Chapter 28: ASSASSINATION: James Wagner, Art Critic, Collector, and Editor of ArtCat
James Wagner: untitled (red box), 2006, photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy of James Wagner. Featured earlier on Wagner’s blog with the caption “moving the art on 22nd street.”
Being able to talk with James Wagner from ArtCat was a delightful experience with his “opinionated guide to New York galleries.” I had been a huge fan of his art reviews on his personal blog at jameswagner.com which delivered to the public some in-your-face, straight-from-the-gut art reviews of shows around the New York City area that captivated my own interest very much. Later on I found out that he was involved in a rather skillfully done art calendar for the New York City visual arts scene that pointed to the everyday person where to find the shows that were worth looking at without getting lost in the mess of having to plow through hundreds of galleries in any given month. The original website was called ArtCal, which explains why the interview still retained the old name, before switching over to its current name ArtCat to fit in with Barry Hoggard‘s hosting service for artists and galleries.
Both Wagner and Hoggard also collect artwork straight from the heart and avidly champion emerging artists without regard for the economic value of the art that both men seek together. With their lively approach to providing all types of resources for the art world, these guys understand that helping others is a priority that few are willing to sacrifice time and effort to making sure that others can function readily well.
If you have any questions about art events, art criticism, or website hosting featured at ArtCat or Wagner’s blog, feel free to contact James Wagner at email@example.com or Barry Hoggard at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Wagner: There are two parts to the “opinion” aspect of the calendar, now called ArtCat. The first is that we do not list every show that is submitted. We are not trying to be comprehensive, as no one person would be able to see every show that we do list. We list most things that come in, but we do not list galleries that charge membership fees, or ones that forbid photography by the press or the public. We give most exhibitions the benefit of the doubt, especially if it is in a space that is new, really small, or off the beaten path. The second part of providing opinion is the picks. Barry, Paddy Johnson, and I make shows picks or top picks once we have seen them, but occasionally for certain artists or group shows that look really interesting, we make a show a pick before seeing it. We also make shows “featured openings” if they look promising but we are not sure if they should really be a pick. I don’t really consider what we do with the calendar as arts criticism. We do have a group blog called The Zine with regular reviews that provides criticism.
qi peng: You also advise non-profit visual organizations in various capacities. What is the nature of being able to help out within the arts community?
James Wagner: Because of the experience my partner Barry Hoggard and I have with internet publishing, our knowledge of what is going on at any one time in both the visual and performing arts, our enthusiasm for new work which is barely visible even to some of the most cosmopolitan members of the public, and the time we’ve spent uncovering new work, we are sometimes able to help organizations by introducing them to individuals and institutions which might be able to assist them in their programs and furthering their visibility. We can also offer both direct and indirect assistance in broadcasting their message. We have been able to point them to publicity and technical people appropriate and sensitive to their operations, and we can make suggestions for increasing their visibility, especially on the internet. Much of this kind of help is useful for individual artists as well, and we are delighted to share it with them when we can.
qi peng: With the current state of the economy, what challenges are these organizations facing in terms of both budget and cultural hardships?
James Wagner: Many of the non-profits with which we are most familiar were already able to sustain themselves only with great difficulty, but their traditional impecunious status may now offer one advantage: To the extent that there was never a danger of their over-extending themselves, they many now be able to survive better than the commercial institutions which did, and I’m thinking first of all about real estate and staff. I don’t think however that we can begin yet to predict the degree or the duration of the economic downturn or collapse as it will affect the arts. On the plus side however, I think that with the decline, already apparent, in what had become an embarrassing primacy given to commercial considerations, art itself will flourish, perhaps more than ever, even if those who depend upon it for survival are going to be struggling harder, and sometimes falling by the wayside.
qi peng:How are you able to make visual art more appealing and catchy to the general populace who may not have the requisite background to understand the full context of the artwork being presented through ArtCal [ArtCat]?
James Wagner: The best thing I can do, given my total lack of academic experience as either a student or teacher of the arts, is to get out as often as I can, go where most people cannot go, and let my pretty-good camera do its best to convey on a screen some of the excitement of the art I’m fortunate to be able to experience first hand. I realized early on that wasn’t not quite enough, even for a well-meaning dilettante of whom nothing more should be expected. I try to express in words, as compactly as I can, what may have accounted for my choice of subject and why I would want to share it. I may miss what would be important and even obvious to a professional critic, but in the end I think there’s some value in breaking past some of the scary talk about art, and going boldly, maybe “artlessly”, where many of us may normally fear to venture.
qi peng: You describe yourself as “an American dissident.” What does that means specifically for you, in terms of the gay/queer culture? In terms of the political atmosphere during the Bush administration? In terms of the political atmosphere during the Obama administration? In terms of being an atypical New Yorker? What are the philosophical underpinnings of rebellion, say in the style of Camus or Marx?
James Wagner: My political orientation began, as a very young adult, with a position close to the far right, more or less a classical liberalism, but it almost immediately progressed further and further to the left. I would say that until most recently it closely resembled something like radical democratic socialism, but after experiencing the global capitalist death spiral of the last year I’m ready to reimagine everything.
I think my thinking might have gone this route even were I not an outsider, for even today that is what my queerness makes me. But my mind would almost certainly not be where it is today had I remained closeted much beyond my adolescence. I can’t imagine that I would have been capable of any openness or compassion, of personal amendment or change, while still living a lie.
The Bush administration was anathema to me, from beginning to end, but no government can be expected to be formed or to perform perfectly, so I will always be a dissident. I have already made it clear to my friends and on my blog that I believe the Obama administration, as remarkable as it may seem to us after what we have been through, can and must not be an exception.
My opposition to all rigid, immoral, inequitable, militaristic arrogant and just plain stupid governments has never been simply personal or economic. I don’t even understand the idea of voting on the basis either of a candidate or party’s perceived support for queers or for personal economic advantage. I would like to think that would be the case even if I hadn’t always enjoyed the privilege of being an educated white male who might have the added privilege of being able to easily pass for straight (if he could think of any reason to do so). I know there are better ways to put together government systems, administrations and policies; I think about these things all of the time and I just can’t keep my mouth shut. I am even a dissident within the queer community, whose practical conservatism I find frustratingly at odds with the radical nature of its difference and its culture. I may sound like a crank, but I continue to believe things can be improved, so I’m also an idealist and an optimist.
qi peng: What do you think about the current of ethics within the art market, within the New York art world, and the gallery system in general? Do you feel that many artists feel betrayed by the “overhyped” commercialism of the international art world (such as the grandiose art fairs) by the way that gallery owners have treated their artists like a form of commodity?
James Wagner: Most artists are not very good at marketing their work, and most people who buy art aren’t going to wander around from studio to studio. There has to be some format which will serve both sides of what is going to be a transaction or at least a relationship. What we’ve had until now are “dealers” and, more recently, “fairs”. The function of each, and even the words themselves go back at least to the middle ages. The role of the dealer may be slowly changing in front of our eyes, but the future of the fairs, at least as we’ve come to know them, is definitely being threatened today. We may be see new and perhaps superior forms of “market” relationships developing, but there will always be room for unfairness and corruption. The artist will survive both, but it’s up to all of us to help.
James Wagner: I don’t feel qualified to discuss Wall Street economics or ethics, even if I defend the right of all of us to do so, but I will say that I think most of the money spent by Wall Streeters was expended on art which was very hyped, and some artists themselves managed to do very well because of it. But the bankers weren’t going to go into studios in the outer boroughs to see emerging art for themselves; they had presumably decided there would be no point in talking about or showing colleagues and friends stuff they’d paid a lot of money for which was not already a familiar brand, if not a trophy. While it might be argued that all artists benefited in some way from the the banking bubble while it lasted (there certainly was more money being spent on art, and art was recognized by everyone as having “real” value), ironically it may be that only the poorest will see their apartment arrangements improve now that it’s burst.
qi peng: As collectors, what do Barry and you look for within the certain pieces that you desire to add? What are the main challenges in finding work which suits your place and environs? What is your opinion of collectors who grab art based on its perceived financial value or as a portfolio investment? Does the capitalist attitude add much cultural value to the overall system of the gallery-artist-collector relationships?
James Wagner: We’ve had limited disposable income even in the best of times, but we’ve always looked for art by underknown artists out of interest and conviction rather than necessity. I’ve also often said, describing the collection, that we have quite a bit of conceptual art, in every medium, and that there’s more than a little humor than might be found in most homes. Oh, and just the other day someone visiting us said that the collection was a lot of joy in it. We both liked that.
We don’t really look for anything in the sense you’re asking; when we’re looking at art we always end up being attracted to something which really surprises us. We’ve often made the decision to acquire something almost immediately on seeing it, and we’re almost always in total agreement, as unbelievable as that seems. Our home/work environment limits our choices only because all the walls are now pretty full, and they’re hung salon style. Anything large, for instance, would probably be out of the question now even if we could afford it. We would have no place to store anything we’d take down which had already been framed, so rotating isn’t a possibility. We never think of appreciation in the value of a work, only the value of our appreciation. Sorry, that was probably too sententious. In any event, we’ve never sold anything we owned.
qi peng: For your blog at jameswagner.com, you have a lot of “personal” reviews at various shows which you attend. Which shows do you choose to visit because of time constraints?
James Wagner: I really like visiting galleries. If Barry or I have done a little homework ahead of time, there’s almost never a dull moment. My biggest regret about the process is that there just isn’t time enough to see as much as I’d like to. Oh, and there’s also the frustration which results from seeing a show only on the last day or two of its run, since I might have been able to recommend it (and make it a pick on ArtCat, if it wasn’t already).
qi peng: About the policy of photographing works in the gallery context, why are some galleries protective of their supposed “ownership?” In one of your entries, you mention that Capla Kesting did not permit to photograph the pieces in situ. Why would a supposed “underground” Brooklyn gallery act in such an assuming fashion which is more in line with the establishment?
James Wagner: The question about photography policies is one Barry and I both take very seriously. Picture prohibitions seem totally counterintuitive to an understanding of the interests of the gallery, and it’s certainly not in the interest of the artist. Even for many gallery visitors who are not maintaining a blog, a photograph is an indispensable tool, much like a notebook – only different - and maybe better. Hey, it’s a *visual* art. I’m also thinking of the time-honored tradition of young artists honing their skills by setting up their easels inside museums and copying paintings precisely. Today the gallery is where things are happening, but it’s clearly all about commerce, the brand, and control, any claims about the artist’s copyright notwithstanding. On the ArtCat calendar we never list shows of galleries that forbid photography by the press or the public. In addition, we will refuse to review, on either of our own blogs, shows in galleries which maintain such policies.
By the way, I also think that Museums generally don’t do enough to make it possible for people to use cameras, with discretion. Even when the institution permits photography of art it owns, it generally prohibits it when it comes to work borrowed for a show. I would argue that individuals and institutions which loan work be told that it is simply a condition of its display that visitors will be able to photograph it.
James Wagner: I’m not interested in simple tagging, and in fact I think it impoverishes the environment and often steals from creative artists. While I’m seldom thrilled with the quality of real street art, since too much of it is imitative, I’m excited about the fact that it’s out there, and that it’s now taking new forms and adopting new mediums. It’s also a growing phenomenon, so I’m hoping there’s going to be more of a chance for some really good stuff to show up.
qi peng: For example, do you react to Swoon‘s artwork in the public places in a different manner than at a more formal setting such as the Deitch Projects? Do you have feel that street artists such as Banksy, Poster Boy, etc. add public involvement into the fine art world?
James Wagner: Yes, I do. I like the serendipity of art in the streets, and I confess that I find the benign outlaw aspect pretty seductive. Because of the fascinating combination of the street artist’s ubiquitousness, identity as transformer or trickster, and aura as community hero, I think he/she will help raise everyone’s consciousness of the arts, in any form and any place. Actually, I think I just described a lot of what I think attracts me about artists in general.
qi peng: On ArtCal [ArtCat], what trends have you seen in the collective of galleries in Chelsea? In Williamsburg/Brooklyn? In the Lower East Side? Is there a definite pattern of growth or contraction for each area? Do you believe that real estate developers are the enemy of fine art gallery in terms of how both worlds collide with one another? Where are the hot spots to find the intellectually stimulating work that eschews the commercial angle?
James Wagner: I almost always advise going as far afield from the more established galleries as possible, not that some terrific things can’t be found even in the middle of Chelsea, but anyone who hangs out on the Lower East Side, and almost anywhere in Brooklyn, is more likely to get to the art before the critics do. As with explorations on any frontier, the risks of coming up with a dud are considerable (although maybe not any greater than staying in Chelsea), but the rewards can be phenomenal.
qi peng: What is your opinion of the exploding growth of contemporary art in non-New York venues such as Denver or Baltimore? With the recession happening, is there an opportunity for neglected markets to be able to garner the attention of cutting-edge artists who may not have the opportunity to exhibit regularly with the spaces of New York or Los Angeles? Geographically, where do you see the art world heading towards and why?
James Wagner: For selfish reasons alone, since I can’t imagine living in a community which didn’t revere art, I wouldn’t want to see fewer artists in New York, but fortunately they aren’t in finite supply. I would like to see art and artists flourish in every community in the country, and in fact in the whole world. For reasons both pure and monetary, it’s already happening. I think however that, with important exceptions, both the art and the artist will always thrive best in dense, urban environments. There’s just no substitute for the energy and the interchange of ideas found only in cities. The threat of ecological disaster alone should finally have made it clear to everyone that the future belongs to attractive, intelligently-governed real cities.
Incidentally, New York may have hundreds of galleries, but most New York artists don’t really get exhibited regularly, or anywhere for that matter. Even now, the odds might actually be better in Denver or Baltimore. On the plus side for New York, the recession means that living here isn’t looking quite as expensive as it did only very recently.
qi peng: What advice do you have for budding artists who are just finishing their degrees in art school before they enter into the real-life art world/market? What challenges do they face as they attempt to acquire greater critical recognition for their work? Any suggested paths for artists to go for as they grow their exhibition history?
James Wagner: If she or he can find some other means of support, however modest, and can afford to be indifferent to the seductions of immediate recognition, I would think the best thing an artist could do would be to absolutely persist in doing her or his own art, show it to friends and people who are really interested, talk about it, and (maybe) look at a lot of other people’s art (both new and old), and just not worry so much about being seen or “discovered”, or what the critics would say right at this minute. Your work will still be here tomorrow and it will be better for being allowed to grow up by itself.
qi peng: What are some favorite music, movies, book, or cultural artifacts that you wish to recommend to your fans and the readers here? What qualities attract you to the things which you have selected?
James Wagner: I’m sure you wouldn’t have the space to list them, since I’m too unfocused in my interests for me to be able to reel off a few favorites. I will say that I’m generally attracted to work that is totally unfamiliar to me, whether in the visual arts, music, theater, dance, performance, literature or architecture. I can also get very excited about the best of all truly classical forms in any of these, but I’m totally indifferent (at best) to anything which doesn’t deviate from convention.
Oh, yes, there is one big cultural artifact which I wish everyone could share: Brooklyn; it’s the new New York.
qi peng: Is there anything else which you wish to share with us?
James Wagner: Don’t stop looking.