The term “social practice” has only been applied to art within the last 12 years, when California College of the Arts instituted the first graduate program dedicated to it. Nevertheless, many artists associated with it—like Gates, Lowe, Ukeles,
, and Helguera—have worked on projects intersecting politics and culture for years before that, prompting criticism that the term is a trendy name for a longstanding practice.
The broader genre of participatory art, or art requiring audience participation, has an even longer history, and its practitioners also struggled with how to bring it to market.
pioneered the purchase of an experience with his series “Transfer of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” (1959–62), offering collectors a chance to buy an “immaterial zone” for various prices to be paid in pure gold. The transaction between the artist and the collector had to occur in front of at least two witnesses, along with a curator or critic, and documented by photograph. Although the collector was presented with a certificate of authenticity, he was obliged by the terms of the sale to destroy it in order to actually own the work, leaving him in possession of nothing but a memory bolstered by a snapshot.
Indeed, the rise of
and art-as-life practices like
in the 1960s and ’70s upended established models of buying and selling art, as Noah Horowitz details in his book Art of the Deal: Contemporary Art in a Global Financial Market
(2014). Dealers like Seth Siegelaub, who worked with artists like
, started selling performance and promotional ephemera and devised new sales contracts that assumed the dual function of legitimizing the artwork and clarifying ownership rights. “These contracts and other forms of documentation became pseudo art objects in their own right as they were often the primary means of exhibiting such work in galleries,” Horowitz wrote.
But objects, gallery spaces, and ownership rights are often an afterthought for social practice artists, whose work responds to issues of public concern.
“When I started my practice in the early 1990s, I really didn’t think about doing something commerical,” said artist
, program coordinator of Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice graduate program, which he founded in 2007. “For me, making objects just didn’t interest me.”
It wasn’t until his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney
Biennial spurred interest from collectors and institutions in his work that he started working with galleries, albeit only for a few years. Like the conceptual artists who preceded him, Fletcher sold “residual stuff” from previous performances and projects “that was lying around.”
Yet many artists are finding ways to consciously straddle the line between social and studio practices, perhaps because Conceptualism set a precedent for selling objects related to projects that extend beyond the physical space of the gallery and into public spaces. Fletcher explained that, like Conceptualism, social practice has been positioned by critics and theorists as in opposition to studio-based practices that yield objects like paintings or sculptures that can be easily sold.
But unlike Conceptualism, which was frequently deployed as a form of institutional critique (by artists like
), social practice artists are engaging constructively with institutions, including galleries, universities, and museums, to support their ability to create community-minded work.
“The reality is that this sort of practice is proving to be more mutually supportive for both artists and the institutions that show them,” said Fletcher, referring to artists who integrate object-making as part of their socially engaged work. A lot of social practice-style projects end up being supportive of studio-based work, and vice-versa, he explained, effectively expanding the visibility of the artist and the galleries they work with.