Uncomfortable Thoughts: Is Public Art Worthy of Hate?

That’s the question asked by John Metcalfe in this silly-but-kind-of-not photojournal in The Atlantic Cities, The Atlantic magazine’s online urban planning spinoff. Metcalfe spends most of the piece rehashing a 13-year-old broadside by a group of Philadelphia artists against that city’s Mural Arts Program for the “amateurish” quality of its paintings. As it turns out, though, Philly’s famous murals have been attracting a fair share of local bile recently, with commentators questioning the city’s annual $1.5 million investment in the program relative to other priorities. (There’s an interesting comment thread attached to the article linked in the previous sentence that’s worth checking out as well.)

Characteristically, MAP founder and champion Jane Golden has fought back against the bad vibes, and frankly, $1.5 million $1 million a year in city money for a program that has now produced over 3000 murals and contributed considerably over time to Philly’s identity and reputation strikes me as a pretty ridiculous bargain. But rather than get too deeply into the merits of MAP here, I’m more interested in this broader notion of “bad” public art.

Mural by Jane Seymour (yes, that Jane Seymour) and Cathleen Hughes

A few years ago, I had this fantasy of starting an anonymous photoblog featuring user submissions of ugly public art. (I guess if I do it now, it won’t be so anonymous!) Think a Regretsy for public art – and judging by the number of my artist friends who are fans of that website on Facebook, I’m guessing there would be an audience for it. Because, let’s face it, not everything we do in this field is drop-dead amazing. And sometimes, the ravages of the elements can take their toll on outdoor artworks over time. In the worst cases, I do believe that public art can actually be (or become) a form of blight in its own right. Having a forum for people to call out the prime offenders encourages us to raise our game, or alternatively, invest in needed funds for maintenance and repair.

But more than that, I sometimes wish we wouldn’t take what we do so damn seriously all the time. Maybe this is coming from someone who’s spent too much time on Roadside America, but I think that by pretending that all artwork is sacred, we unwittingly make failure (acknowledged or not) unacceptable. Of course art is subjective, but that’s precisely the point. Maybe it’s okay to hate a specific piece of public art, if that’s one’s honest response. Maybe we should be encouraging honest responses. Especially to public art, which, unlike a bad performance, is still there the next day and, unlike bad museum or gallery art, is visible to you whether you want it to be or not.

Anyway, don’t worry, I’m not going to start that website. But no guarantees that someone else won’t – Huffington Post has already got us started down this road, and given the success of Regretsy it’s probably only a matter of time. Even if you hate this idea, you might not be able to escape it. Kind of like bad public art.

[UPDATE: in the comments, Philadelphia's Chief Cultural Officer Gary Steuer clarifies that the city's annual investment in MAP is closer to $1 million, not $1.5 million as has been widely reported.]

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Around the horn: Whitney Houston edition

MUSICAL CHAIRS

  • Americans for the Arts CEO Bob Lynch has been appointed to the US Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The advisory board “consists of up to 32 members that advise the Secretary of Commerce on government policies and programs that affect the U.S. travel and tourism industry, offers counsel on current and emerging issues, and provides a forum for discussing and proposing solutions to industry-related problems.”
  • Sarah Lutman, CEO of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which has made waves recently with some field-leading audience engagement initiatives, is stepping down at the end of the month.
  • Margit Rankin is the new director of Seattle’s Artist Trust.

GETTING HITCHED

  • In 2010, the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) took on back office services for the financially troubled Columbus Symphony Orchestra, building a shared services empire that already included several theaters and has since added Opera Columbus. Now, another Ohio city, Dayton, is taking the concept a step further: the three “SOB” organizations (symphony, opera, ballet) are merging into the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. The new organization is billing itself as a “first-in-the-nation” entity.
  • Two of Hollywood’s largest unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, are set to merge.
  • The city of Abu Dhabi is combining its culture and tourism entities into one agency.

GETTING ENGAGED

  • Check out this dialogue vehicle created by blogger and theater-maker Guy Yedwab. The second video is particularly interesting, as it combines audience responses to the Broadway show Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and an event designed to question the depiction of Andrew Jackson in the musical. So the video basically makes what was a one-way dialogue bidirectional.
  • Joe Patti ponders what it might look like to get arts organizations engaged in arts advocacy campaigns in a deeper way.
  • Wait – so Nina Simon’s a boxer too? Could this woman possibly get any cooler? (In seriousness, that’s a very wise post on audience engagement linked there.)

IN THE FIELD

  • The Wallace Foundation has made a $4 million mega-investment in arts education on behalf of the Boston public school system. The local education nonprofit EdVestors has been leading the fundraising charge for this initiative, a nice example of a non-arts organization recognizing the value of the arts.
  • Michael Kaiser sees dollar signs for American arts fundraisers in Europe and Asia.
  • Seemed like a nice idea at the time, but a number of artists are finding that the value proposition of streaming services like Spotify just isn’t there for them and are pulling their tracks from the service.

CONFERENCES AND TALKS

  • Rosetta Thurman has a great list of 10 national nonprofit conferences with registration fees under $500, and I was glad to see the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention on there. (I wouldn’t be that surprised to learn that these are all conferences she’s speaking at, by the way.)
  • Materials from last October’s 5th Annual World Arts Summit in Melbourne, Australia are now available online, including a summary report of the proceedings and full transcripts of the three-plus days of panels and keynotes – Rocco Landesman was one of the presenters. I’m often struck in reading about international arts policy gatherings how different the tone and content are from American conferences; they are generally more serious/academic and concerned with very different issues, particularly cultural preservation and globalization. Worth a skim if you have the time.

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Two book reviews: the NEA’s Sunil Iyengar has a nice analysis of Stanford professor Robert Flanagan’s new book on the economics of symphony orchestras, and Elizabeth Quaglieri takes on Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.
  • What makes a street beautiful? OpenPlans.org is trying to put some data to this question by asking website visitors to engage in a sort of HotOrNot-style comparison of images from Google Street View. Try it: it’s kind of addictive, and will also teach you a lot about your own urban aesthetics.
  • Have you ever been in a brainstorming session in which you’re told to “just get as many ideas out as you can,” withholding criticism of any of them? I was just in one of those earlier this month at the Yale School of Management Philanthropy Conference. And yet that same week, Jonah Lehrer had published a fascinating takedown of the brainstorming concept in the pages of the New Yorker. His piece is worth reading in full, but in a nutshell a number of studies of brainstorming effectiveness have concluded that it doesn’t really add value over and above people working alone – and that instead, creativity comes from just the right amount of clash and debate between people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Phil Buchanan, for one, says he’s seen the light.

BEYOND THE ARTS

  • Yikes! The International Humanities Center, a fiscal sponsor representing some 200 projects worldwide, imploded in scandal over the holidays, causing the evaporation of more than $1 million in donations intended mostly for grassroots activist activities. Some great investigative reporting by Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Rick Cohen in that article.
  • Ever wondered how many L3Cs there are in the United States? Turns out there are a little over 550; here’s a helpful breakdown and list by state.
  • I have to say, I cracked up at these nerdtastic economist Valentines by Elisabeth Fosslein, writing in response to the #FedValentines Twitter meme. Well done!
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Congratulations to the spring 2012 Createquity Writing Fellows

I’m proud to welcome our first-ever Createquity Writing Fellows from the West Coast: Kelly Dylla and Jackie Hasa. These two ladies will be holding forth with some frequency between now and July. Because I select a small number of writers at a time based primarily on ability, I sometimes get oddly poetic intersections in interests. In addition to their nearly-rhyming names, it turns out both Kelly and Jackie will be writing extensively about audience engagement while coming at it from significantly different perspectives. Below, you’ll find a fuller introduction to each. I can’t wait to share their writing with you.

I was first introduced to Kelly Dylla by none other than Laura Zucker, irrepressible leader of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and Createquity superfan, who sensed that we would be “simpatico.” She was right: Kelly is the co-founder of a great organization called Arts Enterprise that connects artists with business school students, something that I had wanted to do at business school but (as with many of my ideas) never got around to. These days, Kelly is a Los Angeles-based arts consultant specializing in community and audience engagement. From 2009- 2011 she led the Pacific Symphony’s audience engagement program to deepen and broaden audiences’ experiences with orchestral repertoire, a position funded in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In this role, Kelly initiated and produced a county-wide public art project and awareness campaign, OC Can You Play?, leading to over 80 community performances throughout Orange County via online crowdsourcing tools. Prior to her work as an arts consultant and administrator, Kelly was a teaching artist for major arts institutions including the Lincoln Center Institute and New York Philharmonic. A graduate of The Juilliard School with a master of music in viola performance, Kelly also holds a bachelor of music from Rice University and an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. She was awarded the Ross Innovation Award for co-founding Arts Enterprise in 2006.

Jackie Hasa brings to Createquity a deep background in the red-hot topic of games in the arts – specifically, street games. Jackie views the arts as holding the potential for both consumptive pleasure and empowering production, and is particularly interested in forms that allow audience members to become creators themselves.  She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she serves as Communications and Community Engagement Director for Come Out and Play San Francisco, an annual festival of street games.  Other projects include SFZero’s Journey to the End of the Night street game, which attracted 1,800 participants in 2011 to race across the city on Halloween, and the more recently formed Wanderers Union, a long-distance, non-competitive wandering club.  A generalist through and through, she has also worked in programming, publicity, and development for the San Francisco/Bay Area Emerging Arts ProfessionalsYerba Buena Center for theArts, and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and currently works at Harder+Company Community Research in business development.  In the future, she hopes to not only develop dynamic programs, but also work to strengthen the cultural institutions so necessary for their effective implementation and expansion.

Let’s give a warm welcome to Kelly and Jackie!

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Let us now praise Katherine Gressel

Many of you have probably noticed that this website’s most thoughtful and detailed writing over the past month has come not from me, but rather from Katherine Gressel, who wrapped up her official tenure as a Createquity Writing Fellow last week. I don’t even want to think about how many hours Katherine put into this effort, but I’m glad it’s paid off for her, because hers is now a household name among policy wonks in Australia. (See further explanation below.) I’m currently reviewing final applications for the spring 2012 Fellowship and will be announcing those decisions next week, but before we get there I want to take a moment to review and celebrate Katherine’s contributions over the past five months. As in the past, bold titles indicate a place as one of the 15 most-viewed blog posts ever on Createquity.

  • The new Brooklyn Philharmonic: a “Site-Specific” Orchestra? Katherine’s examination of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s bold season announcement placed the orchestra’s audience-centric programming within the tradition of “site-specific” visual art.
  • Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation is, by any measure, Katherine’s magnum opus for the blog (so far, anyway!). The value of public art has always been hard to pin down, but Katherine’s comprehensive treatment of the subject shows that emerging techniques may yet hold promise for this fiendishly difficult-to-measure phenomenon. On the strength of a pickup from ArtsJournal (only the third Createquity post to earn that honor) and quite a bit of incoming traffic from Australian Policy Online of all places, Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation is now the 5th-most-read Createquity article all time and the highest-trafficked guest post ever. Clocking in at over 5,000 words, it also gives lie to the myth that people don’t have the patience to read long posts.
  • Occupy and the Arts: Curating by Consensus in Lower Manhattan is the product of extensive firsthand research into the on-the-ground realities of Occupy Wall Street’s Arts and Culture Committee. The post also contains more pretty pictures than I’m liable to put up in three months, including some of Katherine’s own drawings, paintings, and photographs.
  • In Arts Policy Library: Investing in Creativity, Katherine takes an in-depth look at the study that launched Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) along with several other initiatives designed to support individual artists. Her much briefer wrap-up post provides the highlights in short form.

Katherine has indicated that she intends to continue writing here, so you can look forward to more from her in the coming months, including a follow-up to her massive public art evaluation treatise. In the meantime, let’s all give her a big hand!

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Investing in Creativity: The “Investing Less Time in Reading” Version

This is a shortened version of my Arts Policy Library article on Investing in Creativity.

Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists (2003), an Urban Institute publication authored by Maria-Rosario Jackson, Florence Kabwasa-Green, Daniel Swenson, Joaquin Herranz, Jr., Kadija Ferryman, Caron Atlas, Eric Wallner, and Carole Rosenstein, sheds light on the economic and employment situation of individual artists in the United States following the cessation of NEA funding to individual artists in 1995.  The report reflected several years of research, which included interviews with artists with arts leaders in nine cities, a national poll on attitudes towards artists, and expansion and analysis of a new NYFA Source database, in partnership with the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

Investing distinguishes itself by “providing a new and comprehensive framework for analysis and action, which views the support structure for artists in the United States as a system made up of six key dimensions of the environment in which an artist works:”

  1. Validation: The ascription of value to what artists do.
  2. Demand/markets: Society’s appetite for artists and what they do, and the markets that translate this appetite into financial compensation.
  3. Material supports: Access to the financial and physical resources artists need for their work: employment, insurance and similar benefits, awards, space, equipment, and materials.
  4. Training and professional development: Conventional and lifelong learning opportunities.
  5. Communities and networks: Inward connections to other artists and people in the cultural sector; outward connections to people not primarily in the cultural sector.
  6. Information: Data sources about artists and for artists.

This is a helpful framework for further research on artists’ conditions in any given region, and also marked a new understanding that it is not be enough to simply restore cuts to funding for artists.

Some especially salient findings and recommendations in the report are as follows:

  1. Individual artists are undervalued by society, in comparison to art itself. Artists’ societal contributions are not well understood, documented, or publicized—but if they were, it might be easier to make the case for allocating resources to individual artists.
  2. Individual artists feel overshadowed and neglected by large urban institutions, and are frequently left out of arts-based urban planning initiatives.
  3. There is a perceived inequality of opportunities for artists (such as exhibitions or awards programs) based on factors such as race/ethnicity, and art form.
  4. An artist’s career spans multiple markets and disciplines: this is especially important when assessing artists’ needs.
  5. Many artists face the economic uncertainties of irregular employment, lack of health insurance, and lack of affordable work or living space.
  6. Training in the practical side of working in the arts, and in specialized or hybrid fields like arts education/community work, is limited. Training should be expanded and diversified.
  7. Grants and awards need to be more accessible, equitable, and relevant for artists. An “information clearinghouse” with data on resources, and the capacity to support further research, would be helpful.
  8. Various arts organizations, arts councils, and artist networks are meeting some of these artists’ needs described above, but these organizations need strengthening.
  9. It is also important to cultivate stronger networks of people from both arts and non-arts fields advocating for artists’ needs.

Investing was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and supported by consortium of 37 other funders, some of whom were committed to acting upon the findings of the research. Therefore, the study is notable for having led directly to the development of several concrete initiatives to increase support for artists:

  1. A new NYFA Source online database allowing artists and other users to access customized, up-to-the-minute information on awards in all arts disciplines 24 hours a day
  2. The Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) initiative, a ten-year national initiative to improve the conditions for artists working in all disciplines. LINC funds, researches, and aggregates information about three core areas identified as key artist needs in the report: Creative Communities, Artist Space, and Health Insurance for Artists.
  3. Investing is also cited in the development of the United States Artists (USA) grant making program, which gives unrestricted $50,000 grants to artists in all disciplines.   

Investing in Creativity did raise several critical questions for me: first of all, whether it is problematic to build a case for increased support for individual artists so heavily on the idea that artists benefit society, when there was little research to back up this claim.  I also believe that Investing pinpoints many challenges in the employment system for artists, yet never suggests that an entirely new system is needed. Instead, the implication is that conditions for artists can be improved through better information-gathering, networking, and training.

Whether or not the fundamental situation for artists has changed significantly since this report’s publication, Investing at least paves the way for more dramatic changes by suggesting ways in which the existing nonprofit sector can be better equipped to meet artists’ needs.

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Arts Policy Library: Investing in Creativity

Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structures for U.S. Artists (2003), an Urban Institute publication authored by Maria-Rosario Jackson, Florence Kabwasa-Green, Daniel Swenson, Joaquin Herranz, Jr., Kadija Ferryman, Caron Atlas, Eric Wallner, and Carole Rosenstein, sheds light on the economic and employment situation of individual artists in the United States following the cessation of NEA funding to individual artists in 1995.  While not the first study on individual artists, it distinguishes itself by “providing a new and comprehensive framework for analysis and action, which views the support structure for artists in the United States as a system made up of six key dimensions of the environment in which an artist works.” Commissioned by the Ford Foundation and supported by consortium of 37 other funders, the study is notable for having led to the development of several concrete initiatives to increase support for artists, among them a comprehensive NYFA Source database and the Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) initiative.

SUMMARY

The report begins with the premise that artists bring value to society, but “the public often views the profession of ‘artist’ as not serious. The way artists earn a living may seem frivolous, and artists are often seen as indulging in their own passions and desires which bear no relation to the everyday experiences of most workers. This too contributes to a devaluing of the artist as a citizen with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.” Investing asserts that artists should receive the same consideration and benefits as any other professionals.

Background and Methodology

 Investing in Creativity reflects several years of research, including:

  • Case studies of artists in nine cities (the primary source of data), featuring interviews with more than 450 people. The cities–Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C–were selected based on their large populations of artists, as well as the interest shown in the study by funders in those cities.
  • A corresponding rural inquiry with two components: interviews with artists, arts administrators and funders operating in rural areas in California; and the convening of conferences of artists, arts administrators, funders and community leaders in rural areas in Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Maine, California, Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina.
  • Expansion and analysis of an of a comprehensive databaseNYFA Source – that provides national and local information on awards and services for artists, through a partnership with the New York Foundation of the Arts.
  • A national poll of attitudes toward artists in the United States as well as site-specific polls in case study cities. This poll addressed additional issues related to demand for what artists do and how they are valued (or not) in our society.
  • Advisory meetings with artists, leaders in diverse sectors of the arts, and researchers. The study authors attended various conferences and professional meetings for artists, vetted preliminary research findings at conferences, and continually investigated research in related areas.

Investing considers geographic location the primary framework in which to assess the supports available to artists –i.e., what is available in the artist’s local community.  Recognizing that the cultural sector “doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” parts of the study also examine the arts in non-“arts” settings. For the purposes of the study, “artists were defined as “adults who have received training in an artistic discipline/tradition, define themselves professionally as artists, and attempt to derive income from work in which they use their expert artistic vocational skills in visual, literary, performing, and media arts.”

Key Findings

One of the most important conclusions of Investing was that simply restoring cuts to government funding would not be enough to improve artists’ overall conditions. Instead, the research identified six core elements of an artist’s support structures:

  1. Validation: The ascription of value to what artists do.
  2. Demand/markets: Society’s appetite for artists and what they do, and the markets that translate this appetite into financial compensation.
  3. Material supports: Access to the financial and physical resources artists need for their work: employment, insurance and similar benefits, awards, space, equipment, and materials.
  4. Training and professional development: Conventional and lifelong learning opportunities.
  5. Communities and networks: Inward connections to other artists and people in the cultural sector; outward connections to people not primarily in the cultural sector.
  6. Information: Data sources about artists and for artists.

Investing in Creativity is broken into chapters on each of the six elements, each one describing in detail past research, current conditions, and future recommendations for each area. Rather than summarize each section individually, I will present what I see as the most salient themes in the overall findings:

Individual artists are undervalued by society, in comparison to art itself: while 96% of Americans value art in their communities and lives, only 27% value artists. This statistic is cited constantly in subsequent articles referencing this report.

Individual artists feel overshadowed and neglected by large urban institutions. Even institutions meant to serve local communities may not offer sufficient presenting or employment opportunities for local contemporary artists. Furthermore, “a general observation in all…cities was that on many fronts New York City sets the standards for critical review,” sometimes at the expense of developing a “local artistic heritage.”  The authors urge the cultivation of stronger regional support systems.

Individual artists are frequently left out of arts-based urban planning initiatives (which tend to emphasize “large institutions and the traditional artist-audience relationship”): “Our review of city and cultural plans revealed that they tend to focus on the physical infrastructure of presentation venues –often to the neglect of artists’ contributions and needs.”

Artists’ societal contributions are not well understood, documented, or publicized, partly because of the inability of busy arts administrators to engage in reflective practice around this topic.  Investing makes frequent mention of “the various ways in which artists contribute to society – as community leaders, organizers, activists, and catalysts for change, as well as creators of images, films, books, poems, songs, and dances” but acknowledges a lack of substantive data to back up these claims.   Investing implies that if artists’ social and economic contributions were better understood and documented, it would be easier to make the case for supporting individual artists in various areas—for example, why artists need affordable workspace space as much as other low-income or “at risk” populations.

There is a perceived inequality of opportunities for artists (such as exhibitions or awards programs) based on factors such as race/ethnicity, and art form. For example, “several artists of color felt that large organizations seek them out only during designated times – such as Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo,” and folk artists and artists working in new media/technologies felt that mainstream galleries do not have structures in place for exhibiting their work. The study comments that “demographic, artistic, and career-stage diversity are not well served through mainstream awards, arts criticism, and media coverage.”

An artist’s career spans multiple markets and disciplines: “Artists do their work – sometimes simultaneously, sometimes over the course of their careers – in and across various parts of the arts and other sectors.” The report compares artists’ experiences across the nonprofit, commercial, public, and informal arts sectors. For example, the nonprofit sector is more conducive to risk-taking than the public or commercial sector. The sectors also interact; for example, artists may pursue more lucrative commercial work to support their more experimental nonprofit work.  Furthermore, many artists contribute to non-arts fields like health and education, but this so-called “hybrid” work often goes unnoticed and lacks clear evaluation criteria.  

Networks are extremely important in artists’ career advancement and support. Networks are, in fact, key to obtaining almost every type of resource in the six categories. While peers and “intermediaries” such as agents were most often mentioned by interview participants, partners outside the arts community are also essential arts advocates (such as anthropologists who ascribe value to immigrant artists’ work, or local sheriffs supporting artist-in-prisons programs). Partnerships with professionals in fields like real estate development or city planning can be especially valuable to artists, since artists usually lack the knowledge and skills to advocate for themselves in those arenas.

Many artists face the economic uncertainties of irregular employment.  Some of the report’s findings on artists’ employment and material supports—that artists make little income from their creative work, juggle multiple part-time jobs to support themselves, and lack decent health insurance coverage in relation to the national average—are no surprise.  Access to affordable work and living space is one of the major struggles. Contrary to popular belief, however, there is “little evidence that artists get a ‘thrill’ from risk-taking, or that they underestimate the extremely long odds of winning the jackpot of commercial success.” Rather, “artists feel an inner drive or calling to become and remain working artists, whatever challenges they may face.”

Grants and awards need to be more accessible, equitable, and relevant for artists. The report’s section on funding aggregates data on the different types of competitive awards offered specifically to individual artists, through a partnership with the New York Foundation of the Arts’ Visual Artists Information Hotline (which was to become NYFA Source). This section contains the most comprehensive quantitative data, as summarized in the tables below:

As seen in the above charts, this analysis identified clear discrepancies in awards available to artists; for example, “the small number of awards available to artists making work that does not neatly fit into categories based primarily on Western European standards is a problem.” Awards are also unevenly distributed according to artistic discipline and geographic region.

Many artists choose not to participate in the awards process, citing the difficulty of applying, the unlikely chance of winning, or the feeling of exclusion.

Training in the practical side of working in the arts, and in specialized or hybrid fields like arts education/community work, is limited in traditional universities. Training for artists should not be limited to artistic skills alone, but should encompass business skills and specialized skills for the “hybrid” sector. Especially notable is the fact that “unlike programs in law, medicine, and business, arts training institutions often do little job-matching and placement of their graduates.”

Various arts organizations, arts councils, and artist networks are meeting some of these artists’ needs described above, but these organizations need strengthening. In each of the six categories, the report cites some examples, in different cities, of helpful organizations and resources. However, programs that serve individual artists’ needs are vulnerable to funding cuts. Furthermore, sometimes organizations offer professional development for artists outside the scope of their regular programming, in a way that is not sustainable.

Investing in Creativity concludes with several “priorities for action”:

  • Encourage better public understanding of who artists are, what they do, and how they contribute to society. This involves moving beyond an “art for art’s sake” argument for individual artist support.
  • Strengthen artist-focused organizations that are already addressing the critical functions and deficiencies the study has identified.
  • Establish broad-based networks of stakeholders at national, regional and local levels and convene those who are already working to improve artists’ support structures.
  • Create an information clearinghouse that brings together existing research and data and can capture new information. Partner with university departments and policy research organizations doing similar research in all the fields identified as important.
  • Strengthen the capacity of artists to advocate on their own behalf for the many crucial aspects of their support structure.
  • Cultivate existing and potential diverse markets for what artists do and make—especially hybrid markets.
  • Encourage changes in artists’ training and professional development to better address the realities of the markets in which they operate.
  • Strengthen the awards and grants system by making the application process less cumbersome and more responsive to different artists’ needs.

The report ends on a hopeful tone, suggesting that its findings will “help to illuminate the condition of artists as well as promote the creation of a more comprehensive and robust environment making possible their contributions to society.”

 

ANALYSIS

Investing in Creativity provides a comprehensive summary of previous research on artists, new findings, and current gaps in our knowledge. It also suggests new ways to approach researching individual artists. Investing is thorough because of its research not only on what artists think, but on how artists are perceived by others. Because it was a multi-city study, encompassing not just diverse urban communities but rural regions, Investing has the capacity to highlight similarities and distinctions between different regions, and identify nationwide trends.  As I will discuss shortly, Investing also led to the development of some concrete initiatives to help artists.

Despite these strengths, one of my main critiques of Investing is its failure to provide more detail on how the research was carried out. For example, while the report describes “fieldwork through more than 450 extended interviews with artists, arts administrators, arts funders, critics and media representatives, and selected persons outside the cultural sector, and in 17 focus group discussions around the country,” it does not provide any information on the selection of these groups. Similarly, the report lacks detail on how the national poll on attitudes about artists was distributed, and who actually filled it out (and whether the respondents can be considered a representative sample). At the least, appendices in the report showing the poll and focus group questions would have been helpful.  Instead, the figures and charts from NYFA Source data are the most comprehensive quantitative information provided.

The framework for understanding and meeting artists’ needs is arguably the most helpful result of this study, as well as its emphasis on the overlapping spheres in which artists function. For example, recognizing that artists may work in more than one arts (or non-arts) sector is the first step for training artists in more viable career paths, or for building the types of services and networks that are appropriate for artists’ varied careers. The framework itself can be used in any geographic region in the future, to assess ability to attract and retain artists, and to identify opportunities for improvement.

The suggested action steps for arts organizations in the report are rather general, though the authors claim that they are not aiming to make a comprehensive set of recommendations. As I will explore in the “Implications” section, most of these suggestions have to do with strengthening access to opportunities for artists through better networking, cross-sector partnerships, information-sharing, and training, rather than radically altering the system of artist funding and employment.

The report was designed for its findings to be disseminated and funneled into concrete actions through continued partnerships with the funders and arts leaders in the different geographic regions of study. In this respect, it was remarkably successful, perhaps one of the most successful arts research initiatives in history. Three outcomes in particular—the expansion of the NYFA Source artist opportunities database from the New York Foundation for the Arts; the creation of the ten-year grantmaking and research initiative Leveraging Investments in Creativity; and the birth of the United States Artists grantmaking program—show a study whose impacts are still being felt long after its original publication.

Expansion of NYFA Source

According to NYFA’s website, NYFA Source originated as a phone service, the Visual Artist Information Hotline, founded in 1990. When this hotline caught the attention of the Urban Institute in 2000 during its research for Investing, UI collaborated with Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Arts Management and Technology to create the new NYFA Source online database. According to the NYFA Source website:

The new database was conceived with several new features in mind. First, it was expanded to include programs serving artists working in all disciplines. Second, it was built as an online database allowing artists and other users to access customized, up-to-the-minute information 24 hours a day. And finally, it was built to enable funders and researchers to acquire information about patterns and trends in artists’ support…Today, NYFA continues to research and update information in NYFA Source…Additionally, as part of NYFA Source’s ongoing development, UI will regularly produce analytical reports about the patterns of support represented in the database. These reports will enable the arts field to monitor trends over time.

NYFA.org, which includes NYFA Source, is an essential resource for artists and organizations today, with information about more than 8,000 opportunities and resources available to artists in all disciplines. NYFA.org, much more than just an online awards database, is now functioning as what the report’s authors might consider an “information clearinghouse” convening a “broad based network of stakeholders.” As its website suggests, NYFA Source is also used for research purposes, to allow the continued monitoring of opportunities available to artists. According to Investing’s  principal investigator Maria-Rosario Jackson, the Urban Institute did a follow-up assessment of NYFA Source in 2009, which verified its continued suitability for research.

Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC)

Investing led directly to the creation of Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC), a ten-year national initiative to improve the conditions for artists working in all disciplines. LINC funds, researches, and aggregates information about three core areas identified as key artist needs in the report: Creative Communities, Artist Space, and Health Insurance for Artists.  According to Jackson, many of Investing’s 30+ funders, in particular the Ford Foundation, were committed in advance to “doing something about the results of this study,” though they left this open, based on what the study would reveal.

Reports/findings published since Investing, available on LINC’s website, illuminate examples of Investing’s recommendations put into practice. Most notably, the 2010 publication “14 Stories” summarizes the impact of LINC’s Creative Communities program in fourteen different cities.  The programs, run by local arts nonprofits usually in partnership with non-arts agencies, are all providing a broad range of services for artists, strengthening training, networking, and material support opportunities.

One example is Cleveland’s CPAC – the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. In a region striving to retain a vibrant artist community in the face of economic depression and unemployment, CPAC used its $190,000 LINC grant to found Artrepreneur, which sought to “treat artists like entrepreneurs.” In partnership with COSE, the Council of Small Enterprises, Artrepreneur morphed into the COSE Arts Network.  “Over the course of three years, nearly 500 artists have either joined COSE outright or been reclassified as artists within the existing membership.”  In exchange for annual dues, COSE helps artists access things like discounted health insurance, business and marketing workshops, and networking events.

LINC also conducts periodic research in target areas. One main area is health care; in 2009 LINC commissioned Helicon Collaborative to design and conduct an online survey of artists, administered through 40 different artist service organizations across the United States. Another study was conducted in 2010, forecasting the potential impact of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) on artists. Both studies also incorporated general data on artists’ employment. The findings in this report imply that artists’ overall insurance and work conditions have not changed substantially since Investing’s publication in 2003.  For example, “artists who earn from 21%-80% of their income from their artwork are those most likely to earn under $20,000 a year…and are likely to have inadequate health care.” The report goes on to describe changes that could occur under PPACA and the crucial role of arts service organizations in equipping artists with information and assistance.

Whether or not artists’ conditions have fundamentally changed as a result of LINC’s work, it is commendable that Investing resulted in a structure for continually updating research in core areas, especially as new federal policies have arisen. Unfortunately, LINC’s 10-year run is slated to end in 2013, so this banner will need to be taken up by someone else if it is to continue beyond next year.

United States Artists Grants

Investing in Creativity highlighted the importance of large, unrestricted grants: “Many respondents told of the life-changing impact of a large fellowship and, more generally, of the relief from constant fund raising that a large grant provides…As well as remarking on the value of large grants, many respondents made the related point that they value grants of long duration, because they provide some relief from the uncertainty of having to continually piece together a living. Specifically, respondents indicated that they want multi-year funding.” This particular element of Investing is cited in the development of the United States Artists (USA) grant making program, which gives unrestricted $50,000 grants to artists in all disciplines.

IMPLICATIONS

Despite the commendable efforts and increased awareness that resulted this study, the report itself raised a few important questions for me:

Is it problematic to build a case for increased research and support for individual artists so heavily on the idea that artists benefit society? 

Investing claims at its outset to be more focused on “artists’ contributions to society” than previous studies (and makes the broad recommendation that such contributions need to be better understood), but the report doesn’t offer many ideas for how to conduct such research—most of its statements about artists’ contributions seem to be assumptions or generalizations. The study is much stronger in its analysis of the working conditions, material supports and training available to artists.  Though the purpose of Investing was not to develop a methodology for studying artists’ societal impact, is it dangerous to put so much emphasis on investing resources in an area that may not be easily researchable? There is a sort of chicken or egg dilemma in this report: the researchers seem to be relying on the “value of artists to society” argument to justify putting time and money into researching how to serve artists better—including researching the very question of why artists should be valued.

As an example: the chapter about artist space states, “In response to the question of why artists should get special treatment [around affordable space] when others are dealing with similar issues, for example, the case often rests on the assertion that artists are somehow special and intrinsically valuable to a community. This entitlement argument does not resonate particularly well with city planners when there is no hard evidence to back it up.” The report goes on to say,

The social impact argument that artists contribute to various aspects of community improvement such as social capital and civic engagement, crime prevention, youth development, and education is potentially the most persuasive to people who are already stakeholders in a community or potential stakeholders.  But it cannot be made very strongly as yet because the contributions of artists are not well documented but rest largely on anecdotal evidence.

While the report does not offer any specific formulas for how to measure the contributions of artists, it suggests ways that the public can interact with and understand artists better, such as arts education and open studio programs.

I agree with the authors’ assessment that artists make important contributions to communities and deserve to be valued and treated as productive citizens. But I would also worry about this type of argument resulting in a bias toward supporting artists whose work has more obvious “functional” benefits, i.e. artists who teach youth, or create projects that generate a lot of tourism revenue in obvious ways.

To what extent does the report advocate for a radical overhaul of the current system?

Investing in Creativity pinpoints many challenges in the employment system for artists, yet never suggests that an entirely new system is needed. Instead, the implication is that conditions for artists can be improved through better information-gathering, networking, and training.  But should we still only be “training” artists on how to get by in an employment system that is fundamentally flawed?

Investing mentions, in passing, some past government programs that provided more stable artists’ employment. For example, many older artists interviewed for this study lamented the end of the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) of the 1970s. CETA opened up many new employment opportunities, even though “it was not an explicit arts-directed program.” I found myself wishing for more discussion of how CETA operated, and whether the United States government could institute something similar today, perhaps even a discussion of the WPA programs for artists of the Great Depression.  Investing does not seem to call for a major shift in federal policy toward artists; instead it is primarily focused on strengthening local communities.

Arguably, the advent of social media, crowdfunding, and other recent, market-driven technological developments have had more impact on the way artists do their work than the policy-driven interventions coming out of this study. The report could not have anticipated the widespread use of social media platforms among artists in the years following 2003, but at least it highlighted the importance of online information resources like NYFA Source.

Another recurring theme in the report is that while there are some good awards and service organizations available to artists (for example, Creative Capital in NYC, CellSpace in San Francisco), they are not distributed proportionately to the number of artists in need. Even if artists were better trained in accessing resources, would there be enough to go around?   For example, if the award application process were made even more accessible to artists across the board, would this just mean that more artists would apply and competition would be even steeper?

I was especially intrigued by the question, posed briefly by the report, of how artists can be better trained for sustainable employment, i.e. through university-level programs in more specialized fields like community arts—and how organizations can tailor mutually beneficial jobs towards artists. Some of the report’s most compelling personal accounts are from artists whose  “day jobs” (even those completely unrelated to the arts) are actually favorable to their creative development.  For example, teaching jobs where school administrations encourage integrating art into the classroom. Other artists find inspiration for their artwork’s content in mundane service industry jobs. This “day job” discussion has interesting implications for the field: for example, what if arts organizations designed more staff positions for artists that allow them to both work steadily in a teaching or administrative capacity, and receive things like health benefits and workspace in exchange? Should all artists be trained in more lucrative professions that can be done side by side with their artistic work? Beyond a limited number of unrestricted grantmaking initiatives, could there be other programs that pay artists to do creative studio work without a tangible end product?

Based on my own observations of artists, and current debates around artists as a creative labor force (for example, those raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement), it seems like the fundamental situation for artists has not changed significantly since this report’s publication—artists still face issues like underemployment, lack of affordable space, and the burden of grantwriting to support their non-commercial work. Nevertheless, Investing at least paves the way for more dramatic changes by suggesting ways in which the existing nonprofit sector can be better equipped to meet artists’ needs.

 

Further reading:

  1. LINC’s recommended research reports
  2. Maria-Rosario Jackson, Revisiting Selected Themes from the “Investing in Creativity” Study, The Urban Institute, 2009
  3. NEA Cultural Workforce forum, Friday, November 20, 2009 (which featured Jackson as a presenter)
  4. NYFA’s website contains up-to-date information about NYFA Source, as well as other listings helpful to artists, and recent articles about the business side of the arts that are helpful to all types of individual artists.
  5. Createquity, On the Arts and Sustainability
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Around the horn: Anyone but Mitt edition

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT – DOMESTIC

  • A professor’s quest to overturn a portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that placed certain foreign works back under copyright after they had already entered the public domain appears to have reached an end.
  • The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is thinking about trying out social impact bonds.
  • Looks like there were some shenanigans behind the construction of the High Line, NYC’s well-known elevated park. Reminiscent of James Gray’s The Yards, if anyone saw that movie.

ART AND THE GOVERNMENT – INTERNATIONAL

ALL ABOUT PHILANTHROPY

  • GiveWell details how charity regulations in various countries make donating to top-rated international charities more difficult than it should be.
  • The Craigslist Foundation is shutting down.
  • Most foundation leaders have trouble converting evaluation results into “meaningful insights.”

IN THE FIELD

  • More on Opera Boston’s sudden demise late last year.
  • Bye bye Detroit Children’s Museum.
  • Yikes! longtime conductor, author, and inspirational TED talker Benjamin Zander was let go by the New England Conservatory this month over a cover-up involving a videographer who was a convicted sex offender, as NEC clearly wanted no part of any Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky redux.
  • LA Opera joins those trying out the dynamic pricing route.
  • Interesting new curator time share model being pioneered by the Detroit Institute of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
  • When the IRS dumped hundreds of thousands of organizations from the nonprofit rolls last year, people hardly batted an eye – mostly because they assumed those organizations (who had failed to file required forms for three years in a row) were either no longer active or not accomplishing any good if they were. Yet my cultural asset mapping work has suggested that at least some of those organizations who had their tax-exempt status stripped were real and continuing to provide public programs. Thomas A. Kelley provides one such example in this account of an African American community center that is fighting to get its nonprofit status back.
  • Jerome Weeks notes the difficulty that Dallas-area arts organizations are having with recruiting top leadership talent, and correctly follows the breadcrumbs to the lack of attractive opportunities for earlier-stage arts professionals:

    Jose Bowen says one reason the pickings remain thin is that the starting jobs for arts management graduates generally don’t pay well. And the punishing costs of college don’t help, either. Bowen is dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. It’s one of the few that offers a double master’s degree in arts management – in the arts and business administration.

    Bowen: “Our students graduate and are immediately faced with a choice. Come work for Goldman and make more money or go work for a nonprofit and make less money. And when you have loans, right out of school? That’s a hard choice to make.”

    It’s really very simple, people. If senior leaders with demonstrated records of accomplishment don’t want the job, it’s time to consider either senior leaders without demonstrated records of accomplishment, or junior leaders who haven’t had a chance to demonstrate accomplishment yet. If arts professionals below the leadership ranks are never given an opportunity to take initiative, manage people, or own projects in their roles, they’re never going to be in a position to fill those positions effectively, after the person who did so for so long is gone. And that’s assuming they stick around on low salaries waiting for their big break. Something to think about.

BIG IDEAS

  • I’ve been wondering for a while about the effect on the bottom line that election season must have for struggling traditional media companies – especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Well, Dave Copeland takes that thought further and notes how well-positioned online audience gatekeepers – such as Google – are to benefit from campaign ads.
  • ArtsJournal hosted one of its blog debates last week called Lead or Follow, featuring Diane Ragsdale, Michael Kaiser, and others.  Doug McLennan continues to experiment with the form of these fora, and though I don’t think he’s quite nailed the perfect formula yet, the process is fascinating to watch. As background to this conversation, the Wallace Foundation published 54 stories of audience engagement arising from its Wallace Excellence Awards grant program from the previous decade, as well as four more in-depth case studies on its own site.
  • Is your brain constantly bloated because it’s trying to take in too much information? Maybe you should go on an information diet! Beth Kanter reviews what looks to be an important book for folks like me who are constantly trying to drink from the fire hose.

RESEARCH CORNER

  • Add a feather to Randy Cohen’s cap: the Americans for the Arts researcher’s National Arts Index project has inspired an imitator across the pond, the UK Arts Index. (h/t Mark Robinson)
  • Kickstarter is out with its annual project stats. Kickstarter projects attracted nearly $100 million in pledges in 2011! Also of note, the number of high-volume donors (people who contribute to hundreds of projects a year and presumably seek them out as a kind of hobby) is growing.
  • Nonprofit Finance Fund is conducting its fourth annual survey of nonprofits, analyzing how they are responding to and recovering from the financial crisis. The survey is anonymous and takes 10-15 minutes to fill out, and they’re looking for as many respondents as possible. They are taking responses through February 15 and you can participate here.
  • Look out, American Red Cross! GiveWell is on the warpath to get you to release your evaluation of your own organization’s relief efforts in Haiti.

ETC.

  • We haven’t had any silly links in Around the Horn for a while. Well, that’s about to change
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Occupy and the Arts: Curating by Consensus in Lower Manhattan

In late September 2011, I started following Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) Arts and Culture committee with the goal of understanding, and critiquing, its organizational structures for a Createquity article. However, I soon found that the same way the movement as a whole resists neatly following one set of demands (though its anti-corporate greed and income disparity message has always been clear), its Arts and Culture activities resist falling into one organizational model—or at least the systems are constantly evolving. This is especially the case now, well into the movement’s post-physical occupation phase. At first I thought this might present barriers to participation for artists, or to arts administrators and curators seeking to donate their organizational skills. Yet I eventually came to believe this looseness could be one of the Arts & Culture movement’s strengths—or at the very least, it has opened up a fertile space for debate about an alternative, “Occupied Art World.”

An early sign in Zuccotti Park, September 2011

The early days: Occupation as Art and “Curating by Consensus”

The OWS movement’s inception resulted from a poster call to action by the alternative media organization Adbusters, and as many other writers have noted, arts and culture were nearly inseparable from the core actions of the movement as the encampment at Zuccotti Park grew. Early on, critics like Martha Schwendener in the Village Voice were quick to describe the park occupation itself as “a kind of art object: a living installation or social sculpture,” blurring the lines between art and life. Richard Kim in The Nation described in detail the symbiotic relationship of an Arts and Culture (A&C) working group to various life-sustaining activities in a “culture rich” Liberty Plaza during the occupation’s heyday. A&C subgroups like the Puppetry Guild added a critical visible dimension to rallies and marches, including bringing OWS to the Halloween Parade. Powerful graphic images have helped spread OWS’s message over the social media airwaves.

A Facebook post by the OWS-sympathetic arts nonprofit Creative Time in late-September first brought me (and a group of other intrigued artists/curators) down to Zuccotti Park for an organized discussion about how outside artists can get involved in the movement.  This was my first introduction to the now-famous “people’s mic,” as all members of an expanding group echoed and amplified each individual participant’s brainstorms for art actions, then finally tried to reach consensus about a name for a unique art happening (at the time, the group settled on “Occupennial,” with its tone of art world satire). At this meeting, I recognized that truly joining and understanding this movement would take patience—but at the same time, there was something very liberating about this group of both established artists and curators and unknown recent college graduates where no one revealed their job title, tried assert their superiority, or asked for anyone else’s credentials.

The weeks that followed certainly brought some growing pains of what I initially perceived to be a “curating by consensus” model for art production. At another early outdoor meeting of the “Occupennial” committee, new passersby kept joining the circle and re-raising questions such as whether established “art world” professionals should be actively recruited for OWS art shows (see more on this in Art Fag City).  Group participants questioned whether there was even a need for the group to exist, making any type of planning difficult. This early tension over whether arts and culture should be treated separately from other movement-oriented activity later reappeared in a more recent Nation article: “a certain suspicion regarding art as a specialized realm is encoded into the DNA of OWS.”  Ultimately, rather than put on its own art event, Occupennial instead evolved into Occupy with Art, an online clearinghouse for all OWS-related art activities that also helps organize select occupation-sympathetic projects.

All official OWS groups resist hierarchical leadership in favor of the consensus-based, “horizontal” decision-making model of the NYC General Assembly (GA) (for more detail on this, see Hyperallergic’s October 20 post explaining the A&C meeting process). I have attended meetings where artists’ ideas were blocked by only a few group members, or discussed for over an hour with no agreement. Early on, I also found myself wondering if OWS could provide a viable model for the arts—or if it was in fact hampering artistic freedom and artistic quality.

Occupying Artistic Practice

However, when I decided to participate in the movement as an independent artist while the park occupation was still going strong, I found the opposite to be true. While there is a proposal vetting process within OWS for artists seeking financial and volunteer support for their projects, individual artists and artist groups do not need to go before A&C at all in order to do their own projects that align with the movement. I went to Zuccotti Park on several occasions to create plein-air drawings and paintings, before and during the November 15 park eviction. I was surprised and pleased to find myself welcomed, both by the then-occupiers of the park, and members of A&C. The latter “curated” some of the paintings first into an exhibition at Printed Matter, then into a printed book about the occupation, and shared them widely via social media, bringing the type of instant visibility and relevance that is rarely found these days in more established arts circles.

Storefront Installation of OWS art at Printed Matter

Hyperallergic published an essay by another Zuccotti occupation live painter, Karen Kaapcke, who wrote:

My work has changed — I am not quite sure how yet. I always paint from life, but the pre-verbal need to document something so important has brought me closer to what it might mean to be a painter. The other day, I sat in my studio thinking about “visual meaning,” about how to paint something essential. I knew this thought came from learning and responding to Occupy Wall Street.

Whatever its organizational strengths and shortfalls may be, the movement is full of similar stories from individual artists, as well as arts managers and curators, who have expanded both their visibility and artistic practice through the movement. James Rose, another painter who has been to many A&C group meetings and events and made numerous charcoal drawings of the park, explained, “Though I never realized it at the time, when I fist moved to New York City, I was always painting the 99%–i.e., ordinary people on subways. With OWS, I have a platform to stand on, a network.  People take my work seriously. Before that, there was an invisible wall I couldn’t get through. OWS knocked that wall down. It clarified how to get my voice out there…I don’t know of many arts nonprofits that are making headlines every day.”

For others, participation perhaps has more to do with uniting art with collectivism and political engagement. At a November discussion panel, recent college graduate and active A&C member Imani Brown said of first joining the group: “The atmosphere of openness and community was immediately apparent and incredibly addictive.” Another artist participant states: “The process doesn’t lend itself well to art production. It’s more like a process of examining our underlying social values.  Focusing on the important questions [raised by the movement] opens up a space of freedom—i.e., to focus on political process, a formerly marginalized space of discourse.”

Rachel Schragis, "The Declaration of the Occupation of NYC" created for the Occupy Wall Street movement

Some artists have created work in direct partnership with OWS’s General Assembly; Rachel Schragis’s Declaration of the Occupation of NYC, now one of the most iconic images of the movement, was formulated through weeks of consensus-building– a laborious process that some artists might consider stifling to their creativity. But for artists like Schragis interested in collaborative or socially-relevant practice, OWS provides opportunities to explore new territory. This has been a space indeed ripe for artistic experimentation, maybe because there are no “rules” yet for what makes a quality “occupation” art project, or who should have the power to decide.

Painted overlooking Zuccotti Park on the day of the eviction, November 15, 2011

A Post-Occupation Art Occupation

In these post-Zuccotti days, the A&C group, like the rest of the movement, is in flux, and it continues to resist the structures of a traditional arts nonprofit. Regular meetings still occur at 60 Wall Street, of the main A&C group and constantly multiplying affinity groups. A&C was offered office space from the supportive arts blog Hyperallergic back in November, and, from what I last heard, is still determining how best to utilize it. A&C still organizes centralized actions and supports sympathetic movements (such as an upcoming Occupy Town Squares event), and numerous museums and other nonprofits are seeking to archive, present, and discourse with OWS art. Yet according to several members, the official A&C group serves more as a networking body through which new artists introduce proposals and get acquainted with the movement. Most concrete actions are now being carried out by the much smaller affinity groups and guilds, which have more consistent membership.

Some of the most recent projects seem to reinforce questions facing the movement as a whole: whether or not a physical occupation is needed for continued momentum, whether clear demands are needed, and the extent to which the movement should focus its energies on things like national politics, or courting organized labor (as Occupy with Art blogger Ismael Hossein Zadeh suggests).

To quote critic and curator Nato Thompson on the “dysfunction” of the general assembly structure, “At this point it is known that if anyone wants to get anything done, they should just do it and skip the basic organizing meetings. Or join one of the smaller groups…Without that coalescing together, the movement loses its uniqueness and historic specificity. With the loss of the squares, the movement runs the risk of becoming what it once was: A thousand different causes organizing on their issues and only remotely coming into contact with each other.”

Are the artistic activities of OWS evolving into disconnected, mainly symbolic individual efforts, albeit sympathetic and perhaps helpful to a wide range of related issues?  Certain direct art actions have continued to focus on Zuccotti—for example, a January 14 event that adapted Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project to the park and included a two-minute “die in” of people simultaneously laying still on the cold ground.  This event and others have continued to draw well-known artists and press coverage. But the crowd that came to Zuccotti for the Ono event was relatively small, certainly in comparison to those of the massive marches of the early movement. At the same time, there are efforts to form stronger ties between the different arts and culture activities in NYC and those in other cities: a recent “InterOccupy Arts” arts and culture conference call involving leaders of different groups, a “Wall Street to Main Street” event bringing OWS-related art to storefronts in Catskill, NY, and various internet-based projects.

"Die-in" at Zuccotti Park, January 14, 2012

Occupying Arts Policy

One place where the OWS arts and culture movement seems not to have lost momentum is in its critique of the art world. In the first days after the eviction, at a November 19 “Occupy Wall Street: Imagining the Future” presentation/discussion at Third Ward, Imani Brown described the group’s new mission as both “actual art-making for the movement” and “actual change within the art world” which has also “been extremely corrupted.”

Martha Schwendener was one of the earliest to pick up on the fact that OWS could also be an opportunity to re-invigorate a critique of arts institutions that was long ago co-opted by those very institutions—and to create highly visible and relevant art in a completely alternative space:

The critiques offered by the OWS General Assembly overlap heavily with the art world: corporate domination of museums; art-school debt; a 1 percent system (less, really) of funding and canonization. The ’70s and ’80s saw an accelerated process of art being absorbed into institutions, and artists tried to resist it. But Institutional Critique, as it came to be called, only reinforced the fact that “liberal” institutions can absorb just about anything, including “critique.”

As shown by the testimonies of individual artists, working outside the structures of the mainstream art world could in itself be a form of institutional critique, or at least a liberating process.

So what implications, if any, do these disparate actions, working groups, and critiques have for the larger arts field?

Some obvious questions have been asked by the sometimes controversial  “Occupy Museums” group (whose targets include the Museum of Natural History, Lincoln Center, and the labor union-unfriendly Sotheby’s in addition to visual art museums) and the Arts & Labor group: for example, whether large arts institutions should be admonished based on the concentration of “1%” robber barons on their boards. A December Occupy Museums protest at Lincoln Center calling attention to major donors Bloomberg LLP and Tea Party sympathizer David Koch drew sympathetic speeches from musicians Lou Reed, Phillip Glass, and Laurie Anderson. A recent January 13 occupation and General Assembly meeting at the Museum of Modern Art’s Target First Friday free public hours questioned the ethics of MoMA board members serving simultaneously on Sotheby’s board, and of corporations sponsoring free museum admission.

Arts & Labor is also pointing out the hard truths that a myriad of well-meaning artist service organizations haven’t really been able to address. Says Arts & Labor member Erin Sickler in an Art21 interview, “I have visited hundreds of artists’ studios and heard about their often-precarious economic situations. I have seen art writers, administrators, and other curators struggle to stay afloat on measly salaries with no benefits or health care. Arts & Labor is trying to break the silence around these issues…seeking to build broader solidarity with workers in other creative fields as well as other workers.”

These groups do come close to making some concrete demands: for example, after the MoMA occupation, a letter was circulated to MoMA staff offering to donate the large banner unveiled in the protest to its permanent collection, in exchange for an end to the lockout of Sotheby’s art handlers union, and for honoring the request that “Target Free Fridays” are never publicized by MoMA without citing the Artist Workers Coalition whose protests led to free museum days in the early 1970′s.  I have not seen as many ideas for a complete overhaul of the current economic system, a system that includes steep museum admission fees, unpaid internships, and largely un-unionized art workers.

Amid these debates about high art school debt and low or nonexistent salaries, artists, curators, and administrators alike continue to donate countless hours to OWS, sometimes at the expense of steady income. Unlike the unpaid internships in arts nonprofits, for most of these people, OWS doesn’t seem to be a resume builder—some remain anonymous by choice, not wanting future employers to learn of their political activism. Artists, including myself, tend to go un-credited for their work in OWS exhibitions and publications, and almost always un-compensated.

To me, this is testament to the unique intrinsic benefits artists have gained from participating in the movement. Maybe it has to do with the other important components of artistic support artists get from Occupy—a massive social network, mass exposure and instant validation, copious donated art supplies and labor–which may not be possible in traditional arts institutions steeped in competitive application processes for limited space, funding and exhibition spots, not to mention the administrative burden of foundation and government funding and old modes of art criticism and curating. A heavily-involved A&C and Occupy With Art committee member also recently reminded me of the fact that 501(c)(3) organizations are sometimes uncomfortable with endorsing political activism.   As the movement itself becomes increasingly disconnected from its once highly visible public square, it will merit watching whether OWS still offers artists the same type of exposure and community, and whether the lines between art and activism continue to blur to the same extent.

Art history is replete with examples of “alternative spaces” and alternative models, but is this something new altogether: something bigger, farther-reaching, and possible only in an age of social media, DIY digital expression and crowdsourced fundraising? Can this new grassroots movement sustain itself, or will it simply get absorbed into larger institutions’ political art archives?  Four months after it first formed, a sizable group is still working around the clock to answer the above questions, and still making art in the process.  Much like the original occupiers at Zuccotti Park, they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

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Cool jobs of the month

Connectivity Director, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Basic Job Function: Ignite the “explosive engagement” between theatre artists and the community that powers Woolly’s mission statement—by working to expand the Woolly family, deepen the audience experience in our theatre, and link our productions to the civic discourse that happens every day in the nation’s capital.

Specific Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Identify local stakeholders, institutions, and events that may resonate with each individual play
  • Facilitate discussions between artists, staff, Board, and audience members to develop a shared vision for:
    • An “entry point” for each play (“What is the conversation this play wants to have with our audience and community?”)
    • A “designed audience” for each play (“Who needs to be in the audience to bring energy and meaning to that conversation?”)
    • A “total audience experience” for each play (“What can we do to accent, extend, and deepen the experience of each audience member?”)

No deadline provided.

Freelance Writer, The Art Newspaper

The Art Newspaper is looking for a experienced arts news journalist, based in New York City, to contribute—on a contract freelance basis—to our art market and news pages and website, as well as analysis/special focuses.

We are looking for an arts news journalist with an established track record to contribute approximately 3,000 words each month to the paper and website, following agreed commissions and deadlines. As this is a freelance post, you will be free to work from your own home/office and arrange your own hours, but you will be expected to attend editorial meetings in our New York office at least twice a month.

Deadline: tomorrow! January 23, 2012.

Internship, Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts

As a program of Americans for the Arts, Animating Democracy brings national visibility to arts for change work. By demonstrating the public value of creative work that contributes to social change and fostering synergy across arts and other fields and sectors, we work to make the arts an integral and effective part of solutions to the challenges of communities and toward ensuring a healthy democracy.

Animating Democracy is seeking motivated individuals to work on an array of projects related to our IMPACT and Arts & Social Change Mapping Initiatives. Through research, communications, and outreach focused on driving database development, resource cultivation, and program promotion, interns will expand their knowledge of the field while contributing ideas and content that supports the Animating Democracy mission.

Positions are available immediately for winter/spring as well as summer and fall 2012 for qualified individuals.  Most do not require working in the Americans for the Arts office and can be arranged as virtual internships.  A modest stipend is offered.

No deadline provided.

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Writing Fellowship Deadline EXTENDED to 11:59pm tonight

After a couple of requests, I’m extending the Createquity Writing Fellowship deadline by 12 hours. If you were thinking about it but thought you missed your chance, now’s your shot! Full application information and instructions here.

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