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Benefits of a Small Town Art Scene

When I told my friends and acquaintances in New York that I was leaving the city their reactions were pretty uniform: “Where are you moving to?” they asked hopefully.  I’ve been known to move around a lot, from London, Paris, San Francisco, Kyoto, to New York, so when I answered, “I’m moving to Indiana,” I got looks of absolute shock. “Oh my God, WHY?” was the usual reply, intoned with a mixture of disbelief, disgust, and sympathy.

Most people, especially artists, move away from the Mid-West to come to the city, but I was doing it the other way around.  I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California and since then had always lived in big cities. Moving to the Mid-West actually seemed like a step backwards.

“Not just anywhere in Indiana,” I consoled my friends, “I’m moving to Bloomington—it’s a college town.” Bloomington is the home of Indiana University (IU), where my husband is now pursuing his MFA degree—hence the move.

Bloomington is a little dot of blue in an overwhelmingly red state. A little oasis of health-food stores, art galleries, and music venues, tucked in between the beautiful rolling hills of Southern Indiana. It was most famously portrayed in the movie Breaking Away (1979), which highlights the area’s unique industrial past as a center for limestone extraction. Today, the outskirts of the town are littered with abandoned quarries, one of which was coincidentally the source for all of the limestone used to build the Empire State Building.

Opening at the Grunwald Gallery, 2011. Porcupine suit by Suzanne Wyss.

As an art scene, Bloomington has a couple of commercial galleries, a community art center, and a local artist-run printmaking collective and gallery, but the locus of attention is on the University, with its fine art gallery, museum, and the various student-run project and pop-up spaces. Along with students’ and locals’ work, it’s not unlikely to find paintings and videos from innovative IU faculty like Caleb Weintraub, Jawshing Arthur Liou, or Margarent Dolinsky on view in the commercial galleries or the University-run spaces. And since the art scene is centered around the University, the town’s art discourse and dialogue is in conversation with larger contemporary art trends and necessarily avoids the inward-looking regionalism from which most small town art scenes seem to suffer.

Since there are only about five or six destinations for art viewing in any given weekend, compared to Chelsea’s hundreds, the scene is much more compact and easy to dial in.  When there’s an opening, everyone goes.  

Albert Pfarr, Recombine; at Fuller Projects, 2011.

And in contrast with gallery openings in Chelsea, in Bloomington the gallery attendants speak to anyone and everyone about the work, not just people who look like they might be collectors, with a refreshing enthusiasm. At video-artist Jawshing Arthur Liou’s opening at Pictura Gallery for instance, regular-Joe baseball-cap and plaid-shirt-tucked-into-their-jeans-wearing customers were engaged in conversation about the work—people who wouldn’t be given a second glance in Chelsea.

Granted, it’s small and the opportunities are limited, but given the University’s influence and draw there’s no shortage of fascinating people here doing incredible work in disparate fields. In just the first few weeks I became friends with an ethnomusicologist working on transferring Native American music from old Lomax-style field recordings to digital media and a Baroque harpsichord specialist who had passed up Juilliard to stay in Bloomington.

Pop-up show for IU BFA Photography students, 2011.

 In the song “Big Country,” David Byrne sings about the comforts of middle-America and concludes:

I wouldn’t live here if you paid me.. I wouldn’t live here oh no sirree.  I wouldn’t do the things that those people do.. I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to..

Like Byrne, I thought I never would embrace a small-town life, but now that I’m here I could get used to it. At least for a while.

~Natalie Hegert

(top image: Pop-up show for IU BFA Photography, 2011. All photos by Natalie Hegert.)

Posted by ArtSlant Team on 12/19/11

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Hello Natalie! I, too, went to grad school at IU (MFA, painting, 1974) but, unlike you and your husband I went there from Kansas City, MO via the US Army and a trip around Europe -- no big city culture shock for me.may cham cong
hello Valerie! thanks for your comment! You're totally right, all art is regional in some shape or form. I'm definitely planning on visiting Chicago soon--seems like there is a lot of connections between Chicago and the other cities out here, lots of people traveling back and forth. And I'll take you up on exploring the other Midwest college towns!
Hi mrbailey! Thanks so much for your comment and story.. Yes having the time, space and income is pretty amazing. Much easier to live out here than NYC where everything costs so much.. Keep painting!
Placeholder70x70-2 Takes me back ...
Hello Natalie! I, too, went to grad school at IU (MFA, painting, 1974) but, unlike you and your husband I went there from Kansas City, MO via the US Army and a trip around Europe -- no big city culture shock for me. But I had visited many big cities and knew that my life wouldn't be spent in Bloomington, as much as I liked it. I remember one evening sittng around the beer table discussing the future with my fellow grad colleagues and the topic of where to move in six months was top on everyone's mind. One fellow - from Brooklyn -- summarized it pretty well for us at the time. "Well," he said, "it's either New York or ANYWHERE ELSE." And if you want to part of that scene that definitely was the right answer. But most of us had come from diverse backgounds and only two packed their studios and moved to the cement canyons. I very much enjoyed my time in Bloomington (have never been back though) and hope you do too. I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with one of the visiting artists, Alex Katz. At one point I was lamenting about the isolation of Bloominton and he stopped me short. He asked, where else and when would I ever have that isolation to do nothing more than make my art and mingle with a hand selected group of people all interested in the same thing as I. I had a large free studio, access to excellent equipment, a cadre of friends, income from my teaching assistantship, in other words, total freedom to do as I needed. He was so right. I enjoyed your story and hope you both have a geat time. Say hi to everyone for me -- or at least their ghosts ...
20120625225304-headshot_hairdown Welcome to the Midw. Arts scene!
Hey Natalie - loved the article! I grew up on a farm by Purdue - far from the blue dot, much to my chagrin as a kid. I've found that all art is regional (like politics!), but some, if done well has universal appeal. Check out Chicago, if you haven't already. And the other college towns of the Midwest can be jewels, as well. I live by Ann Arbor - lots of great art here. I'm part owner of a gallery called WSG Gallery downtown A2. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the art in this region. You may just have to look a little harder!

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