The Career Myth

As was the express goal in certain feminist circles of the significance of placing women in higher status among administrative personnel, publicly and privately, and the same with persons of color, it should be seen that such gains towards greater inclusion have yet to move the balance of power or the dominion that male whites and their corporate agendas still prominently retain.  What can also be attested is the degree to which those women and their minority counterparts who achieve higher positions give in or are forced to become complicit with the dominant order. Breaking the glass ceiling by select individuals does nothing for those who do not seek status within the order but rather seek permanent change and more secure welfare for all from the bottom up. Nevertheless, careerism, particularly among educators is promoted as the primary route for anyone seeking any form of social change, for themselves or as representative of a group. Having prominent names appear on a resume is the key to every step of success. Position is equivalent to economic status is equivalent to public visibility is equivalent to leverage. The problem is that those in power rarely cede status to anyone without promise of conformity. (1.) Under the institutionalization and corporatization of western business and the laws of capitalism demand that competition either be subsumed or destroyed – subsequently, just as independent businesses are hijacked or absorbed by corporate interests, independent careers fade more quickly than they appear.  

Yet, careerism remains the de facto motivation for anyone with a talent who wishes to enter into the arts. Where once it was rather clear that being an artist was more of a vocation than a means of support, freshmen students entering art school are solicited with the very idea of achieving a well-paid well-recognized career. All that is required is to compete at every opportunity… never mind having just entered into a lifetime of debt for their tuition (2.)  Four years and three additional loans later the prospective artist receives a certificate, a diploma, signed by someone they’ve never met, and a title to add to their resume; B.F.A., signaling the start of their ‘career’. Well, almost. You see, as tens of thousands of aspiring artists graduate with a bachelor degree in Fine Arts every year its value decreases and alone rarely if ever opens doors or qualifies by itself as a career resume. Even to teach art as a part-time, minimum wage adjunct requires a master’s degree at the very least and previous teaching experience in addition to that. Further career strategies at this point are limited.

The cost of art requires an underlying investment that doesn’t simply appear from a singular talent or from thin air. To begin, a workplace or studio must be maintained, preferably in or near a high-rent metropolitan area close to a viable art market with supportive institutions and active art community. (The alternative here is to be labeled an ‘outsider’, a ‘regionalist’ or ‘folk artist’.) Tools and materials must be readily obtainable. Work hours must be critically optimized, not only for production but for the various grants and solicitations that need be applied for and extended. If an artist’s family cannot provide support, then a secondary income must be found that doesn’t compete profoundly with the requirements of an art career, such as working for an art institution, teaching art at a lower level, or working with a socially acceptable non-profit organization that allows for a variable schedule or from home. Budgeting time and income will be critical, especially since hundreds of other career-seeking artists will be in active competition for the very same opportunities.

The other option, and the most common, will be continuing education for two more years, and two more loans with the goal of an M.F.A. degree to add to the resume and open the possibility of finding a teaching position. It’s a step upwards, but once again, not uncommon. A master’s program offered at a State-run public institution is easier to qualify for and generally less expensive, though a Masters in Fine Arts from a dedicated art school or Ivy League school is far more prestigious, but also the most competitive and arguably the most expensive.  An M.F.A. degree from Yale ($45,700. /yr.) or Rhode Island School of Design ($57,726. /yr.), for instance, will certainly make an artist competitive in the college teaching profession. While that doesn’t necessarily qualify as a full professorship, it’s a foot in the door, an income with perks – and the ability to begin paying school loans without having to fear bankruptcy. The tradeoff here however is committing oneself to be a career educator rather than an independent artist.

There’s another problem with the choice of teaching art to supplement income and support a working studio; it’s a problem inherent to the teaching profession as a whole. That is one of the value and relevancy of recycled knowledge. It’s fair to say that anyone having spent six years of their formative years as a student will have only limited experience with the current condition on the subject outside of academia. Moreover, that person on becoming a teacher will be more likely to repeat information that they received from their teachers along with their own choice of career alternatives as advice to their students, without critical inquiry or relevant information, who will then become teachers in a never-ending cycle, the alternatives being realistically few and far between. It must also be mentioned that with the rapid growth of M.F.A. programs in colleges and universities in the last several decades and the numbers of M.F.A graduates comes both its devaluation as a noteworthy achievement and loss of competitive edge. Never mind, currently one can apply for yet another level of academic and career status; The Doctorate of Fine Arts; a D.F.A. (3.)

A less expensive career strategy that doesn’t incur endless debt is to secure an income that would help support one’s vocation as well as oneself by sacrificing leisure time; in essence, keeping two careers, one supporting the other. Again, budgeting time and expenditures is critical – and in both cases in direct competition with those who can afford to focus solely on one or the other and maintain a normal life and potentially a family. For women who choose this path invariably means the decision to forego having children. (It must also be noted that much talk of career goals in the arts rarely if ever addresses the basic long-term essentials and rarely if ever speaks of the requirements for health care, disability and retirement programs offered under normal employment.) For those who choose both having a job as well as an art career the possibilities for employment depends on additional skills one can cite that apply to a given position. For those with a degree in studio arts, finding employment at an arts institution such as a museum or arts foundation is ideal, however, most clerical and research positions are generally given to people with degrees in art history, museum studies and arts management. Otherwise, the options are limited to part-time and minimum-wage support staff such as maintenance, security guard, front desk or shop clerk. Being an artist, or having an art degree is rarely considered a skill despite one’s level of education.

Whereas once an artist gained esteem for the level of independence and individuality they had achieved, conformity and complicity are now standard procedure for a successful art career:

Conforming to the belief that a successful career is measured in marketing and public recognition.

Conforming to career values as held by educators and educational institutions that promote their corporate interests.

Conforming to and advancing the model of entrepreneurial values and prerogatives.

Conforming to a public view of art and the status of artists as given by unqualified “experts”.

Complicit in tacitly participating with and advancing narratives, programs and motives that routinely exploit artists’ labor for profit and gain in exchange for vague benefits.

Complicit with the broad view that western culture is a universal given and that non-metropolitan, regional and local culture is somehow of less or limited value.

Complicit with the view that art is a competitive activity.

Complicit with the Institutional and corporatized management of culture and cultural artifacts and as such is the prime beneficiary of ‘support for the arts’.

Complicit in the marginalization, stratification and compartmentalizing of artists in groups such as; ‘emerging artists’, ‘women artists’, ‘artists of color’, ‘indigenous’, etc  

Complicit in the tacit acknowledgment that artist’s welfare is contingent on select prizes, awards, charitable and philanthropic gestures.

Complicit in the exploitation of properties and gentrification of long-standing neighborhood community cultures.

1. agreement

2. Women hold an average of $31,276 in student debt not including interest or penalties, leaving them with a monthly loan payment of $307 the year, or 8.5 plus years after graduation for the principal only.

3. of Fine Arts


Against Extravagant Monumentalism, Art Spectacle and the Cult of Billionaires.

“Billionaires shouldn’t exist.” – Bernie Sanders

Until the 1960’s a painter generally might attempt three or four wall-sized paintings in their lifetime and the limits for a large sculpture were roughly the length of Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” or height of his “Balzac”; the sculptor David Smith’s oeuvre comes to mind. And it wasn’t simple modesty on the part of artists that kept the dimensions of artwork from becoming grossly inflated, it was an economic practicality. Unless a patron came forward with the funds to commission a large work prior to its creation most artists simply couldn’t afford the cost of materials, storage and handling.

Since then, however, and particularly at present there appears to be no limit to the space that the average artwork is entitled to consume. Promoted largely by museums, biennales and art fairs in search of greater spectacle and record-breaking attendance numbers from the public, monumentalism in art has taken on the aspect and funding of a minor NASA space project.

Who pays for such ostentation? Answer; you the public in the increased cost of individual ticket sales and attendance fees, in the corporatization of art institutions towards a culture that both reflects and promotes the lifestyle that only a 100 acre estate with a 50 room mansion full of expensive artwork could support, tax laws that favor wealthy collectors and corporations with prominent board members who “donate” to large short-term vanity projects in return for advertisement, and the same laws that permit the same large corporate-driven intuitions to operate tax-free under a “non-profit” umbrella while still largely supporting a record profit-making art market with your tax dollars.

Who are the artists who gain from large museum-size works? The list grows every year after every new exhibition season from a pool of cherry-picked artist celebrities with “factories” of low-paid or volunteer “helpers” and the ability to hedge the costs of large projects towards a return in profit for anyone willing to underwrite their fabrication, insurance fees, installation and ultimate storage or wasteful demolition – and certainly not the average artist living on a less-than-average budget filing the allowed tax loss on the sales against their self-employed business every two or three years.

How to reign this absurd trend and put a final end to it? As the bulk of these incursions on public property can safely be categorized as oversize art-school assignments it might also be safe to conclude that the ‘bigger is better’ phenomenon can and should be abolished as a standard in art school curriculum as frankly, unsustainable, not only in environmental terms, but as the cost in materials, space, and individual manpower is far beyond the scope that all but the wealthiest or wealthiest-connected artists could ever afford economically. As publicly-funded billboards for the moneyed-class in an urban environment that otherwise regulates the size and placement of visual and traffic obstructive commercial promotions, such ‘art in public places’ should be included. And, just as a border wall or the redundant Civil-war general on a pedestal in the public square is seen to be both obsolete and more often offensive, so are many of the monstrosities currently replacing those.



“If only we could make this kind of short and extremely simple argument for art. I value art because its existence has had more positive impact than negative in our world. I value art because it helps guide us through life. I value art just cuz. Of course this would all be easier if artists were seen more as working people than wizards who dwell in the mystical.” –  Victoria Ward [1]

…To begin with, it is simply absurd to speak of the ‘art-world’ as though it represents a common truth about anything primary to the production of art. Apart from a world of images that artists depict, it’s a catch-all term coined during the 1960’s to account for the rapid growing number of personalities who began prospering and making news in various arts-related businesses. In other segments of the economy the equivalent is better known as an industry, such as ‘the music industry’ or ‘the fashion industry’.  Those personalities included art collectors, art dealers, art critics, philanthropists, art historians, art professors, museum curators, and museum directors, as well as the select artists with whom they were connected. So, to infer that any current problem within the art industry is unique to an isolated segment of the industry, such as ” it’s all about the art market”, “it’s all about the state of art criticism”…”the incorporation of culture by institutions”, “the power of the collector class”, “the relevance of arts education”, “gender and race”, “politics”,” technology”, “the artist as celebrity entrepreneur”, etc. is mostly a failure to recognize where this trail of misleading priorities begins.  Art is not generated by the art-world, nor does art engender itself from nature to be extracted like a plant or mineral resource, or is it there to be colonized like a newly discovered continent. Artists make art and the idea that someone is said to be an artist is in no way contingent to the myths and vicissitudes of the “art-world”.

What does that mean “to be an artist “? Does it mean that he or she is a rebel of sorts, unsuited for any other occupation? No. Does it mean that the person has some exceptional talent that will insure their success? No. Does it mean that an artist is a person who is given wider parameters with which to seek their own terms of success?  No. Does it mean that the potential artist, like any other career or occupation-seeking individual might possibly also contribute something significant to the growth of a long-term viable example of his or her native community? Perhaps.

What the notion of being an artist does mean is, that unless someone decides they will be ‘self-taught’ or that they have other means of supporting their hobby, they will begin like everyone else training for their chosen career at a college, university, or private institution. And they will most likely enter into a legal contract that places them first and foremost deeply into financial debt. [2]  After completion of a BFA, MFA, or PhD. providing they can afford it or secure additional loans, they will begin to look for work to pay those loans. [3]  While they were training to become artists the student artist will have been given skills and techniques that would supposedly prepare them to earn a living and begin repaying the debt they incurred. On rare occasions the art student might have encountered a solitary course of study on the business of art or how best to approach the art industry. More often, and more informally, the typical art student will be exposed to the language of art academia also known as ‘art speak’ (or International Art English ) [4] the common language of critiques and subsequent self-promotion and grant writing.  It should be noted that those from whom the student receives advice on the business of art or the vagaries of the market for art are mostly professional academics with little expert knowledge of business or market economics. What the artist student will never have received is the suggestion that they may have entered a fool’s errand – that they will spend [5] more money in the course of their career as an artist than they could ever hope to earn. Nevertheless art students are encouraged daily to continue to invest in this false assumption not to theirs but to the benefit of art galleries, art dealers, art consultants, arts administrators, arts non-profits organizations, art therapists, arts publications and the whole gamut of arts-related businesses and non-profits, there ostensibly to assist artists, however, dependent on the cheapest labor [6] infinitely and unquestioningly provided by artists.

The entire art-world economy hinges radically on this thought; only those artists who sacrifice themselves to their work within the premise of the evolving tenets of western modernism and without promise of material gain can ever hope to attain the posterity of a place on a wall of a museum or in art history books. The making of art is, as we’ve been told, “a priesthood” (it doesn’t occur to anyone that a priest is fed, has a roof over his head, and collect baskets of money every Sunday…). We are led to believe that the making of true art cannot be predicated on the promise of any return value except at which point (the artist is likely deceased) the artwork is assigned a market value by someone other than the artist based on comparative aesthetic and cultural considerations by yet another non-artist. One may argue that this systematically prevents artists from inflating their own worth, and, in fact, it does. Any discussion of the value of art invariably leads either to the unbelievable dollar amount recently paid for a painting at auction (giving the impression that it is the artist who profits) – or to the social benefits of having art in public places, arts in education, or as some manner of economic stimulus to the community – all at the behest of philanthropists, non-profits, educators and wealthy donors  – while artists are left to pointing fingers amongst themselves about which of them has sold out and who is playing the system.

“As defined by Adam Smith, the laws of supply and demand are still a basic framework for understanding how the economic system works. According to Smith’s explanation there is no “supply” of artworks. Looked at from the perspective of this simplified lesson in economics we can see a possible explanation for the peculiar state of the contemporary art world today: The impossible-to-value artwork becomes the object of impossible value.”
–Nicolaus Schafhausen, director/Direktor Kunsthalle Wien [7]

But the valuation of artworks isn’t an abstraction despite its limitless supply. There are accumulated man-hours to be accounted for. There are resources that must be acquired and renewed when they become depleted. There are acquired skill sets, the cost of materials, rental space for manufacture and storage, delivery, those categories that in any normal professional activity would be seen as overhead but as an artist’s responsibility is somehow unaccounted for.

“(Imagine the immediate financial consequences [8] if, even for just one month, no artist purchased art supplies, read online art blog or cultural journals, visited museums, paid fees for lectures or workshops, fabricated somebody’s project, installed a museum exhibition, handled a shipment of paintings, taught an adjunct art class, or even mentioned the word “art.”)” – Gregory Sholette

Of course we’re assuming that the typical artist is only committed to their art and if that doesn’t provide the income to cover costs, what does?  There are grants to be had, but in all but a few cases that requires that the artist has already acquired a history of success as determined by likes of the very institutions that are providing those grants – or, by the galleries which in turn looks to the institutions those artist are applying for grants from as a factor in choosing their stable of artists.

To receive a grant it helps to be connected to a college or university or private school in more ways than one. But now we are back to the original source of the problem. With a degree or two in hand the debt-ridden art student has limited alternatives (1) to provide an income for themselves (2) to provide for the continuation of their work (3) to repay the debt.  The obvious choices are to begin teaching art as a part-time adjunct professor – a dismal prospect [9] –  or to find work to which he or she is qualified in an arts-related field, bearing in mind that most of those positions will pay little more than a volunteer receives working for a non-profit organization.

That so many art professors and those with arts-related incomes aren’t always aware of the stark realities of a life devoted strictly to the artist profession isn’t their fault – they’re teachers and their curriculums focus on the tools, materials and theory of art, not economics.  As Educators, artist academics generally declare teaching as their occupation and primary source of income and often file their art-related expenditures as in income loss or deduction to the IRS. Their academic standing and eligibility for tenure requires that they continue to make art and exhibit as often as possible and that counts as an occupational expense. A full-time artist may deduct similar expenses as a small-business owner but is limited to how often he or she can file at a loss and still qualify as a small business. (I don’t have the numbers and I don’t know if they’ve ever been compiled but my hunch is that the vast majority of art shown in commercial galleries is by artist/educators. While that may not be significant in itself it does give a hint towards the dwindling numbers of artists who are not somehow dependent on colleges and universities to fund their creative work.)

Looking at the larger picture we see that modern culture (and to some extent the complete history of western culture) proposes an unspoken dichotomy as it pertains to artists; art is either an occupation that produces goods and services for which the artist receives nominal compensation as with other workers in other occupations, or,  that art is the singular byproduct of independent individuals for which compensation could be viewed as a liability to its veracity and the independent nature from which it manifests – the accidental or naive genius on the verge of discovery. Art is either a career or a vocation, it cannot be both:

“The seamless screen of bohemian oratory maintained by artists of the New York School in the 1950’s masked the fact that with them originated today’s model of art as a career to be manufactured, in opposition to the older model of it as a vocation to be followed.” Bradford R. Collins, “Life Magazine and The Abstract Expressionists”- The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 2, Jun., 1991, p. 295.

But like all false dichotomies the premises are misleading; before artists began visibly signing their work art wasn’t a ‘calling’ or a ‘vocation’ where acolytes willingly enter a life of bare necessity in search of some abstract accomplishment. It was a trade, a craft, a career, a means of livelihood, work for which one negotiated somewhat standard compensation depending on their proven skill. But that leaves a serious problem when it comes to distinguishing ‘art’ from mere production. The solution: to inflate the value of art to the degree it becomes more important economically and socially than the artists who produce it. Whether art is defined as an object or an act, the primary foundation on which to establish art as a commodity, a business, or an institution is precisely to devalue the artist practitioner in favor of both blanket social theory and the precious object of posterity. What purpose this false dichotomy serves today is to mask the real source of a multibillion dollar industry while endlessly mythologizing [10] its own noble aims.

As with those who once argued the value of sugar and cotton to the southern economy, the very production of which could not exist without the benefit of slave labor, the purpose this dichotomy serves between art as industry and art as social meditation is to force any dialogue about the value of art and culture from fact to supposition, from substance to speculation; literally. Perhaps the true value of art is no more than the value of honest and equitable labor, tenacity and qualified skill of artists?  At this present day and age what thought could be more radical, more truthful, more inspiring?










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A SHORT HISTORY OF ART, or “The Research Assignment I Never Wrote For AH101” – Bill Roseberry May, 2017

Perhaps the closest archetype for the labyrinth of rooms in an art museum with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, or art gallery secluded among so many shops in the commercial district are the ancient tombs of kings, queens, their courtiers and wealthy merchants filled with loot. And perhaps the only thing missing in the modern art museum or gallery is a dead body or two. It’s too bad, frankly, that there won’t be anything here for future forensic scientists to examine for the cause of death.

As I sat at the first highly informative lecture (in a series of lectures scheduled to accompany the latest art exhibit, “Now More Than Ever”(, at The Washington Project for the Arts (WPADC) in Washington, D.C.) entitled, “Jeffrey B. Perry on the Invention of the White Race“, and wondering what the connection was with the subject of the lecture to the context of an art exhibit, I realized … the art gallery itself is the complete fabrication of a upwardly mobile elite. The history of western art is the history of colonialism and gentrification. They are identical even today despite the facade of ‘globalist’ intentions.

Though admittedly the current exhibit is distinctly more proletariat than that which is commonly found in the museum or commercial art gallery it retains a similarly functional format: objects and images with tacit messages displayed ostensibly with a common theme in an obligatory bare room with bare floors and white walls. (Also admittedly, the two things that do distinguish the art gallery from the vision of a king’s tomb are the explanatory brochures and the replacement of torches for an artificial lighting system – not to mention the high-tech security supplemented by low-paid guards who unsurprisingly enough also appear predominantly non-white.)

Until Europeans (Romans) began codifying and appraising the plunder they obtained from colonizing the rest of the world by force and to sell to one another on the market art was a practice – not a ‘thing’. Prior to that there was nothing known or described by anyone as an ‘art object’.

art (n.)  early 13c., “skill as a result of learning or practice,” from Old French art (10c.), from Latin artem (nominative ars) “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft, “*ar(ə)-ti- (source also of Sanskrit rtih “manner, mode;” Greek artizein “to prepare”), suffixed form of root *ar- “to fit together.” 

Certain objects had either a religious or a combination of semi-religious and cultural value and significance. That’s about it -besides maybe someone getting compensated for the cost of materials and hours fabricating the thing for someone else. And there was no ‘artist’ as we know except possibly for someone who could be said to have a high degree of skill or experience – very few objects of aesthetic significance were ever ‘signed’ by anyone. No resumes, no CV’s, just word of mouth and a perhaps a shop sign and membership in a Guild. A work of ‘art’ was a demonstration of skill and imagination, again, a verb, not an object.

A person blessed with an art or creative proclivity built boats, constructed buildings, made weavings and tapestries, sang poetry, delivered babies, mixed potions, and performed rituals among other things. Occasionally someone constructed the likeness of an animal or a god or a goddess, a demon or a dead person; more likely an image of a ruler vanquishing the army of another, or of the after-life, to be seen by the court, for commemorating an event, for a wealthy merchant’s villa, or placed in or about to guard the vanquishing ruler’s tomb.

As European expansion began its full swing, so too the forceful appropriation of precious minerals, plants and animals, and slaves and various curiosities as gifts for the King’s pleasure. Among those curiosities a small number, among countless numbers of cultural artifacts that weren’t deemed overtly “pagan” and destroyed or melted down for their weight in gold and silver, managed to survive in various collections including that of the Royal Court.  Still, it wasn’t ‘art’, far from it, and more as an example of the depravity of ‘uncivilized’ or ‘un-Christian’ activity. Even today no one has yet decided whether these objects of ‘ethnic’ non-white culture can be definitively viewed as ‘art’ or ‘artifacts’.

The Greeks invented art around 1000 BC after the death of Alexander the Great and then it disappeared again sometime after the 121st Olympiad (296-293 BC). We know this because Pliny the Elder (AD 23-AD 79) says so,”Cessavit deinde ars” “then art disappeared”.

“In the days of our ancestors, it was these that were to be seen in their halls, and not statues made by foreign artists, or works in bronze or marble: portraits modelled in wax were arranged, each in its separate niche, to be always in readiness to accompany the funeral processions of the family; occasions on which every member of the family that had ever existed was always present. The pedigree, too, of the individual was traced in lines upon each of these colored portraits. Their muniment rooms, too, were filled with archives and memoirs, stating what each had done when holding the magistracy. On the outside, again, of their houses, and around the thresholds of their doors, were placed other statues of those mighty spirits, in the spoils of the enemy there affixed, memorials which a purchaser even was not allowed to displace—so that the very house continued to triumph even after it had changed its master. A powerful stimulus to emulation this, when the walls each day reproached an unwarlike owner for having thus intruded upon the triumphs of another!”  – Pliny the Elder, The Natural History  c. 77

‘Cave art’ was fluke and wasn’t discovered until well after Pliny’s death and cannot be associated with anything as vulgar as graffiti – even though the Greeks and Romans did their fair share of that, too.

Hence Europeans spent the next twenty odd centuries looking for the art Pliny said was lost in 300 BC. Simply put, if it didn’t conform to “The Golden Mean” proportionally, if it didn’t extol the virtues (not the vices) of the Gods of Mount Olympus (Jesus and Moses were beside the point), if it wasn’t framed like an elaborate gold olive wreath to invoke the greatness of Alexander (and the flamboyance of King Midas), or if it wasn’t placed trophy-like on a marble or velvet covered pedestal or a velvet covered wall mausoleum-style, it couldn’t possibly be Art.  Of course, lighting was a problem back then. Tombs weren’t meant to be lit but we’ve solved that with spotlight to make the work look like it was never lost but now manifests itself supernaturally as if on a beam from Olympus.

Then one day in August 1792 art that had been lost since Pliny discovered it missing suddenly reappeared. Louis XVI of France was imprisoned and the royal collection in the Louvre became national property by decree of The National Assembly of the Revolution. The museum opened on 10 August 1793, the first anniversary of the monarchy’s demise. The public was given free access on three days per week. The collection showcased 537 paintings and 184 objects of art. Art now officially belonged to the masses. That also meant that the masses now had a collection of loot to rival any king or wealthy slave-owning merchant in the world.

The Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture whose home had now been inundated with common sightseers was not deterred. Like The Royal Academy of Arts in London, it was they who had the final word on what was art and what wasn’t. Membership to the Academy was limited by internal vote and then only when a vacancy happened to occur. The Academy “ensured that a ‘royal style’ was enforced which in practice meant a classical style”.  They also approved or rejected entry to various “salons” or exhibitions.

Of course that didn’t go over too well with the increasing numbers of artists who flocked to Paris and London seeking a medal or a title that would subsequently insure sales and commissions. Like today’s artists they revolted. To placate the unrest Napoleon III instituted the “Salon des Refusés” in 1863, thereby preceding the “Salon des Indépendants” “sans jury ni récompense” (without jury nor reward) in 1884, the “Salon du Champ de Mars” in 1890, and the “Salon d’Automne” in 1903, and countless other salons each with a manifesto or an official axe to grind. “We are the painters of the wealthy. We work for the mansions in the district of the parc Monceau. We paint society women and we make them princesses. You can ask us to create even the most mysterious images in compliance with today’s fashions. Come see us and you will find us settled in real palaces. Our studios are the salles des fêtes.“, wrote the organizers of Salon du Champ de Mars, the Société des Artistes Français.

And thus began the incursion of commercial concerns into what constitutes art that was once purely the prerogative of royalty.

Booksellers and book publishers were also quick to capitalize on this newest fashion of the nouveau-riche to collect art as royalty did and fill their salons with self-styled courtiers. They hired the most expertise printers and underwrote artist’s editions of prints that could be sold at a moderate price. They offered select artists stipends or advances on their monthly or yearly production, the best of which they would select for themselves. They created rooms at the front of their establishment for the display of the paintings and sculptures   they had obtained from artists to sell at profit and advertised the event via notices and articles that were published in newspapers and magazines by writers they also had on their payroll. These were not unlike today’s independent galleries or artist cooperatives or ‘art spaces’, but they did serve wine and cheese sometimes accompanied with musical entertainment; as well as being noted for THE place to be seen and to socialize among the spoils of a newly-liberated class of merchants and intellectuals. They were businessmen for writers, artists, and intellectuals. They kept stacks of paintings among the shelves of books which they would selectively show to well-known collectors only that valued their advice. The term ‘gallerist’ would eventually evolve to a similar class of merchants who only dealt with art.

As royalty lost its status (if not appeal) to a wealthier merchant class, their collections of art and ethnic collections of unclassified curiosities hoarded over centuries of colonial rule and courtly commissions gave rise to more and more public museums with surrounding gardens and fountains reminiscent of those at Versailles where the King had moved after abandoning his royal quarters at the Louvre. Encouraged by incentives for a tax write-off as a non-profit establishment, private collections of art were transformed into museums and opened to the public (if only on a limited basis, as a paid member or for a fee.)  “Professional curators didn’t exist in the 19th century; in fact, it was this issue of overcrowding that led to the creation of the job in the early 20th century.” (1)  … along with a host of other salaried professional art-related job titles and board members. Art became not only an institution, but a growing business in the corporate manner. Art by today’s estimates generated an estimated $45 billion in global market sales in 2016 with prices of old master paintings up 13% from 2015. That’s a lot of art objects acquired at nowhere near the cost of production. (2)

Soon every city and every neighborhood in every large city in the world was to have their own obligatory art museum and art galleries, art fairs, spring salon, and state and municipal art councils.

Ultimately, any definition of art is not determined by rules of aesthetics, or according to social and cultural relevance, or by artists, or by public opinion (“I know art when I see it.”)  – but by those who collect art, by those who manage art collections and by those whose job it is to speculate on the financial value of art objects, and more importantly by the commercial advantages of a tacit message conveyed by the art object in a controlled context.

But not to worry… somewhere in a rented garage just beyond the art museum and the recently gentrified gallery district is someone wrestling with the definition of art for himself, or herself, or like another James Hampton who isn’t so much concerned about making Art as much as laying the groundwork or digging through the leftovers from another kind of culture to create and preserve his own; the artist who isn’t making art as we know it, who doesn’t have a resume or a CV, an MFA or a BFA,  who doesn’t know any curators or collectors, art directors or gallery owners, art historians or art critics because all of those people are only standing in front of or distracting his or her vision.


James Hampton  ‘The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly’ 1950-1964.



“… like any juried or selection process, there’s people who can be perceived as winners and people who can be perceived as losers.”

So says the executive director of a prominent D.C. non-profit arts organization in a recent article in The Washington City Paper.

He’s right. There simply aren’t enough public-sponsored venues and exhibit halls for every artist who wants to be seen. And it would be a losing battle even if D.C. didn’t have the number of federally-funded arts institutions it has, all competing for the share of attendance and visibility local arts non-profits might otherwise expect. The MD and VA suburbs are bursting  – and as is the numbers of artists who now work and reside there – all wanting to take advantage of the city arts opportunities and limited arts funding.

(Funny it is how the topic of D.C. Statehood is nowhere to be heard among those speaking of DMV arts and culture. As if there simply isn’t any relationship – or if any attempt to define the difference between those with state representation and those without is divisive or irrelevant in a discussion of art and arts funding?)

What to do…? Concede to the sports analogy of “winners and losers”? Why can’t D.C. become like a major-league player in the arts? Why shouldn’t D.C. attract wealthy arts patrons like the big-league owners, and class-A administrators and curators with competitive salaries and seasonal contracts? Not to mention that D.C. real-estate development would be nowhere without quality arts and entertainment. No, we mustn’t disappoint the owners, the developers, the managers, the team … or the fans.

So it’s a good thing that there are so many artists and performers (makers and creatives) in and around D.C. It “raises the bar”.

Whose bar?

Another question I keep returning to is, “Since when did the arts become a competitive endeavor and why?

Is the sole purpose of arts organizations to establish even more competitive arenas with more entrepreneurs and even greater stakes (and subsequently more “losers” than winners) in the pursuit of a more “refined” or “progressive” culture …??

Awards, prizes, grants, exposure, sales are not what all artists want or need; but it is the only thing they’ve come to expect will ever be offered if only by some stroke of fortune or dogged placation that those who control the rewards of cultural labor might look upon them and give a blessing to their effort.

So despite what artists are being told they need and want, the last thing (…ask any artist) is to be informed that they are a “loser” and not among a select team of “winners”. Not this time. But maybe next? Everyone receives his or her turn? Not likely.

What’s the alternative?

(First it must be recognized that there is a significant difference between visual and performing arts organizations, their audiences, as well as their function. There are a few similarities but I wish to focus on the visual arts as that is my area of knowledge and not attempt to draw too large a picture or create too many generalities).

Museums of contemporary art, arts institutions of contemporary culture, and arts organizations – profess to support more community-centered arts and culture – but, also serve for the promotion and marketing of contemporary global culture as an incentive for art collectors and the strata of a young urban business class seeking the status of institutions that likewise caters to them for donation funding. The differences between their vision to serve as education centers, as showcase venues for artists, and as arts advocates varies as much as those functions may be blurred or be said to overlap. As centers for arts education, organizations and institutions may be eligible to receive non-profit status and much needed tax deductible donations – even though the direct impact or supplement to school-based arts education is also heavily abstracted – particularly where those centers for arts education are estranged geographically from the actual communities and neighborhoods they claim to serve as a condition of their 501c3 applications.

The truth is that contemporary arts institutions and organizations are less educational than promotional in their programming – serving more as proxy venues for artist promotion and sales as well as training grounds for the careers of curators, administrators, consultants, assistants and the host of arts-professionals whose competitive salaries must paid from an ever-increasing requirement for funding. Managing gallery and performance spaces are also very costly, contributing to a large percentage of an organizations overhead expense (and volunteer time) while serving only a small percentage of artists and a highly limited range of cultural views.

However, from the artists point of view (and similarly like any unobstructed lawn with a goalpost and bleachers becomes a potential playing field for sports enthusiasts) any public building with bare walls and lights becomes a gallery, or a performance space and a potential sales and promotion venue… or more to the point, a source of revenue to be “managed”.

As there is never enough space for all of the art and performance that is produced selective management becomes absolutely critical to its continued function as a viable space  – choices must be made and curatorial standards and narratives must be devised to substantiate those choices – however dubious or artificial those choices, standards and narratives are to reality and relevant to the community in which they are displayed.  Hence, “winners” and “losers”; those who are assisted in selling their work or their brand, and those who are left to fend for and support themselves.

But what if… arts organizations were NOT in the business of promotion, of giving support to some artists but not others? What if arts organizations supported ALL artists both equitably and more directly without preference to gender or race, style or substance? What if arts budgets went directly to the communities they represent to strengthen the cultural infrastructure, providing incentive for artists and cultural workers to remain within those communities, to thrive, and both preserve the native culture and provide for the unique cultural requirements of which the artists have an innate and natural relationship? What if arts organizations did not serve as a proxy for the commercial market as galleries and theatres to promote art and ticket sales or as a career platform for transient arts administrators, transient curators and transient non-artist professionals? What if arts organizations were not players in the cultural gentrification of communities but the glue that held those communities together to resist urban expansion and cultural homogeneity?

What would arts organizations do otherwise?

Perhaps the most effective, the most significant (and the least costly) thing arts organizations could do is to formally recognize the difference between art and artists; between culture and its potential for marketing. (Many of those who annually profess “support for the arts” could care less about the welfare of artists or community cultures. To them “the arts” are either a collector commodity or a refined source of entertainment that likewise must be codified, qualified.. to be entered into competition; to earn approval or disapproval through critical judgment.)

Rather, artists and culture share a living relationship, a symbiosis, by which one is not likely to survive without the other. For art to survive requires nothing more than a museum and those with the means to collect it. For artists and cultures to survive requires a great deal more imagination and committed effort.

“Art has no ‘dominion’ really – it just exists and sometimes in the unlikeliest places made by the unlikeliest people.” (1)

Functionally speaking, arts organizations could raise money along with awareness to do little things that would actually help all artists thrive and by extension to build and secure a more vibrant, viable art community that the public would be proud to call their own and in a way that would set a newer, higher and directly productive standard for arts organizations everywhere.

How would they do this?

As an advocate for artists rights, affordable housing and studios, as advocates for fair practices, create job banks for artists, create emergency funding for artists and their immediate families when there is a serious medical need, fire, or job layoff, underwrite group insurance, to advocate for health safety in the arts workplace, as a representative for artists with the local government with regard to city planning and arts education in the public school system, in conjunction with other arts organizations to advocate for artists in federal arts legislation, as an advocate for elderly and handicapped artists, as an archive for local artist’s documents such as with the Archives of American Art, as an historical library or repository of the Arts in D.C. or to assist artists with the compilation of their own personal and community art archives (2) …

The truth is there are plenty of things that D.C. arts organizations could be that are fully inclusive that doesn’t presume to select one group of artists or selection of any individual artist over another; that doesn’t contribute to divisiveness, that doesn’t require a curator or even a scheduled exhibition space; whose budget isn’t merely self-preserving, and that doesn’t presume that the only need artists have is greater exposure (“people die from exposure”).

The idea that artists and the public must be educated to the latest trend in contemporary art or to the newest big-names in a list of this year’s emerging artists – or that artists are somehow uniquely gifted or visionary in voicing the needs and issues of communities while remaining silent with respect to their own issues of livelihood – and that somehow manifests as a cultural service – is not only short-sighted, it’s redundant and proven to be of little if any long-term effective value.

It’s time to stop seeing arts organization as arenas. Art is not a competition. Artists are not players. Culture needs to be served, not sold; it is its own reward, and a city with its diverse neighborhoods and cultures deserves to be treated fairly, unequivocally, with equanimity to all – that art and art practice might be the one human endeavor by which NO ONE LOSES. Ever

B.R  04/2017