Guest Post: Art and the Economy with DAC

Karl Erickson, Executive Director of the Dumbo Arts Center, writes for

Here at Dumbo Arts Center we have been working with a variety of artists to explore the theme of “economy” over the past year. The exploration started last January with the inaugural group show in our new space “Information Economy” and will culminate in February with Robby Herbst’s exhibition “New Pyramid for the Capitalist System.” Along the way we have looked at how artists manage information in their lives, opened a lending library, made cement sculptures from left-over parts of paintings, been yelled at by a man in mouse ears, and had a feng shui master tell us to cover up our new mirrored desk – in order to stop the money energy from bouncing off and away. Next, we are making a store of “attitude problem” merchandise and taking it to Miami Beach.

Of course, the Economy is on everyone’s mind and actions - from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations to the Euro struggles to getting paid and keeping small not-for-profits open. When I became the Executive Director of DAC last December, I quickly found myself thinking more about money than about art. Having our exhibition season structured around the theme of “economy” seemed a good way to combine the two issues. I wanted to give artists and our audience the opportunity to voice their ideas and attitudes in different settings. I think we have done this very well.

When the concept of “economy” is closely examined, it quickly becomes not just about money, but rather the networks that bind us all together: in the neighborhood of DUMBO, to all of New York and the world. It becomes clear that “economy” is about how the actions of one affect another. Ideally, it is a system of mutual support. DUMBO itself is a great example of this: the arts organizations bring in audiences that patronize the businesses that also provide services to the residents, who bring in more businesses that make the neighborhood an interesting place to live and work, which brings in more visitors who patronize the arts… As each grows - residents, business, arts venues, visitors - each can provide greater value (more programming, more selection, more interactions!) to another, a living, interconnected whole.

From DAC’s perspective, this may have been most clearly articulated in Annie Shaw’s project this summer: “The Missing Library.” For this project Annie worked with community members to build up a lending library for the neighborhood from scratch. Residents donated books that could (and still can!) be checked out by residents and visitors alike. This part of the exhibition became a portrait of the neighborhood, of their interests as expressed by the books brought in – and checked out! (For the record, the neighborhood seems to really like contemporary fiction, physics and business management).

Throughout the exhibition, we talked about libraries: how do people use them, why doesn’t DUMBO have one, and what should be in a library. Economics and community are at the heart of these questions. Thinking about economy inspired artists Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas to think about the definition of economy as being modesty of means. This lead them to work with DUMBO resident and Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) artist Lily Pu to produce dramatic, beautiful flower arrangements amidst their art installation. Ikebana is characterized by a minimal, asymmetrical structure that exists in harmony with the surroundings. The ephemeral beauty of the arrangements called to mind brevity and value of all things. The theme has also allowed us to reach outside of the gallery space: DUMBO Resident JoAnn Fleming invited Aeron Bergman and me to appear on her internet radio show “Flash Talks Cash” to discuss art, money and government.

We’ve used this economy theme to think about financial and material constraints, permanence and the archive. It has taught us about interconnectivity and the power of community. And we have learned that while we may spend most of the days hovering above spreadsheets and databases, art is the lifeline that brings in cleansing air and connects us to the wider world.