Show Me the Money: An Introduction
“… One of the reasons that we as cultural producers fail to organize — or even communicate — effectively around economic issues is because we’re taught to believe that funding is a private concern, a lack of money is shameful, and payment is linked so conclusively to merit that further knowledge can’t possibly benefit, or harm, any potential laborer.” –Anne Elizabeth Moore in “Personal Economies,” ArtWork 12/28/09
There’s a funny thing about working in the visual arts. Not only does no one want to talk about money, almost everyone is undereducated in the way that it works within their own field. There is rarely a small business management, tax, or even grant-writing class in an MFA curriculum. Yet many, if not most, art students have the goal of making it as a sole proprietor. Like it or not, an artist is a small businessperson. Marketing, budgeting, sales, PR, and social media outreach are all hats that an artist wears outside of production. Beyond that, many galleries, organizations, collectives, and arts-oriented businesses are started and run by artists.
The visual arts, as a discipline, is sometimes seen as a place where one can and should freely explore and produce independently of the market. It is with this optimism and drive to work without financial reward that so many people pursue the creation of their own organizational structures. This freedom can be a fertile and productive place from which to practice, but it comes with a price of perception and expectation: creative work is generally under-compensated (because you were going to do it anyway), general operating costs are ignored in funding proposals, installations are installed without fees, and exposure is offered as payment all throughout the chain.
Despite this conceit of independence, metrics of success are inherently wrapped up in funding. Whether or not you pay yourself; whether or not you work another job; whether or not you are able to employ others, at a fair rate, or pay the people you work with — these are all benchmarks with which we judge our own as well as each other’s activities. As Moore notes above, there are merit judgments intrinsically intertwined with these questions, leading to shame if financial goals are not yet met. The fact is that money can never be left completely out of the equation. There is a prevalent belief in our country that if you work hard enough you’ll be able to “make it.” If you do something good long enough, people will notice. But as any artist, small businessperson, or organization head will tell you, this just isn’t true. There are so many factors that come into play: whom you know, whom you meet, where you come from, timing, luck, whether you’re in a partnered relationship to help you even out the highs and lows, the life events that come your way. Even if it is true that the cream inevitably rises to the top, you have to be able to financially function during the rise. If you’re working two jobs to support a family and maybe have one day off a week, you know that pursuing a dream is a luxury.
What does stability look like? What does self-sustaining look like? How do artists, arts organizations, and arts businesses that may have started organically make the transition into more stable entities where funding no longer comes from “other” sources, like a second job? What is the value of doing projects that don’t create revenue? What are the benefits and disadvantages of different approaches to acquiring funding for your projects?
Over the next few months I hope to use this forum to explore these questions. I don’t think there ever will be one perfect solution to the problem of funding in the visual arts. However, a diversity of models that suit and support different types of practices seems not only appropriate, but encouraging. There are people/organizations/businesses that are succeeding at creating stable revenue streams in the visual arts, sometimes from a diversity of sources. I am going to try to convince some of these leaders to talk with me candidly and openly about how the money works for them, where it comes from, and where it goes. While recognizing that we all start from different places and have different capabilities and goals, let’s try to learn from each other. Let’s talk about money.