“Portrait of Mid-City Artists at Ten:
A Social Network in the Neighborhood”
I. Communities, Neighborhoods, and their Evolving “Urban Fabric”
This sixth installment in our series of articles commenting upon events and phenomena within the Washington arts scene is focused on the Mid-City Artists, a well-known association of 40 individuals with studios in the neighborhood roughly between Dupont and Logan Circles extending north to U and south to N Street, NW. While we will be looking at the work and careers of a representative seven of the group’s members, this article is intended as a kind of “portrait” of the organization itself as a whole; MCA has existed since 2004, and was initially founded by a core of artists who had been participating in the Washington Project for the Arts’ open studios. My emphasis on the sociological structures underlying production of their artworks is why this text is in part about social networks (as in the so-titled 2011 film about Facebook’s originator Mark Zuckerberg), as that is what MCA constitutes. In its functioning as a mutual-support and self-branding network, it can be seen as embodying one model for the future of distributing Contemporary art (or other cultural “products”), also suggesting the multiple ways artists are integrated into and crucial to the urban fabric. With the group’s tenth anniversary providing an opportunity to examine this organization, one can even go beyond saying their social relationships are reflected in their works’ inter-relatedness to point out that this social conglomerate IS part of their artwork.
Given this city’s visual-cultural setting now ranges from alternative spaces, temporary or improvised venues, public artworks, and art events to the more traditional commercial galleries, independent curators and consultants, and increasingly contemporarily-oriented museums as well as university-associated exhibition spaces, Mid-City Artists poises itself within and effectively combines aspects of this variegated art world fabric into a synthesis both accepting of its members’ multifarious ways of working as well as potentially appealing to a diverse audience. Such an endeavor is particularly appropriate in the context of a neighborhood itself in transition, incorporating diverse ethnic cultures as well as innovative commercial and residential areas into a synthesis in the process of defining itself. This foregrounds how urban areas are ever more rapidly continuing to evolve: and we, like these artists, could also see ourselves as intimately involved in and defined by that analogous self-conceptualization. The interaction between these MCA artists, their urban environment and its residents is further emphasized and played out by the group’s tradition of holding Open Studios twice annually, this year the weekend of May 18 & 19, and another in the Fall: thus providing an opportunity for the public’s more hands-on understanding of their creative processes as well as for the artists to market their works directly.
Such an underlying understanding of cities as “organized complexities” being redefined by evolutionary processes dates back at least to Jane Jacobs’ seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (NY: Random House, 1961). Her approach to urbanism drawing methodologically on the “life sciences,” she wrote: “For cities, processes are of the essence,” which then in turn prompts the analyst or urban planner to focus on their catalysts (p.575). Further elaborating on this idea, Jacobs pointed out that they are “organisms,” urging us and her colleagues to realize “This ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially…” (p.19). Such an orientation is relevant in the case of the Mid-City Artists group’s relationship to their neighborhood and its transformation, because not only do they overtly constitute one of those “uses” participating in the urban environment that thereby creates it. Yet this is also true in the sense that their entrepreneurial businesses are both analogous to the shops, restaurants, cafes and bars surrounding them, as well as in that those other commercial endeavors “support” them—directly financially “sponsoring” their activities, and indirectly by exhibiting their works in addition to serving as locales for their now-monthly social gatherings. Jacobs’ ideas are applicable too to the changes now taking place in Mid-City, as the “gentrification” these artists participated in making possible as vanguard “settlers” in this area of the District is having a visible impact: large-scale complexes of living units taking the place of smaller buildings, bringing an influx of higher-income residents, with the U Street corridor now mainly a weekend destination for partiers from the local suburbs.
Approaching this whole topic in such a way is to practice “social art history,” which has always thematized artworks and other cultural objects as products of given specific economic-historical circumstances: not just reflections but actual embodiments of and participant agents in their generating contexts, embedded in and carrying its assumptions within them. The strand of Contemporary art, both in Europe and the US, that most closely allies itself with this analytical orientation is called Kontextkunst (literally, “context art”), which takes as its operating assumption that artworks are products of their habitats, setting about critically demonstrating that principle. But while in a sense all cultural production may be “context art,” this presupposition is useful as an analytical tool when presenting the Mid-City Artists group precisely because it is art self-consciously “about” where and with whom it is made, with its protagonists banding together within that fore-grounded Mid-City “context” to present themselves as if (again only in part, since they are each unique individual creative personalities) a branded neighborhood “team.” They thereby place themselves within a tradition, for there have always been “artists’ neighborhoods,” studio visits and self-presentation, professional association-networks and organizations, for at least 400 years; as an historical glance backwards into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries makes quite clear these have been virtually obligatory for Modern artistic practice. One example suffices, John Milner’s book The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale, 1988): crucial when it came out in demonstrating the essentiality of such artworld social-etiquette practices to the operation of the largest art center the world possessed in the 1880s and 90s. Milner reports in detail of how staged “studio visits” provided a major means of making an impression on and securing clients, so that artists’ self-presentations were in a sense part of, even as important as their oeuvres.
I am also self-consciously employing the notion of “neighborhood”: though it seems confirmed by daily life and assumed by its participants, on a conceptual level this idea comes out of the sociology of culture, specifically out of the methodological basis or emphasis of the so-called Chicago School of sociology starting in the 1920s. In that influential body of work within American thought, an empirical approach and collection of large masses of data (via surveys and fieldwork) were central, while its focus was initially on the city of Chicago and defining its “special character.” Which anyone who has been there, not just familiar with its mythology knows has to do not only with Modern architecture but with the urban poor, crime, a largely African-American population, and discrete neighborhoods defined by the cultures of the different ethnic groups occupying them. What is useful for our discussion, in addition to that focus on a patchwork of communities making up a city, is the debate fostered early on by Wirth’s controversial 1938 article titled “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” in the course of which “processes of social change became important topics of investigation” (cited Lester Kurtz, Evaluating Chicago Sociology, Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1984, p.89.) In particular, the framework for that investigation was neighborhoods: defining and assessing their importance in everyday social life, without which we could not now be using this term to have a discussion of networks within them.
Now that I have signaled the emphasis on social structures in this “portrait” of Mid-City Artists and suggested this group fits into a multi-facetted “niche” within the DC arts scene; stressed these artists’ rootedness in the neighborhood they work out of, that part of the city being in flux (as Jacobs argues successful urban areas always are), with MCA’s participation crucial to that vitality in their local city “economy” ( “intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially”), let me also stress the other aspect of this first section crucial to our proceeding further. For beyond tracing the concept of “neighborhood”’s descent from the Chicago school of sociology’s focus on and analyses of them, and applying it to an organization like MCA which stresses its embeddedness in one specific area of Washington; I also brought up the operating assumptions made by “social art history” (at least as I practice it), viewing all artworks as products of “contexts” (which Mid-City Artists as an organization presupposes). Following out of that, two final points were made: first, there is a specific kind of Contemporary art called Kontektkunst which thematizes and critiques what may seem to some a truism, that all art comes out of and is shaped by its generating context (since for some, art objects are inherently of their own “aesthetic” world and have no other kind of meaning, yet the implications of context are crucial to understanding what MCA can tell us). And secondly, it is important to remind ourselves there have for centuries been artists’ associations (starting with medieval guilds when they were still considered craftsmen) and exhibitions—though those were rather “official” bodies and events, rather than being organized by their participants as in the case of MCA, although things began to change in the late nineteenth century with the Salon des Independants, etc.); as well as that the institution of the “studio visit” has been in existence for a long time (as practiced by the MCA twice a year).
But after summing up where our cultural-anthropological “thick description” of this organization in the first section has brought us, let us first encounter some artists participating in the MCA by way of “meeting” this social-artistic entity, before returning in closing to define “social networks” and what importance this functioning paradigm may carry for us as well as them. These “encounters” took place mostly as studio visits, though some members preferred to simply offer a work and background had to be filled in from their websites, and some would rather be interviewed on the phone (usually pursuant to an earlier studio visit some time ago). With each, a balance always needs to be achieved between giving a sense of the personality, the work, and their achievements; but in all cases, I found information I felt supported my “take,” not all of it “reported” here.
II. Meet Some of the Artists: Learn about their Individual Work and Careers
Sondra Arkin’s importance to the Mid-City Artists, of which she was a founding member as well as having acted for years as informal director (before the recent hiring of Deirdre Ehlen as its official one), cannot be overestimated. She is a painter and curator who has also worked in other media, including making prints, sculpture and assemblages; her recent work is often in encaustic (liquid wax applied hot which then congeals) and mixed-media, thereby producing images which seem to be saturated with color and have a textural surface. They reveal her preoccupation with boundaries and connections, almost as if living organisms shown close-up in cross-section under a microscope, thus creating abstract patterns which seem to be still living and pulsing. During this past decade her work has been shown in numerous solo shows, one recently at the Black Rock Art Center in Gaithersburg; and is represented in many private, public and corporate collections and programs, among them: the US State Department’s “Art in Embassies,” the District of Columbia’s Art Bank, and Crystal City in Virginia’s sponsoring of public art. But it seems that public service within the arts community has been virtually as compelling as her own artistic work, given she has served as: Project Coordinator for the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, as Curator for the District of Columbia City Hall Art Collection; has curated many independent projects and regularly programs alternative art spaces; was formerly President of the Board of Directors for Artomatic (an annual unjuried exhibition) and Board Member of the Millennium Arts Salon; Board Chair for Art Enables (an arts-based employment program for adults with developmental disabilities), in addition to serving on the Artists’ Council of the Washington Project for the Arts. Thus not surprisingly, she was nominated for a Mayor’s Arts Award as Outstanding Emerging Artist in 2005 as well as for a Mayor’s Award for Service in the Arts in 2006. Given the organizational and networking savvy she obviously possesses, it also makes sense Sondra was initially Founder/President of the mid-Atlantic’s largest high-tech marketing agency, called ProMarket, Inc.
The themes of Chuck Baxter’s works are suggested by the found objects out of which they are constructed, the trash and detritus of an urban environment. As the artist himself puts it, he makes use of the “available materials,” while the “content” suggested by his titles comes later. Chuck began his artistic career following retirement from a full-time bureaucratic job with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, when the playground across the street was renovated and the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities financed a mural he contributed. Encouraged by that as well as numerous individuals, among them the artist Anne Marchand, Baxter gave some of his pieces to the Neighborhood Association (he lives and works in the Shaw area of the District) and became Treasurer of the Board of the Artomatic exhibition. While conceptually and/or visually the artist’s work reminds one of Joseph Cornell as well as Edward Kienholz’ employment of abandoned found objects, of course one cannot help thinking if “recycling” might not express environmental concerns at present. Hence it is not surprising his sculpture was not so long ago included in the exhibition “The Art of the Recycled” at the Center for Greater Urbanism here in DC, putting an interpretational spin on his oeuvre that makes it all the more timely in addition to being visually stymieing and slyly black-humorous. Other involvements have continued to evolve out of his work, in effect extending its inherent possibilities: for instance, like Sondra, his exhibition at and collaboration with Art Enables on Rhode Island Avenue NW: where disabled students are therapeutically taught about making art and his operating method of gathering/transforming will be used in workshops he leads. Obviously the idea that anyone can be provided with or go out and collect the materials to make artwork would open up horizons for their students. Baxter’s is thus an artistic creativity coming out of, then feeding back into the community.
Following Thomas Drymon’s solo show at the Adah Rose Gallery in Kensington, the artist switched creative gears and began a new project visually quite different than his previous paintings, which had been colorful and carefully structured, relying upon brush-stroke and paint-handling for their visual character, ordered yet messy at the same time. But their seemingly innocent, almost decorative appeal was already under-girded by a complex process of psychological investigation about how we perceive the world around us and relate to our environment (this complexity alluded to by their apparently-offhand titles). So despite its superficially looking like something “other,” in many ways his new work, a series called “I Hardly Knew You,” deals with some of these same issues coming at them from another direction or on another level and using a medium he is extremely familiar with: software programs, since the artist is also a web designer. He describes these new works as part of an “…ongoing project that visualizes the way data (information) is collected, analyzed, and aggregated to create group profiles in order to enhance user experiences online and in the real world or to sell people things. In it [the series], images (head shots) are collected through crowd-sourcing and portrait photography and then layered, sliced and re-composited using a processing program that generates a new image—one that sometimes ‘looks’ human and, at other times, does not.” Here he is mimicking marketing and the creation of consumer “profiles” generated to gain a sense of an equally-composite “target audience” for products. Yet at the same time, in this detached artistic re-enactment of that process, some critical sense of the potential “dehumanization” of it all surfaces: with these “laminated” faces who are supposed to be we looking back at us as if through blinds. It is interesting that Thomas’ other new endeavor is an exhibition space called “doris mae,” devoted to showing the work of D.C. Metro area artists he feels have not been adequately presented. Another composite image thus arises: Drymon the “actor” morphing onto a “director”, utilizing the creative energies around him in his environment.
The fine-arts training that Regina Miele received when attending the Scuolo Lorenzo di Medici of the Instituto di Studi Italiani in Florence, Italy in 1990—in the course of her studies at Catholic University, which she graduated from the next year—is evident in her works, produced in the traditional media of oil on primed canvas or charcoal on paper. Physically beautiful large-scale cityscapes, views of or details from the urban environment she lives in as well as images generated by her frequent trips to New York City to take works since she often exhibits there, make themselves felt to the viewer as being painted as much as portraying subjects (with their objecthood as important as their representational qualities). She herself says that she likes limiting her artistic practice to these materials because their expressive possibilities are endless, and she becomes ever more adept at conveying what she wants to using them, with the pictures themselves in their chronological progression demonstrating that fact. The portrayal of light and sky- or water-scapes as well as Ashcan School-rooted gritty urban sights and figural work predominate, a preoccupation with depicting motion generating views seen from a train. Images reminding one at times of work by Edward Hopper or Charles Sheeler, the former because of Miele’s solid surfaces and the latter due to her choosing architectural structures as themes; while the memory of Photo-Realism lurks in the background, though her painterly working manner removes her from that strand of American art stylistically. The artist has received numerous grants and awards, has been represented by the Caelum Gallery and the Agora Gallery in New York, and has exhibited extensively: with a solo show scheduled for 2014 at the Ratner Museum, her participation in “24 X 24” at the Waverly Street Gallery in Bethesda earlier this year and “Internationale Biennale Artists Miami” at Nina Toreros in Miami in 2010 (after having had her work in the Florence Biennale the previous year). Regina opened a commercial exhibition space herself, Art@1830, for a year in 2011-12; and she finds the MCA to have matured, becoming more close-knit and egalitarian since when she joined it.
Mark Parascandola’s photographic images are frequently concerned with
architecture, and more specifically as pentimenti, remnants, and/or evocative ruins in various senses. Whether located in Spain, South America, Washington D.C. or Miami, his camera’s lens focuses on what has been left behind, defaced, and re-appropriated, evoking the past’s deadpan yet poetic memories. The thus-documented structures uncannily echo the imaginary buildings appearing in pittura metafisica, like the Surrealist paintings of Giorgio di Chirico, setting up a haunting dream-like aura contrasting with their technical “take” (a la Andreas Gursky). Mark is currently working on a series preoccupied with movie sets built in Spain in the 1960s and 70s by the likes of Sergio Leone, where spaghetti Western films for actors such as Clint Eastwood were shot. These abandoned “stages” survive, often well-preserved in the dry climate or even renovated as tourist attractions, located in Almeria where the artist has family roots. Ironically, though Franco’s government was earlier a focus of European and American Leftist efforts to combat the Fascist political order it enforced, Parascandola’s photographs remind us of a later moment when the US project abroad had more to do with promoting commercial interests and constructing a macho “Wild West” preconception of its cultural beginnings. This series was the subject of a solo show at the Embassy of Spain this past Fall, subsequently traveling to Miami for the 500th anniversary of the Spanish landing in Florida. Yet surely the “staging” metaphor inherent in this theme means the “subject” of these images is partly “about” how photographs are records of motifs “constructed” for the camera? As well as about recording the past now: sets waiting to be discovered by later archeologists, having no way of knowing they are “fictional” rather than “real.”
Brian Petro had just returned from a trip to Rio de Janeiro, and was full of articulate enthusiasm when I met him in his small studio underneath the furniture store Vastu, rather than the predicted jetlag. Having grown up in coal-mining territory in Pennsylvania with a grandfather constructing things with his hands, Brian was fascinated from early on by manual creation and the “recycling” of junked mechanical parts witnessed in childhood. After Penn State, working in sports medicine and corporate wellness programs, he turned to making his own objects. Offered to show in the display windows of a fashion store in Philadelphia where he was living, Works on Paper Gallery invited him for a solo exhibition, whose selling out reinforced his decision to make art full-time. Petro had studios on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn, before moving to Washington where he had numerous friends. His work has multiple facets, series he works on parallel or alternating between them, which all share characteristics: compilation of found objects or images, collage or assemblage techniques, with his pieces frequently therefore at a second or third remove from their origins. One group makes use of grocery and other store signs dug out of dumpsters, another puts stones or objects into large glass jars like those used to store formaldehyde specimens; a third crumples used clothing into assemblages then painted, covered with polyurethane and framed; yet a fourth wax-transfers photographs (of artwork, classical fragments, imagery from the media). All of these ongoing categories share an energy and manipulation of found materials binding them together despite their visual diversity; having met their creator, it is no surprise he likes visiting different places and exudes the energy of an avid collector. It also makes sense Petro’s work was exhibited in last year’s “Transformer” show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, he is represented in Washington by Susan Calloway Fine Art, has been commissioned by the likes of Absolut Vodka and IBM Reston, and has works owned by both the Library of Congress and Ritz-Carlton Hotels.
If only visiting Robert Wiener in his immaculate, meticulously organized studio did not make me feel like an art historical object-fetishist in a candy store. Yet this technically sophisticated producer of beautiful and complex objects in glass was educated at Virginia Tech and had a whole career in Financial Management before he became seduced by the intricacies of creating art glass, with his subsequent experimentation leading him in multiple directions. His first glass class was in 2002, in the Meltdown Glass School at Millennium Art Center here in Washington. One of the avenues he has most substantially explored is creating vessels and objects out of kiln-fused glass “colorbars,” cut into “murrine” or millefiore segments rearranged to form “woven” patterns, then kiln-fired into objects retaining a tesserae-like effect as if 3D mosaics. The hence-titled “Colorbar Murrine Series” includes table works (some dish-like), wall and free-standing pieces, and lighting fixtures. In Sept. 2010, Robert attended an artists’ residency at Pilchuck Glass School (co-founded by the famous Dale Chihuly); more recently participated as an invitee at North Lands Creative Glass in Lybster, Scotland; and for several years also joined DC’s oldest cooperative artists’ organization The Foundry. The image we reproduce here only gives one a sense of his most recent series of kiln-fired glass bowls formed through a progression of “slumping” techniques, where the artist manipulates the vessel while still in the kiln until it reaches a mutated final appearance. They are solid yet evanescent, exteriors contrast with interiors: intimating rather than art they might be archeological artifacts dug up, or fell to earth from extraterrestrial space. “Inspired by celestial or astronomical bodies… lunar,” as Wiener explains, “attempting to capture the essence of things in existence for millions of years.”
Yet of course they have not been, but were rather created within the community neighborhood characterized above and as participant in the artists’ organization that is the subject of this article, which is not to say that their creator’s goals for them are not entirely valid in themselves. But before we proceed into the final section of this investigation, let me pull up a few of the remarks made along the way (as well as off this record) by our seven “representative” MCA artists which further reinforce the points made in the initial lead-in section. First, there is the ongoing thread of drawing from the community and giving back to it in turn, involving several kinds of arts- and socially-oriented work; second, there are the usages of materials to be found in these artists’ specifically urban context as gist for artistic creation; and finally, third, there is the repeated tendency to create in turn spaces in which to exhibit the work of fellow artists from the area on the part of participants, which can also in effect be considered part of their creative work.
III. Networks, Social Capital and New Technology’s Crucial Connectivity
So what are “social networks;” how can they be thought of as relating to or structuring communities, neighborhoods and organizations such as the Mid-City Artists; how does so-called “social capital” function within them, to the benefit of their members and fostering their cohesion rather than competition; and why is it the connectivity of the internet can be understood as encouraging such networks of individuals rather than social isolation, as might rather be presupposed? These are arguably questions which are relevant not just to characterizing this artists’ organization, which is important enough given its longevity and visibility within the Washington arts scene, but to our own situations as participants and consumers in that context as well as potentially as actors within a larger cultural landscape at present. We need only dip into the extensive literature on this topic to find useful definitions and answers with which we can construct a paradigmatic picture of MCA, so that some of its most important implications are made more tangible.
Although it may seem obvious that “What distinguishes local neighborhood communities from other types… is that interaction between members are located within the physical territory that the community occupies…”, what interests us here is the “connective tissue” “constituted by a community’s social interactions.” These are not surprisingly (frequently or in part) “Memories of events involving people and places in the community [which] create shared interpretation of experiences from past events,” these resulting in the formulation of a community’s collective memory, which together with the present activities and future events in the community forms the basis for its members to form close social bonds” keeping them together. (Patrick Purcell, ed. Networked Neighborhoods: The Connected Community in Context, London: Springer, 2006; pp. 4 and 288). Against the background of this collective consciousness of a shared interpretation of what is happening and has happened binding its members can be set the more specific observations of “network approaches”: with their focus on relations between actors. Most important for our purposes are major concepts, like “the embeddedness of work-related and economic transactions in patterns of social relations, [and] social capital as a set of resources inherent in an actor’s set of network ties…” Given our attempt is to “understand how individuals shape the organizations in which they are embedded,” the thumbnail encounters with a representative group of artists helps highlight the analogies linking their artistic projects. (Martin Kilduff and Wenpin Tsai, Social Networks and Organizations, Twin Oaks CA: SAGE, 2003; pp. 9-10).
But what generates these “network ties” connecting MCA’s like- as well as unlike-minded artists, and what is this “social capital” entity that they all share or gain from their self-generated organization? As Kenneth Koput has explained, within this framework it is “social ties” which do not have to involve direct contact nor be frequent, but only “ongoing, meaning it is subject to occurring again at some time…” With this basic element defined, we can then see how in the case of the Mid-City Artists it is relevant that among the possibilities linking such social networks are “collegial” shared interests, since “In general, ties can be characterized by the type of activity that is engaged in or the content of what is exchanged.” (Quotes from Koput’s Social Capital: An Introduction to Managing Networks, Cheltenham UK/Northampton MA: Elgar, 2010, pp.3-4.)
With respect to this central notion of “social capital,” popularized by the eminent Chicago school sociologist James Coleman in 1966, as Koput points out and explains there are: “four key properties of social capital… the social part implies that it belongs not to individuals, but to a social structure, be it an organization, community, or other social grouping…[it is] a productive resource… [also] an investment… inherent in relationships… appropriable” (p.16). While the MCA possesses this quantity, given their collective presence’s impact on the social scene and their operating as a group as a whole possessing social “clout,” it is also useful for each of them as well as their individual artistic endeavors as it has positive consequences for their prosperity. This is because it can be argued we now live in an era where “social capital” to a degree precedes or results in its economic variety (rather than the other way around, as was usually the case in the past). The former point is suggested in a volume edited by Lars Osberg.
There it is asked, then answered: “Does some combination of high level of social capital, social cohesion and community lead to greater well-being and better economic performance? Empirical studies argue that it does… An economic system can be viewed as a network of cooperative behavior… even [if it is] in a competitive setting…” This is due to such professional or financial success’ being fostered by “coordination, cooperation and trust… mutual cooperation is better for all parties… Social capital as defined here is an individual asset, similar to human capital…”. We can also further grasp the motivation and effect of these impulses when we read: “Stanley (1998) elaborates on this view, writing that ‘social cohesion is the bonding effect within a society that arises spontaneously from the unforced willingness of individual members of society to enter into relationships with one another in their efforts to survive and prosper’ and that ‘social cohesion is strengthened by the existence and creation of social capital.’” (The Economic Implications of Social Cohesion, Toronto/Buffalo NY: University of Toronto Press, 2003; quotes pp.43-45.) Jane Friesen’s essay in this collection, “Communities and Economic Prosperity: Exploring the Links,” is important to take into account since she details there how “community social interactions affect economic prosperity,” grouping them into categories: “(1) the formation of social norms, (2) the creation of information networks, and (3) human capital spillovers. Norm formation refers to the way in which a person’s own behavior is conditioned by the expectations of the behavior of others within the community… creation of information networks concerns the way in which information about options and choices is transmitted… through social networks. Human capital spillovers refers to the way in which the acquisition of skills by an individual is influenced by the decisions and skills of [this MCA community’s] other members” (from p.184).
Judging from what they have to say in person, not only are these processes in operation within the MCA organization; but to return to the second half of my above assertion that a reversal of relations has taken place between the tangible and intangible kinds of assets in this paradigm, it is Tara Hunt in her book The Power of Social Networking (NY: Three Rivers, 2009) who best expresses this important socio-economic sea-change. There she writes: “To succeed in this Web 2.0 world, you have to become a social capitalist… Relationships and connections over time lead to trust, which is the key to capital formation. The capital I am talking about, though, is… social capital… and a social capitalist is one who builds and nurtures a community, thereby increasing… [social capital, which once it is] ‘in the bank,’ monetary capital then starts to flow from social capital. It used to work the other way around… We’re talking about an emerging world where the rules for success are truly different.” (p.2) Clearly Mid-City Artists exists in this “new world” where social capital is just as important as potential financial gain, an emergent environment fostered by technological developments.
That the requisite “social connectivity” is enhanced by “new communication technologies such as the Internet, email and mobile phones… characterized by inter-connectivity, speed, immediacy, and de-centralized use” seems apparent, since “one of the key features of network society is not the erosion of social connectedness but, rather, its reconfiguration by flows of information. The ‘social’ is no longer welded to a physical center…” (Deborah Chambers, New Social Ties: Contemporary Connections in a Fragmented Society, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; pp.113 and 131.) For self-evidently a professional grouping of 40 artists, many of whom also have at least one other activity than making art, and some of whom have never physically met one another (core vs. its newer members), would not be possible without these communications resources. In other words, rather than isolating its users from face-to-face social interaction as has been argued elsewhere, in this case the Internet and its various modes of inter-connectivity augment or make possible such an organization’s existence in its present form: with members potentially in touch with one another constantly.
Finally, we return appropriately in conclusion to a further look at “networking,” its strategies relevant with respect to Mid-City Artists as well as its evident benefits. We find these most usefully discussed in Lambert Maguire’s book Understanding Social Networks (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), where that author writes: “In general terms, networking can be defined as a purposeful process of linking three or more people together and of establishing connections and chain-reactions [in which these individuals then in turn involve others] among them.” However, “Networks are [have been] defined in many ways…”: with these including Mitchell (1969:2) who has characterized “a social network as a ‘specific set of linkages among a defined set of persons with the additional property that the characteristics of their linkage as a whole may be used to interpret the social behavior of the persons involved.’”; while “anthropologist J.A. Barnes (1972: 43) defines networks as the basis of their analytical capabilities…. ‘[where] the points of the lines [if diagrammed] are people sometimes groups and the lines indicate which people interact with each other.’” But perhaps most applicable and more all-encompassing: “Walker et al (1977:35) view social networks as ‘that set of personal contacts through which the individual maintains his social identity and receives emotional support, material aid and services, information and new social contacts.’” (pp.13-14) Making these abstract terms tangible means we have a complexified yet clear understanding what is at work in this MCA organization.
It has been clarified and argued above what these entities and processes involve as well as suggested how they apply to the structure and functioning of Mid-City Artists, benefiting its participants as well as the whole entity; and their two-way relevance for both is apparent when encountering its members at the same time as considering what they say, do and how they act towards or feel about their fellow participants and their self-generated organization. Yet in the end Maguire perhaps says it best in sum: “Communities are composed of networks, and networks are composed of people helping each other. When these natural helping networks are linked together, or at least when the potential exists within a community to link them up in order to help people, the social fabric of a community is strengthened and the quality of life in that community is enhanced.” (p.111) A statement which brings us to our final observation that the MCA artists’ networked community, important in and of itself both as it functions and for the role it plays within the D.C. Metro area’s cultural scene, has a further significance as a model paradigm for how we might want to conduct ourselves: not just as artworld participants, but also within our own personal social “neighborhoods.”