September 20, 2012

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


Claire Fontaine, Change, 2006; Twenty-five-cent coins, steel box-cutter blades, solder, and rivets; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Neu, Berlin

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.


Comments (12)

  • Marry Jane says:

    Embrace the principles of decentralization with a crypto wallet that puts you in control of your finances. Unlike traditional banking systems, which rely on centralized authorities, crypto wallets give you full autonomy over your funds. With your private keys securely stored on your device, you have the power to transact freely without intermediaries.

  • Perhaps this ages me immediately but the first four minutes are amazing in and of themselves for this talk of clickers and such disembodied registering. Pure art. Are you logged in to the system?

  • One of the things that makes that Sellars video so powerful is that he is speaking to 400 undergraduate students. What we need in higher education is a combination of that kind of impassioned call for students to pursue innovation in a real way (rather than pin all of their hopes on being hired to innovate for google or facebook) but also educate them about the systems (financial and other) that currently exist. My sense is that the goal of these postings is to help artists get educated about the way the systems in place work so that we are better equipped to answer Sellars call to invent ecologies that support new and urgent ideas.

  • Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Helena, thanks for adding some fuel to the discussion. While I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole thing yet, I think an important context for the Sellars quote is what he says immediately afterwards – “Anything for which no job currently exists is urgent. And so not only do you have to invent your job, you have to invent the ecology that supports it.” That, in my mind, is what this series is about.

    I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of it.

  • Thank you for starting this project! Despite teaching marketing and pricing workshops to other creative professionals, I still struggle to find a way that I can make a full-time living just from my art, without needing to supplement my income with teaching and corporate design jobs, and would love to hear how other people are doing it.

  • Wow, Helena, thank you for that fantastic Peter Sellars quote — it touches something I (we) have suspected all along and is going to be my guiding light for the foreseeable future — congratulations on return to grad school, too — i will want to hear more about this, & what seems and looks different from that vantage point. xo

  • A rich and complicated topic, thanks for helping us face it. I find myself in a new financial reality, grad school, a bit removed from the everyday concerns of sustaining myself as an artist. This gives me a chance to step back from my situation and think about what I may have lost as I’ve focused a good chunk of my time and energy the past few years on the administrative skills of my art practice. This video of a lecture by Peter Sellars may add some impassioned fuel to the fire of the debate. Around 17:20 he says “the way you can tell the difference between something that needs to be done and something that does not need to be done – anything you can get paid for does not need to be done.” Let the raging debate begin!

  • Really looking forward to this series of articles! I for one could use some education in this area.

  • The romanticized version of the struggling artist had to be change and aknowledge that an artist had a skill that can contribute to society and should be paid and funded.

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    it’s gonna be hard to impossible to locate a well known artist with an “edge”…good luck!

  • Frank Lostaunau says:

    ask eli borad…

  • And how do artists/organizations become well funded without selling out or losing their artistic edge?

See all responses (12)
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