A visit yesterday to a showing of Vivian Maier's work at an Atlanta gallery got me thinking about the three players in a vibrant artistic community: the artist, the audience, and the merchants.
Maier's story is an ideal case study for examining these three roles.
During her relatively long creative life, Maier worked anonymously and alone. Apparently, she showed her work to few, if any, and never exhibited publicly. As far as we know, she didn't participate as a member of any photographic or artistic community. She produced well over 100,000 images, much of which remained on unprocessed rolls of film. This means that even Maier herself did not view the product of much of her effort. She sought no viewers, apparently never sold a print, probably gave very few away. She was an artist who chose to be without an audience.
Never married, she supported herself as a nanny until advanced age rendered her unemployable.
Everything changed after her death in 2009. Two people acquired, if not the totality, then at least the bulk of Maier's prints, negatives, and unprocessed film. Contents of a storage locker, everything was sold in auction when Maier fell behind in rent. Once her images saw the light of day, people who knew something about the history of the medium were comparing her street photography to the likes of Harry Callahan's. Maier's images are now being printed in books, shown on the internet, exhibited in galleries and museums, and purchased by collectors. The work and the artist are the subject of a growing compendium of articles, and a documentary is being produced about her.
Were Maier alive, she certainly would be mortified by this attention and notariety. Dying without heirs or survivors, what continues to unfold about her art and story is entirely in the hands of strangers, scholars and sleuths. She has no relative or close friend to speak for her.
For the corpus of Maier's work, there has been a widening spiral of third party participants with an interest in getting it out into the world. Certainly, the two owners of the contents of her Chicago storage locker invested the most into this and deserve the most return for their labors. But the art community itself has had a role in promoting Maier's brand, many players of which receive no compensation for their time other than the satisfaction of participating in the unfolding of this story.
There are limits to efforts without compensation, however. Vivian Maier has now evolved into a brand and a product that is merchandized. The owners of her collective work have collaborated in the production of limited edition fine art prints, produced from Maier's negatives, and are making them available for purchase. Gallaries, museums and publishers have investors, personnel, and overhead to pay. Everyone involved is a stake-holder and participant in an economic enterprise. This is the industry of Vivian Maier. It's probably the only way any of us would ever hear of or see the exquisite work she produced. It makes it possible for us to be an audience to Maier's work.
This isn't the exception. This is the norm for every phenomenon of art that makes it big in the marketplace. The product gets separated from the creator, and becomes the commodity in which people trade. Brokers make a role for themselves in developing and expanding the market. A broad audience gains access to the artist's work because of this.
My intent is not to disparage the role of merchandizers. If it weren't for them, our world would surely be impoverished by a scarcity of art to experience and enjoy. And few creators would have the incentive to produce a lifetime of work the way Vivian Maier did. Many artists strive to get the attention of these market makers, and a few actually succeed. A fraction of those even make a living through their art. But the fact that the merchandizing of art occurs gives some of us the incentive to continue, even after inspiration has worn thin.
The community of art is vibrant largely because of these market makers. Venues for exhibitions occur because money does change hands, at least with enough frequency and quantity to keep things going. Some artists receive grants, some exhibitions receive underwriting from foundations, but most artists plod along because they occasionally get shown in a gallery, exhibition, or competition. Sometimes, someone might even buy their work.
But how many of us can invest in a lifetime of creativity with no desire for recognition whatsoever? I doubt there are very many other Vivian Maier types out there.
The work of Vivian Maier is on view at Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta through April 7, 2012.
Read another post about Vivian Maier on my companion blog about spirituality and photography.