A Birthday Wish in the Form of Propaganda
When we think about the meaning of history, it brings up a dark, empty place that is best forgotten. It’s easy to ignore it, because we are confronted daily by the immediate. History, as taught in school, gave us wars and plagues to consider, and we said to ourselves that was then, this is now, and I’m glad we didn’t live back then.
Now, right here in 2020, things don’t look much better. History seems to have had little effect on societal behavior and many of us make the same mistakes that were made by others long ago. History can also give us hope, or at least a way to look forward from the shadows and think about our survival.
In 1975, the war in Vietnam finally ended. Pink Floyd released Wish You Were Here (a great album), and in a smoky restaurant in Brunswick, Maine, a group of artists gathered after their weekly life drawing session. They discussed art and drank beer. It was here over bad pizza and a decent pitcher of beer that the germs (no pun) of an idea began to form. This idea would gain steam and not long after, in a church basement a formal meeting convened, and a revolution was to begin.
A man gathered a small group of artists together in that basement, and laid out his vision. That vision was to bring together a larger group of artists, artists who were scattered around the state and find ways to communicate and learn from each other, to survive as artists.1975 was the beginning of the Union of Maine Visual Artists and the man, Charles Stanley,(later known as Carlo Pittore) became its champion.
That was 45 years ago and survival of the arts and artists continues. Survival in the arts is directly linked to longevity, perseverance, the long haul. Years ago, a friend said to me, “If you want to be recognized, you’ve got to keep showing up.” Recognition is its own reward. It carries more than monetary value when we know that one gallery, one critic, or just one viewer finds something in the work that resonates personally. If money comes from that recognition, it’s only a lucky by-product. The stroke of genius does not apply. There is no magic bullet.
45 long years ago the UMVA’s mission was much like it is today, to communicate with visual artists across Maine and beyond. To nurture a better understanding of what it means to make art and as always, to find a way forward. “These times present a pointed challenge to provide a vision, an ideal for a people. . . . No one will give it to us but the artist.” (Lawrence Lutchmansingh, December 17, 1975).
Among other things, the Union believed that it was not acceptable for galleries to charge the artist a fee for submitting work to juried exhibitions. This holds true today. The artist works hard. They educate themselves, formally through institutions, or by personal study. Either way, it comes down to many hours spent building a foundation in art. We would find it incredulous if companies charged fees to submit job applications for a professional computer technician, or hedge fund broker, so why the artist? Recognition should not come with a price born off the backs of the artist; they are the very people the gallery needs to survive.
As Pat and I sift through UMVA archives, it becomes apparent how influential the Union was in getting important legislation passed. The Percent for Art Legislation and the Artist Estate Tax Law were initiated by the Union. These laws now exist to benefit both the artist and the State as a whole. Looking at these old, yellowed hard copies of UMVA newsletters, it’s hard not to think that there were times when it all could have collapsed and disappeared, but for one thing—an ardent desire to communicate. To reach out to artists living in remote pockets, or under the urban umbrella, it became apparent that this would be its means of survival.
In 1986, the UMVA turned 12 years old, an adolescent with growing pains, but committed to get stronger. The editor of the newsletter at the time, Stephen Petroff, said “the Union of Maine Visual Artists is twelve years old, old enough so that its nature is becoming visible as a sequence of cycles.” 45 years later those cycles continue to gather momentum. Even though the Union is a grey beard in terms of its longevity, it still speaks to us all. It speaks from the heart of Art, and to those who define themselves as singular and unique in their practice.
The majority of artists work in isolation. They work from the solitude of the studio and attempt to bring something universal into the world, something that could be understood in a visceral sense. But for many artists, that self-imposed isolation can at times become an echo chamber, a void that only can be filled with outside stimulation. Perhaps that need for stimulation acts as inspiration, a willingness to communicate with others in the hope that we will be better understood. The need to be understood is vital to many of us; we create in a vacuum, but hope that what we create will find a sticking place.
So… A Happy Birthday to the UMVA. 45 years must be a record of sorts, when you consider the short-lived nature of some arts groups. The climate in the arts has never been easy or secure; it has never been anything but a survival story and to be recognized within its orbit is something solid to hold on to. After all this time, pouring over old newsletters, in the hope of understanding what the Union was about, and what it might become, and how long it would remain viable to this community of people that we call artists, I realize one thing: to survive as artists in this culture, we require a voice that will sound the alarm. A voice loud and clear, someone to beat a drum that will wake the dead.
Happy 45th, UMVA!
All the Best, from the West, of Ireland
Image at top: Carlo Pittore at the broccoli demonstration to protest Iraq war, in Kennebunkport, about 1991.