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William Powhida: Contemporary Art Vigilante

By Sonny Voyack

Unknown Title from Sell Out! By William Powhida

Modern art is an acquired taste with many people when it comes to its execution and content. The ever-changing aesthetics in art can be a rather complex subject in terms of meaning, context, and economics. The economics of the contemporary art world is the focus of William Powhida, a contemporary art satirist, who comments about the backwards world of contemporary art and how it is heavily influenced by class and wealth. Exposing the art world and how it is run, Powhida takes on the persona of a creative vigilante in order to combat the aristocracy of the creative field.

Born in 1976 in New York, Powhida still continues his work in Brooklyn, New York. Having finished a B.F.A for Painting with Honors at Syracuse in 1998 and an M.F.A for Painting at Hunter College in 2002, William began his official journey into the art industry fresh out of his graduate program. Having collaborated with many different artists over the years, Powhida manages to stay true to his message regarding classism and economics surrounding the fine arts industry. Even in his early works, Powhida captures the essence of a young, struggling artist trying to make sense of an industry that was otherwise cold and unforgiving to the new and imaginative. However, while he held on to many of his works from his years in undergraduate education, Powhida mentions in regards to his graduate work, “There was almost nothing worth photographing from that entire period.” Why this may be is uncertain, but there is unfortunately little to no further information regarding that time in his artistic journey.

Untitled, Early Work by William Powhida

Continuing on into the new millennium, Powhida spread his wings into the fine arts community in the Williamsburg art community. While little is mentioned about his first solo exhibition “Persona” that debuted on Independence Day of 2004, it signals the direction Powhida followed as a critical artist in the coming years. Perhaps there was a significance in the release date of “Persona.” During a conversation with William, he wanted to draw attention to the fact that art is as much of a capitalistic chase as entrepreneurship. For him, it is important for all artists to be supported by society. Unfortunately, society in the United States does not fully grasp the importance of artists, letting them struggle to make ends meet through their art alone. Many artists require a second or third day job just to get by.

Featuring rather crude and rough sketches intermingled with cutouts and political themes, “Persona” offers an intensely pessimistic outlook on art and those who influence it. Powhida even went so far as to include an Enemies List to the exhibition, showcasing an eclectic group of artists, pop icons, and other notable figures in modern history who seemed disconnected from world events, including the horrors of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.. One thing for certain is that Powhida aims to challenge the authorities of the art scene and what it means to be creative in a market aimed against him.

Enemies List from Persona by William Powhida

While William’s work and ideals makes him stand out in the world of contemporary art, a recent project, Store-to-Own, has brought some attention to the problem of storage in the art world. The project was covered by Artnet and discussed by NYU professor Amy Whitaker in her paper “Generous and Ungenerous Contracts”. Starting in late 2020, Powhida proposed a new and rather taboo way of moving older, unsold work that had been in his galleries’ inventory for years that would otherwise take up space in his already downsized studio. He suggested that instead of outright selling his pieces, he has offered to let people borrow his artworks and after a period of five years, the ownership of the work would transfer to the borrower. Powhida’s contract allows the artist to retain the right to 50% of any future sale of the work including a resale royalty. “Store-to-Own'' emphasizes the hoarding tendencies of museums and the threat modern art creates in flooding the market. “…its (art) economic value is built on a foundation of scarcity, authenticity, and exclusivity” Powhida writes in regard to his project. He goes on to state that “…personal taste and money tend to drive what is deemed good, rather than any critical consensus.” In other words, this means that the price of contemporary art is based almost entirely on not the quality of the art work, but the number of art works a single recognized artist creates. This, of course, leaves an extremely limited market with an overabundance of unseen and archived works of art. Limited supply creates scarcity which dealers and buyers, often wealthy members of the upper classes, use to determine what is regarded as “good” when they buy it. Powhida has described this as an oligopoly at play in the contemporary art world, evoked in this piece: A Guide to the Market Oligopoly Sytem.

William has another work from his 2019 exhibition, Complicities, that will be included in The Backend at Montclair State University Galleries during fall 2023. Once again he provides a deeper look into the economics of the art, capital, and philanthropy through the lens of Koch Industries, the 2nd largest private company in the United States.Offering an opportunity for dialogue about ownership, copyright laws, and access, he and 12 other contemporary artists have been brought together by curator Jesse Bandler Firestone that ask questions about the ways contemporary art is produced and distributed. During this curated exhibition Powhida hopes to expand the understanding of the contemporary art market through a public discussion at Montclair on November 9th hosted by the Department of Art and Design. Challenging the views around ethical art consumption and production, William Powhida continues to communicate his messages through the means of mapping and diagramming using drawing and painting.

We are delighted that William Powhida will be participating in a discussion with faculty and students on the Montclair State University campus in November 9th, 2023. We encourage students and others in the community to participate in the exhibition. Please find more information on the Montclair State University Galleries site. Details are also available on the Bloomberg Connects App.

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