A Blade of Grass has announced eleven of its twenty candidates for an unrestricted grant of $10,000 for socially-engaged individual artists. The foundation has posted two of its studio visits with candidates on its blog, along with a series of questions about art they want you to discuss. Through those discussions, the evaluation criteria will be developed by the public, in response to work designed to engage them. We consider this an opportunity to potentially improve public funding, which is good, because we think many of their candidates underestimate the public.
Several of the candidates fit the bill. Ed Woodham, founder of Art in Odd Places, presents art at street level in order to start a conversation about public space. Similarly, Risë Wilson brought art programming to laundromats throughout the city in her Laundromat Project. Thomas Allen Harris has spent decades documenting and examining African America. LuLu LoLo writes and performs plays, often commemorating history; it’s not quite the “focused experience” that “one-woman historical act” brings to mind, but technically, they’re engaged.
There’s even some hope that candidate Bayeté Ross Smith won’t continue producing the godawful crap we saw from him on Work of Art. He’s still phoning it in, but a recent collaboration with Question Bridge at least engages the public in a conversation about race, if only through sheer volume of interviewees. (Bayeté was also a Laundromat Project resident, and Woodham produced a documentary for Bravo.)
We draw the line however at candidate Nicky Enright, speller of the word “Inflammatory” with a firehose and designer of stained glass sunsets. New York can do better. Even more inane is fellow contestant Leon Reid IV’s “A Spider Lurks in Brooklyn,” a 30-foot-tall inflatable spider, estimated to run around $800,000. He’s currently fundraising to make the piece, which he says will adorn the Brooklyn Bridge for two weeks in October 2014. On a small scale, that wouldn’t be so bad; we like Reid’s melting ice box in front of Printed Matter. But to put this in perspective, A Blade of Grass could only pay for 1/80th of the bridge spider— approximately 252 minutes of uninterrupted spider. Great.
While the foundation points out the need to deliver resources to a larger community, perhaps factoring in tourism, we hope the last nine spaces leave room for artists who raise the level of dialogue. Enright and Reid in particular have created projects which address the public as though we are children, rather than engaging conversation.
And that’s possible; plenty of artists prove that art can be challenging and intelligible. We see it from social commentary in Fiona Gardner’s documentary photography, or the relentless Guerrilla Girl-style watchdoggery of Jen Dalton. We see it in the simple assholery utilized by William Powhida’s performance alter-ego POWHIDA, a blatant, and essential, protest of economic and power inequity.
Plus, there seems to be little or no representation of artists who talk to people on the internet, as A Blade of Grass itself is doing. The public is accessing art though social media as used by Nate Hill, whose public interaction performances take place as much on the web as they do IRL, or Man Bartlett, whose Twitter feed doubles as performance and OWS protest, or Hennessy Youngman, whose videos cut the art world down to size precisely through their awareness of the general public.
Grantees could even be artists seeking innovative ways of interacting with people, like Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga, who addresses the immigrant experience through technology, workshops, and public demonstrations. They could use technology to further environmental awareness, like ecoarttech.
We hope some of these people will join in the discussion as the grant process develops. If ever there was a case to be made for “the more the merrier,” this would be it.