PaperWorkers Local

PaperWorkers Local

Saturday, September 8, 2012

An Argument for a Printmaking Facility in Birmingham

The PaperWork Artists' Co-Operative is a community printmaking facility that does not yet exist in Birmingham Alabama. Our first priority is finding a home. Please email us at if you can help.

We are establishing this co-operative in response to the need for a working fine art printmaking facility in Birmingham. If you weren't aware that there is such a need consider that while the city has recently received quite a bit of attention from national media outlets as a great place to visit and even relocate to and that the arts are part of the draw. However, the local art scene (with the notable exception of the Sidewalk Film Festival) has not been mentioned as a highlight. Oxford American recently published a list of 100 New Superstars of Southern Art and there were Birmingham artists on that list. If you'd like to get up right now and go see work by those artists you'll be on your way to New York or Atlanta or New Orleans or Nashville or any number of other places that aren't Birmingham. And many of those places are smaller than Birmingham, by the way.  Given that reality, if an Alabamian goes to school to become an artist their best bet is not to move to the biggest city in their home state. It is to move to another city in another state and become part of that place's social fabric. As artists who have chosen to make our homes here we would like to do our part to change this.

Most American cities the size of ours have at least one community printmaking facility. Those printmaking facilities serve a few functions.  

They function as community centers that tighten social ties and create new ones. Through offering workshops and classes, exhibition openings and just time to be in the shop making work together they become active social centers in which artists and members of the community meet, create connections, learn new things and make art. This sounds simple and it's easy to overlook. But it's a vital part of community building. In Birmingham, which is still one of the most segregated cities in America, we could use some social spaces where people interact and build bridges.

We're trying to do our part to change this by providing center of community for the arts. Printmaking is an inherently democratic and collaborative media. It takes teamwork to run a co-op and teamwork to make prints. Prints are easy to exhibit and inexpensive to collect and thereby spread awareness of the artists in our region.

That collaborative spirit also means that printmakers naturally seek out others and cross boundaries. Birmingham is still one of the most segregated cities in America. African Americans and the LGBT community are almost completely unrepresented in the local art scene. Latinos are completely unrepresented. We have a large Middle-Eastern community here who are unrepresented. We believe we can change these things to the benefit of our city and it's diverse communities.
Artists' co-operatives serve as art world outposts. As such they are a two way path bringing outside artists, curators, exhibitions and visitors into the city and helping local artists make connections beyond the city limits. Those connections are extremely important in an artist's career. With time these can even become international connections offering artists from around the world an opportunity to exhibit in our city or come to Birmingham for a residency and make a body of work. And our local artists get to travel the same paths in reverse.  

This may sound like it's all about artists getting to do cool stuff. That is part of it. But it's also good for the community.  At present our universities and museums generally bring artists to the city. This gives students in the art college and museum patrons a chance to engage with the artists and learn from them. But there's not a lot of general community involvement. Those artists don't tend to show up in the community and interact with anyone else. We don't get the opportunity to talk with those people about the issues that their work addresses and how they relate to our community. And that kid who can draw doesn't get to meet a living example of turning that ability into a profession and a voice commenting on the life that she lives. Being able to invite an artist into our community who's work deals with issues that exist here and maybe even to have them stay for a while and make a body of work would be nothing short of wonderful.

In another slant, The Social Impact of the Arts Project at UPenn has shown that the benefits of arts programs are "especially great in communities that don't have highly visible art identities but do contain rich cultural resources." I.e. just about any neighborhood in Birmingham. The project's principle investigator, Professor Mark J. Stern, points out that

“... there’s a real need to explain how funding the arts has benefits besides funding a theater, or symphony, etc.,” Stern says. “One of the arguments we’re trying to make [focuses on] the kind of economic payoff the arts [provide] because it has these social effects: It mobilizes communities, turns neighborhoods into places of interest to their residents and to visitors to the city.”
And, he adds, while developers and investors may look first for a quick economic payoff, longer lasting, more sustainable economic benefits are derived from building communities by increasing social connections within neighborhoods.
“It’s that social impact that leads to [the arts] having an economic impact,” Stern says. “Arts and culture [play] an important role in improving the lives of ordinary people, and we should be able to measure it.”

Printmaking facilities function to democratize art. For the most part works of art are very expensive. They are expensive for two reasons; because they are unique one-of-a-kind objects and because artists need to make a living. A painter who makes a dozen paintings in a year has to sell them for about $1K each just to stay above the poverty line. That goes up to $2K each if the work is sold through a gallery. And if the artist wants to join the middle class the prices just go up and up. However, if an artist makes some original prints to go with those paintings each print is not a unique object. Each one can be sold multiple times and at a much lower price. And prints can be sold at multiple locations simultaneously. This means that the artist can have a broader geographical reach to a broader range of consumers and that more people can afford to become collectors.

The print's ability to democratize also makes it easier to exhibit artwork out in communities rather than confining the work to special spaces like galleries and museums. An exhibition of prints is easy to frame, transport, install, take down, store, move, ship, reinstall, and so on. With that in mind we plan to make it possible to have professionally curated exhibitions of work by professional artists available in the community by request. We will periodically invite guest curators to put together exhibitions for our gallery space and afterward these collections will be kept intact for future showings wherever they are requested.