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When David Quadrini stood on the bank of the East River and watched the World Trade Center collapse, he broke into a spontaneous wail. His knees gave, his eyes watered with overwhelming disbelief, and he knew, like the rest of us, that life couldn't continue as it had before. But as the sooty fallout mushroomed up and out over the heart of the world's financial center, Quadrini's concern momentarily crystallized. He was visiting New York on business, and as an artist and dealer based in Dallas, the leveling of the twin towers seemed to him a hint of what might happen to the art-world playing field--for better or worse.
In the days following September 11, the New York galleries, auction houses and museums rippled with mass cancellations of show openings and sales, shutdowns of exhibitions and meetings. Because of the halt in air traffic that week, Quadrini couldn't get out of New York, so he watched firsthand as the world's most prominent art scene fell silent.
He described the rest of that terrifying day and then settled into an emotionally charged recollection of the ash-choked sunset. "It was incredible, this massive display of all these colors--unbelievable purples bleeding into reds to fiery yellows and back to purple again," he said. "It was just so shocking that something so monstrous yet beautiful could come from something so awful."
Startled by his own words, Quadrini shook his head at their urgency and honesty. That day, few Americans looked past the immediate destruction of the attacks, but with the eye of an artist and businessman, he did. And while the old "silver lining" adage may be too strong for this story, Quadrini's sunset could apply to the unexpected change that often follows trauma.
Over the past three months, we've all played the prediction game: How long will it take to fell terrorism? Will the recession deepen? Post-attack, economists have prophesied New York's displacement as the world's financial capital and called for a long-needed decentralization of corporate power. Could the same be said of New York's longtime dominance of the art world?
It's a massive and dubious task, this speculation on the health of New York's art scene at year's end. But as Manhattan dusts itself off and moves toward normalcy, other American cities can step up to carry some of the cultural burden. While decentralization of the financial sector is about avoiding economic vulnerability, the decentralization of creative minds is about enriching other metropolises across the country, giving more credit to local art scenes instead of always comparing them to New York's.
Every big city has an art scene, some more notable than others: Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago. Even Dallas. Every scene needs a dynamic of discussion, support and encouragement. The North Texas art scene, as an underdog contingent countering the area's much more visible sports and corporate economies, has for years found strength and dignity in community. Its museums, galleries, dealers, journalists and collectors work together to boost artist visibility. And it's paying off. Texas-based artists are plugged into the national art-business machine and are financially stable enough to make their work.
Ironically, over the past decade, I've watched handfuls of young North Texas artists migrate to New York, some out of a need for more urban stimulation, some out of reverence for the legacy of New York's creative drive and many, sadly, out of desperation for a more appreciative audience. Today, most of them are still struggling to pay rent and unable to find representation in the moneyed galleries of Chelsea and SoHo. And some of their contemporaries who chose to stay in Texas are getting a slice of New York's discriminating attention. What happened to the New York career trajectory? The decentralization of the world's visual art center runs deeper and further back than September 11, and while any recession is bad news, the potential redistribution of talent and interest can only be good for Texas, and excellent for Dallas artists.
The beginnings of New York's bleak condition can be traced back as far as the Big '80s, when boomers looked to invest during the Reaganomic surge. SoHo art dealers introduced their young, aggressive artists to massive paychecks. The following decade, these stars' younger contemporaries frolicked in the money wake, while mounting rents in SoHo forced galleries to relocate to the more affordable Chelsea. Artists finally fled to Brooklyn for studio space. The backlash to New York's art elite had begun. For all of Giuliani's undisputed heroism in the face of terrorist attacks, his vision of a cleaner, healthier New York meant a continued drive toward Manhattan as wealthy utopia, a rich-only club, and the massive city cleanup--the shutdown of nightclubs and co-ops, along with the increased earning power of business-minded yuppies--meant much higher Manhattan rents. Ridiculous, crazy-high rents. Which now, in turn, means less young (i.e. broke) talent pouring into the city, and less new talent spells stagnation within the establishment.
Hard to believe Manhattan is on its way to becoming a dull, homogenized island of Brooks Brothers suits and Prada pumps, but there it is. There's no way an artistic think tank like Warhol's factory could exist today. Just stepping out onto Union Square--the Factory's last address--requires a visitor to throw his entire wallet into the black hole of inflated capitalism.
Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan, is a testament to the unaffordability of old-school New York. Williamsburg is the grubby, boho outpost of Manhattan's East Side, and these past several years, it seems every state-school grad with an art degree and some restless ambition has landed there. And now even Williamsburg rents are outstripping the modest incomes. The really broke, really determined kids are straying into such unlikely enclaves as Bedford Stuy, Queens and Harlem, just to be close to Manhattan and its residual title as the art world's Mecca. But for all the time it takes them to commute downtown, they may as well fly in from Boston. And the question ricocheting off the low buildings of these outlying territories: How can I make art when I'm spending every dollar and every ounce of energy just surviving?
Good/Bad, a collective of University of North Texas artists formed in Denton in the early '90s and slowly transplanted to Brooklyn over the past three or so years, is now faced with the inevitable rent hike on its hard-won Williamsburg space. The individual artists are worn out; most of them can't afford the time or money to make their own artwork, and the collective's schedule is on indefinite hold. Good/Bad veterans Martin Iles, Will Robison, Karl Conrad--all terrific artists in their own right--are finding that what worked so well in Texas (the media, the crowds, the financial ease) is much harder won in New York.
Meanwhile, two former members of Good/Bad have unlocked New York's tricky heart from North Texas. Erick Swenson, who makes his fantastical sculptures in a studio in Dallas' Expo Park, is scheduled for a one-man show at the blue-chip James Cohan Gallery in Manhattan in May. Brian Fridge, a Fort Worth-based video and sculpture artist, made his debut in the 2000 Whitney Biennial. Both of them enjoy the push of local curators and dealers. In the 90 days following September 11, tens of thousands of New Yorkers have lost their jobs. Not a climate for career-minded, B.A.-carrying rookies.
As New York braces itself for a lengthy recession, there's hopeful media discourse about how creative impulse and resourcefulness spring from the ashes of such hardship, the most recent historical example being the 1970s, when New York's reeking mean streets gave birth to the scrappy, surprising movements of punk and disco. We can only hope the world will benefit from such windfall again. But this time around, with the information superhighway running strong and the cultural roots of other metropolitan areas dug deep, it's time for decentralization to make its move. Young artists can make the choice: You wanna move to the East Village and sleep on a mattress on the floor of a $1,000-a-month efficiency (don't forget the $1,500 deposit and maybe a $1,000 broker's fee, so never mind renting studio space in Brooklyn) while you wait tables every day and hope to land that gallery assistant job that might lead to connections who recognize your talent? Or you wanna get a decent apartment somewhere in Texas for a fraction of the price, find a cheap studio, work a cush job 30 hours a week, attract local attention with your prolific art-making and whoa! make your New York debut shortly thereafter? One Dallas artist and former Good/Bad member recently said, "New York isn't where you go to make it anymore. You move to New York after you make it."
So if not New York, or even Dallas, then let's try Vegas. Strange but true: Las Vegas harbors a damn fine art scene, fed by University of Nevada at Las Vegas and gently guided by resident art-crit guru Dave Hickey. David Quadrini has kept at least one finger in that sparkly pie for years, and one of the two artists currently on show at his Angstrom Gallery is a former Good/Baddy and graduate of UNT who hiked up to Vegas for grad school. For the Angstrom show, Curtis Fairman's "readymades" are just that--everyday objects barely disguised in their artistic use: Tupperware bowls are paired with bicycle reflectors, cooking colanders are neatly stacked, plastic vases are mated at the lips, all to form new dubious-use objects that evoke a sort of "lifestyle" package of retro-future optimism. Walking among them is like walking through a 1959 issue of Life magazine, with all its predictions of how much easier life can be with a bit of home-ec invention. That, or watching clips of Mystery Science Theater while playing "spot the kitchen utensil as special effect." And everyone knows a hubcap off an old Chrysler makes a fine stand-in for a UFO.
Fairman's objects are playful and easy on the surface, though the undercurrent is wry criticism of "lifestyle" magazines such as Wallpaper and their penchant for making everything vintage so desirable, again and again, and all in the name of some postmodern pedigree. Maybe it's just me, but this unending yuppie penchant for tweedy linear sofas and kidney-shaped ashtrays is beat to death, and my guess is Fairman feels the same.
Christina Rees, a formerDallas Observer staff writer, has been living in New York and London since leaving Dallas in early 2000.