The Free Art Project
It is 7:30pm on a dark, cold night in January in Uptown, Oakland, California. Two men are walking towards me urgently. One of them calls out,"Hey, Free Art!" I am at the Oakland Art Murmur with my Free Art Cart. I was just about to leave and tell them that I don''t have much left. One guy says that it doesn't matter, anything will do. He said he already has a piece of mine that he got a few months ago, which was in a little frame in his house. He wanted another for his collection.
I give away art.
In May 2009 I began giving away art at the Oakland Art Murmur (a monthly public art gathering in downtown Oakland. A diverse group of hipsters, rappers, Burning Man refugees, anarchists, business people and just about everyone in town come to this event) . On the First Friday of every month I set up a card table on the street, tape on a sign that says "FREE ART" and give away the art away that I made in the intervening month. Now I have an art crate on wheels- The Free Art Cart, like a Paleta Cart that Latino vendors use to sell ice cream. I have made and distributed over 5000 artworks to people passing by. My collectors include millionaires and homeless people.
I engage art communities through unofficial channels. It has become the largest part of my art practice as I have come to feel the depth of the project for me, the maker, and the responses of the people who become my collectors.
I took the Art Cart to Art Basel Miami in 2012 and 2014. I was connected to the Aqua Art Fair through a local gallery. In Miami I gave away 400 pieces of art to people on the street and walking through the art fairs, both to museum curators there for the fairs and to Haitian street kids who were trying to sell me candy. In Miami, the Free Art Cart was written up in numerous blogs and newspapers and I was filmed by a film crew working on a documentary to be released this summer.
Art is at once a pure activity and a product. The product aspect is challenging. Viewers often distrust their own impulses, instead relying on external authorities to establish 'value' for them; media, celebrity status, museums, galleries, and auction price are all examples of this external authority. The editorial function of institutions is a valuable part of or society, but it is also intimidating. At the Paolo Mejia Gallery in the Bayview in San Francisco, for example, I noticed three day laborers waiting for the bus and looking into the gallery at the art. I invited them in which took some coaxing. In my terrible Spanish and their terrible English we negotiated a “sale,” which is to say that they found a work and I gave it to them. In that moment they were no longer laborers but collectors. These transactions disrupt set relationships between artists, art and collectors. They flatten the status world a bit. I have to say that some people think my project is a novelty, but others have been moved to tears. I hear people say to me, “Can I really take this?” and I know I am doing what I want to do.
In July 2013, I brought the project to Gallery Kunstraum Tapir in Berlin Germany. For three weeks I made art from materials I found and purchased in Berlin – mono-prints, drawings sculptures and collages (made from the techno music posters that cover the city's public walls). In my last week I presented a themed solo show each day, letting the gallery walls empty as people came and took something. One woman spent an hour examining the art. When I offered her the piece she liked gratis (free is an ambiguous word, especially in German), she said to me “Are you crazy!?” “You have just made my day!” she said as she left with a drawing, elated. Owning art is a responsibility. The Free Art Project is a playful and serious commentary on the social/political context of contemporary art. It is the my critique and genuine exploration of status, privilege, access, and how art is valued.
There are hundreds of photos online of the works I have made and given away. The actual art of the projectis a vital component. The art given away must meet my own critical threshold, probably best described by my feeling that I was fully involved while making the work and that I think it can live on someone's wall and continue to engage them for years to come. I have a pile of work at home that wasn't good enough for free art. You cannot make a gift of something you do not value yourself.
Do I have a favorite single work from the project? Not exactly, but there was a sculpture made of expanding foam, a plastic rat, a wooden board and silver spray paint...there was “the Dead” show in Berlin of delicate drawings of local people on the walls and in the middle of the room was a stack of card-sized papers with identical tombstones drawn on them. I know that the project has allowed me to expand into areas of creativity I would not normally have ventured into.