Meta-Practice, Values

Middle grounds

Grappling with how to find a middle ground in an art career.

In the Bronx Museum AIM program, about a third of us don’t necessarily aspire or expect to be represented by a blue chip gallery, or run an art studio as a vertically-integrated business with permanent staff. At the same time, we do want something more—I think we would like to avoid still working as adjunct professors or art handlers when we’re 50. These jobs are too demanding and precarious for artistic growth and financial viability.

I’ve also spoken to undergrads about professional practices. I advised them to devise their own self-concordant goals and to be wary of adopting conventional success models not their own.

How to find a middle ground—where artists can flourish in an expensive city and an economically polarized art field—seems to be the puzzle we’re all trying to solve.

In the popular imagination, artists tend to exist either at the pinnacle of fame and luxury or in the depths of penury and obscurity — rarely in the middle, where most of the rest of us toil and dream….

The middle — that place where professionals do their work in conditions that are neither lavish nor improvised, for a reasonable living wage — is especially vulnerable to collapse because its existence has rarely been recognized in the first place. Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.

A. O. Scott, “The Paradox of Art as Work,” N.Y. Times, May 9, 2014

Actually, there’s a small but growing contingent of us “almost nobodies” that would claim otherwise, such as the #payingartists campaign by Artist’s Network in the U.K.

For me, the issue is crystal clear: if a non-profit organization receives funds to hold exhibitions, some of those funds should go to the artists who contribute the actual artwork—without which an exhibition would not be possible. And, when artists contribute to exhibition-making with our time and labor—registration, transportation, installation, curation, writing, photo documentation, administration, etc.—we should be compensated with a fair and living wage. Larger institutions pay staff, freelancers, or outside service providers to do these tasks; funders should enable and require organizations of all sizes to pay the providers of the labor required by the institution’s programming, regardless of who it is.

Fair compensation would be a start in creating a middle ground for artists. It’s not an outlandish, and I think it’s rational and appropriate.

[Buddhist economist E.F.] 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.

Abigail Satinsky, “Appropriate Technologies,” Art Practical, April 3, 2014

Addendum: See Christian L. Frock’s “Beyond the Studio: What Do Artists/Writers/Curators Need?” (KQED Arts, May 12, 2014).

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