Producing Local Color: Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago

Producing Local Color: Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago

by Diane Grams

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In big cities, major museums and elite galleries tend to dominate our idea of the art world. But beyond the cultural core ruled by these moneyed institutions and their patrons are vibrant, local communities of artists and art lovers operating beneath the high-culture radar. Producing Local Color is a guided tour of three such alternative worlds that thrive


In big cities, major museums and elite galleries tend to dominate our idea of the art world. But beyond the cultural core ruled by these moneyed institutions and their patrons are vibrant, local communities of artists and art lovers operating beneath the high-culture radar. Producing Local Color is a guided tour of three such alternative worlds that thrive in the Chicago neighborhoods of Bronzeville, Pilsen, and Rogers Park.

These three neighborhoods are, respectively, historically African American, predominantly Mexican American, and proudly ethnically mixed. Drawing on her ethnographic research in each place, Diane Grams presents and analyzes the different kinds of networks of interest and support that sustain the making of art outside of the limelight. And she introduces us to the various individuals—from cutting-edge artists to collectors to municipal planners—who work together to develop their communities, honor their history, and enrich the experiences of their neighbors through art. Along with its novel insights into these little examined art worlds, Producing Local Color also provides a thought-provoking account of how urban neighborhoods change and grow.

Editorial Reviews

Howard S. Becker
“This is a very good book with a lot to say to sociologists, local history aficionados in Chicago, anyone concerned with the business and politics of art, and people who want to understand the processes of urban growth as they occur at the most immediate level. Diane Grams succeeds in delivering a mountain of interesting information put together in an analytically innovative way. Producing Local Color will add to the literature on the contribution of arts to community development—in all the possible meanings of those weighty but ambiguous terms—as well as to our understanding of art worlds, art organizations, and the art they produce. Grams’s analytic innovations are intelligent, thoroughly grounded in the data, and very useful in understanding what’s going on.”

Diana Crane
Producing Local Color is a valuable contribution to our understanding of a subject that sociologists of art have largely neglected, ethnic art, and holds important implications for theories in that field. Diane Grams develops a theory of local art production through social networks that draw on available resources in urban communities and contribute not only to the production of art but also urban redevelopment. Grams’ approach to art as the result of network-based resource mobilization is at odds with the traditional art historical perspective that focuses on art as produced by geniuses as well as the usual sociological approach that views it as produced and consumed by elites. Clearly written, well organized, and accessible, Producing Local Color will be very useful for students and researchers in a wide variety of fields.”

“[Grams’] method is observational and her writing tends to be scientific rather than flashy or theoretical. This is a refreshing perspective, like an economist explaining the art market or a chemist detailing an artist’s media. As the local politics and ethnic identities of each case study is so specific, Grams’ micro-lens produces a realistic picture of the city at each turn. Although the material is straightforward, the author’s findings are edifying. Producing Local Color is required reading for anyone seeking to understand why Chicago’s many art scenes feel disconnected or scattered.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Producing Local Color

Art Networks in Ethnic Chicago

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-30517-2

Chapter One

Theory of Local Art Production Networks

From Individual to Network Perspectives

I am kind of like a cowboy, riding the Wild West in my car, hustling for work. Sometimes my pockets are fat. Sometimes they are slim. (Jess interview 2002)

Myths and metaphors are often used to explain how artists survive as people and as artists. These literary devices give a sense of what goes on, but they exclude the underlying mechanisms that help to explain how a life is maintained and art is produced. When I asked the poet Tyehimba Jess how he gets work, he turned to the metaphor of the cowboy to explain the lack of stability yet the excitement he has had for nearly a decade of rustling up paying gigs as a poet. The metaphor of the cowboy explains one thing for sure: Jess was not sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Yet the detail of a poet's hustle revealed a more vivid picture:

A lot of people do it better than I do. But I am pretty good. I always have business cards. At every event there is a potential for business. You know, up front near the stage is where the poetry happens. But in back there is a group of people making connections, finding out what's happening, finding out about opportunities-what organizations have grants and need artists, who is looking for teaching artists, what deadlines are coming up, who is editing a publication. That's not cynical. It's just the way it is. I learned that many artists go to events to make connections. There might be a teacher there who is looking for someone to work with their class or someone from an organization. (Jess interview 2002)

Just as Jess explained how he got gigs, he told me the expectations artists have for each other and for the organizations they encounter. According to Jess, working for free was not necessarily the antithesis of paid employment. "There are all types of intangibles attached," he said, including "good vibes." To explain the meaning of "good vibes," he rhetorically asked: "What's the difference between an organization that pays $100 and does not give good vibes and one that pays $50 and gives good vibes? Good vibes might mean they provide a community, a network for me. They might also provide respect" (2002). Jess pointed out that sometimes, for some organizations, he will work for free because he knows that he is high on the list of artists when paid work is available. At the same time, he has ended relationships with paying organizations that do not offer "good vibes." These vibes represent the reciprocity between the artist and the organization; the exchange includes more than money paid for services rendered. Among the kind of intangibles are making and giving referrals, the promotion of the artist's work, and recruiting those who show up to the artist's events.

One incident recounted by Jess exemplified the difference between an organization with good vibes and one with not-so-good vibes:

I invited people to my last gig in Chicago before heading for New York. This gig was also [where I award] a poetry prize to a teenage poet. This is important to me. Four people from one of my summer gigs showed up ... and no one showed up from the other one. I wondered why no one came and no one even mentioned it. It occurred to me, do they fucking respect what I do? I've supported that organization. I've gone to their gigs for years. So I said to [the staff], "I want you to be hip to the fact that this concerns me-that no one came to the event, that no one said anything, and no one recruited kids to apply for the contest." They said, "Oh, OK" [pause]. No apologies, no promises, nothing. It made me think about the relationship. It's a kind of quid pro quo. Missing the event is one thing; not mentioning it is another thing. (2002)

In this excerpt, Jess articulated how "showing up"-or at least apologizing for not showing up-was part of the bundle of goods and services that are exchanged in the reciprocal relationships among artists and art organizations. The reputations of both artists and organizations are stored within these networks and accessed when needed, as Becker has pointed out (1982 [2008], 86-87). Moreover, when work is plentiful, artists can choose which organization has the most tangibles and intangibles to offer for their work.

Without the kind of control exerted by the institution of culture or access to the more consistent resources of national or global art markets, art producers rely on reciprocal exchange in order to attract participants and sustain art production activity. Through what appear as friendships and cliques, art producers engage in a variety of exchanges for carrying out art production, giving legitimacy to their activities, and gaining access to resources. This begins to paint the picture from an artist's perspective of how artists function within networks. By weaving themselves into a network, artists maximize their access to information and opportunity with minimal effort. But what exactly is a network, and how do different networks lead to different kinds of results for artists?

Production of Culture as a Research Perspective

The idea of an art production network first entered into research on culture in 1976 through what Richard A. Peterson called "the production of culture perspective" (1976a, 672). Sociologists set a research agenda to examine "the processes by which elements of culture are fabricated" (672). Expanding upon research of artists' careers (Becker 1963b; White and White 1965), they explored art worlds and social types (Becker 1976), reward systems (Crane 1976), organizations (DiMaggio and Hirsh 1976), networks and circles (Kadushin 1976), and government patronage (Useem 1976), with each of these elements addressing an aspect of the multi-directional flow of information, materials, and resources through the networks of production and consumption of culture and its objects. These ideas were expanded upon by Crane (1992), who examined the dichotomy between recorded and urban cultures,1 drawing important distinctions among various culture industries and a range of urban cultures; in an edited volume on culture-producing occupations (Zollars and Goldsman Cantor 1993); and by Peterson (1997), who demonstrated the social construction of "authenticity" as a product of the culture industries.

In Art Worlds ([1982] 2008), Howard S. Becker provided a definitive exploration of art production as an occupational field in which participants were linked through network relationships. By viewing the basic social arrangement of art production as a network, Becker showed the creation and distribution of an artwork as the work of a collectivity of producers, each integral to a process leading to the creation of something understood by network participants to be "art." His view throws a broad net, which includes everyone whose participation in the occupation is consequential for the existence of an artwork. For example, Becker included guards and janitors in museums and other art production facilities as among the producers of what was understood to be "art." He provides a useful perspective because he located and localized the knowledge and material resources necessary to produce art within the network of participants involved in that activity. Although he did not examine art production in local places, or how race and ethnicity allow and even require different sorts of resource mobilization to produce art than do national and international systems, his focus on the limits imposed on materials and personnel available through a distribution system sheds light on the resources that are mobilized through the production process.

Shared Knowledge versus Shared Acquaintances

Becker's ([1982] 2008) use of the term "network" makes evident that art production is not the same type of production found in an automobile production plant, nor is it like a textbook flow chart of institutional order within a museum, nor does it follow a logical progression of time as presented in art history. If art production is not explained in these ways, what does it mean to say that art is produced through a network? Becker provided at least two images of what networks are and how they operate.

On the one hand, he used the term to describe how people are linked through shared knowledge. He proposed that an art world is "the network of people whose cooperative activity organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things produced the kind of art works that the art world is noted for" ([1982] 2008, x). In art worlds constructed by networks of shared knowledge, participants may or may not know each other. They are not necessarily in the same locality, city, region, or nation; they just know how to do things in the same way.

Similar to the account by Jess of the exchanges and expectations among artists, in Becker's second image, networks accomplish instrumental purposes, such as providing access to jobs, gigs, money, respect, and other resources. These networks are built through interpersonal "connections." According to Becker, in addition to ability,

successful free-lancers also need a network of connections, so that a large number of people who might need their services have them in mind, and in their telephone book, to be called when the occasion arises.... A network of connections consists of a number of people who know you and your work well enough to trust the well-being of some portion of their project to you. The key element of the network is trust.... Through interlocking trust and recommendations, workers develop stable networks, which furnish them with more or less steady work. ([1982] 2008, 86-87)

In this image, network participants must at least know one another: there are specific connections between people, but it is left unclear how these connections occur. And of course, there is also something accomplished through the network-in this case, income without the formal arrangements of employment. Moreover, "trust" is a key element in the creation of network connections.

Becker's two images of networks are potentially confusing because they lead to contradictory definitions of a network: in the first, a network of connections is produced through shared knowledge, no matter how tightly contained, regulated, or distantly diffused; in the other, the network is produced through shared acquaintances who exchange labor, money, and trust.

These two images can lead to divergent methods of study and even reliance upon different academic disciplines. First is the study of culture as knowledge networks and the production of symbols and shared meanings. This is an approach typical of cultural studies, anthropology, and the sociology of culture. Symbols are produced through shared values, beliefs, and ways of doing things. Individuals who belong to the same group or classification reproduce the understandings that perpetuate the existence of that group. Thus, a researcher can identify members and classify them in the same group based on how they create and use knowledge and therefore are part of or reproduce the same social and cultural practices. Members can identify others of the same group by recognizing common sets of practices and ideas. Such groups may be occupational, such as illustrated in Kadushin's 1974 study of American intellectuals. They may also be class-based, as illustrated by three studies: Rosenzweig's ([1983] 1991) study of the emergence of the saloon as the center of working-class men's social life; Radway's (1984) study of working-class women who read romance novels to escape and resist their ascribed roles; and Bourdieu's ([1979] 1984) study of status and mobility among middle- and upper-class museum-goers. Such studies show how shared cultural practices create aspects of an art world, a social world, and a worldview while expressing a class-based group identity.

In Becker's second image, acquaintance networks involve participants in instrumental activities. This image links Becker's work to business school analysts studying the functions and purposes of business and technology networks and their connections to formal organizations. This may include, for example, job seekers' networks (Granovetter 1973, 1974), the network form of management in technology businesses (Burns and Stalker 1961), networks of nonprofit organizations within a discipline or with a shared purpose (Galaskiewicz and Bielefeld 1998), and network relationships among businesses (Podolny and Page 1998). Such studies show how network structures can be functional and effective in situations where hierarchical, rational structures of formal organizations or the competitive structures of market competition would both fail. For example, researchers studying business innovation (Burns and Stalker 1961) and cultural trends (Fine and Kleinman 1979) have shown that networks are the most effective structures in changing unstable conditions or where rapid transmission of information is necessary for problem solving and creativity. And as Podolny and Page argue: "Network forms of organization foster learning, represent a mechanism for the attainment of status or legitimacy, provide a variety of economic benefits, facilitate the management of resource dependencies, and provide considerable autonomy for employees" (1998, 57). Applying this approach to the study of art production, Gilmore (1993) and Giuffre (1999) both showed how a producer's reliance on network relationships is functional because it provides stability in an unstable work environment and provides access to opportunities necessary for success.

Although Kadushin (1976) likened networks to informal organizations, because they often represent micro-social systems that are invisible in their totality and are often "draped over" other more formal relationships (172), scholars of business practice have begun to recognize the network within post-industrial economies as a form of organization and as a legitimate business arrangement. Podolny and Page (1998) examine how global business networks function on a variety of levels to facilitate and enhance business practice. They define a network as the unit from which the other forms of organization emerge and have thereby replaced the evolutionary theory of the relationship between networks, organizations, and markets with one in which a network is a broader form of the other two, distinguished by their form of governance.

[From] a structural perspective, every form of organization is a network, and market and hierarchy are simply two manifestations of the broader type. However, when considered as a form of governance, the network form can be distinctly characterized. We define a network form of organization as any collection of actors (N [greater than or equal to] 2) that pursue repeated, enduring exchange relations with one another and, at the same time, lack a legitimate organizational authority to arbitrate and resolve disputes that may arise during the exchange. (Podolny and Page 1998, 59)

This definition is useful because it offers the theory of "network" as the broad type and organization and market as narrower forms of this broad type, and helps to explain how networks can be understood in post-industrial society as a legitimate social arrangement operating without the hierarchical structure of authority or the ideologies of profit to resolve disputes.

Through existing theory, we can understand much about this form of social arrangement. First, interactions that produce networks occur more often than chance meetings; they are repeated and enduring relationships. Network relationships exist as horizontal relationships characterized as equitable and reciprocal (Karraker and Grams 2008), rather than either the vertically arranged authority relationships typical of formal organizations or the competitive relationships typical of markets. For order and predictability, then, networks must rely on something other than authority or competition: some network researchers, including Becker, have focused the governing principle on trust (Becker [1982] 2008; Powell 1990; Schuler 1996): that is, people enter into network relationships and maintain equanimity because the relationship is based upon the trust that others will do what is right and expected. Others have focused on acts of reciprocity; that is, that networks exist when there is a give-and-take involved in an exchange (Powell 1990; Putnam 2000), often giving more than taking so that the network becomes a repository of abundance (Putnam 2000). Still others have focused on the potential for mutual benefits, as opposed to desire for individual gain, as the attraction of network relationships (Burns and Stalker 1961; Putnam 2000). Each of these principals-trust, reciprocity, mutual gain-represents the "glue" that binds people together. That researchers have identified governing principles of networks is evidence that networks are social facts that can be understood in and of themselves. Yet further investigation of the context and content of exchanges among art producers is necessary to understand how and why people are brought together.


Excerpted from Producing Local Color by DIANE GRAMS Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Diane Grams is assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University and coeditor of Entering Cultural Communities: Diversity and Change in the Nonprofit Arts.

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