Interview with Meg Duguid
In this issue of Ear to the Ground, Jeffreen M. Hayes—executive director of Threewalls in Chicago— interviews Meg Duguid, a Chicago-based artist and fellow arts administrator. Together, they discuss the nimbleness of artist collectives and smaller NPOs, and articulate a set of community agreements for collaboration that value process over perfection.
Jeffreen Hayes: In a moment when our worlds are crumbling, many responses are framed in the outdated notion of “perfect,” which really is about shiny veneer. What are your thoughts about this way of moving in the Chicago art community? What are some of the responses from artists and arts organizations that speak or spoke to the moments that did not feel like veneer or through the lens of perfectionism?
Meg Duguid: The Chicago art community, and the art community in general, has a focus on object that exemplifies perfectionism. That focus on object instead of artist practice—or the human to whom that practice is attached—leads to an aesthetic perfectionism that overrides all else, and museums are excellent at pulling off the magician’s trick where objects are conflated with practice. The perfectionism that prizes the object is a little closer to luxury retail whereas an exploration of culture is much closer to human-lived practice.
Since the onset of COVID-19, many organizations and spaces have highlighted artists in the same way they had previously. And, then, as social unrest brought on a much overdue conversation of inequity, those same organizations and spaces still placed the conversation within the object, without really looking at what that object is or how it relates to white supremacy. In the institutional world, there is a lot of talk about supporting humanity in a pandemic and dismantling white supremacy. But no conversation about how contemporary objects are exhibited, purchased, made, collected, or traded. To have that conversation would expose the inequitable structure in which art exists.
By July, the split between object and practice became really apparent; institutions were still object oriented, while smaller spaces had thrown their regular programming out the window. For The People Art Collective, Brave Space Alliance, and Read/Write Library, among others, got boots on the ground, helping with support like microgrants and mutual aid.
JH: One of the things I want to follow up on is object versus practice, and how process is actually connected to culture. Culture is process. What you’re talking about in highlighting museums is that they engage in a particular kind of process that is about the object. Then, in naming Brave Space Alliance and Read/Write Library—where their processes are about centering the human—I find it interesting that these ways of being live side by side within Chicago, and how organizations can take risks, be responsive and nimble in ways that museum institutions are not.
MD: While the world is turned upside-down, institutional playbooks are still the same. Some smaller organizations and individuals will burn their playbooks and work to hold each other’s hands through change and crisis, knowing that there is something else to be found on the other end. That willingness to support our humanity is what makes room for new culture and new inclusivity. Institutions refuse to think about what space is and what it can be in relationship to culture, because they are a showroom for objects where, even performance, social practice, and interactive works take on that object context. Individuals are much more willing to figure out how to meet each other’s needs, while the institution takes the stance, “We’ll be here for you when those needs are met, thank you very much.“
JH: We are in a moment where there is crumbling and rupture, and it is the perfect time to rethink how we move within the ecosystem.
MD: Now is the time to question how the art world is built and reimagine the ecosystem. How should our humanity be centered within our structures? How should our spaces, from large institutions to artist-run projects, function? Who’s at the top of our systems? Who’s running projects? Who’s staffing them? How are artists and creatives paid? What does the cultural service industry look like? How are front-of-house staff compensated? Who’s made to feel comfortable engaging in the viewing and making of art? If there is care in asking these questions and in talking through how curatorial processes work, then we should recognize how spaces are engaged and who can engage them. And if we really looked at that, we would have to knock down our systems and start over.
Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Whitewash, September 2017, as part of Street Level Performance Festival, a collaboration between Threewalls and Columbia College, Department of Exhibitions, Performances and Student Spaces. Photo by Sandra Steinbrecher.
JH: To continue the line of thinking about perfectionism, I find that the notion of it, for one, is counter to what art and being an artist or creative is fundamentally about, and, two, tends to be a trauma response to judgment and not critique. As an artist, creative, and leader of an artist-led organization, I am curious to hear your response to my observation.
MD: To make work and to exist in this world is messy, full of contradictions and errors. And that leads to messy, joyful, awkward, and painful interactions with the world. But none of this is recognized in what is considered the final object, exhibition, or performance. The moment where work finally comes into the viewing world, it is polished and done. So the mess of making is cloaked in a series of nicely educated words that most of us were taught to string together in art school, while sweeping our own humanity aside. I think many artists are done with that now. They’re exhausted at trying to make a living and have a practice and have a family—whatever that looks like for them—along with having real connections.
Making and having a practice provides an internal sense of joy and satisfaction. Artists will create because they have to, regardless of pay. That, however, doesn’t mean that everyone else should get paid and the artists shouldn’t. The art world is a hierarchy where the largest museums and the blue-chip galleries are at the top, followed by granting organizations, mid-level institutions, and low-level institutions, with the artist run and the artist at the bottom. And there is no way to equitably funnel resources down.
Even as artists band together and start a space or nonprofit to try to control some of their means of production, the first thing that happens, once money comes in, is they hire an administrator and that work is paid for while the artistic work isn’t. So, there is downward pressure on the artists and their ability to take care of themselves and their families. That spurs its own kind of trauma in struggling to survive and rise in the hierarchy. Many, who start to ascend, step on the people around them and support the worst in the art world, because it’s built into that system. This response is a result of judgment and not critique, as the curators at the top really help spur this system through tastes and collectors. If it were about critique, we’d have far more money put into research and development for the artists and into dialogue around the art.
JH: How do you describe the Chicago visual arts community and our nimbleness? Where does this nimbleness reside?
MD: Space, coupled with neighborhood organizing, makes Chicago extremely nimble and that nimbleness is often celebrated in how artists have banded together along with their communities to create their own systems. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Southside Community Art Center were all made in this way. But I feel Chicago is not nimble in cross-community conversation.
Threewalls Breaking Bread program in Bronzeville, South Side, Chicago, July 2017. Photo by Milo Bosh.
Chicago has this long proud history of the artist-run organization, with artists coming together on behalf of their needs. Chicago has the space to do this, along with the support of community newspapers. But, the larger news outlets rarely take on the community cultural mantle of the smaller press. There is a lack of cross-community, celebration, collaboration, or recognition. The money and press move to the archives and stories of larger whiter organizations. And the artist-run space mirrors that with tales of its long history that tend to be white and male.
JH: Your research for Where the Future Came From is opening this up right and saying there’s more work that comes behind it.
MD: Where the Future Came From was an exhibition that attempted to survey feminist artist-run spaces in Chicago. The resulting book documented what was found. The history is not complete, and the book is not a compendium of every project done in Chicago. The work of an artist and the artist-run is messy, and the research of it is equally messy. My hope is that in 20 years, a number of people will have taken up some of the histories from the book so it pales in comparison to the amount of information that comes to light. I want my book to get outdated very quickly, because I want so much more information to be found.
JH: What you articulated leads to the notion that process is open-ended. And, it’s essential as an artist and for those of us who work with artists. And, with all that we have discussed, let’s articulate what a community agreement for collaboration looks like between artists, organizations, and institutions. There are several for me, but I will share two components. The first is practicing being pro-Black, which means intentionally centering the humanity of Black artists, creatives, administrators, and community members. In this, it is essential to pay equitably, pass the mic, and give up your seat at the table. The second is incorporating accessibility as it relates to disability justice: make sure your space can accommodate wheelchairs and offer live or closed-captioning and sign language, as appropriate to your audience, and simply ask what access needs there may be.
MD: Your statement is essential. A community agreement for collaboration is necessary for the art world. Unlike other professions, we do not have a series of rules or professional oaths to which we are to be held accountable. In this, we could recalibrate how we think of perfection. Perfection should be an equitable community agreement.
Jeffreen M. Hayes, PhD, merges her administrative, curatorial, and academic practices with cultural leadership supporting artists and community development. As an advocate for racial inclusion, equity, and access, Jeffreen develops adaptable approaches for community participation, particularly those in underrepresented groups. She has extensive curatorial experience and some of her projects include SILOS, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, AFRICOBRA: Messages to the People, AFRICOBRA: Nation Time (an official collateral event for the 2019 Venice Biennial, the oldest art exhibition in the world), and Embracing the Lens: BlackFlorida project.
Jeffreen also speaks and writes about art history, Black art, and arts activism. She is a TEDx speaker and recently spoke about “Arts Activism in Simple Steps.” Her writing can be found in several independent online and print publications dedicated to art criticism. Due to her work toward advancing an equitable art world, Jeffreen was named as a 2019 ROOT 100 honoree.
As the executive director of Threewalls, a position she has held since 2015, Jeffreen provides strategic vision for the artistic direction and impact of the organization in Chicago. Under her leadership, Threewalls thoughtfully develops artistic platforms with artists to help manifest the organization’s vision of connecting segregated communities, people, and experiences through art. The organization is recognized as a leader in racial justice and inclusion.
Meg Duguid is an artist and an arts administrator. She is currently the director of exhibitions for Columbia College Chicago’s Department of Exhibitions and Performing and Student Spaces. Previously, she was the director of the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery, where she was responsible for programs including Woodworks, Chicago Interiors, and As the Story Opens. . . . As the current director of exhibitions, she has curated ¡Sí, Se Puede! an exhibition connecting contemporary art practice to the legacies of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and their work with the UFW, as well as Where the Future Came From, an exhibition and resulting book exploring the history of feminist artist-run spaces in Chicago from 1880 to 2018. Her interest in Chicago’s artist-run scene developed when she came to Chicago in 1995. Since that time, she has been a maker, a viewer, and an administrator associated with many of Chicago’s artist-run spaces. From 2009 to 2011, she ran Clutch Gallery—a 25-square-inch white cube located in the heart of her purse—since then, she lends her purse to others to curate and carry. Duguid, along with her partner Michael Thomas, is currently working to develop theVisualist.org into a comprehensive and searchable cultural archive of artist-run projects and actions in Chicago. Duguid received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA from Bard College.