Libraries and Visual Literacy is proposed by Ryan Spencer Reed
How did you hear about the grant, and what inspired you to propose this specific project for the Crusade for Art grant?
I’ve followed the Crusade for Art project, the grants, and other programing with keen interest for several years now and believe I first learned of it through my good friend and colleague, Christopher Capozziello. I appreciate and admire the elegant simplicity in the approaches taken by the founders in connecting with audiences. I’ve found that, often, it is really about digging in and getting out there to connect with people and this seems to rest at the core ethos of Crusade for Art. This is at the heart of my project proposal as well; I’ve completed a thoughtful body of work: (click here) with unique access to an interesting, important, and timely subject. With that work, I’ve produced both a museum-grade exhibition and an approachable publication to introduce the work. All that remains is to connect with an audience that will provide a sustainable base of support for the future. A collaboration with Crusade for Art would afford me an opportunity to refine my approach while providing the means to put it to work.
How did you come up with the idea for your project?
I’ve always sought to show my work with venues that could maximize the educational opportunities inherent in the subjects on which I’ve chosen to focus. Recently, however, I had successes in applying my previous university symposium model to a few cities (non-academic communities). Following the publication of my zines on my last completed project, the question of where to position them to reach the most people with the work in a meaningful way was born. That question was answered for me this past year during a collaboration with the city of Waukegan, IL in which their public library served as the epicenter of a series of events around a unified theme and my work on the military became the cultural backdrop. Since many communities have libraries that are looking for events to bring people through the door in the digital era, the concept of using my zines to catalyze the conversation about how their communities could utilize my work became apparent. Whether through lectures, workshops, or exhibitions, I’m willing to apply a voracious work ethic to my projects and their distribution models. Therefore, the tried and true ‘door-to-door salesperson’ model is absolutely within my reach and suits the necessity to make personal connections with people in various communities who can provide a bridge for the work to be showcased, engaged with, and collected.
What is the most engaging art event/collecting event you’ve been to?
ArtPrize, coming up on its 7th year in Grand Rapids, MI, is a radically open arts competition where over $500,000 is awarded annually and where the public plays a large role in vote for the winners. My last entry in 2014 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum was seen by over 200,000 people and I had the opportunity to sell hundreds of zines to new ‘collectors’ during the 19-day competition along with a number of prints. In past years I was able to sell books and prints as well. While photographic work of any kind does not perform well in the competition, is a unique opportunity to show to a massive audience and discover new collectors.
From a strictly photographic event standpoint, for me it would have to be anytime I have seen a great body of work shown by professional museums or galleries. Robert Frank’s Americans at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the work of Lee Friedlander purchase by MOMA, Salgado's work on people who work with their hands, or Larry Towell's work on Mennonites. I say this not only because of the respective bodies of work but for the time, process, and dedication to an idea that was followed by them to produce such a complete body of work on a subject for which they cared so much. One also has to be aware of the sacrifices made to put such bodies of work together; the sheer depth of the work; the quiet nature of the work with little regard to the distribution while in the process of bringing it together. Luc Delahaye's work on Russia depicted in Winterreise is another example which comes to mind.
Distribution or recognition or remuneration was likely never the goal of any of these works. It was the pursuit of the experience and the knowledge that propelled such work. Gilles Perez's work in Iran in 1979, Joseph Koudelka's work in Gypsies, Eugene Smith’s work from Minamata, Anthony Suau’s work in Beyond the Fall - all are works that were the result of a focused mind, great vision and clarity of voice in their production. Well thought out and clearly executed work will never go out of style as these are the kinds of work that separate great and thoughtful photographers; applying their craft without regard for the marketplace. Therefore the investment in time and resources to insure such a dignified viewing experience raises the stature of that kind of work.
What do you think is the greatest struggle/weakness facing artists and the art community right now? What is the greatest opportunity/strength?
It’s my opinion that the greatest struggle for the artist is, as it’s always been, to find one’s own voice amidst the madness of the modernizing world. Then, if an artist discovers their voice, to pursue it and maintain it today amidst the pressures of a society that seems barely to honor those who work with their hands. The evidence comes in the form of the dwindling tradition of patronage which is also the great struggle of the art community. The greatest weakness for the artist is discipline, to which the medium of photography is particularly susceptible due to its reliance on technology which continues to ‘improve’. The art community is weak in its ability to offer the kind of support necessary to develop the voices of those emerging photographers who show promise and then sustain them. The greatest opportunity for the photographer is to have a life full of incredible experiences and to meet incredible people along the way; for most to be forever changed by allowing curiosity to direct their path will be the only tangible reward they will ever receive. The result of following that path is also the great opportunity for the art community.
How do you think artists should play a role in educating the public or their audience about their art or art in general?
This begs the question as to whose job it was to "educate" in the first place and whose it is today. In my view (although we do it in one form or another all the time) it is not the job of the photographer to educate. The production of great work requires focus and research in depth of the material being collected. Rarely are we so fortunate to be presented an audience that views, understands, and is "educated" on a subject that we have spent great deal of time producing. In it's purest form - the acceptance or rejection or education of (for the purpose of convincing) an audience is the last thing the creator of a body of work wants to be involved. More often than not, the material was never made for the "audience", necessarily. Some of the best work was made seemingly because of a desire on the part of the artist to experience the subject in depth or because he or she felt they had little choice but to the pursuit of the subject. And while this intimacy causes a storyteller to wish for greater exposure for the communities covered, along with the issues those communities face, they are rarely the best suited to play that role.
Until recently, it has always been the role of the museum, magazine, or galley to bring the work to the public. It was the reputation of those institutions over time with a "voice" of their own on the taste of an editor or curator that convinced and educated the public to the point of view of any particular artists' work being worth seeing. Again we find ourselves faced with the question of what happened to them...Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post...where are they now in the mix? In many but certainly not all occasions, gone is the back and forth and face to face conversations with those who contributed to the voice of an artist being developed because of an underlying talent that was recognized by an educated, experienced layer between the artist and the audience.
So, is it really down to the fact that the artist is responsible for the concept of the material, the creation of the material, the production of the material, occasionally educating the curator or editor before taking on the role trying to educate the public too? It may be a requirement in the digital age and perhaps there are legitimate opportunities to build a market online, but the photographer still needs to be afforded the space, time, and support to make thoughtful pictures; that’s a pretty tall order for most. Learning my own limitations is why I’ve sought to collaborate with educational institutions such as schools, universities, and now libraries. Working in concert with educational professionals to place my work into the context of their communities and their curriculum has helped people connect with my pictures in meaningful ways. It’s also allowed me to replicate my own efforts for outreach.
Why do you think many people find art intimidating, and how can we lower the perceptual barriers to entry for collecting art (and specifically photography)?
I think that people find anything that they don't necessarily understand somewhat intimidating. Photography has always been a technical medium from the devices to the chemistry of analogue processes, which has, until late, prevented it from being a universally shared experience the way that drawing and painting are. Many children have the opportunity to draw and paint growing up, yet few become working artists as adults. I would venture to say the majority of adults would likely come down of the side of admitting they couldn’t draw to save their lives, but yet this shared tactile childhood memory leaves a trace latent appreciation for art and design - forever a means to communicate universally, if only awkwardly, in the way that two foreigners might be forced to rely on body language for the first time to communicate. As technology has lowered the bar to entry for the medium of photography, the medium is becoming increasingly democratized.
I, for one, believe the barriers to collecting photography are also lowered as a function of this process because a greater portion of humanity is creating, sharing, and consuming images more than ever. This trend is growing exponentially and will for the foreseeable future. This broader participation is likely yielding a broader literacy of the image and hopefully an appreciation for quality work. I predict this will usher in an exponential growth in the collector base of the medium of photography as a much larger share of humanity becomes involved in the making of images, even if they are created and consumed on a mobile device. I have this faith because I sense there exists some innate human yearning that drives us to fight back against entropy and the fleeting nature of our bodies and our lives; that of all living things; that this forces compels us to strive for permanence, which will lead to a vast expansion of the market for photographic books and prints is in our near future.