CHARGE 2016: A RECAP
Alex Irrera, Civic Art + Design Assistant
Building on its 2014 iteration, Charge 2016 was a collective-empowerment weekend for Houston artists and arts professionals. Co-organized by Jennie Ash and Carrie Schneider—and presented by Art League Houston—this interactive conversation was funded in-part by a City's Initiative Grant from the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Featuring participatory workshop-lectures led by presenters from Uppsala, Sweden to our own Houston, Charge 2016 focused on the value of artistic production within society, and especially how to claim and grow that value. As experts investigating and questioning the status of arts in the economy, these artists, activists, and researchers contributed a serious professional backbone to the three-day gathering.
For both presenters and audience members, challenges facing artists in the larger economy are not merely theoretical, but ongoing issues of professional viability. During Charge’s opening ceremonies, Houston Center for Photography’s Interim Director Linda Shearer reflected on personal experiences of art and activism in the 1960s and 1970s. She recalled the rift between the art community and the traditional museum structure, as well as this fissure’s connections to the movements related to racial equality and American military action abroad. In the second keynote address of the evening, Caroline Woolard (OurGoods/Trade School/BFAMFAPhD/NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative - New York) offered a contemporary look at the collective action artists are taking in response to the challenges of affordable space, equitable pay, and student debt within the arts.
Using the creation, joining, and filling of “tables” as metaphors, Woolard also spoke with sensitivity about beginning new projects and organizations vs. contributing to existing ones; statistics of success in the art world; and about making space (even giving up your seat) at tables focused on race, gender, class, and other social justice issues.
In the ART21 film Flips the Real Estate Script, Woolard advocates for affordable space in New York City for artists and non-artists alike to build a real estate investment cooperative.
Following the spirit of the keynote speeches, many of the lecture-workshop leaders wove their presentations through personal lessons of working and organizing in the art world. Presenters like Stephanie Saint Sanchez (La Chicana Laundry Pictures/Senorita Cinema - Houston) and Koomah (Artist - Houston) discussed the mindful pursuit of artistic expertise and engaged the audience in an “ask, borrow, trade, give” exercise—a barter system by which arts community members may support each other with non-monetary resources. Meanwhile, Jessica Lawless (Adjunct Action/SEIU Faculty Forward/No Justice No Service: Bay Area Art & Education Justice Festival - San Francisco) and Cassie Thornton (Strike Debt Bay Area/No Justice No Service: Bay Area Art & Education Justice Festival - San Francisco) discussed their work in the national pay equity movement for adjunct professors and the movement’s ties to the myriad of other contemporary fair wage-related actions in America.
In an interactive game, Autumn Knight and Monica Villarreal (Creative Women Unite - Houston) also mapped connections between their audience and female professionals in Houston, evoking the power of this network and providing participants with contact information with which to engage this talented resource.
Presenters working in collaboration with the arts field, rather than inside it, added diversity of perspective to the event. Sociologist Alison Gerber (Department of Social and Economic Geography at Uppsala University - Sweden) interviewed artists about their practical and emotional relationships to fair pay, debt, and the how they value their work. In addition, activist Kenneth Bailey (Design Studio for Social Intervention - Boston) presented his views on the significance of “art thinking” (or more specifically, “design thinking”) and its remedial potential witin, as he put it, the “crisis of imagination in [America’s] civil society sector.” Bailey asserted the value in the art world’s creative methodologies and conceptual understanding in challenging problems such as social violence, food deserts, climate change, and school closings. He advocated for greater societal belief in artists, and for the opportunity for artists to engage with policy makers as artists.
Although no overarching plan for local organization was produced during the weekend, Charge 2016 disseminated powerful and practical information, facilitating connective conversations within the Houston arts community and beyond. With these potential seeds-of-action sewn, the Charge 2016 dialogue will continue into the coming months with the "Art Work: A Reading and Discussion Series" led by Cindy Peña and Rachel Vogel, and a reflective installation in “Round 44: Shattering the Concrete: Artists, Activists, and Instigators” at Project Row Houses. Finally, Charge will also redistribute its registration fees ($1,100) towards selected grant proposals submitted by the weekend’s attendees. Chosen by their conference peers, grantees will use this smartly allocated bit of funding to carry forward the passion and intention of Charge 2016 into a tangible precipitate.