Recently I received an email from a colleague politely declining participation in threewalls' 10th anniversary auction. Mixed in with her best wishes was a brief critique of not-for-profits "leaning" to heavily on artists for donations and a concern that in a city with too few collectors, the auctions of the city's few not-for-profits robbed commercial spaces of that same clientele and their patronage. She had felt that our town's collectors were spread too thin.
We live in a country where either simply paying for what you really want or feeling entitled to free stuff goes hand-in-hand. Sharing the burden of getting something we all want, at a reduced rate rather than a la carte, is a concept few Americans can fully get on board with. The healthcare debacle and its numerous detractors is the most obvious example of how the concept of allocating risk evenly across all participants is anathema to the imaginations of those detractors. While putting tax dollars towards national security is widely accepted, putting tax dollars to national health is not. The a la carte option is preferred, for fear that the communal one will not offer the kind of individuation capitalism does.
Of course if the larger public can't agree that healthcare is a good we can all agree on, how can the same culture possibly agree on the good of the arts? Something as individual as art certainly cannot be regulated by the government, while at the same time, who wants the government meddling in creative practice, potentially instrumentalising it in the first place? Regardless, government support for the arts is waning, leaving the individual to support the not-for-profit, alongside the commercial enterprises they frequent. At this time, threewalls receives less than 10% of its funding from government agencies, the balance of its budget coming from private foundations, individual donors and earned income (fundraisers and subscription programs). The latter, earned income, is roughly 30% of our budget - a healthy amount given the uncertainty of grants, but like all of the categories, no more guaranteed than the rest.
What struck me about my colleague's email in the first place was her concern that artists were being "leaned upon" too heavily to support arts organizations, coupled with her concern that the patron base (the other half of the equation) were spread too thin with all of the galas in town. This conclusion seems to invite the question, who else would support an arts not-for-profit, if not collectors or artists? There is always a romantic idea that there is some other group that should be inclined to support the activities of arts organizations other than the core group that benefits from it: the artists. I founded a not-for-profit to provide resources I identified as missing in a community where I was an artist. I, like countless other small not-for-profits, am acting to support my field. Building a not-for-profit is building a resource for a specific community, not a personal asset. If the community that it was built for finds it valuable, they will continue to support it as "members" in some capacity, but imagining that some other group should or will provide that support is a precarious position to take.
Why would an artist choose to support its local art not-for-profit? Well I figure its like NPR, if you listen to it daily you eventually break down and contribute to the funding drive. I have been a member of WBEZ for over 6 years, along with other monthly donations I give to Planned Parenthood, The Human Rights Campaign and Wikipedia - all things I believe make my life better. I also attend my friend's fundraisers, contribute to kickstarters and buy art when I can afford it. I am neither rich nor exemplary. I just have determined what I can support and how.
Similarly, I think artists have options about what and how they support. They can donate art to an annual auction, buy a ticket to an event, buy art at the auction or donate money at the end of year. Why would they do this? Because the organizations they care to support might: offer opportunities to show their work, provide grants, progams where they can present their work OR do any of these things for their friends and colleagues whose practice they also support and want to see flourish. The programs they support might also mount shows, publish books or organize events that they like to attend - that feature artists or speakers they like or would like to take their students to. They might enjoy attending these things alone or with friends. This might be an opportunity to meet and talk with others. This might be true of small or large groups or institutions. On the small scale, these events are often totally free to attend. They might choose to provide support in the best way they can because they recognize that the organization has dedicated its time to them.
By and large though, on a small scale, these programs are primarily for a user-group made up of artists. There are art patrons who might attend who are interested in the programs or artists, but the primary audience are other artists and the network of people who support them: critics, curators, gallerists. On the large scale, of course, this changes - the audience becomes larger as the culture on offer is framed by civic institutions - city museums, art schools and centers.
At a small-scale, fundraising from patrons is difficult. Patronage of the arts is attractive to most large donors because their name becomes associated with major purchases, programs, positions or capital projects. Small-scale patronage is limited in public accolades and attention and is also riskier. Donating $10K to small organization can make a major impact, but there's no gurantee, unlike a large civic institution, that that organization will still be there 10, or even 3, years from now.
But largely, the small organzations don't appeal to big patrons because their reach is small. This reach however, doesn't make them unimportant. A healthy art ecology consists of artists, critics, gallerists, curators, collectors, students, apartment galleries, commercial galleries, magazines, museums, small/mid/large institutions and more. (Read Renny Pritikin's Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene for a great summary of this ecology.) Everyone within this ecology contributes to its overall health and function, connecting one thing to the next through participation.
Bourdieau summed up the denial of the economy in his writing on art and social capital as kind of sly dismissal of the accrual of value and exchange of money that naturally surrounds and keeps art salient. This denial however, has lead to some grievous misreadings of the art economy and a kind of malignant attitude towards money and value. Artists should get paid for their work, museums rarely pay artist fees. Arts administrators should make a living wage, but are paid 2/3rds less on average than peers in other fields with the same level of education. The voices of critics, curators and artists should represent a range of social perspectives, but in a country that denies that class exists (here), there is little concern over these roles being dominated by those who can pay-to-play (ie.: attend major private art academies with $30K/a tuitions; perform unpaid intern work or low-paying full-time fellowship positions for long periods of time; travel regularly, attend residencies, or not need full-time work at all; and the list goes on. This article in Forbes fills this idea out a bit.) The denial of the economy leads many in the arts to assume that everyone else working in it has been born or married into economic advantage. Does this assumption of privilege lead to a lack of commitment or concern for the survival of others? And in turn, the survival of a diverse field?
Who should support the arts and artists? In the US, the declining funding for the arts by the government has left that squarely in private hands. On one hand there is the private collector - a small group of wealthy patrons who continually purchase art and on the other, there is the private foundation - a small group of wealthy patrons who contribute to the survival of not-for-profit institutions. Neither it seems can support everything.
But the ecology of an art community shouldn't just be rich-people-pay-to-keep-art-around, no matter how historically common that model may be. While wealthier citizens may underwrite most major institutions, whether as individuals or through private or corporate foundations, there are still a myriad of ways that culture can represent all facets of our society.
To go back to the point of inspiration for this post - I had two personal responses to my colleague's concern.
1. Artists should support what they want; but supporting organizations that are explicitly there to support them should be relevant. Its unlikely that an outside patron will see the same value in the organizations that are designed by artists for artists. And that should be ok. Patrons can be excellent allies, but they shouldn't be solely responsible for validating artist's practice and needs. (Read here: don't let the market be the only barometer of worth).
2. Galas at museums and fundraisers for small not-for-profits have different impacts. Small organizations are not auctioning the works by artists that will impact their market value if sold below the list price. Usually our donations are from artists who have yet to establish a value or if they have, they donate work that is sold within range (studio sketches for example - which we've auctioned above value). Nor is their audience solely the small contingent of collectors who my colleague is concerned is spread to thin. With tickets at less than $100, small organizations attract a wider range of attendees to their benefits and in some cases really have the opportunity to grow a new collectors base by offering an affordable and unintimidating atmosphere to do so (no guarantees of course, but this is something we are always working hard to do).
While I agree that auctioning art for charity is endemic in our culture, it is also particular to its own field. Donating a work acts as trade for the services rendered by an organization, if those services seem valuable to the donor. Organizations should work to reciprocate for the donations as best they can: free tickets to the event or other events, a membership card, discount on books or other merchandise. And in the larger scheme of things: not-for-profits are public organizations, not private ones. I'm finding more and more that people have lost touch with what a 501c3 is, and are more inclined to scrutinize the model than see its value.
If you are curious about a 501c3s spending, they are legally required to disclose their financials, with 990s public and searchable on Guidestar. When operating at the audit threshhold, organizations are accountable to an objective examination of their accounts, one that is set in place to ensure that 501c3s are responsible managers of the public's donations. For the average business owner, this likely sounds invasive, and from experience talking to others who have considered starting 501c3s, it sounds like a hassle. But from the perspective of wondering where your money is going: we buy things from retail businesses all of the time and have no concern with how the owner manages their income, while meanwhile, we will partake in the free programs offered to us by institutions, small not-for-profits, and no revenue arts organizations but balk at the cost of a ticket to their fundraiser (often the price of night out for 2 for dinner, drinks and entertainment).
This might lead into a longer rumination on how it is feasible that so many young people want to go to art school (an expensive endeavor with uncertain returns), yet feel entitled to free culture (downloading music and movies for example), while hoping to make money themselves. I wonder who is responsible for the survival of art, and if the answer will always be: someone else.
We just wrapped up the Hand in Glove conference at threewalls in October - a meeting that gathered approx. 180 ppl together from across the United States, including a few visitors from Canada and Australia. The conference was inspired by a few trips to other conferences - The CAA conferece, Alliance for Artists' Communities, Res Artis General Meeting and the Andy Warhol Foundation's convening for their Initiative organizations - where my colleague, Abby Satinsky, and I found there to be a lack of content for small "organizations."
So I put organizations in quotes because arts administration isn't specifically a gallery with an office space any more. Nor is it every organizers goal to sustain themselves past 5 or even 2 years. Practices range from residencies where artists go tenting, to subscription programs, to micro-grants, to publishing, to roving curatorial projects, to online content and back to space. The variety of platforms for presenting artists' work, means for working as a collaborative, or forums for discussion, advocacy and self-support are numerous and they are changing the face of visual arts.
We got excited this summer when we found about Common Practice in London. An organization that is working for "the recognition and fostering of the small-scale contemporary visual arts sector in London." Their position paper "Size Matters" (downloadable from their website), is an excellent overview of the what and how to value small-scale projects. It starts with not requiring them think and act like large-scale projects. I forwarded this article immediately to all of the foundations threewalls works with. Not because our main supporters are overly concerned with our behaving like the museum, but they circulate within the field of philanthropy and they have the potential to change the conversation with fellow funders who are still looking for small to be modeled on large.
One of the main suspicions of small-organizations or potential organizers is that the 501c3 status requires organizations to bend to the will of foundations in order to receive funding. This suspicion and the paperwork that comes with it keep many away from organizing themselves as a not-for-profit when there are notable benefits to doing so. threewalls is quite lucky. When we opened in 2004 we had the support of three local funders who supported our vision even though we had just begun to program. As we grew we attracted a few more funders who were comfortable investing in visual arts organizations that were in no way producing on the scale of or with the finesse of a museum, university gallery or art center. The problem is, that we reach a ceiling. A ceiling where the "next step" foundations are less likely to jump into the pool with us. Their goals have the power to shape how we continue to build our organization or the language we chose to frame it with (an emphasis on education is often the case, and although we would argue that our many public programs are educational, funders are often looking for those programs to reach specific demographics, and very infrequently do they consider adult education as crucial as youth education). Another hazard of growing to a scale that attracts the "big guys" is a reconsideration of your administration. The fluidity so many small organizers are interested in adopting is usually thwarted by funders who are looking for key organizational structures in place that mirror business administration. It can be difficult to express your unconventional adminsitrative practices to funders who are looking for a familiar structure, and in certain cases, will work to enforce those structures as a means to a end.
threewalls is for the most part a very traditionally organized and structured art space. We are not reinventing the wheel in our administrative policies. But I am conscious of how our traditional structure might have influenced our funders from the beginning. That bodes well for our success, but it leaves me wondering about how producers who are actively working to reinvent administrative practice as much as they are programming models, can be heard and supported by foundations. Art has long been the laboratory for new models, and it should be place where new business practices can be explored in the "office" just as readily as conceptual ideas worked out in the gallery. I'd like to see foundations and patrons be as interested in supporting the process of organizing and structure of unique platforms as much as they are interested in the actual programming (artists, talks, etc.) happening on those platforms.
I still see much to be gained by organizing as a 501c3 and I recognize in small family foundations a real passion for the projects they fund. These relationships can be rewarding and fun. We recently hosted the Art Matters Foundation in Chicago while they visited for their annual board meeting and were able to expose them to a few of the artists The Propeller Fund has helped to support. These kind of events keep the doors open between those producing work, those presenting work, and those funding work to have an active dialog about what is really happening on the ground in the arts - a ground that inevitably shapes the future of visual arts practice.