Some thoughts on collaboration…

27 03 2012

In the week preceding the Art Lives! exhibition opening, my thoughts are on collaboration. On that topic, here is a piece I wrote recently to accompany an exhibition in Lincoln, NE, called Womanhouse v4.0: The House that Feminism Built.

Surviving and Thriving through Collaboration
Rachel Epp Buller

With the inception of the Feminist Art Movement, collaboration became a cornerstone of feminist art education. Seen perhaps most notably in the Womanhouse collaboration but also in activist art groups like Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA), Women’s Action Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), Women, Students, and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL), and others, working together as women and artists became a way both to self-empower and, to use a more contemporary phrase, to give truth to power. Producing art through collaboration flew in the face of the myth of the modern male artist, the solitary creative genius working in his studio. Collaboration acknowledged the value of shared labor, the history and even the necessity of it. Large-scale projects like The Dinner Party hearkened back to the collaborative nature of the artist’s workshop, where artists-in-training worked toward a common, final product. Miriam Schapiro used collaboration as a tool to recuperate historical women artists. In works like Me and Mary Cassatt, Schapiro elevated her feminist foremothers, both by naming them and by bringing visual attention to their often-overlooked productions.

But what is the role of collaboration today? Forty years after Womanhouse, does collaboration still have a place in art?

Yes. A plain and simple yes. A vehement YES! Not only does collaboration still have a place, I believe that in this day and age, in a time of economic crisis in the United States when funding for the arts is one of the first things to go, collaboration is our best tool for survival.

I live in the state of Kansas – a blue voter in a red state. When Kansas makes the national news, it’s often for things like a religiously conservative public school board trying to eliminate the teaching of evolution. Yet, surprisingly, we have more artists per capita than any other state in the nation.[1] We support the arts. Or at least, many of us do. Over the last year, though, Kansas has made the national arts news again and again because of the actions of our recently elected governor, Sam Brownback. Thanks to his efforts, Kansas now has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the union without a state-supported arts commission. Despite the widespread protests of arts supporters and even over the protests of fellow Republican lawmakers, the governor fired all staff members of the Kansas Arts Commission and eliminated all state funding, consequently losing over $1 million in additional federal funding and other matching grants.

So what do we do, when things seem dire for the arts? We collaborate. We organize online, we meet in person, we stage rallies and make our voices heard. My students at Bethel College staged a “Day Without Art,” covering all publicly situated artworks and drawing attention to what could be lost.[2] An artist colleague started a blog, Imagine Kansas Without Art, to capture some of the many creative statements being made around the state.[3] Arts supporters staged a funeral march in Topeka, visibly mourning the “death” of art in the eyes of the state.[4] Kansas Citizens for Arts and other advocates repeatedly rallied in unexpected force to campaign for the importance of funding for art.[5]

Now, nearly a year after the cuts have been made, when artists, educators, museums, galleries, and other arts organizations in Kansas have sustained serious, sometimes fatal blows, and when even the governor begins to hint that mistakes may have been made,[6] feminist artists around the state come together to proclaim that “Art Lives!” As a regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project, I believe that part of my mission is to help connect feminist artists across the state – building networks, supporting each other, and yes, collaborating. The “Art Lives!” project, to be exhibited at City Arts in Wichita in March-April 2012, connects artists across the state in collaborative endeavors as we seek to move forward despite budgetary constraints. For the past few months, twelve pairs of artists – women from all over the state, working in media from fiber and photography to ceramics and collage – have been collaborating, exchanging ideas and images and re-thinking together what it means to create in a state like ours.

I have no illusions that the collaborations of these 24 artists will convince our state’s leader to restore immediately all funding for the arts. And yet, I have seen first-hand the power of collaboration. Only a few months before the budget cuts, I helped spearhead a community mural project in the small town of Newton, Kansas. We had professional artists to facilitate the production, but the visioning process, figuring out what would go on the wall, was up to the city’s residents.[7] I saw the way that people who had never before been involved with art came forward to offer ideas and participate in difficult dialogues. They gave generously of themselves, eager to be part of an artistic collaboration to benefit the community.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the funding crises for art is that is has forced more artists and arts organizations to collaborate, simply in order to survive. We have been reminded that we cannot exist in isolation, not in this economic climate. And finally, it should not be enough just to survive. Through collaboration, we will thrive.


[1] Statistics compiled by Kansas Citizens for the Arts. arts.ks.gov/advocates/docs/advocacy_booklet.pdf

[7] Lead muralist Dave Loewenstein was assisted by Erika Nelson and Matthew Farley. Funding for the project came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mid-America Arts Alliance, and ARRA 2009.

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1 04 2012
Collaboration and feminist art in Lincoln, NE « Rachel Epp Buller

[…] My essay, “Surviving and Thriving through Collaboration,” was published in their exhibition catalogue and can be read here. […]

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