“A book is a platform for conversation.” Sharon Louden’s voice is teeming with passion and gusto. This is the tail end of our phone interview and it occurs to me that over the course of the time we’ve spoken, she has barely even mentioned her art or practice. As one would imagine, this is not normally the case in single-person interviews with artists. The fact is Louden has work in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, Carnegie Mellon University and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, among others, but that didn’t come up, nor did her current or upcoming solo exhibitions.
“My efforts are based on wanting to cultivate change in how artists are regarded in the world, how we benefit others,” she tells me. The crux of our conversation is on her work spawned by her first book, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which she has used as a launching point for her live and sustain movement. Since that book’s release in 2013, Louden has rigorously toured the country hosting talks, panel discussions and town hall-style meetings with artists and community leaders to change the perception of the artist’s role within the greater economy and provide resources for artists to support themselves and their creative practice.
On the eve of the release of the second book in the series, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life (Intellect Books, 404 p., 2017), Louden will be sojourning in Atlanta for one such talk, thanks in part to Georgia State University and Fulton County Arts & Culture, at MOCA GA this Saturday at 2 p.m. In advance of that discussion, ArtsATL interviewed Louden about her work encouraging artists to value themselves and their work.
ArtsATL: How did Living and Sustaining a Creative Life come about?
Sharon Louden: Well, I was moderating a panel at the College Art Association Conference. The subject was “How to make a living with or without a dealer.” My [future] publisher was in the audience and approached me to write a book. I told them that I didn’t know, that I’m not as secure in writing as another person could be. They said if you don’t want to write a book, what would you want to do. So I got 40 of my friends together to talk about how to sustain a creative life.
When I got out of school, I had a tremendous amount of debt — my parents didn’t pay for my education — and I paid it off in 10 years. I wish at the time that there was more of a community of sharing so that artists knew how other artists sustained life.
Most artists, no matter how famous they appear, are still in the same corral as other artists. It’s a tight group of people, forgiving, loving and accepting. However, the exchange rate at which these people share and give to make opportunities, I feel, isn’t great. So I wanted to give, expose and share with other artists how to sustain a creative life to start a conversation and to create more community for more exchange and opportunities to occur.
ArtsATL: Yes, in artistic education there’s a great focus on craft and practice, but it still seems taboo to talk about money and business in education, how to support oneself with one’s art. What would you like to see educational institutions do to change that?
Louden: Realistic preparation for artists to go out in the world, meaning that institutions need to recognize that, just like any other profession, to be able to give a more realistic idea of all of the opportunities that are out in the world for artists. The idea of what a contemporary artist is today is very different from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. The role that institutions play in guiding and directing their students is substantial. I feel as though that perception has to change. Institutions are far behind in what life is like today for artists.
ArtsATL: What do you think the most valuable experience an emerging artist or recently graduated art student can have as far as learning to sustain their process?
Louden: First they need to know before they graduate that there’s no such thing as a day job. Your life as an artist is not part-time. No matter what job you have, you are not any less of an artist. Secondly, they need to know that they should choose a job that contributes to their life as an artist. If you want to get in the position of meeting other people, put yourself in a job that will be helpful to you in doing that. After that, time management is important. Research is the number one thing that feeds into practice, and then creating your opportunities and cultivating community by doing so.
ArtsATL: Since the book’s release, have you seen any progress within the art community for the better?
Louden: I feel grateful that this book is in its sixth printing and published in 18 countries. It’s reached a lot of people. My impact — just to validate artists — it’s had a huge measurable income. Artists need validation just like any other human being does. Validation turns into empowerment which in turn makes things happen.
The 62-stop book tour for the first book has all been about cross-pollination, getting the artists connected and teaching the public who we are and what we have to offer. I’ve certainly seen a change.
ArtsATL: So what issues does the new book, The Artist as Culture Producer, tackle? What can your readership anticipate?
Louden: For me, the second book is far more impactful. In the first book, I listen to the needs of the artists and the public. The second book’s focus is on artists who have a leg in in the art world and building a bridge to the public. We need to infuse ourselves into creative economies to contribute to the general economy and reinforce it. Artists have a tremendous amount of identity and impact that is hidden from the public.
ArtsATL: Who are some artists that you feel are impactful in that? I’m sure they’re also contributors to the book.
Louden: There are so many . . . Hrag Vartanian wrote the foreword for the book — he’s an agent for change and affecting change. He’s doing this not just through his criticism but through his writing as well. He started Hyperallergic, a site has a large and dedicated following. Andrea Zittel creates residencies out in the desert. Brett Wallace is an artist in the corporate sector who, as an artist, is influencing change within corporate culture.
There are so many different people in this book that are doing that and making a huge impact. Zoë Charlton and Tim Doud, they’re like moles in academia — they are changing the face of academia to make it part of the community-at-large as it used to be, so it’s no longer isolated.
ArtsATL: Can you tell me a little bit more about the forthcoming book tour? Will these contributors speak alongside you?
Louden: It’s a town-hall forum. We want to cross-pollinate artists and put them together. At Area 405, which is an artist-run space in Baltimore that just received support from the Ford Foundation, we will have 10 people and 15 contributors having dinner with the people of Baltimore, in the middle of where all the unrest is. Why is that important? Because if a young artist can sit and dine with an artist who’s been out there in the world, then that person can get validation and information that feeds into an outcome. But most of them are more like town halls — a panel, moderated discussion that I moderate. After that, we open it to the audience and all talk together. It becomes a fantastic place for exchange.
ArtsATL: In an interview with The Conversation Project, you argued that the art world should be more transparent. It’s great that you’re doing that at such a grassroots level with this upcoming tour. What are some things these communities can do to sustain and progress these conversations after the tour has come?
Louden: I think the art world should be completely transparent and regulated, to some degree. It’s important to attach “to some degree” to regulation when I say that. I don’t think we’ll ever get full regulation, nor do I feel that’s the answer. But if there’s transparency, there has to be regulation.
We hope that we share substantive models for artists to follow — the second book digs deep into this. My mission is to share those models, and the artists can take them and do something with them. In my experience they have. After we did our last talk in L.A., they created a “Sustaining a Creative Life” group that met every month. The group does studio visits and stays connected. That, to me, is cultivating a community to ignite change. I want to affect change in every place.
ArtsATL: Okay, but in other interviews you’ve said the first book wasn’t geared to offer advice, but to share information. It sounds like you’re changing your tune a bit?
Louden: What we do is offer different models that they can bring out into the world. They can do what they want with those models. The best part of being an artist is freedom to do what one wants to do in life and speak freely. We are examples for those who don’t feel they have that voice. Artists have a privilege — we already have that impetus to speak through our truth, our work.
Creativity is a human right and should be treated as such. I want maximum freedom for artists. I want to contribute to their strengths by providing information and creating a community so they can choose to create their infrastructure to create the world around them.
ArtsATL: So more mentorship and guidance . . . You referenced regulations in your last response. What kind of regulations? Who should be creating them?
Louden: I think that the “transparency” I’m talking about is full-disclosure pricing, which is actually the law — every gallery must show prices. A lot of galleries do not do that. So first, let’s abide the law and disclose pricing. When something sells, there’s a record of that. Show that realistic trade and what it traded for. Then, there should be regulation of how consultants and dealers function. There should be complete transparency so everyone can be on the same page. Wrongdoing happens when we don’t have that. People who suffer from that, in the end, are artists, so it has to change. I need to see that happen.
My hope is that internally there’s an organization that can do that. Many organizations in the art world could pick this up and create some time of policing so that things are directed, and everybody can be on the same page.
ArtsATL: This isn’t the first time you’ve spoken in Atlanta — as far as your goals, what do you think we should be working on to reach these targets as a city?
Louden: More opportunities for artists, more infrastructure, and financial support for the existing infrastructure. It would be amazing if there were more galleries in Atlanta and more finance to do more. To me, that’s what I see from afar and in visiting Atlanta, a need for a greater presence of culture in the city. That has to come from the government and private support, philanthropy and the government’s embrace of culture and recognizing it as a source of information and growth for the city and obviously for tourism and drawing in the public.
Some cities do that right: Houston, New York — larger communities that make things happen. But another smaller community that’s doing well in this regard is Baltimore. And that comes from artists affecting change by creating opportunities for themselves and each other and artists recognizing that they don’t have the infrastructure that other cities have and in turn creating their own.
I think that change can happen from artists. Atlanta has a great history of that, but to get a national and international spotlight in the city, a lot more of it has to happen. There’s so much that could occur there. That will benefit the entire city and the children going to school there who will see that culture is essential for growth of the mind and how it contributes to one’s well-being. Until people realize how one’s well-being benefits their health, their mind, their growth in the world and how central that is, we’re not going to get that in our lives. That understanding is key to implementing that growth in every city.