Citizenship, Meta-Practice

No, Thank You: Letting a tech-sponsored art opportunity pass

My response letter to a tech company’s in-house art program.

Recently I was invited to submit a proposal to a tech company for an artist’s residency or commission at their corporate offices. The project manager was very gracious. The program sounds fiscally generous. I debated whether or not to do it. Some colleagues have participated or will do so (I wish them nothing but the best), and I’ve benefitted from such projects as well as sales to other tech firms. Still, my instinct was to propose an idea that would never be accepted, but I didn’t really want to waste time essentially pranking a nice person with a fake proposal. So I wrote and submitted the following….

I’m skeptical of the idea of creating artwork as a site-specific, private, corporate commission with employees as the constituency. Here’s why.

  • I try to make my work not about me; I try to make it about the viewer and his/her perceptions or emotions. The viewer and the context shape the meaning of the work. For your program, I’d make work for your audience and your site, so I’d have to ask myself, Why these employees? Why these offices? And I haven’t come up with good enough answers.
  • As I understand it, there’s no public viewing program, so the commission serves employees, and ultimately, the corporation’s goals such as maintaining morale or acting as recruitment or PR talking points. Psychologists like Phil Zimbardo have written that marketing efforts exploit humans’ instinctual reciprocity; by offering perks, the corporation may well be influencing workers to spend increasing hours of unpaid overtime at their jobs, rather than in their communities (where they could support local public museums and galleries).

    Perhaps you see your program as a philanthropic venture benefitting artists. There are many ways to support artists. A purchase program of existing works would allow artists like me to spend less time working day jobs and more time in my studio. Supporting an existing art organization that is open to the public would benefit the organization, as well as artists and the viewing public.
    But investing my labor, time, and attention to provide a service and product that may be instrumentalized as corporate culture perks doesn’t speak to why I’m an artist.

  • I came of age in the 1990s, and anti-corporate, DIY, punk ethos is in my cultural DNA. Overwhelmingly, I see corporations putting profits before people. Even if this program seems like an exception for those involved, it does in private what I’d rather do in public.
  • I feel loyal to friends—artists and small arts organizations—in San Francisco who are being priced out or evicted, or mourning the city’s declining diversity due to the influx of tech workers and their wealth. It’s a huge issue that individuals like you and I cannot singly account for—yet while my small decision to let this opportunity pass may not change anything, it at least spares me anxiety of a possible dilemma, the uncomfortableness of explaining my rationale to friends, and any self-doubt about ethics.

You asked why I’m motivated towards residencies like –––: it’s non-profit; the organization provides time and space for artists to be artists—they have no agenda and don’t require specific outcomes; and I feel great about their constituency—their exhibitions are public and their visitors heterogenous. Another difference is that they don’t own the work afterwards. I get to show it elsewhere, sell it and garner additional support, or live with it and change it if I like. If they do purchase the work, there’s an additional fee, as well as the honor of joining the collection of an organization that has earned artists’ esteem.

I don’t have all the answers; in fact, like many in the arts, I have way more questions than answers. But if you’d like to know more about references that have influenced these thoughts, the introductions and first chapters of both Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, as well as Martha Rosler’s Culture Class are worthwhile examinations of the complicated position that many contemporary artists negotiate.


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