[Remarks as prepared for TEDxMichiganAve at the Chicago Symphony Center’s Club 8, May 7, 2011.]
“Never Heard of ‘Em”: Why Citizen Curators (not Daddy’s Money) Should Decide Who Gets to Be an Artist
For the past few months, you’ve probably been besieged with emails and Facebook posts asking you to convince our politicians not to cut public funding for the arts. Often these appeals will include a link to some news story about how the arts will suffer if government grants are reduced. And if you click through and read the comments, invariably you’ll come across something like this:
The government—at whatever level—has no business funding the arts, especially so, when much of that art is mediocre or worst. Why should my tax dollars go to fund the fun of someone who thinks himself or herself the next Picasso? Exceptional art will find funding, as it always has.
In my arts policy coverage, I find this argument comes up a lot, and there’s a good reason—it’s difficult to parry.
Our first response to such arguments is usually to talk about the value of the arts. But note that the commenter is not saying that art itself doesn’t have value. The dispute is about the value of subsidy to the arts. The commenter claims, and quite rightly so, that art would still happen if the government didn’t help pay for it. In fact, that’s exactly what took place in this country for the first 175 years or so of its existence, before a real infrastructure for government arts funding came into being.
So why would we want to subsidize the arts anyway? I mean, if the deli on the corner is losing customers because its meats are stale and the service is slow, we don’t say that the government should subsidize the corner deli. We say good riddance! So is it really such a big deal if the arts are left to fare for themselves?
The way I see it, there are basically two reasons to subsidize the arts:
- To give us cool art that the market wouldn’t otherwise support
- To give access to the arts to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it
Each of these reasons assumes a market failure when it comes to the arts. The first suggests that, while the market can determine which art or entertainment makes people happy in the here and now, it is bad at judging the long-term value of art. It’s pretty easy to come up with examples of people who we now consider to be Great Artists who were not recognized as such in their day. The only reason their work has survived until now is sheer luck. Often, an artist’s real value to society comes not so much from the direct experiences that audiences have of his or her work, but rather from the profound influence that the artist has on other artists, some of whom may eventually reach a wider public.
The second reason is a straight-up class argument. Just as with many other services, because art has value, people shouldn’t be denied access to art just because they are poor, or happen to live in a rural area, or are confined to a nursing home or mental institution. The same argument applies to kids – just because their parents can’t afford to provide them with access to art, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have it.
I’m going to focus most of this talk on the first argument: that it’s important to subsidize art because the commercial marketplace is not good at judging art’s long-term value to society and future generations.
So we are agreed that the commercial marketplace is not so good at judging the long-term value of artistic product. But if you’re not going to let the marketplace decide who succeeds and who fails in the arts, then who should decide?
To be honest, I don’t have a great answer to this question. But the best that I can come up with is that I would want the people deciding to really know their shit. I expect that someone who has studied the arts, or even better, my specific discipline, or better yet, my specific genre and subgenre within my specific discipline, will have a better idea of the long-term value of my work to society than some schmoe off the street. That’s not elitism, that’s just common sense.
But you know, art is still a matter of taste. And people always have personal agendas, scores to settle, and so on. One of the really nice things about the commercial marketplace is that no one person really has that much power to determine what happens on their own. But the problem with the commercial marketplace is that most of the people in it are not the experts we want judging the long-term value of the work.
What we need is something I call an artistic marketplace: a system of buying and selling artistic products and services in which the currency is not money, but instead the respect of experts. In which success is determined not by how many butts in seats you have, or how many records you can sell, but by the extent to which your work impresses people who really know their shit.
So who are these people? They are anyone who experiences a lot more art than the average person, and thus has a basis for informed opinion. Professional critics are probably the most obvious exemplar of this category. But it also includes anyone who judges artistic work samples for a living: publishers, artistic directors, booking agents, record company execs, gallery curators, and the list goes on. It even includes, I would argue, people like this guy. [Slide: grocery store clerk who’s watched and ranked over 7000 movies] These people collectively form the demand curve within the artistic marketplace.
As we said earlier, the currency of the artistic marketplace is the respect and endorsement of experts. The problem is this: that respect does not exchange properly with the currency of the commercial marketplace: money.
This is important because the whole purpose of subsidy is to make that exchange possible. Remember, with subsidy we are actively intervening in the commercial marketplace because we don’t agree with the choices it is making about which artists and institutions should stand the test of time. And yet I am sure that any of us in this room, or any of us watching, can point to examples of brilliant artists working today, who are well-recognized by their peers, who nevertheless struggle to make ends meet. This wouldn’t happen if the artistic marketplace were functioning the way it’s supposed to.
So why is it that philanthropic subsidy isn’t more effective at helping critically acclaimed artists make a living? Well, for one thing, we can’t talk about this phenomenon without mentioning the intense competition for attention between artists of all stripes. I don’t need to tell you that the past 20 years have completely revolutionized our society’s level of access to art of all kinds. Production costs have fallen drastically, making it possible for amateur creators and performers to use equipment that only professionals could have taken advantage of a generation ago. And because of the internet, distribution costs have nearly disappeared entirely, particularly for film and electronic media, recorded music, and writing. Finally, storage costs – with the transfer of so much information to digital format and hard drive capacities metastasizing every year – are dropping through the floor as well. The net result of all of these changes is that it’s easier than ever before for people to create art that can “pass” for professional; it’s easier than ever before for these amateur artists to enter the public sphere by distributing their works to the world; and those works get preserved in the public sphere, accessible by anyone at any time, rather than languishing in the attic or in the creator’s imagination.
Bottom line: a lot more people are entering the artistic (and commercial) marketplaces on the supply side—they engage in personal creation or performance for public consumption. And because the same technological innovations apply to retired artists – even deceased artists!—not only does each new playwright or composer or painter have to compete with all of her peers, she must also compete with every artist who came before her. Unfortunately, she cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of her fan base.
So there is a tremendous amount of competition in the artistic marketplace—a marketplace in which the currency is respect. But in order to get respect, one of the “experts” in the artistic marketplace has to give you their attention – which means they have to give you their time. They have to listen to your piece, read your play, look at your slides, be present at your audition. And time is becoming – for all of us – a really, really scarce resource. Our lives are being filled up – not least by all of this content that we are bombarded with every day. In fact, we are producing so much art in this world these days that we are overwhelming the human capacity to evaluate it all. Let’s say you are a music fan. If you decided you wanted to listen to all of the albums released in the United States in a given year – say, 2008 – you could put your headphones on for every hour of every day of every week of the year – and you still wouldn’t get through more than an eighth of them! So now it’s 2009, and you have seven-eighths of the previous year to listen to – plus all the albums from 2007, and the albums from 2006, and you get the picture. Or let’s say you enjoy hunting for videos on YouTube. Guess what: there are 35 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. That’s the equivalent of 176,000 full-length Hollywood movies every week!
So you see what I mean when I say that we don’t have the capacity to evaluate it all. And more to the point, those experts in the artistic marketplace don’t have time to evaluate it either. So they triage. They take some shortcuts.
Let’s take an example – an example from music, since that’s the world I know best. If you review the rosters of major classical music presenters around the country, you will start to see a lot of the same names over and over and over again. The fact is, the first instinct of anyone awarding a high-profile gig will be to choose proven commodities: names that audience members are familiar with, excited by, and motivated to buy tickets for. There is a powerful incentive for these curators to make that choice: it’s called earned revenue! Even though presenters operate in the artistic marketplace, they also operate in the commercial marketplace, and the commercial marketplace demands that one take advantage of star power.
But let’s say that in this particular case, a presenter has decided to take a chance on a chamber ensemble that is not so well-known – in fact, it’s the first gig they’ve ever had at this level. But are they really unknown? For that programming decision to happen, the work of those musicians has to be brought to the attention of whoever is doing the artistic programming for the presenter. I’m telling you right now that it didn’t happen because that person was reviewing unsolicited work samples that came in through the mail or over the internet. The tidal wave of submissions is in all likelihood so massive that they can’t possibly give their full attention to each one. So what do they do instead? They are probably plugged in to the next level down of presenting opportunities, and may get out and see shows on a regular basis. They monitor what their peers are saying in their local community and around the country about particular artists, keeping an ear out for those that are generating buzz. And it is on this basis – career momentum, essentially – that programming of “new” artists actually happens.
So for an unknown chamber ensemble to get a major opportunity like this, they have to already be generating buzz and getting smaller performance opportunities. Here’s where it gets tricky. Those smaller performance opportunities don’t really pay the bills. Maybe the musicians are self-presenting, and thus sees their income swallowed up in production costs. Maybe they’re doing a lot of unpaid gigs as favors just to get exposure. They might even be doing club shows where the payout at the end of the night is $50 per musician if they are lucky. That doesn’t go very far toward paying for instruments, practice space, or the van rental if they’re on tour.
And how did they get those smaller gigs anyway? It certainly helps if they had a killer demo – the kind that it takes money to record. It helps if they had a lot of time to practice together, which means they have a dedicated rehearsal space. These things cost money.
And finally, in all likelihood, those musicians paid a lot of money for conservatory training, at the bachelor’s and possibly the master’s level. And during that time when they were getting trained, they probably weren’t making money either.
So we’ve just outlined a number of problems standing in the way of an unknown artist or group of artists getting a gig that pays them enough money to live on.
- There’s the problem of profile: in order to get that gig, people have to already know who you are.
- The problem of curatorial capacity: in order for people to know who you are and to stand out from the crowd, you need some career momentum.
- The problem of presentation: in order to get that career momentum, you need public showings and documentation of your work which you have to either pay for or subsidize.
- And there’s the problem of uncompensated time: in order to get and make those presentation opportunities successful, you need to spend thousands of hours in training and practice, which are thousands of hours that you’re not earning a living.
Do you see where I’m going with this? This process of getting attention presents us with a HUGE class issue. Is it any mystery why our arts organizations have trouble connecting with less affluent members of society? It’s not because they can’t afford the tickets. It’s not because they can’t get to the venue easily. It’s not because the genre as a whole isn’t “relevant” to them. Okay, I lied – it is all of those things. But I don’t think any of them are the main reason. I think the main reason is because these less affluent populations don’t know anyone in their communities who is a professional artist with those organizations. Because how could you be, if you grew up poor and couldn’t afford conservatory training and weren’t given lessons in school and anyway now you have to work two jobs to put food on the table and feed the kids? We talk a lot about cultural equity in the arts, and we typically frame it in terms of audience access: who has the opportunity to see one of these amazing artists perform, or witness their creations? But as more and more of us turn to creative expression as a way of affirming our identities in an increasingly connected world, I think the most important cultural equity issue of our time isn’t who gets to see the amazing artist, it’s who gets to be the amazing artist.
I’ve almost reached the end of my time, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts about where to go from here.
One of the big problems with the current system is that, of all the “experts” we identified way back in the beginning of this talk, only a few of them can back up their opinions with more than token amounts of money. I gave you the example of a presenter earlier, and others, such as grantmakers and some artistic directors, share this privilege. But that leaves out most critics, booking agents, and radio station programmers. It leaves out superfans and aficionados. Doesn’t their opinion count too? Apparently not, if you follow the money.
What we need to do is pretty clear. First, because supply in the artistic marketplace is increasing so dramatically, we need to bolster the demand curve to meet it, by getting more people who really know their shit to evaluate unknown artists. This will address the problem of capacity. And second, we need to do a better job of making sure that people who know their shit can back their opinions up with money, so that those who succeed in the artistic marketplace can also succeed in the economy more generally.
In “Audiences at the Gate,” an article published in Edward Clapp’s 20UNDER40 anthology last year, Daniel Reid and I discuss a model that aims to accomplish both of these goals. We suggest that one or more foundations could funnel some of the money that they give to the arts each year through a community of citizen curators who interact with each other via a web-based platform. These citizen curators could be anyone, really, but their influence on the foundations’ decisions – and thus their ability to direct the flow of philanthropic capital – would depend on their ability to build a reputation among their colleagues for knowledgeable, fair, and thorough evaluations of artistic proposals and work samples uploaded to the site.
This approach increases the number of people participating on the demand side of the artistic marketplace, and it explicitly directs philanthropic subsidy into the hands of experts. And there’s a third advantage as well: by consolidating discussions about which artists to support into one place, the model transforms curation into a team effort, avoiding needless duplication and saving everyone precious time.
I’m sure there are other approaches that might work too. But I do fervently believe we need to do something. As it stands, because the artistic marketplace isn’t functional, less affluent individuals get shut out, and we don’t get a chance as a society to benefit from their talents or perspectives. Thus, the first goal of artistic subsidy—cool art that we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience—is not fully met.
But if you’ll recall, the second purpose of artistic subsidy is to give people access to the arts who wouldn’t normally have it. And we’ve just said that access isn’t just about experiencing art as an audience member, it’s about getting to be in the show as well.
So if we can someday reform the artistic marketplace, we’ll actually be serving both goals of artistic subsidy at once – not to mention addressing the most important cultural equity issue of our time. Not bad, right? Let’s just hope that our government funding survives until then.