Appropriate TechnologiesApril 3, 2014
Artists and other creative people who organize their lives around the arts have long dealt with the problem of the lack of money by utilizing the same resourcefulness they apply to making art. They have formed cooperative living and studio arrangements; started their own businesses; become grant-writing virtuosi; begged, stolen, borrowed, and even invented currencies. This situation is nothing new, and yet the conditions of today’s art world have prompted a new existential crisis for artists.
For an aspiring artist, thinking about one’s artistic practice as an entrepreneurial venture to be branded and marketed is becoming the default professional mode. The art market—in which large amounts of capital circulate in the constellation of mega-galleries, swanky art fairs, and high-powered collectors and investors—has grown to an unprecedented degree yet is inaccessible to most artists. There is little public support for governmental (i.e., tax-based) funding for the arts on a mass scale. Individual giving largely happens through websites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo that operate on a transactional basis, in which the projects with the most attractive rewards receive the most funding. While it’s natural for artists to try to figure out how to make a living from their art—which includes turning toward entrepreneurial strategies—it is frustrating that these new professional paradigms are becoming accepted as unquestioned truths, with any alternative deemed unrealistic. The many different kinds of art careers, art worlds, and art lives aren’t being considered, especially as models with which to debate, challenge, and improve the current state of affairs.
As I consider this art-world landscape, I avoid words like precarity or neoliberalism not because they are not useful to describe contemporary conditions, but because their ubiquitous deployment tends to abstract the problem in a way that is not helpful.
Instead, I’m interested in words that address specifics—especially concerning the question of scale. For this idea, I turn to appropriate technologies, a term coined by the Buddhist economist E.F. Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, first published in 1973. Schumacher calls for economic solutions to globalization that are founded on principles of self-empowerment, self-reliance and decentralization, and local control. He advocates for decentralized working methods, or “smallness within bigness,” in which interrelated but autonomous units work together toward a greater goal. Furthermore, he presents the philosophy of “enoughness,” a Buddhist approach to economics that advocates for self-sufficiency: producing from local resources for local needs at a modest scale, appropriate for a balanced life. The text has been foundational for much thought today on sustainable development and environmental preservation. Can this practice-oriented idea of appropriate technologies, developed both within and outside of the arts and built on experimentation and community investment, be relevant to sustaining a wide range of cultural production on local and manageable scales?
The result of all these changes is that the artist-centered nonprofit sector today doesn't have a national voice or an articulated, shared ethos
Historically, small to mid-size artist-founded and artist-centered nonprofit organizations played this local, sustaining role. They were havens for artistic communities, providing spaces for experimentation, employing artists, and fostering a vibrant multicultural sector. In 1973, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) began funding alternative spaces and artist organizations. That same year, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), an extension of the Works Progress Administration, began supporting the employment and training of artists to work in these organizations. But the Reagan administration eliminated CETA funds in the 1980s, and the culture wars of the 1990s led to massively defunded and defanged nonprofits. One of the casualties of the culture wars was the closure of the National Association of Artists’ Organizations (NAAO), which had provided networking opportunities, promoted artist-driven initiatives, and advocated for progressive cultural policies across the United States (a key tenet was the nonprofits’ payment of artist fees); NAAO also had strong ties to the NEA and participated in governmental advocacy. The result of all these changes is that the artist-centered nonprofit sector today doesn't have a national voice or an articulated, shared ethos—nor, often, the ability to support artists monetarily.
Foundation and charitable giving experienced another major shift when the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 dramatically increased government oversight and accountability, changing the way all public charities operate and are governed. In a new report by the Brooklyn Commune Project, the researchers point out that
The [Sarbanes-Oxley Act], with its demand for increased accountability and fiscal oversight, introduced new reporting requirements, internal auditing of funding programs, and other administrative obstacles to effective grant making. These administrative obstacles were, in turn and by necessity, applied to grantees. And so arts funding programs increasingly required applicants to clearly define expected outcomes and provide quantitative data to measure impact.1
To define and measure a project’s impact requires particular administrative skills and support and may necessitate a shift in mentality to professionalize all aspects of an artist’s practice. Artists and organizations working in the realm of the grassroots, the experimental, and the difficult-to-categorize therefore face challenges in adapting to this funding environment.
Lurking behind the disinvestment and increased paternalism from government institutions is the rising support for the “creative economies,” defined by the NEA as including the many “interlocking industry sectors that center on providing creative services or creating and promoting intellectual property products.”2 This term encompasses a wide variety of activities—the jobs that are part of the nonprofit creative sector, individual creative entrepreneurs, the “creative industries” including advertising, music, design, filmmaking, and culinary professions, and even cultural tourism—all grouped together to assess the economic impact of the arts. In this framework, a practice in the visual arts—never a reliable moneymaking enterprise—is forced to argue that it is a jobs-creation engine on par with other kinds of industries.
And so, the question remains: How can one build an artistic life that exists outside of today’s rampant professionalization and commercialization, given that many small to mid-size artist-centered organizations are struggling to determine their own relevancy and ability to support artists? What are the other potential models for success and sustainability?
In other words, a system in which working artists and arts organizations are empowered to devise their own structures for sustainability
At first glance, my examples of potential models look almost exactly like what would be encouraged by proponents of the creative-economy fad. They offer innovative business ideas and self-sufficiency, without governmental support. Yet I wonder if, in action, their application of appropriate technologies can encourage a shift from an arts-funding system centered on the free market that values economic competition and growth to one of public investment in nonprofit self-reliance. In other words, a system in which working artists and arts organizations are empowered to devise their own structures for sustainability, within a community that openly debates and values these experimental efforts.
I refer to a growing network of art initiatives that commission art works specifically for subscribers, using the models of community-supported agriculture or magazine subscriptions. Put simply, community-supported-art programs commission artists for works of multiples, then sell an assortment of these multiples together as a package and therefore at a more affordable price than unique works would demand. The “buying local” or “farm to table” metaphors borrowed from community-supported agriculture make the process more accessible for less-experienced art buyers.
I looked at such projects when I curated a 2013 exhibition called A Modest Occupation, which originated at the Luminary Center for the Arts in St. Louis (as part of their exhibition series “How to Build a World That Won’t Fall Apart”) and was later exhibited at Threewalls in Chicago and Transformer Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition drew from a network of community-supported-art programs in Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans; as well as from art-subscription projects run by artists, such as The Present Group, The Thing Quarterly, Alula Editions, Art Practical’s Mail Art Subscription (all Bay Area projects), and Regional Relationships, which primarily works with artists from the Midwest. Some of the programs are incorporated within nonprofits; others are stand-alone businesses for independent artists. The Present Group and The Thing Quarterly were started in 2007, just before the national economic collapse. In 2010, Springboard for the Arts, an organization in Minneapolis, started the first community-supported-art (CSA) program, which has since been adapted by more than fifty organizations and groups across the country. Some follow Springboard’s model closely, using its replication kit; others diverge in scope and scale. Threewalls, where I work, started such a program in 2011.
These projects engage buyers from a variety of economic brackets. The art offered by these programs covers a broad spectrum, ranging from craft-based, populist objects like embroidered pillows or screen-printed posters to conceptual works that encourage viewers to consider what contemporary art is or what these editions may mean, to editions that offer seasoned collectors a chance to buy a famous artist’s work at an affordable price. For example, Springboard’s CSA program gathers works through an open call, judged by a panel of people from the food and arts communities, and offers nine works of art for $300. At Threewalls, we curate a selection of work by emerging and established artists that would appeal to both seasoned and novice buyers, and its price is therefore higher than Springboard’s. The Thing Quarterly’s offerings are somewhere in between, with everyday objects made by well-known artists, like a pillowcase by John Baldessari for ninety dollars.
The message and impetus behind each project also vary widely and make visible tacit regional identities. With Springboard for the Arts, buying local art is made as accessible as buying local food. Chicago’s version attempts to address a typical conundrum: smart, well-known artists teach at the region’s many art schools but struggle to find local collectors. Proceeds from The Drop, a program in New Orleans, support a local contemporary-art-criticism website. Regional Relationships commissions artists to make works that can be mailed, projects “that investigate the natural, industrial, and cultural landscapes of a region.”3
The fact that these projects are contextualized within and adapted to their local cultures and audiences is important for them to succeed as community-supported initiatives. Based on the affordability of the art, the programs are also mechanisms for community members to see themselves as shareholders in a group—an identity which then may extend to a sense of responsibility and accountability (such as recognizing the importance of compensating artists with appropriate fees). Thus, local art and local culture can serve as platforms for determining an ethos of shared purpose and responsibility. And if these platforms use the frameworks of appropriate technology and sustainable development, they can lead to the shared purpose of addressing economic inequality and fostering a healthy quality of life for everyone.
But though they seem to solve some problems, the projects are not without complications. First, in order to be meaningful as an alternative mechanism of support, a project has to operate as an actual business. This involves competition in a retail market, which requires constant maintenance, development, and marketing acumen. Not all projects have such infrastructure; many have very limited budgets or are run by volunteers. Second, because of their dependence on a retail market, these programs may favor less challenging or populist artworks. What about confrontational, physically unwieldy, ugly, and experimental works—or artworks that are not objects? How do they fit in this scenario?
There is also a distinct difference between the programs developed by organizations versus those that are artist projects. Threewalls, a ten-year-old organization, drew on its established audience to build awareness of its program. We were able to undertake a risky up-front investment to pay artists a fair honorarium for their work, which yielded high-quality editions that people wanted to buy. (In fact, we used the income from the project to support my initial salary.) This is clearly a different context from that of Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis, the artist-founders of Regional Relationships, who operated their art project-cum-business without institutional support. In the publication for A Modest Occupation, they described the result of incorrectly filing their tax forms.
The penalty was more money than Regional Relationships had ever taken in. We were quickly realizing that we’d made a huge mistake. If we were operating as the “dark matter” that artist and historian of collective art practices Gregory Sholette has written about, we had inadvertently ended up on the wrong side of the IRS’s physics, and, to the IRS, all matter, dark or otherwise, is just a number.4
Must these art experiments be financial successes or remain in operation to be meaningful models? The Present Group ended its subscription project in 2012.
As with many utopian visions, our unwavering commitment to this ideal led to the unsustainability of the project. To succeed financially, our project need [sic] a certain scale that we were never able to achieve; we never even made our worst-case scenario business plan numbers. The subscription model, however, is thriving. The range of projects and collective contribution that the model brings to advancing culture, funding artist projects, and engaging new or existing audiences is gratifying. We have no regrets and consider those years our grad school, a grad school that took six years and only cost $12,387.90 for two people.5
To employ the term appropriate technology is to think about these projects within an open-source framework, in order to assess where they fail or offer new possibilities. Creating artist editions for sale is a not a new idea, but perhaps the link to community-supported agriculture, with its emphasis on decentralization, community control, and ethical, small-scale production, can spark a new conversation about what sustainability means and bring us closer to the “enoughness” that Schumacher advocates. There is no definite solution for a more just and democratic art world—not everyone wants that, anyway—yet critically examining these projects offers possibilities for the way that many kinds of art worlds can create models of survival and perhaps even form an argument for why art matters. Indeed, this is the only way to keep challenging the contemporary art world’s conditions of privilege—of who can participate and who cannot.