Marcus Coates and Adam Sutherland met in 1999 when Coates was invited to do an artist residency at Grizedale arts, the curatorial project set up by Sutherland in Cumbria. Since then, Coates and Sutherland have collaborated on several projects both in Britain and internationally. Here, the curators of Now I Gotta Reason discuss the motivations of artists and how to reignite an art world monopolised by a small but forceful elite of the super rich.
Adam Sutherland: Do you ever think your skills are wasted on an art world audience?
Marcus Coates: I don’t think artists care about their audience. They usually deal with a small group of people, namely commissioners, gallery dealers and curators, who are the staff that aid their promotion.
AS: Wouldn’t it be great if we could draw on all our resources in our work? The stock of unused skills is reflective of a society that has become too specialized. The all rounder is lost in the drive to be outstanding. Art is not an end in itself; it is more of a way of doing things. There is not really a job called ‘artist’, it is just a mode of communication.
MC: You say art is not a job, but I think it is. I have tried to create a place for myself in society where a role is necessary but currently does not exist. I think that is arts’ role. It can respond and develop with society in a way that jobs in our market economy cannot. The problem is that artists have adopted this romantically marginal position (being different and special), and instead of using that as a powerful position they have used it to appeal to an equally marginal market. Everything in art seems a million miles away from my front door.
AS: Ever since we stopped helping artists create art for galleries at Grizedale I have had a renewed energy in making art. Society has lost its connection with everyday creativity, lost that awareness of aesthetics, craft and beauty. A life without these things is arid, we need to add manure to society and the art world has plenty of it that.
MC: I always thought you were very cynical about art and that you were almost anti art. But when I asked you about this you surprised me by saying that you believe art changes peoples lives, citing the project we were both working on at the time in Japan as an example. I think after that I went to Israel to help solve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, which was maybe a step too far, but you showed me that artists could be very powerful in everyday life and on a global and political level.
I think it can be frightening for artists to take their skills beyond their studios. They see their skills as exclusive and protect them as such; their trade is based on exclusivity and scarcity, which means they can only operate in the one area where they are celebrated.
AS: For me, creative success is the practical application of an idea that is integrated into the everyday and then sustained by a community inspiring involvement and development. It seems a small ask
MC: But there are already people doing this in society, why should artists make this their work? What is so special about what they have to offer?
AS: Yes there are people doing this, like social workers and vicars but they often work without any kind of connected thinking. I am not suggesting artists become social workers but I do see a role for a creative way of working.
Why can’t an arts organisation also be a housing trust? After all arts organisations demonstrate their vision of a rich and cultural way of life; they build iconic spaces, open attractive shops and cafes, promote educational ideas.
A £28m gallery is not a useful model but 56 galleries costing £500,000 are. 56 creative, imaginative, artistic, design and architecture led developments that aim to connect with people and not live in an esoteric ghetto are useful. I often despair of the art world, but then I think “Why should the shit version win?” I will reclaim a role in art; we will give back to people’s lives what is missing and it will act as a catalyst to get other disconnected activities back into dialogue. It is often the case that work undertaken in an altruistic effort to improve society ends up as a major economic driver.
MC: Do you work with artists because you see their actions as altruistic? I would say artists are only altruistic if it’s conceptually interesting for them to be so.
AS: I don’t really think of altruism as the motivation. In many ways it is self-interest because I want to live in a more interesting and creative community.
MC: The art market doesn’t know how to buy and collect useful work yet. Do you think that is why useful art is interesting to artists? Or is that as narrow as doing something simply for the art market? I think the challenge for artists is to work outside the art world and that includes the purchasing of their services.
AS: To me that’s a bit of a game. I don’t care whether the art market gets it, art history will. There are plenty of artists who have worked the social engaged ticket within the art market. Seeing the art market and collectors as a means of support is a deeply flawed idea. I am much more interested in getting support from the poor in exchange for something that is needed and valued. In that way you make work for people rather than create niche consumer goods for the super rich.
MC: You have stopped helping artists make art for galleries and their audiences so why would you be interested in staging an exhibition at the Jerwood Space in London?
AS: Galleries act as showrooms, they are a white space from which to sell ideas. I want to change the way art works. How do artists see their role in society and what are their aspirations? Art schools and the art sector promote the idea that the only way to be an artist is through the gallery system. They have marginalised art as a tool, in effect they have sterilised it. Artists and galleries need to find new ways of working and it starts with simple things like being honest, focusing on the real world and dissolving the hierarchy. I hope the exhibition illustrates clearly some of the ways of going about doing this.
MC: Is it a moral compulsion of yours to make art useful? Is it a political move to extricate art production from the luxury goods market and a reaction to how art is produced by artists and organisations now? You have created a farm at Grizedale where manual work is part of the running of the organization. Is there something about being active and even manual that is important to creativity? People don’t become artists to be useful or to help others, or for that matter get up early in the morning!
AS: But that doesn’t mean to say they can’t. What do people become artists for? I hope it is not to be an artist. When I was at art school the head of Marlborough Fine Arts asked us who would be happy to be a good working artist? Three people put their hands up. He then asked who wanted to be a superstar artist? The rest of the art school put their hands up. I was shocked and disillusioned, how could my peers have so little ambition?