Publicly funded art: a chilling experience?
Had you had the opportunity to read Art of England Back Chat item I wrote and read the headline of the Financial Times for Saturday, 10 July 2010, [read the article here] you would have learned what is store for the arts in the UK — entrepreneurialism, philanthropy and the dismantling of the welfare state that is arts funding.
Of course this will require a change of behaviour of artists as well as the institutions that comprise the art and culture world. Special interests will by their very nature plead for special treatment and perhaps some of these arguments will have merit. But in the main, the lazy hazy days of the public gravy train are near an end and cultural forces will have to be a little bit extra tuned toward their cultural audiences and away from the solipsism and self-indulgence that seems to pass for much art.
There is no lack of philanthropy for idiosyncratic acquisition of dodgy art, and there is no end to the institutionalisation of art in national galleries (along with a reluctance to prune the holdings — just see the fuss when the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, NY wanted to do this).
But culture is dynamic not static and warehousing art in public galleries is little different from checking the chest freezer to see what could be thawed out for dinner.
- Some do indeed worship at the alter of the state.
Most artists don’t make a living at their art, and most people who study art formally fail to develop their studies into a viable career. Writing in Art of England magazine recently, I observed that we should start viewing artists as entrepreneurs. Of course, what we see instead is institutionalised poverty, since government arts grants and various other projects define art in terms of what granting agencies think art is, and one feature is to undervalue the artist’s time. The result in the main is a lot of student quality work, unfulfilled artists beavering away in sheds and back rooms. I believe that all artists want to achieve a measure of artistic recognition and financial independence.
The Independent newspaper (UK) the other day featured the 10 best cheap art to buy. The works art, if that doesn’t stretch the imagination too far, were by and large commercial reproductions, posters and ersatz rubbish you stick on your wall. Given the word cheap, and knowing what prices many real artists sell their work for, the Independent newspaper could just as easily have gone to the trouble of finding 10 artists whose work is affordable, and undoubtedly better. What were they thinking? But perhaps they are just part of the problem for real working artists.
As noted in an earlier post, Bruno Frey’s views on the economics of art are relevant, as he picks apart this iron triangle to show that there are better ways to support successful artists. Indeed, the success of an arts policy in the end depends on the success of artists, and not the production of art. Yet we support the art but not the artist.
Their failure of artists in the main to be entrepreneurial and build successful careers is a criticism as much of artists as the welfare state that protects them. It should cause considerable dismay and a call to action across the creative spectrum. I have special criticism for academe where people often begin their art non-career by simply wondering why art as technique is taught at university; it seems bit like teaching undergraduates how to use a pen so they can take notes in class — probably better done elsewhere.
As for the theme of art and money, well, time to end the poverty trap that artists have allowed society to put them in. Oh yes, artists need to make their own way in the world — just like the rest of us. Perhaps the solution is to make that easier.
Bruno Frey writes about the economics of art. His work is provocative and challenges many assumptions about how the art world operates. I quite like his observation of the challenge facing gallery owners who, striving to make a living, only represent artists who are likely to sell, while at the same time, wanting to bring new artists to the public.