Communion Of Dreams

A guest post.
August 28, 2008, 9:40 am
Filed under: Art, Failure, General Musings, Promotion, Society, Survival

Shawna Johnson was my manager, my assistant, my friend during a large portion of the time I owned and operated Legacy Art here in Columbia. A very talented artist in her own right, I also found her an invaluable resource at the gallery. We’ve maintained a close connection over the last several years, since she moved to New York to fight the good fight there.

Last night she sent me this meditation. After reading it, I asked if she’d allow me to post it here, since she talks about things I have referenced several times, and echoes many of my own thoughts. With her permission, here it is.

Jim Downey


Legacy became a legacy on May 31, 2004. The doors were closed and locked. Nothing was left but the dregs of a half-keg of stout from Flatbranch Pub and some empty plastic cups scattered around. The gallery space of 4000 square feet looked bigger than it ever had before. Each nail hole in the wall seemed to stare out at me, silently accusing. The ceiling fans clicked and their flat sound just reverberated in the dead space. Every inch of that space seemed to be waiting for something.

The only artwork that remained was the floor sculpture of Jim Kasper. It was a jester head. It stared out into the vast emptiness with a similarly blank expression, and said nothing. Just like the jester, everyone was putting on masks that day. Not out of deceitful urges, but because they just did not know what to feel. There really were just too many options. Memories crowded around, butting into conversations, demanding to be recognized. Maybe they were afraid of becoming legacies too.

Most artists came in rather subdued. For some, it appeared to be similar to going to a funeral. They spoke softly, as if out of respect for the dead or mourning. Or maybe they just didn’t like the way the mammoth space amplified their voices. One voice stood out over all. Jim Downey’s forced boisterousness comforted many and gave them the direction they needed. His laugh was heard booming overhead quite often, as if to retaliate against the despair, or to say something noble and profound about the unconquerable art spirit. Many left that day inspired by him to keep fighting the good fight. Few of us knew the fight that was going on inside of Jim. Even fewer knew that the laugh and the effort behind it were both forced. I was grateful for his effort, for it gave me the courage to do the same. As his assistant, it was crucial that I stay in synch with the tone he set. He projected the spirit of undaunted hope and continually repeated the list of victories, insisting that everyone focus on what had been accomplished in eight years of trying. I found myself saying the same things, as if we had rehearsed beforehand. We hadn’t. I just trusted his leadership and followed the tone he set. It may just be the only thing that got me through that day. Or through the next two years. That litany of good deeds running through my mind helped me to ignore the sounds of defeat.

Now, four years later, I am finally listening to some other sounds from the past. Each day a remembered voice penetrates my mental filter, or the image of an artist’s face. Scrolling through my phone’s list of stored numbers, a name jogs a memory. Often I have hurried on, refusing to accommodate the memory. But they keep coming back. Lately I have begun to allow myself to linger for a moment, here and there. Was Jim’s method the best for dealing with the loss we all experienced? I don’t know about right, wrong, or best, but it certainly enabled us all to survive and to put that day behind us. Now I have begun to bring it back, piece by piece, in manageable portions, to process and evaluate. To cleanse myself and let the wound heal.

My position at Legacy enabled me to see a lot of things. I saw how, for many people, art is simply decoration, a background for what they see as real life. It is not a necessary commodity, but a luxury of sorts. Most considered their art purchases as some kind of treat, and bought only on special occasions. People constantly needed to be reassured of the validity of their purchase. Very few felt confident as consumers to decide for themselves which paintings were better, and seemed to think there was some hidden magic code that they were not privy to.

I, on the other hand, felt quite confidant in my role. I knew what I believed about art. I knew what was good or successful art based on formal qualities and my own definition of art. I easily shared these things with patrons, offered them guidance, and encouraged their own confidence. People often left the gallery feeling bolstered by my input, whether they chose to buy that day or not. I felt that because of this, we were making progress. I believed it was possible for one little gallery to change the face of consumerism in that college town. I was convinced that if people were simply educated, they would come to see what I saw and value art as I did. Once that happened, the money would follow.

We had a wide range of price brackets. Anyone could afford something in our shop. In fact, when Jim ran the numbers that spring, he determined that if all of the members of our mailing list had spent ten dollars a month, we would have more than doubled our net income. (Ten bucks seems like nothing to me, living here in New York.) There were five hospitals in our town of 100,000 residents. We were home to the state university and two other private colleges. It seemed logical to deduce that there were plenty of intelligent, cultured people who could afford $100 annual investment in the arts. If only we could educate them and provide a safe, secure environment for them to ask questions and grow confident in their ability to choose which painting to buy. That was my theory.

So, what went wrong?

The subject perplexes me. It has to be a combination of factors…I’m just not sure which ones were most prevalent. Every time I examine the question, I come away with a different answer. How do you keep from repeating the past when you can’t understand it? At one time I thought it possible to change the way Americans view art. Now I am quite shaky on what I think. I see increasing evidence that the ones responsible for America’s view of art compose quite a stockpile list. All arts professionals have an influence: curators, gallery directors, teachers, grant-writers, critics, the media, and even artists themselves. Perhaps artists are the most responsible.

I would like to know why we failed and if there is any chance of redirecting this avalanche that is swallowing up my hope. Is it possible to change the system? I don’t want to grow old wondering, “What if…?” And I also don’t want to end up an old, bitter, jaded person who tried to change it but eventually accepted that resistance was futile. Can I live with myself if I don’t try? Can I live with the world if it doesn’t turn out to be what I want it to be? These two questions present an essential crossroad in life which I am trying not to view as a roadblock. In my efforts, I constantly fall back on Jim’s method of remembering old victories. I also think it’s O.K. if I let the engine idle here a while as I let myself refuel.

Shawna Johnson

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