Response: Reigniting Public Art Policy as Social Practice

Valuing Labor in the Arts

Response: Reigniting Public Art Policy as Social Practice

By Jeffrey Skoller 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.

Jeffrey Skoller participated in Abigail Satinksy's “Appropriate Technologies” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum and was commissioned  to produce this response.

The “Valuing Labor in the Arts” practicum at UC Berkeley on April 19 was a stimulating day of solidarity, exploration, and discussion among artists, curators, academics, and other cultural activists about the current problems of economic support, sustainability, and working conditions for artistic labor in the current context of the free-market economy. I was a respondent for the “Appropriate Technologies” workshop, and participated in the “Sharing Knowledge is Sharing Power” lectures and the “Wrap-Up Session.” Much of the discussion I heard centered on developing alternative entrepreneurial models and economies for funding and selling art, exhibition, and access to publics outside of the commercial art world. The passionate, creative discussion of self-advocacy and ways of working in the margins of the commercial and nonprofit art worlds was inspired and inspiring.

With the day’s nearly exclusive focus on creative entrepreneurialism, gift economies, and DIY forms of collectivized exhibitions, as well as crowd-sourced funding from “art CSAs” and Kickstarters and artist-pooled grants, I became acutely aware of the near total absence of any discussion of the role of public arts funding as an integral part of the development and sustainability of the labors of contemporary art practices. With all the talk of unionization, self-empowerment, collectivization—of being able to ask for what one is worth as an artist—why was there no serious discussion of the role of national arts policy in its current state in the U.S.? Perhaps my preoccupation with the place of public (federal and state) arts funding in the public sphere is a generational question for those of us who emerged as artists and cultural workers in a time in American political life—not so long ago—when public arts funding was understood as a social-justice issue, alongside health care, education, environmental justice, military spending, and media democracy.

Jeremy Deller, Scott King and William Morris. A poster in response to the British government’s 2010 proposal to cut funding for the arts by 25 percent.

What happened to those once obsessively discussed, argued, and fought-over questions about the role of government in the sustainability of the cultural work of artists and the place of cultural work in a democratic society? Have today’s artists, curators, and academics internalized the prevailing neoliberal ideas of individual entrepreneurship, self-help, and sustainability, and the market’s determination of the worth of their labor and the quality of their artworks? These questions seem especially relevant today given the work of the current generation of artists who are challenging individual authorship by forming creative collectives and advocacy groups like Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.), the Exchange Archive, and a range of other creative forms of organizing. In turning our backs on the commitment to a national arts-funding policy that supports creative expression and artistic research outside of commodity culture, across national geographies and demographics, are we not abdicating the larger social, political, and ethical questions of the role of the arts in the public sphere? Does this by default perpetuate a neoliberal agenda in which artists are left to their own devices to survive outside, ancillary to the larger role that art has in society?

What of the rich history of the accomplishments of public arts funding over the course of the last century that transformed the American landscape? Today that history is too rarely discussed as a success. But perhaps looking back at this history in this moment is more important than ever. In it, we find the legendary federal arts-employment programs of the 1930s, which directly employed more than 45,000 artists as part of the Works Progress Administration.1 The creation of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in the 1960s enabled the construction of a vast network of nonprofit exhibition, performance, and media-arts spaces across the country. These local arts agencies supported performing arts—dance, music, theater, visual, and media arts—as well as literary arts and regionally specific folk art.2 In towns and cities that had no real cultural centers such as museums and performing-arts spaces, these nonprofit spaces were often the only place that local and national art could be seen. In more urban and culturally diverse cities, such nonprofit arts organizations offered intermediate spaces where emerging and mid-career artists had the opportunity to create ambitious and experimental exhibitions that were not dependent on establishing critical and economic success.3

Data from Canada Council for the Arts. 

Between 1966 and 1995, when the NEA Visual Artists program was discontinued by Congress, 6,500 fellowships were awarded to 5,147 artists working in painting and drawing, performance, installation, video, and other visual forms.4 To read through the lists of artists and their works, which were supported by the individual grants programs and the nonprofit exhibition spaces through which they were able to make and perform their work, defines late 20th-century American art, from the most mainstream to the avant-garde. Further, support for artist employment reemerged in the 1970s. From 1973 through 1981, the U.S. government spent more than $300 million on a jobs program for artists. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) placed artists in communities, creating and training others to create murals, paintings, photography, and sculpture in public parks, public schools, agency lobbies, and waiting rooms. Surely the state and federal artist-employment programs of the 1930s and the 1970s remain a precedent for how to think about such a program today.

During the last thirty years, there has been a slow but steady dismantling of the public sector through the privatization of nearly every aspect of the American social infrastructure—from education and prisons to scientific research and public education. However, no area of the public sector seems to have been more quickly, and in many ways more completely, erased from the national discourse than the public support of artists and the vast network of nonprofit cultural institutions and projects that once existed across the country. The elimination of a whole range of funding sources for individual artists to work in variety of public contexts such as schools, youth organizations, and public buildings—city halls, schools, hospitals, and airports—has further eroded the perception that the artist contributes to the public good.

Along with the general privatization of the public sector, we must refute specious claims used by neoconservatives that government support of art does little for the public good, other than to fund talentless artists, political radicals, and “minorities” whose art works weren’t good enough to survive the marketplace. Using faux-populist arguments that public funds were sponsoring elitist and unpopular art that nobody really understood, federal funding of the NEA went from a high of $175 million in 1992 (nearly $300 million in current dollars) to $98 million in 1998, when the House of Representatives voted to eliminate the NEA’s funding altogether.5 Of course, I don’t wish to over-romanticize this history. Governmental funding of the arts was and continues to be instrumentalized for political ends by various political and ideological interests. The bureaucratic and administratively top-heavy organizations that public funding spawned often became more concerned with self-preservation than supporting artists and communities and were rightly criticized at the time.

Barbara Kruger. Untitled (When I hear the world culture, I take out my checkbook), 1985; gelatin silver print; 138 x 60 in. Collection of Eileen and Peter Norton, Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

In the aftermath of such ongoing discussion, organizing, and advocacy among artists and curators during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, what accounts for the current lack of debate and activism on the part of the arts community in the wake of the convulsive defunding and dismantling of one of the most important and transformative support systems in the history of American art? How has this history vanished so completely—rarely publically discussed among artists, curators, and academics? Given how many young artists today are making art as social practice, relational aesthetics, and cultural activism, and who are devoting their careers to social activism, it is striking that there is so little serious discussion about the politics of public art policy. What might a not-for-profit national arts policy that represents the diversity of cultures and creative practices in the United States look like in 2014? I believe it is time for us to return to that conversation, and to ask not only how might artists creatively support themselves, but what it would take to demand a new societal commitment to the arts as part of a larger democratic social-justice agenda.

How might artists, activists, and cultural workers reignite such a discussion? Looking at history is always a place to begin. It is in the past aspirations of the most idealistic experiments that one finds new possibilities for their renewal in the present.


  1. The Federal Arts Project included the Federal Writers Program, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project, and other state-funded arts programs provided a context and ethics for the work that we have come to understand as particularly American 20th-century art—that unique mixture of Modernist, vernacular, and socially engaged art that continues to shape the aesthetics and politics of contemporary art practices.
  2. In just over ten years, between 1966 and 1979, the number of nonprofit local arts agencies increased from about 150 to over 2,000. See “1965-2000. A Brief Chronology of Federal Support for the Arts,” NEA,
  3. This included experimental and activist forms of film, video, audio, and electronic media arts in the 1960s and ’70s, and occurred almost entirely through a network of federally and state-funded media art centers. Individual artist grants supported experimental composers, musicians, electronics art/engineers, and film/videomakers as they literally invented new art forms using the emerging technologies. Such not-for-profit-motived media art set the stage for the current preoccupation with film and new media art that, now monetized, is at the center of the commercial art world.
  4. Mark Bauerlein and Ellen Grantham, National Endowment for the Arts: A History 1965-2008 (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2009), 211.
  5. A 1998 study by the Arts Council of England estimated that the U.S. government spent $6 per person on the arts in 1995; in similar years, Australia and the United Kingdom each spent approximately $25, Canada and the Netherlands $46, and Germany and Finland more than $85 per person.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content