Wall painting, acrylic / ‘pomegranates, oil on panel, 1989.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
“… 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”.
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