Response: Can We Talk About the Audience?

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Can We Talk About the Audience?

By Michael O’Hare May 22, 2014

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics.

Michael O’Hare participated in the “Big Soft (BS) Contract” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned to write this response.

As I’m a guest and not a member of this tribe, I should note that both my lefty and arts-advocate credentials are in pretty good order, as a “red-diaper baby” from New York and the son of the sculptor Berta Margoulies, a founding member of the Sculptor’s Guild whose work was always socially aware and engaged. My grandparents were Kate Richards O’Hare and Frank P. O’Hare, Socialist nobility of the early 20th century. My elementary-school music teacher was Pete Seeger. Also, I’m an architect by training, and I teach a course in arts and cultural policy as well as a studio in program and policy design at University of California, Berkeley.  Here are some reflections on the Valuing Labor in the Arts (VLA) practicum, then, from the perspective of a policy analyst.

Western societies are ill served by the infantilizing idea that artists are not really grownups

The implicit proposition of the practicum, that artists are workers who should be paid for the value they create just like anyone else, was also the view of my mother, whose socialism never got her all the way to “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” It is also mine. Western societies are ill served by the infantilizing idea that artists are not really grownups who can take care of themselves but instead need to be maintained by a perpetual charitable regime of subsidy and gifts. There are certainly market failures and justice issues in the economics of the arts that need government action, but some of those policies, such as those concerning the poor and distressed, are not specific to the arts. Those that are should be directed at paying artists properly for the value they create for others, not just to “funding the arts.” These two are not the same thing, not at all.

Worse than ill-targeted policies, of course, is all the talent lost when painters or actors are paying the rent by doing carpentry or waiting on tables. We need good carpenters and waiters, and it’s wasteful at both ends for those things to be done by people whose talents lie elsewhere.

Wrap-up session, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Lehrmann.

Why is this system broken? (It isn’t working for people who aren’t artists, either.) How can we turn the creative, optimistic, earnest innovations we heard about at the practicum into realistic initiatives with coherent core principles? And how can we treat society’s relationship to the arts with the same softhearted, hardheaded realism we demand in fields such as criminal justice, education, and environmental policy?

These seem to me the most important issues:

1. Artists do for a living what many people do for their own satisfaction, and there is no sharp boundary between artists and amateurs in terms of competence, merit, or principal source of income. Few other professions face this challenge. This enormous pool of latent competition relentlessly suppresses the capacity for artists to earn incomes from art, and there is no simple remedy for the situation, as Alison Gerber’s review of the mechanisms and tax policies that assign value to artistic activity implicitly demonstrated. 

On the other hand, I wonder whether we can better utilize amateur engagement and hobby practice as mechanisms for expanding the paying audiences for the arts. The Possible exhibition in which our gathering took place is well worth noting on this score for inviting grown-up engagement, with workshops for printing, dyeing, ceramics, and more.

The biggest problem artists face is that their competent, demanding audience is too small.

Reasonable people may differ on the following point, but my view (influenced by my personal history and my current professional environment) is that society should both demand from and reward the arts community for more engagement, by more people, with more, better art. The practicum’s discourse could have been improved significantly with more attention to the audience and its experience, as the biggest problem artists face is that their competent, demanding audience is too small. The purpose of plumbing is neither to enrich plumbers nor to manufacture more miles of pipe, but to secure public health and hygiene. The purpose of art is neither to create more objects nor to enrich artists, curators, art-history professors, and dealers, but so more of it might happen inside the heads of viewers and listeners.

To follow from research on art-consumption behavior, most of the action here should be focused on reconstructing the arts education—both appreciation and practice—that we have so sadly trashed in schools in the last decades. Many VLA practicum participants work in this mode, whether by organizing teaching artists’ programs or serving as teaching artists themselves. But this enterprise has important risks and compromises, especially because many, if not most, people who are good at something are not especially good at teaching others to do it or even to engage with it. In any case, the payoff from more arts in the schools is very far in the future, and the practicum participants were quite clear about needing results quickly.

Introduction, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joseph del Pesco.

How can we make sure that arts-education programs legitimate and celebrate craft and social goals, and keep their focus on creating value redeemable over a lifetime, rather than simply turning such programs into unemployment relief for artists who aren’t sure that they can or want to teach in the first place?

2. Many participants understandably dissed museums and other presenting institutions for expecting them to work for little or nothing. But what about the way these institutions do their jobs in the critical space between artist and viewer? When visitors spend an average of ten seconds in front of a painting, when labels are too small to read from viewing distance, are stingy with real information, or are written in art-critical jargon, why would someone want to come back? Who benefits when museums keep 90 percent of their collections in storage, never to be shown, while accumulating more and charging ten dollars or more at the door for opening hours that are almost entirely during the workday? When all the arts supplies in the shop are in the children’s section (again, contrast The Possible here), what message about active engagement is sent to grownups?

3. The visual-arts market still mostly traffics in physical objects that can be bought and sold. But in the future, more of every creative outlet will be embodied in digital form, and the economic disaster now enveloping the music and video worlds will begin to matter to visual artists. And not just to painters; soon a perfect copy of a sculpture will be made available from a digital file to be realized by anyone’s home 3D printer.

Economists correctly fulminate at the waste incurred when anything is sold for more than its marginal cost: A ride on public transit when there are empty seats, playing an mp3 file of a song, and going to a museum that isn’t at capacity should all be free to the consumer. This is not ideological; it’s technical. Of course none of those things is created for free, but this is nothing new. We have figured out ways to let everyone walk on sidewalks at the economically efficient price of zero and yet still pay the contractors who build them for us. How do we make that recipe work for digital content?

4. Elaine Wynn bought Bacon’s Freud triptych last fall for the entire annual budget of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). She parked it in Oregon for a few months and thus stiffed California taxpayers out of about $10 million, which could have paid a bunch of art teachers. A great deal of money is sloshing around the high-end art market that is not easy to link to any important improvement or increase in engagement with better art.

On the other side of this comparison, the NEA’s budget is a rounding error in total U.S. government support of the arts. At the end of the practicum, Patricia Maloney recalled the recent history of the NEA, which was founded with the promise that it would never be a Ministry of Culture, an Academy, or a censor, but has been driven to play all three roles in its role as a distributor of inconsequential funding under Congressional oversight. The arts community should stop obsessing about NEA grants and advocate for its transition to arts-policy research and (maybe) arts cheerleading.

Berta Margoulies. Strike, 1948; bronze; 23.75 x 16 x 12.25 in. Purchase with funds from Sherri and Jess Crawford. Courtesy of the High Museum, Atlanta. 

Arts policy, which includes nonprofit presenting institutions as well as all levels of government in the U.S., is neither a hobby and dilettante diversion nor inconsequential for artists and their audience. Tax law (especially in the U.S., with its exceptional system of nonprofit organizations doing what governments mainly do elsewhere), copyright law, and education are what really matter for the economic survival of artists. Artists need to engage with these realities in an informed and serious way, eschewing distractions like resale royalties legislation that seems beneficial to artists but actually transfers risk from rich collectors to poor artists and money from poor artists to rich collectors. The first, second, and third important issue here is the size and competence of the audience, not tilting this or that tiny subsidy program one way or another, or (whatever a fairness analysis indicates) getting paid to help hang your show.

There is a scholarly literature in arts and cultural policy.  Readers interested in pursuing some of the foregoing threads might be interested in the curriculum material from my course. Some of my favorites include:

Abbing, Hans. Why Are Artists Poor: The Exceptional Economy of the Arts. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2002.

Baumol William J., and Ruth Towse. Baumol’s Cost Disease: The Arts and Other Victims. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1997.

Borgonovi, Francesca, and Michael O’Hare. “The Impact of the National Endowment of the Arts in the United States: Institutional and Sectoral Effects on Private Funding.” Journal of Cultural Economics, 28 (February 2004): 21-36.

Becker, Howard S. Art Worlds. 25th anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Richard Nice. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Cowen, Tyler. Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Feld, Alan L., Michael O’Hare, and J. Mark Davidson Schuster. Patrons Despite Themselves: Taxpayers and Arts Policy. New York: New York University Press, 1983.

Frey, Bruno S. Arts and Economics: Analysis and Cultural Policy. 2nd ed. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2003.

Martel, Frédéric. De la culture en Amérique. Paris: Gallimard, 2006.

Lessig, Lawrence. Free Culture. New York: Penguin, 2004. Available for free at

O’Hare, Michael. “Arts Policy Research for the Next 25 Years: A Trajectory after Patrons Despite Themselves.” Journal of Cultural Economics, 32 (December 2008): 281-291.

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