At the end of last month, BEARHUG, an entirely self-organized exhibition, took over two transitional spaces at the corner of 18th and St. Mary’s Ave for a one-night exhibition that included six floors of video, projection, painting and sculpture. The scale and unfinished nature of both buildings that housed over 30 artists’ work, allowed for site specific, project-oriented work that was equal parts unfettered experimentation and carefully considered spatial evaluation. While there were plenty of works in the show that warrant lengthy critical discussion, I’ll save that for another time and take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of self-organized exhibitions like BEARHUG and the way in which replicating this model more frequently can make us more independent, critical, and resilient.
Joshua Powell and Joel Damon of Omaha’s Project Project organized the entire exhibition in about a month. They worked with Dicon, a local real estate developer, to secure the space, generator-powered electricity, and portable bathrooms. They recruited artists and parceled out floor space, encouraging each artist to frame their work as an individual solo show in the context of the larger whole BEARHUG became. And they did it all with no institutional support, no institutional funding, and no institutional accountability; negative freedoms that make the case for self-organizing even stronger, especially in light of the fact that we find ourselves in an era when institutional responsibility equates more directly to appeasing trustees and donor interests than creating engaging public and exhibition programming. Money seems to flow up the institutional ladder more fluidly than ideas. Self-organizing becomes a way to counter that lateral redistribution of cultural capital and provides a baseline to which institutions can respond rather than the other way around.
Omaha, like a lot of Midwestern cities, suffers from a particular brand of inferiority complex that leaves artists far too reliant on the validation that comes from institutional representation. “If I’m not showing in a gallery, I’m not showing at all.” Completely counterproductive but surprisingly common, that attitude is largely symptomatic of a model of artistic production that erroneously shifts emphasis away from self-generated work to sales and commissioned-based work. I know very few artists, even on the national and international level, who make their livings exclusively through the sale of their work. More typical, and arguably more productive, is a model that allows artists to have a robust studio practice while generating income in other ways, whether it be teaching, part-time employment, or a regular old 9 to 5; negative freedoms that lead to the creation of work liberated from the constraints of institutional accountability.
These are precarious times. Let’s make precarious work. Let’s make our own opportunities. Let’s show in basements and apartments. Invite your friends. Invite other artists. Schedule studio visits and ask for critical feedback. Without an MFA program in Omaha or centralized mechanism for generating critical discussion, it’s more difficult, but identifying that need positions us in a place of power. We have an opportunity to shape that discussion outside the influence of academic institutions through self-organizing. After all, movements, for the most part, aren’t born in institutions. They arise through collective action—Dadaism, Viennese Actionsim, Accelerationism, Post-Internet Art—academia may have named them, textbooks and exhibition catalogs may have disseminated them, museum shows may have made them commodities, but none of those originated them. Let’s appreciate our intuitions for what they are while remaining critical of their influence. Let’s use our negative freedoms to self-organize, revitalize empty spaces, and build a stronger community.