“Regionalism is so over,” someone recently said to me. Is it, or is that sentiment akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
I think that saying regionalism is over is what we tell ourselves in an effort to level the playing field. In the contemporary art world, “regional” and the increasingly maligned “local” are often pejorative terms akin to provincial, insular or unsophisticated. For some, they imply a naiveté or willful ignorance of what goes on in the world beyond one’s backyard. Yet for others, those labels are a source of pride and inspiration. In her book The Lure of the Local, art critic Lucy Lippard advocates for art to have a “sense of place” that comes from the artist’s connection to where they are, whether permanently or temporarily.
Regionalism has been a lively and recurring topic on the Texas art site Glasstire, the subject of a session at the recent College Art Association conference in Chicago; the topic of a panel discussion hosted by Artadia at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2011; and the focus of a series of articles on Temporary Art Review last year. Regionalism is not going anywhere.
So why not embrace whatever differences we have, even if they are only geographic? Just as artists individually have different experiences and concerns that inform their work, so to do artists living in the Southeast, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston. We live in a part of the U.S. that is uniquely steeped in American history, its founding, and its struggles, past and present. Why give that up? And this doesn’t mean you have to make art about the South or drawn from its artistic traditions.
What are some of those concerns? Regional art communities are smaller, arguably intimate. Rigorous discourse in Atlanta is harder to come by because—as I’ve heard on more than one occasion— there’s a climate of Southern politeness that discourages frank discussion. I suspect people are also loath to stick their necks out for fear of retribution when it’s their turn in the spotlight.
Declarations that regionalism is passé are often followed by assertions that our artists are just as talented and worthy of recognition as those in New York, Los Angeles, and Berlin—cities, it’s worth noting, whose artists typically have regional origins. What is a “New York artist” anyway? One who was raised there, or who has lived there for, say, 10 years, or one who moved there within the previous year and eagerly assumed the designation?
There is a cachet that attends the big-city moniker, as if taking up a New York or Berlin address means you’ve been vetted by the city’s establishment, as if every gallery and exhibition in New York is top notch. Trust me, they’re not.
A commenter on Burnaway’s Facebook page, Rob Southard, recently asked:
When do Southern artists stop declaring themselves as Southern artists? It seems most residencies I’ve done [in] the past year [include] lists of writers, composers, choreographers & visual artists [who] are almost exclusively labeled as “from NYC or LA.” After getting to know these groups of people, I find that almost all of them are from middle America, but no longer live or work in their state of birth. This is understandable, but when you’re a gal from Tennessee who’s lived in NYC for 2 years, when do you start labeling yourself as a NY artist? … I wonder why so many … artists shed their community so fast … why people put space between their old and new art community.
Burnaway will continue to expand its coverage of and engagement with the greater Southeast while contextualizing ourselves in the broader art world. But that does not mean we’re limiting our dialogue or exploration of issues beyond our permeable border—there are artists who are from here or visiting here, or those who are from here and living or visiting someplace else, and many issues artists face are not geographically specific. Artists and dealers in cities like Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, and Nashville are faced with similar challenges: no viable infrastructure, a dearth of gallery spaces and exhibition opportunities, a tepid collector base, and nearly nonexistent arts coverage in local newspapers and publications.
So, artist readers, does living in the South have an effect on your work? Would your work change if you relocated? For all of us, can
we be separate but equal? What does that take?