Social Collaboration in the Commercial Sphere
Date of Award
MA Project - Restricted Access (SIA Only)
MA Project - Journal Article
Master of Arts (MA)
Twenty years after the social turn in art production was officially acknowledged by critics and theorists, work being made within the broad trajectory of social-engagement has now become so pervasive that it is a more common occurrence in commercial spaces. Often pigeonholed into the vague category of social practice or overshadowed by the program of relational aesthetics popularized at the end of the millennium, it is imperative to redefine current practices which are adopting new strategies and platforms for tackling social issues. Over the last two decades, there has been much debate contributing to the refinement of concepts of social engagement. In concert with these theoretical developments observable shifts in models of social production have taken place, within both the realm of art world activities and the broader socio-economic context. The proliferation of genres under the umbrella of social production, cultural practices which aspire to address socials issues, has managed to confront and resist changing market demands.
Social collaboration is one such strategy becoming more commonplace in cultural practices. Trumpeted by art historian, Grant H. Kester, for its legacy of responding to economic and political crises, social collaboration in its latest manifestations is taking on new forms in relation to shifting economic interests. A strategy for both resistance to neoliberal agendas and a means for mobilizing communities; collaboration is becoming an increasingly common program for contemporary artists. Staking out ground between the spheres of art and activism through cumulative, open-ended critical discourse, collaborative art practices are gaining legitimacy beyond the confines of art institutions and impacting diverse communities.
As the artistic strategies of collaboration become more mainstream they have moved from institutional spaces to commercial venues, indicating a shift in the economy of the art world and attitudes towards these practices. Although this trend in the commercial sphere is viewed by some as an inevitable cooptation by market forces, others believe it is symptomatic of an early push towards an immaterial post-capitalist economy. For instance, the prevalence of social collaboration in the commercial gallery system may be an aspect of what Adam Arvidsson deems the new ethical economy, in which value is harnessed through the social organization of immaterial forces. Collaborative art projects fulfill many of the criteria of an ethical economy as laid out by Arvidsson, and as such serve as viable alternatives to material object-based production preference by the dominant capitalist markets.
Conversely, social collaboration within the commercial art world has been criticized as a form of self-exploitation by artists; a means of accumulating social and cultural capital within a system increasingly driven by the privatization of funding and speculative capitalist markets. One solution proposed by Grace McQuilten and Anthony White is the model of art as social enterprise, which allows for the transparent participation by artists in the market economy with reduced risk of exploitation. Transparent, ethical models of social enterprise provide opportunities for artists and collaborators to position themselves critically to existing systems of power, without leaving themselves vulnerable to complicity with funding bodies or reliance on volatile speculative markets.
This study will consider three recent exhibitions in New York-based commercial galleries, which employed social collaboration as their organizing logic, to determine how these projects functioned within the commercial sphere and how their models reflected ideas of an ethical economy and social enterprise. Although these exhibitions articulate social collaboration in different ways, addressing distinct social issues in specific contexts, all three examples share common traits and evidence an advancing movement towards collaboration as a viable alternative to time-honoured market-friendly forms of art production.
This article will first consider Martha Rosler’s restaging of If You Lived Here, a collaborative project which in 1989 addressed issues of homelessness and gentrification. Reincarnated as If You Can’t Afford to Live Here, Mo-o-ove!! at Mitchell-Innes & Nash the project maintained its commitment to social collaboration, migrating from its institutional beginnings to occupy space in a major Chelsea gallery, at the heart of international art commerce. The focus will then move to For Freedoms at Jack Shainman Gallery, an experimental collaborative art project which launched the world’s first artist-run Super PAC in response to the 2016 election. Initiated and organized by artists, Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, this project which inhabited both of Jack Shainman’s Chelsea galleries throughout the summer, had a much broader social scope that reached across the country with its campaign efforts. Lastly, to provide contrast to these long-establish commercial galleries, this study will consider an aspirational series of collaborative projects being undertaken by a smaller, emerging collective lead by Catinca Tabacaru working out of her Lower East Side exhibition space.
 Kester, Grant H. The One And The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art In A Global Context. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011, 5.
 Arvidsson, Adam. “The Ethical Economy:Towards a Post-Capitalist Theory of Value.”Capital & Class, Spring 2009, 16.
 McQuilten, Grace, and Anthony White. Art as Enterprise: Social and Economic Engagement in Contemporary Art. London; New York : I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2016. 20.
Wivell, Catherine, "Social Collaboration in the Commercial Sphere" (2016). MA Projects. 21.