Thursday, May 20, 2010

Persistence: A Portrait

I had lunch yesterday with Jean Milant of Cirrus Gallery and Cirrus Editions. I note this on Persist: The Blog because Jean is an exemplary model of determined persistence in the Southern California contemporary art world--no easy feat, because this is a notoriously fickle cultural environment, and a great many dealers have arrived on the scene and vanished seemingly in the blink of an eye. Jean's history as a dealer and master print-maker/publisher dates back continuously to 1970, and there are few around here who can claim his longevity.

I, too, have been around since that time, as an observer and writer, and I have a pretty good sense of the kind of hindrances Jean has had to face along the way. There is, to begin with, the fickleness of the artists themselves, who are perfectly capable of flirting greedily with a dealer--until they spy what they often mistakenly perceive to be greener pastures of leave him unceremoniously in the lurch. Loyalty is a quality that is notably lacking when it comes to the self-interest of an ambitious artist.

Location, too, can be problematic. In Los Angeles--and we are not alone in this--real estate trends seem to follow the artists and the galleries. These are people who often need large, empty space for the work they do and necessarily search out the most affordable square footage, which leads them to the areas of town that are least in demand at that moment. Their presence then attracts other business, the neighborhoods change, the prices rise, the artists and galleries can no longer afford them and leave for other locations. When Jean started, the downtown area was seething with galleries and art activity. That lasted about five to eight years; then galleries closed, and moved on to the next hot spot--successively: La Brea, Santa Monica, Wilshire, Culver City... Cirrus--in part, I'd guess, anchored by the Cirrus Edition workshop and its presses--has remained in place, while the art world's foot traffic has beaten those other paths.

Then, too, this area is notorious for a collector base that is far less reliable than, say, New York's. Much of the local money is in "the industry"--the entertainment business--long courted by art dealers with less than stellar success. Since Cirrus started, the periodic recessions in the economy have also made life difficult for those who sell--let's face it--objects which seem necessary only to a handful of aficionados. The current deep recession has been devastating for some, and we have seen numerous less well-rooted galleries fail.

What Jean represents, then, is the lasting commitment to a vision--and a vision which must continually expand and enrich itself with the continuing evolution of contemporary aesthetics. More than this, it's a loyalty to those artists who remain loyal to him, and a commitment to the development of their careers. Art, artists and the art world have come to be very much about celebrity and money. I for one am glad that there are some few people around, like Jean, for whom it really is about the art. His quiet dedication is, as I say, exemplary. He seems unswayed by the fads and fashions that characterize the trends and has followed his own path with notable persistence. He is currently engaged, amongst other things--and this was the reason for our lunch--in a project that will document and preserve the history of Cirrus--a history that, in so many ways, reflects the history of four decades of art in Southern California.

No comments: