Decommodifying Art: A Conversation with Laura Summers
Could you start by telling us a little bit about Lightforms Art Center? How did the center come to be? What kind of work does the center support, and what are some of your guiding principles?
In 2017 a group of artists began meeting around the idea of creating a multipurpose art center dedicated to spirit and art. After many meetings, we decided to look for an appropriate space in Hudson, New York. Generous investors purchased this space possible, and in December 2020, Lightforms opened its doors with an exhibition on metamorphosis. The next two years were full of exciting exhibitions, including Hilma af Klint and Judy Pfaff. Lightforms was run on a traditional art center model under the wise guidance of Martina Muller and Helena Zay.
In January 2022, funding for paid employees was no longer available. Although this seemed a huge challenge at the time, I think it was actually a blessing for Lightforms as it allowed us to try out new organizational forms and to look for a group of artists who were interested in being involved on a volunteer basis. We could turn our energy towards diversity and inclusion and make Lightforms a place where everybody could feel at home.
Currently, Lightforms is a collaboration between Free Columbia (www.freecolumbia.org) and the Hawthorne Valley Association (hawthornevalley.org). Free Columbia is an arts and education initiative that runs without paywalls, meaning that all programming is available to everyone. Hawthorne Valley Association is a nonprofit made up of diverse initiatives committed to the renewal of soil, society, and self by integrating agriculture, education, and art.
Lightforms occasionally hosts Art Dispersals following a show. Can you explain what an Art Dispersal is and how this concept came about?
The idea of Art Dispersal originated with my work in Free Columbia. I am an artist, and I work in two dimensions in many media. I have shown in many venues, including galleries, alternative exhibition spaces, and one museum. I know that original work on a wall can transform a space, and from the letters I have received from the people who have my paintings, it can also transform the people who are in those spaces. So I wondered, how can I get the paintings out into the world so they can do their work? It does not work just to give them away. It gives a message that the paintings are not valuable. But the current art system makes it impossible for most people to even consider owning original art. I wondered, can I allow people to become the stewards of my paintings? Can I ask them to take responsibility for the well-being of the paintings?
Art Dispersal is an event where we hang up original works of art and invite people to become their stewards. They can take a piece home, keep it for as long as they like, and return it to the artist if they no longer want to keep it. Stewards are offered an opportunity to make a contribution to Free Columbia, which supports the artists as well as Free Columbia.
Free Columbia has run eighteen Art Dispersals over the past ten years, with over eight hundred paintings (as well as other works of art) dispersed to stewards in Hudson, Philmont, Spring Valley, and Manhattan, NY; Eugene and Portland, OR; Los Angeles, CA; New Orleans, LA; and Järna, Sweden. In 2020 we held our first online art dispersal in collaboration with the Anthroposophical Society in North America. The work in the Art Dispersals is often mine, but usually, other artists participate as well. As the form has become more known, artists sometimes contact me to find out how to run an Art Dispersal on their own.
As Lightforms is an artist-run collective, it is up to each artist to get their work out into the world. Some artists sell their work, and other artists loan their work, but I always disperse my work. Dispersal does not work well for all artists, and many people are not interested in using this form. Art dispersal may seem too risky for an artist who does not produce very many pieces over a year and whose pieces take a long time to create. But for an artist who creates a lot of work, it’s a great way to get it out into the world onto the walls of people who want to live with it. I have found that contributions in relation to a painting have ranged from $20 to $4,000 but often average around $300 per painting. Granted, it is an unusual way to work with art and money, but for me, it works well, and by now, I have work all over the world.
One of my missions as an artist is to experiment with decommodifying art. Today’s art world often treats art as a commodity, an investment, something to make the buyer more money in the future. Artists are often left behind in this model, unable to make a living, and most people feel that original art is beyond their means. Art Dispersal is my attempt to experiment with a model that gets money to artists and gets artwork into people’s homes.
Because Lightforms is not a commercial gallery it is free to experiment with new forms created by artists. We have seen this in our “Who We Be” exhibition, a celebration of Black life in Columbia County, NY, with a unique, fully immersive approach, in our group show “We Are Lightforms,” where artists responded to each other’s pieces and created new works, in a new approach to open mic where the emphasis is on making a space where everyone can share their gifts, and in our co-working space where artists can create work together.
There are other models that can support artists and decommodify art. One such model is “Enliven the Walls,” where an institution contracts with an artist to enliven their space. The institution puts a line item in its budget for “painting support,” and the artist gets a monthly stipend. The paintings are offered to spaces on a loan basis, so artists retain ownership. Holder House, the Threefold community dormitory in Chestnut Ridge, NY, uses this model to provide original art in all of its guest rooms.
I am sure that many other forms could serve both artists and those who love to live with art. We just have to be creative and inspired to find them, but it seems that creating new forms is what artists are so qualified to do.
Why do you think art is particularly suited to the idea of stewardship, perhaps in contrast to other physical objects?
I think stewardship is a particularly good way to look at art because art does not get used up. If you steward a loaf of bread, you basically have to eat it in order to have a relationship with it, but you can steward a painting or sculpture over your entire life, and even at the end, it is not used up. It can be passed along to someone else. I also feel that each painting has a job to do. Keeping them in my closet is like having them on the unemployment line, unable to find their purpose. So just dispersing them to a steward who wants to live with them provides them an opportunity to do their work, their work of transforming us human beings, the work of helping us to see past the material world into a realm of meaning. They will no longer be unemployed. And maybe this will be important enough that the people want to support the work.
The following are some comments that stewards have made in the past.
“Looking at your work makes me think that this kind of activity makes a more lasting impression by being in the house than not, because it does form part of our daily life. It weaves itself into our daily imagination and emotions without being prompted by external considerations. It forms part of our daily eyes.”
“It sort of felt like adopting a baby. A beautiful quiet well-behaved baby. It was as if everyone had a painting that was meant for them in the room and they had to find theirs.”
“Revolutionary! Thank you for inspiring creativity.”
How could the concept of stewardship vs. ownership change how we view art and its role in society? How could it change the position of artists?
If we recognized art as essential to humanity’s well-being, we would strive to find ways to support artists and get art out into public and private spaces so that people could be inspired by and cared for by the art. German artist Joseph Beuys said, “Art is the only revolutionary energy, in other words the situation can only be changed by human creativity.”
I think that to understand this, it helps to try to imagine a world without art. Think of your favorite book, song, dance, or movie, and then eliminate it. Then eliminate all of that category: songs, books, or movies. And then eliminate all the other categories, all paintings, all photographs, all music, all dance. Suddenly you see the world without art, and that is a dismal and frightening thing.
The problem of getting visual art out into the world is different from getting music or video out. With these media, a person does not have to take the piece home. It’s easier to understand that no one really owns music; it’s there for everyone. But today someone does own music, and it’s often not the musician who wrote it or played it; it’s someone else who can promote it so that it makes money for them. Maybe it also makes money for the musician but probably not. A musician friend told me that all of his royalties for an entire year for five albums he has released bring less than $100. So the problem exists in all spheres.
Can we imagine a world that is filled with the results of human creativity? Where walls are filled with paintings? Where the streets are filled with music? Where truth, beauty, and goodness find expression in the lives of everyday people?
What are some new things on the horizon?
I hope that in 2023 we can hire a diversity/outreach/development coordinator for Lightforms. This would be someone who loves the mission of Lightforms and, at the same time, loves working with people and reaching out to all the diverse communities we live within. This could take Lightforms to the next step, a place founded in anthroposophy and teaming with people of diverse backgrounds who are dedicated to the spirit and its relationship to art.
Currently, I am working with musician Matre (Matt Sawaya) and social change maker Seth Jordan to develop some new forms for releasing music that can support both musicians and listeners. This initiative is called Love Bravely. Love Bravely’s first song will be released in January 2023. You can hear it at www.lovebravely.substack.com, and if you are moved to support this endeavor, you can become part of the very first steps of this new relationship with music.
The next Art Dispersal will be in the spring of 2023. It will have a small in-person component but will be mostly online, with pieces on paper that can be easily shipped. If you want to be notified, you can sign up on Free Columbia’s email list on our website: www.freecolumbia.org/newsletter
BIO: Laura Summer is co-founder of Free Columbia, an arts initiative that includes programs based on the fundamentals of painting as they come to life through spiritual science. It is completely grassroots donation supported and has no set tuitions. Her approach to color is influenced by Beppe Assenza, Rudolf Steiner, and Goethe’s color theory. She has been teaching and working with questions of color and contemporary art for thirty-three years. Her work, found in private collections in the US and Europe, has been exhibited at the National Museum of Catholic Art and History in New York City and at the Sekem Community in Egypt. She has published twelve books and founded two temporary alternative exhibition spaces in Hudson, NY: 345 Collaborative Gallery and Raising Matter-this is not a gallery. Summer also initiated ART DISPERSAL 2012-22, where over eight hundred pieces of art by professional artists have been dispersed to the public without set prices. She is the acting director of Lightforms Art Center in Hudson, NY.
Laura teaches online and in-person courses on color and anthroposophy. Her work can be found at laurasummer.com