In his recent article “I Don’t Care About Contemporary Art Anymore?” musician and artist David Byrne observes, “I’m wondering if economics might kill painting off this time, along with a number of other kinds of work that we sometimes think of as part of our culture.” Byrne’s piece discusses the high priced world of art in New York City, a place where it has become virtually impossible for a middle class person to rent an apartment, and where art is an inaccessible commodity denoting both cultural and economic status. While the Pioneer Valley has little in common with New York City, it has traditionally attracted artists of various stripes, and the shifting economic climate over the past decade has harmed our own artistic community. As a resident of Northampton, I am aware, for instance, that as rents downtown have soared, the number of available spaces where emerging artists can share their work has been steadily shrinking. This situation is challenging for both established and emerging artists, and negatively impacts the quality of life for all Pioneer Valley residents.
Enter the ArtSalon, a venture that opens up art to all, and develops public interest and investment in local artists. This past Friday, over 100 Pioneer Valley residents gathered in the old Universal Gym-cum-Dolphin Day Care building on Northampton’s Hawley Street (more on this unusual venue later). We sipped wine and ate hors d’oeuvers under colorful murals that appeared to be painted for, or maybe by, the building’s former students. And when the official event started, all present found a seat - some extra chairs being added due to the spectacular turn out – and turned our undivided attention to the six local artists and designers presenting their work that night.
The ArtSalon was first conceived by artists and art lovers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus and was originally an invite only, catered affair held at the Chancellor’s house. Despite the space confined exclusivity of the event (the Chancellor’s house being only so big), from its beginning, the salon strove to provide an atmosphere where art could be discussed seriously but without pretentions. Eventually, the ArtSalon became an open, traveling event, hosting evenings in available public spaces towns up and down the Pioneer Valley. The ArtSalon’s presentations are organized according to a format called “Pecha Kucha,” in which artists present 20 slides, with 20 seconds for each slide. This may sound like a race; however, if Friday’s salon is a good example of how most evenings go, the format lends a casual atmosphere to the presentations. Artists provide an illustrated narrative of the scope of their work, referring to slides as they appear on the screen as examples of their approach or subject interests, without lingering on particular preoccupations. After all the artists present, the audience is invited to ask questions, encouraging discussions with the artists.
The first person to present at Friday’s Northampton’s salon was the architect Thomas Douglas, whose presence not only reflects his standing in the field, but is also related to the aforementioned unusual salon venue. Many residents of Northampton are aware that the old Universal Gym on Hawley Street was bought by the Northampton Community Arts Trust and will eventually be transformed into a new center for the arts. This exciting project is another step towards providing artists space to present their work in the area, and will include three informal classroom/rehearsal studio spaces, visual arts exhibition spaces, a 200+ seat black box theater, and a flexible performance/event space. The scope of this project clearly requires an article of its own. Its mission is a perfect fit with the spirit of the ArtSalon, and Friday’s audience was thrilled with the vision Douglas previewed through his 20 slides, which included his drawings for the Hawley Street space, as well as images of buildings that inspired his work on the project,
After Douglas presented his work, the audience was treated to presentations by Esther White, Rob Kimmel, Elizabeth Meyersohn, Dugan Hammock, and Stephen Petegorsky. The breadth of each artist’s work deserves more attention that I can include in one article; I have provided links to each artist’s website. These are artists in varying stages of their career, with subject interests ranging from feminism and chronic pain, explorations of light and shadow, mathematical equations, landscapes, and death, the later being exemplified in several of Stephen Petegorsky's beautiful and haunting photographs.
I tend to be an avid reader of artist statements. While I like to engage directly with the work and notice what it evokes for me, I am also interested in reading about the context of the work and the artist’s preoccupation of the moment. However artist statements in galleries can only go so deep, and many people prefer to skip them entirely, finding them distracting or needlessly esoteric, among other things. The casual, communal nature of the ArtSalon proves to be a richer experience. It constitutes an in-person artist statement. Hearing directly from the artists reminds those of us who are not artists (such as myself) that the topics of art aren’t esoteric at all. Instead, they explore and reveal the most vital human concerns and experiences. It makes us care about art again. This is the beauty and value of the ArtSalon and its importance in our community.