we collected. The project’s goals were to gain a clearer understanding of the problems and needs that visual artists face as they age, to research services that currently exist to address these needs, to pinpoint needs still unaddressed, and to make recommendations for addressing these needs. The final report on aging artists, completed in May 2006, is comprised of chapters on findings about the overall current “state of the artist” and on the needs of artists in eight essential service categories: housing, estate planning, business skills, archiving, legal services, retirement, insurance, and health care.

Today, Michael is back in Minnesota. He continues to be concerned about the needs of artists and in finding ways to address to those needs. At the same time, Michael continues to be passionate about seeking the truth about why artists (and the arts in general) continue to struggle in this country. Indeed, his most recent writing has grown increasingly strident in seeking answers to hard questions about our national ambivalence toward the arts. His knowledge about the real struggles faced by artists in Middle America has led him to pursue a long-range project—a series of articles and a blog dubbed in the aggregate with the charged title, “The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America.”

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