I am an arts administrator, which is arguably the second invisible position in line behind the artist. The administrator’s cultural discount is not only applied when independently presenting an exhibition without receiving a curatorial fee, or when asked to moderate a panel discussion without compensation; it is also applied daily in the work force, when we are paid less than what we are worth at gallery jobs, museum positions, as editors and writers (not to mention when those jobs are lost due to layoffs). While the financial downturn is a particularly difficult time for artists and arts administrators, it seems that the issue of the artist’s “cultural discount” (a principle that has been incorporated by Andrew Ross in his 2000 Social Text article “The Mental Labor Problem”), in which “artists and other arts workers [are] accept[ing] non-monetary rewards [and] the gratification of producing art as compensation for their work, thereby discounting the cash price of their labor,” has perhaps existed long before the 2008-09 recession but just now is being challenged. I am interested in discussing how existing economic models for arts funding as well as emerging models of arts fundraising may support or defy this cultural discount.
W.A.G.E., the arts activist group based in NYC, has been rallying for changes in arts infrastructure to include fees paid to artists and cultural workers as compensation for their labor. An attempt to create movement in this stagnant situation—while waiting for the government to act in support of the arts, and for museums and art institutions to adopt a “best practices” policy that includes a valid fee structure—has been initiated. Groups like InCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding for Art and The Everyday), FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics), and my own project, Sweet Tooth of the Tiger (a mobile bake sale table that engages ways of thinking about circulating capital in the arts), are functioning as socially collaborative practices that view a dissolved hierarchy shifting the public’s role from distant viewer to active participant as integral to preserving artist networks and communities. Much like socially collaborative artwork (such as the work of Kaprow and Fluxus), a desire for art’s sake is at the heart of these groups (for more on this subject, see RoseLee Goldberg’s text Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present or Claire Bishops’s Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art). Unfortunately, the cost of living in U.S. cities has skyrocketed while the infrastructure of the art institution hasn’t changed much. Adapting to these circumstances, these groups view arts administration as a creative practice that is adept at problem-solving in a dysfunctional system. By incorporating an economy that is facilitated by a democratic model, in which the public pays small amounts of money directly to the artist (contrarily, criticism has recently cropped up regarding “new” economic models in the arts; see Morgan von Prelle Pecelli’s Jan 29, 2009 City Council Testimony), we are able to support artists in their pursuit of sustainable practice both monetarily and culturally as a way to undermine the authority of the art institution and its infrastructure.
In his essay, “Sure, everyone might be an artist…but only one artist gets to be the guy who says that everyone else is an artist” (in What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exhchange in Recent Art, edited by Ted Purves), Bill Arning writes about NY-based artist Elaine Tin Nyo’s bake sale at Deitch Projects several years ago. Artists baked sweets and sold them to passersby, intending to “analyze the relations between galleries, critics, curators, and artists.” Arning alludes to the art world’s confusion regarding the process of sustainable practice through self-sufficient means, perhaps further alluding to the rigid infrastructure that ignores the issue of the artist’s cultural discount. He writes,
Bake sales are, of course, a small-town American way of raising funds for modest projects of civic betterment. The art world tends to raise its funds with black tie parties, celebrities, and blockbuster auctions. The confusion between fundraising styles maligned neither, but rather reminded us that art is an activity that takes place within a network of other worthy activities, and that its systems of promotion and self-sustenance are as strange and as normal as baking and selling a pie to pay for new soccer uniforms.
Here, Arning engages in the discussion of participatory and socially collaborative practice that blurs the distinction between art and life, and in turn sustains itself by recasting a capitalist economy that is in favor of the artist rather than the institution.
While I persist in unpacking the details of these emerging artist economies that I am helping to create, it must be considered that this democratic system, which raises funds for artists, is still neglectful of the arts administrator. The administrator attempts to create access points for the public in an effort to navigate issues such as visual literacy and artistic citizenship. This desire to bring people closer to the arts undergirds the administrator as a valuable position in the art ecosystem. As an arts administrator, my consistent end goal is that of assisting artists with their projects. In my effort to formulate a sustainable model for these artists, I am curious about how to sustain my own work, pay my rent, my cell phone bill, my Internet connection, and secure all of the cash flowing into renting equipment, creating announcements, and competing with the for-profit system that has capital for these sorts of things. I feel that I must function something like a small business, where I, as the “owner,” pays myself last. This act of artists and administrators having to function like businesses is outdated and is a non-working method that naturalizes creative practice as not worthy of monetary compensation.