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Art, Money and Labor at CentralTrak
by Jerome Weeks 21 May 2010

Art is a commodity, art is labor — especially in this economy. Artist Carolyn Sortor went to UTD’s CentralTrak to see if they’d join a national conversation about art and economics. The results are an art exhibition featuring inventive (and subversive) treatments of money-making, and more. Jerome Weeks reports.


CentralTrak2UTD’s Central Trak on Exposition, a block from Fair Park

Whenever a painting sells for millions of dollars, there’s talk of art and money. But a group of North Texas artists will be talking about artists not making money – and how they might. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on an unusual exhibition.

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The exhibition opening Saturday at CentralTrak is called The NON-PROFIT Margin – because most artists, whether they’re actors, painters or singers, don’t make that much profit.

kate sheerin3Kate Sheerin (right) is the director of CentralTrak, a gallery and artists’ residency in a former post office near Fair Park. It’s part of the University of Texas at Dallas arts program. That’s one reason, Sheerin says, she was interested in exploring the issues surrounding the selling of art and artists marketing themselves. UTD graduates art students – looking to make a living with their art, when the majority never will.

SHEERIN: “Obviously, there are some artists that can make a living. But you know what? I lived in New York and worked at a very established gallery and with artists who were selling $80,000 paintings. And they still had a day job.”

But Sheerin says the purpose of The NON-PROFIT Margin and its related talks is not to complain about how low-paying art is.

SHEERIN: “It’s to really show artists solutions that they have for securing greater autonomy for themselves. Instead of just, ‘Why do I not have a gallery and why does nobody buy my art?’ someone could say, ‘You know, I could do that with my practice.’”

Some works in the show still treat art simply as merchandise to be sold. But the artists find novel ways, as investment bankers say, to ‘monetize’ their works.

In 1924, artist Marcel Duchamp jokingly printed his own Monaco bonds (left) – to raise money so he could play roulette in Monte Carlo. The bonds that Irish artist Gary Farrelly is issuing are different. He’s been printing Kunstbonds (“art bonds), but these, naturally, will be “Tex Bonds.” But they can only be redeemed to buy Farrelly’s other artworks. And he’s more systematic with the whole bond idea than Duchamp was.

SHEERIN: “Oh yes, I mean, he even has his own rating, and of course, he gives himself a Triple A rating [laughs].”

UTD art professors Thomas Riccio and Frank Dufour have built a kind of memory machine. Visitors sit in it and can access video and audio clips. But, Sheerin says —

SHEERIN: “It’s coin-operated. You pay to play — like a ride.”

And then there’ll be a one-night only repeat performance of artist Shelby Cunningham’s “trunk show” with the Oh 6 Collective

SHEERIN: “In 2006, she hosted a trunk show where she got a bunch of her friends together in a parking lot. They were selling works out of the trunks of their cars.”

But the entire CentralTrak project isn’t solely about ingenious or ironic looks at selling art and promoting artists. It actually began with a newspaper, and with Carolyn Sortor (below), a North Texas artist.

Sortor herself makes her living as a real estate lawyer.

SORTOR: “I haven’t really managed to get paid much for my artistic efforts. So, I don’t know, maybe I’m a poster child? [laughs].”

Sortor learned about Art Work, a one-time-only newspaper put out by a Chicago group, Temporary Services. Art Work features essays about the economics of art, the history of unions for artists. Art Work called for a national conversation on these issues. Panels, exhibitions and spaghetti dinner theater performances have been held around the country.

Given the current economy, Sortor thought it was time local artists looked at their own practices, looked at the political forces that shape those practices. She turned to Sheerin and CentralTrak.

So in addition to the gallery exhibition, CentralTrak will host readings. And it will co-host a symposium with Southern Methodist University art professors Michael Corris and Noah Simblist. It’s part of Art Work‘s national conversation about art, labor and economics.

Sortor herself is putting up informative charts and videos at CentralTrak. The questions, she says, are about work and pay as much as they’re about art.

SORTOR: “There’s this tension over defining art as labor that’s just as hard as other kinds of work. But you know, part of the reason this is so timely is that the middle class in general isn’t getting paid very well for anything we’re doing.”