Organization Towards a Commons. A Common Field essay published by Terremoto.

Commissioned by Terremoto
Published in Issue 11, February 12 - May 14, 2018

Organization Towards a Commons
by James McAnally and Stephanie Sherman

Five years after its foundation, James McAnally and Stephanie Sherman reflect on Common Field, a US American network of artist-run spaces.

Around 2003, a new group of artist spaces started to pop up around the United States, although for years they remained under the radar to one another and to the art world at large. It’s unclear why this particular year marks a surge in the founding of these spaces—a new generation of creative people disillusioned by art in the wake of the insanity of 9/11 and the unfolding Iraq War, the ubiquity of mobile technologies that precipitated fluid working in start-up, DIY, or DIT modes, or simply, as times deliver, a confluence of energies around the idea of operating art spaces or institutions differently than what visible arts or culture institutions had to date.

Many of these spaces—Machine Project (Los Angeles), The Luminary (St. Louis), Elsewhere (Greensboro), Space Gallery (Portland, Maine), and Threewalls (Chicago), to name only a few—were part of a group of 20 artist-spaces that were invited to a retreat at Ox-Bow in 2013. It was from this retreat that Common Field emerged. The initial founders, Elizabeth Chodos, Courtney Fink, Nat May, Abigail Statinsky, Stephanie Sherman, and Shannon Stratton, each represented organizations that had the benefit of being part of the Warhol Initiative, a capacity-building program led by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the few grant-awarding foundations in the US deeply committed to the work of artist organizations. Aside from the Warhol Foundation, there are no private foundations focused on supporting the work of this field on a national scale, and public funds, such as The National Endowment of the Arts or state arts councils, are not only in very short supply, but are also highly variable in terms of their annual project commitments. Very few grants cover operating funds, so organizations often survive by inventing some hybrid mix of rampant volunteerism, earned income from programs or sales, grant funds, and private donations—from big to crowd-funded. Without real prospects for a centralized funding structure or consensus on funding advocacy as a viable objective, Common Field’s founding organizers saw the need to articulate shared practices and values, to give definition to the field.

The premise for Common Field was to generate a network of these artist-spaces and organizations that could support one another through shared resources, connection, and advocacy, and, through this exchange, to build stronger organizations—better resourced, more interconnected, and better supported as a result of shared knowledge and collective power. Officially launching in 2015, Common Field made the goal of “representing” this evolving field its starting point. At the time, there were few forums for connection, and no shared language through which to express the scope, vision, and impact of these spaces within the landscape of contemporary art in the US. It set out to reflect the artist-run spaces and projects that composed the field, inventing its own ways of doing things as a network that embodied the particular values of its members. It would need to be nimble, experimental, risky, inventive, and responsive.

There was of course a historical precedent for Common Field, although part of the challenge of the field of artist organizations is that its history is so often lost, fragmented, or worse. For example, Common Field’s most immediate predecessor NAAO, the National Association of Artists’ Organizations, which operated from 1982-2001, lost its archives to a garbage truck when they were purged unknowingly from a former director’s garage. Depending largely on the support for artists’ organizations it could generate through political advocacy, NAAO met its slow demise after suing its own funder, the National Endowment for the Arts when the NEA retracted support for individual artist grants after the notorious “NEA Four” [1] pitted individual artists against conservative politicians—who denied the grants—and the organizations that supported them. More recent precedents such as Common Practice in the UK formed a closed network and accomplished a singular and critical task, advocating for the value of artist-run spaces to the UK arts council. In contrast, to date, Common Field has had no such specific advocacy agenda other than staking out a field of artist organizations that are neither part of the commercial art world nor the university or museum system, and, in doing so, generating visibility and viability for this often overlooked area of the art world.

As a national network, Common Field connects, supports, and advocates for the artist-centered field, connecting at present 700 members across 43 states. The network includes alternative art spaces, publications, digital exhibition venues, residencies, platforms, collectives, collaboratives, as well as individual organizers. Fundamentally, Common Field “supports organizing that generates new contexts for creation, circulation, and critique. [They] engage with changing social, political, and economic conditions, prioritizing the role of art organizing within these broader concerns.” Organizations self-identify as members, align with a web of values and practices of artist organizations and organizing, and pay a small annual fee based on their budget to support the network and its services. Common Field’s main program is the annual Common Field Convening, a nomadic gathering that assembles the field—most recently in Los Angeles in November 2017. Common Field also hosts research initiatives, publishing projects, and project commissions in partnership with its member network, regional meet-ups, an online forum, and more.

Now five years in the making, Common Field has confronted and consciously inflected its own organizational founding with the most pressing ideological challenges of the day; it is committed to engaging with art as an expression of social and political alliances and practices, approaching art not just as a practice that reflects the world, but as a mode of actively rendering or modeling the world. This commitment and operational modality has formed a network aware of the affinities and discrepancies in creative approach, ideology, mission, and vision among its participants. Regardless, Common Field’s evolution has been self-consciously demonstrative, attempting to model equitable practices, transparent governance, collaborative cultural forms, and immediacy of response as a way to incubate these values further within the field. The forming of Common Field has itself been an exercise in “commoning” a group of spaces, in which the “common” is a web of interests, practices, and approaches—part curatorial, part directorial, part artistic, part collective, part administrative, simultaneously all and none of the above.

A dominant question throughout Common Field’s development has been how, exactly, this field hangs together as a coherent network—an assembly of artist-run, artist-centric, or self-organized projects that is expansive and essential rather than disconnected and marginal to the broader activities of the art world. From the network’s founding documents to the activities of its 700-plus members, Common Field has been multi-hyphenated, disparate, and unable to be distilled down to an easy description. It is perhaps a question more of position than of structure—bottom-up, outside-in, singular to common.

Our contemporary times have been wracked with the failure of institutions—governmental, financial, ethical, and, of course, cultural. The institution, as it is fundamentally understood, is a center of power, a distillation of forces into a discrete whole. The institutional art world is a common foil for the work of the organizations, projects, and spaces that make up this field. That world of institutions carries certain codes—hierarchical decision-making processes, dominant power relations, compromised funding models, colonial histories, and a pervasive white, male, eurocentric viewpoint. In the US, many museums, but also the broader “nonprofit industrial complex,” as well as academia at large, tend to be slower to respond to calls for decolonization, direct action, and divestment from problematic patrons, whether the Sackler family or fossil fueled companies. The independent or alternative mode of working is a necessary force of resistance to these tendencies that opens up new ways of working, foregrounding equity, mutuality, and liberation. The existence of Common Field as a quickly growing network opens a viewpoint in which this “other” form of independent organization is imagined as larger, more expansive, and more interconnected than the institution. This network is dependent on collaboration and solidarity rather than on forces that undermine the messages their constituent organization and spaces present. This network, in its attempt to promote organizational forms tied to communal ethics and shared benefit, offers a kind of counterforce to the institutional art world and market, advancing tangible models and examples in the present, tactics towards next steps and re-imagined futures.

In the case of Common Field and many of its organizations, we are quite specific in our choice not to be institutions, as institutions are fundamentally designed to withstand changes over time. They move slowly, they resist change, they are steadfast and resilient, they serve best as long mirrors rather than catalysts for the shifts in cultures around them. Organizations, on the other hand, are formations of practices—a system, designed in response to a need or agenda. They set in motion a structure or platform for engagement that pushes some radical vision into a reality that can be apprehended, engaged with, and extended. Organizations are codified ways of doing things: they help strangers work together, they provide mechanisms for different ways of getting people involved, they move with the times in which they are situated.

An artist-run or artist-centered organization typically approaches artists’ work as an open process, rather than the final fruits of their labor, and places this perspective at the core of its practice. The organization might be run by artists themselves, or might be an expression of a curatorial intention to provoke, engage, or connect artistic processes. It values the artists and their public as human agents. Likewise, many of Common Field’s organizations commit themselves to overcome the limits of art—how it is made, spoken about, presented, curated, activated. And thus these organizations are most often experimental (in that they take risks, they try, they fail), they are independent (they are not contingent or beholden to some other larger institutions), they are non-commercial (sales are not the ultimate outcome or aim of their work even if they have a commercial interface).

Within more traditional contemporary art institutions it is often the figure of the curator that wields the agency to address the urgencies of the present through a predominantly symbolic approach in the form of exhibitions and programs; at Common Field, the curatorial tends towards questions of process, access, and the generation of knowledge as well as, community building or directly connecting towards cultural and structural change. In this field, what one does is not necessarily centered on a particular position because the positions of director, curator, preparator, fundraiser, and communicator often collapse into the same practice. In this view, Common Field often refers to its participants as “arts organizers,” since this work is much more akin to what a community organizer might do—assembling, communicating, connecting, orchestrating, strategizing, fundraising, and so on. Rather than the more common stand-ins of the arts worker, cultural producer, or arts administrator, positions which have become central to questions of the artist-as-laborer, the artist-as-free-agent, and the artist-as-bureaucrat, respectively, an arts organizer contains and exceeds these dynamics. One administers the present but organizes towards the future.

Foregrounding this tendency, Common Field created an impromptu series under the banner of Politically Resistant Programming following the 2017 US presidential election. This program gathered together those of its members generating online video conversations and toolkits to share research on how organizations and organizers were responding and resisting. The series emerged from an initial observation of the self-organized activities being generated in the field and the pressing need to act given the high-stakes of the situation. However, Common Field’s ability to offer a collective legibility around its members’ work points to the power of this decentralized curatorial activity to gather, present, and disseminate the disbursed work of the network. Common Field’s programs negotiate this delicate balance of coagulating and sharing organizational actions, and spurring on collective energy in the name of the network itself.

If the institution is the centralized power that is to be reshaped towards new, equitable ends, it is in the independent sector that we will see these values first enacted. It is not an image of the institution set against its opposite; rather, it is about building organizations of the common, to paraphrase Antonio Negri. Theories alone will not enable the kind of sea changes needed. Without in-practice examples of how commons work, without a medium through which to learn and reorganize, without the tension of real compromises and negotiations, no aspiration will ever come to fruition. At its best, Common Field draws from and upon these strategies and tactics, strengthening the organizing work of its nodes and their aggregate in tandem.

As a counter to the centralizing tendencies of the institution, Common Field’s motion must be circular: a collectivity that comes together or convenes, and a network that continually pushes outward back towards its members. The permeability of Common Field as a network requires that it be malleable to its network’s desires, that it be, in fact, inseparable from the multiple voices of its members. A network can also be a problematic site of consolidated power, as our pervasive “social” networks make clear, so it is the vigilance towards the common that holds this off-center structure in place. The circulation between Common Field and its members and vice versa must be generative and perpetually reforming. It must be open to criticism and flexible, it must find forms to take in input, but also to make quick and intelligent decisions.

Common Field is impossible to imagine apart from the urgencies, possibilities, and complications of the present. It is both nationally implicated, yet globally inflected. Though Common Field is situated within the unique context of the US in all of its messy associations, the field itself is a global phenomenon—art organizations are born, they live and die, they are functions of their contexts and their motivations, and they are often unrecognized by the larger and grander institutions they feed. Structurally, Common Field is built around the sometimes-contradictory presences of its network in urban centers and rural contexts, in itinerant or online-only forms, and in the messy melding of older, established organizational models with the experimental, emerging platforms always arising. Its imperative is to remain near these voices, perpetually reformulating in response to its network’s needs and aspirations, and through this process, forming one of the most comprehensive mappings of contemporary art organizations and their practices in the United States, in all of their concrete, complex, contingent realities.

1. In the words of Alexis Clements: “The NEA Four—Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Karen Finley— [were] artists [who] were denied National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funding in 1990, after Congress passed a ‘decency clause’ that gave the NEA permission to deny grants based on the subject matter of the art.” Alexis Clements, “The NEA Four Revisited: On Arts Funding,” Hyperallergic, May 14, 2013.