So, a few weeks ago while we were working on this project, I asked Adam Forest Huttler to post a question on the Fractured Atlas blog asking what types of bills artists find difficult to pay — either because of fundraising restrictions or because they’re just too expensive. My basic goal with this was to get a sense of the economic quirks specific to different disciplines, akin to the ludicrous predicament of NYC jazz venues I wrote about this past weekend. I specifically asked about projects with budgets under $20k so that I could get a better sense of which expenses have inelastic demand — in other words, those that artists feel obliged to pay even without much money to throw around. The resulting comments are very interesting; obviously, they don’t offer anything like a scientific sample, but they gave me some insights anyway. Here are a few quotes on visual art that I found particularly illuminating:

I can’t afford to finish my works. I can design them, draw them out on my computer, archive them. But to print a giclee, to frame them for show, that runs me about 1500 dollars per image. – Hairy Carrion

Specialized shipping services for artwork can be very expensive-from building crates to fees for the actual carrier. – Richard

Money for visual artists to do their work is almost impossible to find. There are some residencies if you want to go somewhere to work or sometimes there is a little money to give a lecture but there isn’t support to just stay in your studio and make work. And when an artist shows work, there usually isn’t an honorarium or rental fee for showing the work. – jgoldner

In addition, multiple posters (more performing artists, I suspect) mentioned space rental, money to buy equipment as opposed to just renting it, and startup costs like building a website, insurance, demo CDs, legal fees, and so on. Money to “buy time” (i.e., to compose or write or create) was also a popular request.

Essentially all of the issues that have been identified above are symptoms of the winner-take-all economy in the arts. That is to say, it takes a certain amount of startup capital to create a successful artistic enterprise, whether as an individual or organization, and if one doesn’t have access to that startup capital, opportunities to exercise one’s talents are limited. Furthermore, essentials such as space, equipment and materials are in a sense more expensive to younger and smaller organizations because they take up a greater proportion of those organizations’ or individuals’ budgets, leaving less for “luxuries” like, um, paying the artists. This contributes to a feedback loop in which the artists who are already undercapitalized stay undercapitalized, because the system is set up to reward those who supply those basic essentials before it rewards the artistic output of those who use them.

Two of the Ortiz Foundation‘s four programs are designed to work in concert to attack this issue. The first, Building Infrastructure: Giving the Artists the Tools to Strengthen Communities, is designed to lower the costs for all artists by investing heavily in three key expense categories — space, materials, and equipment — and making them available on a non-curated basis at subsidized rates. The second, Supporting Start-Ups: Funding Emerging and Early-Stage Organizations, is a competitive program whose purpose is to provide that key initial capitalization to new projects and organizations that hint at untapped potential, raising the income for emerging artists as a result. Let’s take a look at these two programs in more detail.

Building Infrastructure

This program would be the Ortiz Foundation’s largest, starting off with an investment of $8.5 million a year and growing to $23.5 million per year by 2019. The initial undertaking would be the construction of a new community arts center in an easily accessible neighborhood of Queens with the following features:

  • A deep proscenium theater with sprung floors suitable for theater, dance, and musical performance;
  • A recording studio;
  • A ground-floor gallery that doubles as the lobby of the theater;
  • Numerous smaller, acoustically-sound rehearsal and studio spaces;
  • Bulletin boards for information about events and training throughout the city; and
  • Offices for the foundation itself.

The arts center would have a cache of materials and equipment on hand that would be available for rental at subsidized rates. There would also be a small fund to help artists buy equipment on a competitive basis. The center would be managed by an outside organization (either hired or created for this purpose) which would have a rotating advisory board of local artists to ensure broad community representation.

While this new construction would occupy the bulk of program funds for the first few years, the idea is that over time the Foundation would construct similar spaces in other parts of the city, with some including studio space for visual artists, others incorporating smaller more club-like performance venues, and so on. By consciously increasing the supply of these goods (space, materials and equipment) and directing them to those that need them the most, the Foundation hopes to make it easier for talented emerging artists to get off the ground.

A smaller part of the Building Infrastructure program would be aimed at existing venues and organizations. The first prong of this strategy would involve expanding the NYSCA dance rehearsal space subsidies to theater, music, and visual art spaces. The second is a unique idea: identify key for-profit companies that provide an important service to the arts community and find themselves struggling financially because of it (think Tonic), and offer them a package of management/legal consulting services and up to five years’ worth of bridge funding to turn them nonprofit. This “offer they can’t refuse” would be primarily targeted at organizations that are at severe risk of failing, but the program could also consider comparatively healthy organizations that wish to take a more proactive approach to their situation. (Depending on how the L3C develops, that could be a viable alternative to nonprofit status as well.)

Supporting Start-Ups

The Supporting Start-Ups program is essentially a classic venture philanthropy model writ small. Each organization accepted into the program would eligible for up to a total of $50,000 in funding over a period of up to five years. (The actual amount granted may be quite a bit less, depending on the specific budget needs of the organization in question.) The goal would not be to grow organizations “to scale” in the usual sense, so much as to grow them to the point where they can conduct their operations and programs insulated somewhat from the constant threat of extinction. After five years, organizations will have had ample opportunity to demonstrate their worth to the larger funding world and can continue on to greater heights if appropriate. The Supporting Start-Ups program will provide a significant level of technical support along with the money granted, and set realistic interim goals for each year in collaboration with the grantee. Failure to meet these interim goals on a consistent basis would result in an early termination of funding.

Decisions for Supporting Start-Ups grant awards would be made by an advisory group made up of journalists, curators, booking agents, publishers, mid-career artistic directors, and other individuals whose jobs require them to evaluate unsolicited work on a regular basis. The purpose of this model would be twofold: first, to rely on the expertise of field experts in determining the difference between, for example, a demo CD that sounds bad because it was recorded in somebody’s basement vs. a demo CD that sounds bad because the music stinks; and second, to build a bridge between these emerging artists, whether selected for a grant or not, and influential tastemakers in their field. (It is assumed that because of the low profile of most grant applicants, there will only be rare instances in which a panelist is already familiar with the work of the applicant; thus, conflict of interest is not a major concern.)

The combination of these two programs, it is hoped, would do much to enable emerging artists to overcome some of the systemic disadvantages that cause such burnout and attrition in the field. For our fourth and final installment tomorrow, we’ll look at the Ortiz Foundation’s other two programs, Arts Research and Art and the Public.