This is repost of Merge's interview with me on his Serendipity blog
John Morris is an artist originally from Queens, NY. Armed with a growing dissatisfaction and an innovative concept, Morris moved to Pittsburgh in 2004 to open up Digging Pitt gallery. Its flat files contain the work of more than 180 local, regional and national artists. The Digging Pitt is accessible via the internet at both its homepage and blog.
Merge Divide: Ok... so first off, the obvious question... Why would a successful artist living in the absolute center of the art world move to Pittsburgh?
John Morris: That's a long story. You have to have some idea of what life is like in NY for most artists. It's easier to sell work, but you have to reach an insane level to have any security. Some of my friends had left and I was nursing a deep grudge against the art world.
MD: How did you develop a grudge against the art world? What was the nature of the grudge?
JM: Well, I think that the scene today doesn't seem to to have a whole lot to do with the quality of the work. Most of the good artists don't have galleries and those that do are on some kind of product driven treadmill.
MD: But you had found some success in a Brooklyn-based gallery called Pierogi. Why don't you say a bit about the nature of your relationship with that gallery.
JM: Ok... Another long story. But I guess one would say they discovered me.
MD: I know that they played a large role in your development as an artist. But Pierogi also seems to have affected your thinking on the role galleries play in the art world. Besides their connection to your career, what did you take away from your experience with Pierogi?
JM: Well, to give some perspective... I did little subtle drawings. I had years worth of work, but most of it was hard to photograph and I was also too broke at the time to have it done. Getting anything seen by anyone was very hard... let alone getting anything shown. I don't think there were many people with a serious interest in seeing new stuff. So I was just so grateful and blown away when I heard that there was a guy who just looked at stuff in Brooklyn.
MD: I think that there are probably many readers that aren't familiar with Pierogi. They came up with an interesting approach to showing art that was based around a flat-file system. How did you originally process that idea when you discovered it?
JM: I read this NY Times article about alternative dealers at what was called the Gramercy Art fair in NY. One of them was an artist who had asked other artists he liked to have portfolios of their work in his place. The works were kept in architectural file drawers and the inventory had grown to include close to 300 artists. I also heard that the guy was always interested in seeing new work. When I saw it, it kind of blew me away.
MD: What kind of effect do you believe it had on the art scene in NYC?
JM: First of all, I wish the effect had been greater, in that I don't think that anyone has pushed the idea to the kind of scale that would be needed to tear down the current system.
Still, it's been huge. I guess at least 10 artists affiliated with the gallery have been in Whitney Biennials, and many more have been picked up by galleries. Also Pierogi played a big role in developing new collectors.
I don't want to exaggerate, but there were practical parallels between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. There was a vast sea of artists, but most of the scene was underground. Putting a large array of the work being made there in one place helped people realize that something huge was going on.
MD: So yeah. You brought this concept to Pittsburgh, believing it was exportable. How do you think the difference in the size of the existing market affects how this concept plays here?
JM: Basically, I just didn't think it mattered much. Art has a global market. There are art fairs and there is the emerging potential of the internet. And yet the whole system seems trapped in a high-cost place not well suited to producing work. In the time since I started the gallery, Pierogi has opened up a big annex in a depressed city in Germany called Leipzig. I now do see some flaws in my thinking.
MD: How do you gauge the reaction to the Digging Pitt Gallery?
JM: I just don't know. In Brooklyn, you had a huge pool of people who got the gallery concept and seemed to understand how it was different and why it was needed-- Artists who saw it as a way into the system, collectors who felt priced or frozen out, and a lot of other people who just saw it as a place for dialog and interaction. Here it's much more a job of selling the idea and making people understand it's value.
MD: What do you think makes it so difficult to convey the concept of a flat file gallery in Pittsburgh?
JM: Well, I hope that the reason isn't that there are just not enough people here interested in art; that is a possibility. I do shows, have parties etc... But, the idea of a bunch of porfolios lying in cabinets is going to be interesting to a crowd that is strongly commited to seeing work.
I also don't think that there is anywhere near the difficulty of getting into shows in Pittsburgh. Relative to the number of artists, there is a lack of exhibition spaces in NY. A lot of my Pittsburgh artists are in shows all the time, so getting them excited about the flat files has been hard.
MD: So given your experience so far in Pittsburgh, what are three things that you would like to see change here?
JM: I think that in NY, Pittsburgh has a fairly good reputation. The International, Warhol, and Mattress Factory all have lots of weight... as does CMU. To be honest, I feel a bit ripped off. My sister lived here and I came through town and liked it. Then I did a little research and came across stuff about the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative, AIR, The Brew House and I thought-- awesome... people would be happy to see me here... and that I was coming to a place sincerely commited to building an arts community. I kind of don't feel that way now. I kind of feel that I am working alone.
MD: I'm not sure that answers the question. How about this... In an ideal world what would you see as the role of the Digging Pitt in the local community, and in a broader sense?
JM: Locally, I hope that the gallery can become a central focus and gathering place for people who are interested in art, and that the files can help show people how much good work is being done here... and help link Pittsburgh to the world.
I also hope the gallery can grow in a way that can make it a signifcant entry point for artists into the system.
MD: Well... I wish you all kinds of luck for future success. Thanks for taking the time.
JM: Thanks a lot for talking to me. My last major interview was with some birds.