Monday, November 26, 2007

When art becomes "something useful and or valued"

com·mod·i·ty : \kə-mä-də-tē\
Function: noun | Inflected Form(s): plural - com·mod·i·ties | Etymology: Middle English commoditee, from Anglo-French commoditee, from Latin commoditat-, commoditas, from commodus | Date: 15th century
1: an economic good: as a: a product of agriculture or mining b: an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment <commodities futures> c: a mass-produced unspecialized product <commodity chemicals> <commodity memory chips>
2 a: something useful or valued commodity patience>; also: thing, entity b: convenience, advantage
3: obsolete: quantity, lot
4: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price
5: one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market

I was recently asked to explain how I am able to create (fund and find audience for) the kind of work that I do. This question was from someone who a) is professionally interested in managing creative careers and making money (sustainable art) and b) who is steeped in more traditional models within the visual arts world, but has some knowledge in new methods of distribution and funding in the literary, film and music industries. So let's break this down.
First, the kind of work that I do: I create (in addition to a more traditional studio based practice) temporary, performative based public artworks. Some have sculptural aspects and all have a community building and/or eco-visualization aspect. Most of these projects do not produce a single representative object which can be bought or sold. I am currently using the term "non-object based work." I use this to describe my work and the work of some friends of mine. Some other examples are, Lise Brenner, a choreographer whose most recent projects include a choreographic charting of native flora in Brooklyn which resulted in directions which could be applied to a performance as the final product (not an actual performance) and a historical investigation of a neighborhood through sound work and tours. Aaron Landsman is a performer who created a sound work that was a tour of a day in the life of a neighborhood and a performance which is produced in individual's apartments. Stephanie Skaff whose recent project was a street performance in which she set up a street vendor cart in Lower Manhattan to share stories from street vendors around NYC (it was the culmination of months of going out and meeting and speaking to many many vendors around the city). None of these artists' works result in specific objects which can be bought or sold and neither of them have set up situations which are subject to ticketing for a traditional performance.

Now it should be noted that we are not in a unique situation. There are numerous historical precedence to all that we are doing: Richard Long's Walks, William Pope L.'s performance/crawls, numerous earthworks (Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer's Double Negative, Walter de Maria's Lightening Field, the list goes on), a variety of conceptual artworks and even some dadaist non-object based work. So it's not like we don't have a point of reference.

Second, who is this for: The work that I and many of my contemporaries working in a "non-object based" way is done in such a way as to engage a larger audience than one might find in a traditional gallery or performance space. In a sense, we are preaching way beyond the choir. Whether it is someone passing by on the street in Canarsie as I draw the chalk line with whom I engage in a conversation about climate change or a stockbroker who never thought twice about his daily stop at the coffee cart until he met with Stephanie. So the projects are all really broad based and interested in participating in a wider social discussion.

Third, what is the current funding? Currently, most of these projects are funded through foundations and municipal or state funds. In my case, almost 50% of my project time is taken up through grant applications and writing. I am sure it is similar in other cases as well. This funding is really wonderful as it comes as a project based monetary amount, with no strings attached and - here's a nice thing you may not know - most (if not all) funders require that you include in your budget an artists fee. They want to know that they, in supporting the project, are supporting the artist. If you have been a lucky (is that the right word? its quite a lot of work for it to be luck) recipient of a grant, then you that you will be required to do periodic reporting on how the money is being spent and what is happening with the project. Other than that, don't expect a whole lot of interaction (unless you get a Creative Capital grant). The granting agency doesn't interfere with the work, nor do they, though, provide much formal support. Some might profile your project in their outreach, some might provide feedback, but mostly it is up to the recipient to make the project succeed or fail.

A portion of the funding may also come from private donations - frequently made up of "friends and family grants" and - euphemism - "self-funding." These sources may ebb and flow based on project frequency and/or outside competition for money. While it is frequently true that if you ask someone for a donation they will give it, it is also true that it is hard to repeatedly hit up the same people without any reward.
And as much as I like to believe in the abundance of funds available to artists, grants are definitely limited. And with some recent changes in the world of major funders, the money available is shrinking. So we are looking for new ways to create sustainable careers.

The commodity model: This model implies a specific object of value which can be traded in exchange for money. The traditional gallery/dance/performance system is based on trade. You give me money, I give you an object or a specified moment of time which is valued based on the opinions of others. This model is heavily dependent on a) an object or ticketed performance b) the perceived value of your creation (perceived by people other than the artist). For those of us working outside of the traditional object based practice, we can produce sale-able items (for example I have the beacons, documentary photos and maps, Stephanie has CD's of her conversations with street vendors - although I think she gave those away for free), but the goal of the practice is not the object - therefore the value of the object is often diminished.

A new funding model: I don't have an answer for this yet. It is what all this thinking is leading up to. However there are a lot of new models out there for other practices and funds:
  • - this new model allows music fans to directly participate in the creation of new music/cd's. a patron can donate to the musician and in return receive anything from a glimpse inside the recording process, to attending a recording session to being an executive producer on the album
  • artist pension trust - using artworks as investment, this trust accumulates works of many artists and distributes revenue from art sales to all artists
  • self-publishing/distribution for literature, films & music - more sites are popping up making it easier to manage your own career in these media, including, withoutabox, cdbaby...

So I am thinking about how to create a new paradigm for supporting the arts - is it modeled as a mix between artistshare, artist pension trust and creative capital grantmaking? If you have specific thoughts, or want to join in the larger conversation (I am putting together a group of interested individuals to have a larger discussion), then leave a comment.

images from top to bottom:
yves klein, "jumping into the void"
aaron landsman, image from "Gatz" performance by Elevator Repair Service
lise brenner, matrix from "The City from a Plant's Perspective: Mapping NYC as Native Flora"
michael heizer, "double negative"
richard long, "a line made by walking"
eve s. mosher, "HighWaterLine"
stephanie skaff, "Make Me One with Everything"

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