30 septiembre 2009

Lisa Ladner, a voice for Puerto Rican Art

A few years back I was googling away the hours in search of Puerto Rican Artists and stumbled upon a (then)huge list (now even bigger) with many names of very talented people here in PR. I proceeded to send my information to become a part of such list and that's when I met Lisa Ladner.

Me: Lisa, What made you create the listing "El-Status"? How many Puerto Rican artists are ON the list?

Lisa: In 2006 I completed my master thesis entitled "El Status - Contemporary Puerto Rican art in times of political and cultural identity discussions and the unresolved status problem". As part of my thesis project I launched the el-status.com website with an online exhibition and a database containing the information I had gathered during the two years of research. In the meantime there are approx. 900 artists listed under el-status.com and I've got folders full with additional names and material.

During my research I found it almost impossible to find information about Puerto Rican artists via internet or via the art institutions who normally wouldn't even answer my mail requests. So I had to knock doors and sit down with artists, curators and other researchers in order to compile and verify the data that laid el-status.com's fundament. I consulted hundreds of books, catalogues, articles, found numerous errors and contradictions and once I had verified the material, I felt it would be a great help for other researchers, curators etc. around the globe. That's why I published the database.

In the last three and a half years I've received hundreds of praises, requests, e-mails from artists, institutions, gallery owners and art dealers who stumbled over my website. I'm happy that through el-status.com and my projects that grew out of this platform (El Pulguero de los Artistas, FAS - Feria de Arte Sonoro, curatorial work for Casa Aboy's photo gallery PL 900 (among others) local artists were able to establish contact with many interesting people from around the world.

Me: Tha's a lot of work! It's no wonder you've gotten so many feedback. Good work like this never goes unnoticed. You're a first hand witness to how much talent Puerto Rico has. What are your thoughts on this?

Lisa: I would not be doing this voluntary work if I were not convinced of the quality and idiosyncrasy of the Puerto Rican art. In the beginning I wondered, why other sectors don't reflect this creative potential, why there are so few products "hecho en Puerto Rico" entering foreign or even the local markets. Now I know that Puerto Rico's unresolved political status plays a key factor. The platform's name derives from this dilemma: "el status" reflects the current status of local contemporary art and the unresolved political status of Puerto Rico, one of the world's last colonies.

Me: I'm with you on the quality of art that is produced locally, but wonder: Of all the newcomer artists, how many do you think will eventually give up and do something else with their lives? Why do artists give up their dream and convert into something else entirely?

Lisa: Maybe 10% of the artists will eventually still do art as a main occupation, while maybe only 1% will be able to live from doing it. The others will be washed away by the necessity of having a fixed income or might simply lose whatever it was that made them doing art in the beginning. If it was an inner urge and this urge continues, then I think they will have a future. If it was the dream of becoming rich and famous, then they will most certainly not reach their goal. The art market is very tough. Just a few years ago, many young Puerto Rican artists became famous over night and have been able to sell their works at high prices - sometimes because their galleries forced them to. But right now the market is extremely slow and buyers became cautious about how to spend their money in art works. Continuity and marketing are key factors and pricing is part of marketing. There are only very few artists that can live from the local buyers alone. My suggestion for young artists is not only to study, travel and work hard but also to enter the international market in order to have a long life as an artist.

Me: You've had the opportunity to meet with Gallery owners and Museum curators, what are their bureaucracy regarding the way artists are "picked" so that people get to know them? How easy/difficult is for a super talented newcomer to end up on their lists?

Lisa: Traditional or older galleries normally don't want to invest in artists who don't already have a name. That would mean that they'd have to build them up from scratch, feed them while they grow. Therefore they tend to focus on whatever they think vendible to their existing clients. If their clients are lawyers, doctors or directors who are looking for works to decorate their office or home walls, they will concentrate on art works that can immediately be recognized by visitors ("Oh, you've got a ...!"). Many buyers think of painting when talking about art. And these paintings need to match their furniture... Of course some of these galleries also have some "young art" in their portfolios. These works are meant for more educated or more art informed buyers, those who like to invest in the future or simply want a cheaper original art work. Luckily there are some galleries in Puerto Rico that go different ways. Some of them are run by artists collectives, some of them have Daddy's money to run the business. But not many of them live
longer than maybe five years - unfortunately. Those galleries favor their friends. That's natural because then they at least know what they talk about and it's not as hard to negotiate or ask a favor.

How can a young artist find a gallery? Go to every opening, get acquainted with each gallery's program, see if your art fits their style and clientele, then approach them personally, show your work, invite the gallery owners to your studio or shows in alternative spaces.
Museum curators normally don't pick artists "to make them known" but because the artist has works that go with the theme of a show or because they want a certain art work for their collection. Curators are supposed to go to openings, visit studios, read (online) art magazines, catalogues, see what's happening elsewhere etc. Normally a young artist can get only into a museum through a curated group show or a contest (for example the Beca Lexus at MAC).

Me: This all sounds VERY complicated and familiar. Which brings me to this question: Solo shows vs. collective shows, why is it that established artists tend to do more solo shows whilst newcomers are sometimes unable to do them and have to settle for collectives? Not that there's anything wrong with collective shows.

Lisa: Having solo shows is very important for a serious artist's curriculum. But one normally doesn't start with solo shows - and certainly not in a museum such as the MAP, the MAC or the MAPR. Solo shows are a big risk for gallery owners or art institutions as group shows normally draw more visitors and thus generate more income. Doing a show means investing money: rent, staff, production costs, promotion, the opening cocktail etc. If you don't want to run out of business fast, you'll think twice about doing too many solo shows in your space... Solo shows are successful if you can offer a "big" name. But that name can suffer heavily, if the show does not meet the visitor's or the art dealer's expectations. Good spaces for solo shows by newcomers are Galería Guatibirí in Río Piedras and ÁREA in Caguas. I try to always go and see the artists who exhibit there and have been impressed by many. Depending on the career you have in mind, doing solo shows in office spaces, alternative spaces, professional art spaces, in Puerto Rico or elsewhere need to be carefully considered.

In Puerto Rico there are many collective shows. Not all of them entirely convincing but in general every show I've been to was worth the while. There are (too) many shows that are based on "open calls for works" based on a very open topic. I actually prefer shows where the curator hand picks existing works or contacts selected artists to see what they'd have to contribute to an exhibition. I found that the later gives a better result but is more difficult to do as it requires research and a lot of communication with the artists - especially with the ones who's works you have to turn down... Many artists don't want their work in a "bad" show. So the more famous an artist is, the more cautious he or she'll be when agreeing to a group show.

Me: So far, UNDO's art shows have been "open calls for works", but I foresee that in the near future this will have to change. Why did you create "El Pulguero de Artistas"? Could this become Circa's rival? Is that the intention?

Lisa: El Pulguero de los Artistas was initiated by the artist Carmelo Sobrino and myself in 2008 and repeated by me in 2009 in order to offer artists an inexpensive platform during CIRCA. It was not established as a rival but as a complimentary event to CIRCA. It was meant as an alternative art fair, a market experiment where everything could be done differently, where established ways of doing things - like the exhibiting practice itself - could be questioned, prices compared and negotiated etc.. It was great to see the local and foreign CIRCA visitors mix with tourists, families that were taking their kids to the park, people coming from the beach with surfboards under their arms etc. We wanted to bring art to the people and expose the artists directly to their potential clientele, make them explain what they do, how they calculate prices, why they are more or less expensive than the other artist. Some of the 60 plus artists only wanted to exhibit and discuss, some were hoping to sell or establish contacts. The two similar events were successful but it costed us months of unpaid work, required a team of helpers who got paid and an investment from our pockets to pay the rent, the insurance and the marketing. We didn't earn money with El Pulguero. We invested! So even though I've been asked to do El Pulguero again I'm not sure if this will happen. It will certainly not take place during the next CIRCA as I won't even be in Puerto Rico in January 2010.

It would have been great if all of the really contemporary established and upcoming artists who had promised to take part at El Pulguero would have shown up. Some were simply too lazy, some not organized enough, some were broke, others sick, others afraid of "loosing their reputation" (flea market!), others couldn't get away from work or family.... El Pulguero was conceived as an event featuring progressive art: urban art, sound art, video art, digital art, photography, performance etc. Of course it was also for painters, printmakers, sculpturers etc. I'm glad we had a pretty good mix but I'm afraid that if I would simply repeat the event, it would soon be flooded by "Flamboyant painters" as these are used to participating in (art & crafts) fairs, are better organized and willing to pay for a "booth" without complaining. This makes me think about what to do next... Once I know I'll let you know!

Me: I had the pleasure of being part of this year's Pulguero and must say I loved the experience. It was one of those few times when people actually stepped up and engaged conversation with me on what were the messages in my political work. I loved it! Regarding Digital Art. You've seen what we (UNDO) do. Do you think possible a Digital Art Movement here in Puerto Rico? How do you see this "new" medium in the future?

Lisa: In order to be perceived or accepted as artists, digital artists must present and market themselves differently from what most of them currently do. If I visit the websites of most digital artists I see that the emphasis is on the commercial side of their work. It's fine if an artist works as an art director, illustrator, Photoshop specialist or whatever. But if a curator or collector enters the site, he doesn't care about what you earn your money with. They want to see your art works, your list of exhibitions, what collections you're in. Digital Art is not new, it's been around since the 1970s, when many of the younger digital artists weren't even born. In the meantime the art market has established some criteria regarding this genre and maybe these need to be investigated and respected in order to give digital (Puerto Rican) art a sounder future (in Puerto Rico). A good starting point to get acquainted with some of the most important terms and movements is Wikipedia.

Me: Yeah, that brick wall is the one we've encountered. Luckily, there are a few visionaries out there who see the possibility and have given us a chance. Hum... If you had an Art Gallery, what type of art would you show?

Lisa: I get weak when I see a great painting, a weepy photo, a witty drawing or an eye-catching print - that's what I've been buying mostly. But when I go to exhibitions I spend a lot of time in front of installations and videos. I have bought sound art works, videos and objects, too - but they are more demanding when it comes to storing or exhibiting them. With that in mind I'd try to alternate the different art forms in order to offer an interesting program to the gallery visitors but making money, too. I'm a big fan of works with a message. They can be political, social or personal. I don't like art if it's "only" decorative and I don't buy just because someone's famous or the price could go up. But yes: I care about quality, dedication and professional attitudes when it comes to working with artists.

Living with an art work - at home or in an office - is more interesting if you can connect to it on a personal level. Knowing the artist or knowing more about how the work was done or remembering when/where/why you bought the work or how you felt, what it triggered when you saw it for the first time adds to the experience. I thus guess I would prefer showing works of artists I knew and liked, artists off different generations. I'd do parallel shows with new works from the gallery's artists and group shows where I could also include other artists. I'd love to have performances, too and sell works that are related to them (sketches, studies, tapes). I would not necessary concentrate on Puerto Rican artists or artists living in Puerto Rico. I'd rather try to find artists who's works are relevant for local buyers. That's if I'd ran a gallery in San Juan.... But most of the year I live in Zurich, Switzerland. Here my gallery concept would remain the same but I'd concentrate on Caribbean contemporary art I guess - thinking the Caribbean from Venezuela to Miami, seeing it in London, Paris and New York, connecting the islands with the diasporas. After all I'm a child of the diaspora myself.

Me: Of course you realize I'm taking Notes... Back to El-Status. What will become of this listing? What are your plans with all this information you've collected?

Lisa: Eventually I'll have to go over all the entries and delete at least 20 or up to 50% in order to maintain the quality and the focus on the "contemporary". I spent a lot of time thinking about criteria, investigated other directories' criteria and should now implement the "best practice". I'd love to receive an envelope with a LOT of money and a note that says: "This is from an anonymous patron of the arts who wants you to get paid for what you do without wanting to influence you in your work." This way I could dedicate more time in the project and turn it into a really professional platform for Puerto Rican art. I'll keep on dreaming...

Till then I'll just go on doing what I've been doing so far and am happy to know that el-status.com hasn't only become my every day tool for my art projects but is being used by thousands of people involved in the arts world-wide.

Me: Any advise or words of wisdom you'd like to give to us UNDOers?

Lisa: Yes, get yourselves professional websites as blogs cannot substitute real sites. Be sure you clearly separate your commercial work from your art portfolios. Continue doing your collective shows but try to establish contacts with good galleries, too. In order to make yourselves a name in the market you need "professional shows". Looking forward to buying digital art soon!

Thank you, Lisa, for allowing us to pick your brain on this interview. You bring a fresh perspective to how things get done or "como se bate el cobre" as we would say. Your knowledge is vital in growing-up. And your advise is greatly appreciated. We hope to have you as a guest on our future shows (if it coincides with one of your trips to Puerto Rico). Hopefully someone will drop a bag full of cash so that you may dedicate yourself to what seems to be your calling. We are proud of the work you do for the Puerto Rican Culture. Thanks to your dedication, many have come to terms with the enormous talent that emanates from this tiny island in the Caribbean.

Screen Shot of El-Status.com

Image from 2009's Pulguero

Image from 2009's Pulguero

To get to know more about Lisa Ladner and her work, you may visit:
www.lisaladner.com or www.el-status.com.

If you're on Twitter, give @UNDOdigital a follow.

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