Creative Folly: The Illusory Support of Artists by American Arts Organizations & Funders
Lisa A. Miles c 2011~~
A decade ago, I published a book about a woman artist and her work, and the role of that work in both larger American society and the art world. Another one formally begins here, to expose the lunacy that underlies American arts organizations and funders’ support for the individual artist, and to propose alternatives far more sane, just, creative and in fact do-able.
My biography of Esther Phillips, This Fantastic Struggle, was explicitly a cultural essay, as well, on the struggle that all artists face in trying to make a living, and thus deriding (appropriately) the little-respect society has for creative workers. This current work tackles in-depth the illusory support by the American arts establishment, which is supposed to be championing the artist’s cause. It is a required critical look at its means of supporting (or not) those that aim to make a substantive creative contribution to society, informed by my own longstanding work as a creative artist, but also many, many others working similarly.
Where “Fantastic Struggle” railed against mainstream society’s lack of understanding of the arts, Creative Folly takes on the insiders, those very people who proclaim to have artists’ best interests at heart. But their policies are entirely incapable of making measureable, significant difference in the lives of the tens of thousands of true working artists in this country.
This is a book that art administrators will denounce and hate—unless they’re willing to take an honest look at artists within their communities and genres that they insist they supposedly support. Foundation officers and those directing the scant number of corporate giving programs out there will certainly outcry, too—mortified that their work is exposed for its little genuine benefit. Even arts organization members may scoff, taken aback at the suggestion that ultimately the work they do isn’t really helping the arts, something which is best done when you support working individual creative artists.
But I don’t write to please the art establishment. My focus is on long-standing policies in place within that art-funding world and those nonprofit arts organizations– those who are presumed to do no wrong. When in fact, they could do much, much better to effect meaningful impact on the lives of working artists.
Certainly nothing has changed with the larger American population’s embrace of genuine art. Things have only gotten worse since I first began writing Esther’s story. With everyone hurrah-ing the winners of American Idol (and gobbling up similar reality fare en masse), to playing the pretend guitar of Xbox, people want art, but it still has to have “the Woolworth stamp of approval”— as Esther’s friend Ed Evans defined the phenomenon of mainstream society venturing into a ‘50s Greenwich Village, looking for the creators written about in LIFE Magazine yet not wanting to take anything cutting-edge home with them. America may think it understands talent, but it doesn’t see the artists looking on mortified. Not only does the average citizen not know what makes up creativity, they simplify art into entertainment even further nowadays, gadgetizing it and commenting upon contest winners in the local and national newscasts as if such were even minutely newsworthy. (Rarely if ever are genuine working artists in a community so spotlighted– the musicians, writers, dancers, sculptors, painters, filmmakers, theatre artists and those undertaking other cross-disciplinary creative endeavors.)
But from the art world itself, from those who declare to know far better than the average American about art and artists, there is only mediocre or very poor support. Of course they will tell you they are doing a fine enough job, or at least the best they can do with little budget. But larger budgets wouldn’t bring the intelligent change that needs to happen—and many arts administrators would be (or should be) embarrassed if society knew their average salary in comparison to those they advocate for. Even low-end artistic nonprofit workers are covered by a 9-to-5 salary that brings some stability to their lives, while actually being just worker bees of organizations ironically un-creative in their approach to supporting art and artists.
I grew weary of witnessing local arts groups ridiculously commending each other here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as seeing the lack of wise design of local, state and national funding bodies for the arts. Similar organizations and nonprofits all across the country feel as if they are doing novel and important things for their community and community of artists, wrapped up in their illusions of support as they cheer each other on yet fool both the artist and the public with the policies behind their support. And funders have shown themselves to be utterly ignorant about those actual creators they’re supposed to encourage and sponsor (those who ironically give reason for the very existence of the administrators’ salaries).
With the Occupy Wall Street movement that has blossomed late this summer and finally shown American youth and progressive promise, my resolve only strengthened to pull back the curtain on the illusionary means of helping artists that these entities purport.
Esther and her friends’ struggle was mainly with mainstream society’s lack of acceptance of artists as workers. My inspiration to follow this up by tackling the inside art establishment came only after I professionally had given up on funding bodies and the like. Come 2010, I could no longer stomach applying for any more grant funding for my creative work. This activity– the ploy that these organizations hold the key to supporting needy artists– became a lost cause for me only after 20 years of employing it as part of the full package of my creative work. To be clear, I gave up not on my art, nor even trying to make a living at it… but to asking for support for that work from the art establishment.
Now, I am not a person who was never funded, simply making a beef here about unjust rules and regulations in nonprofit and corporate giving programs. In fact, I have been supported in my work with various grants at the local, state and even national level (as my website attests). But to gain any traction beyond that of an emerging (yet still obscure) artist became an insane chase that ate up time, energy, spirit and even money. For the artist, it is a never-ending attempt to bring to the attention of funding bodies and arts organizations one’s body of work, talent, drive and plans for the next project! This is folly. In order to survive, artists intrinsically come to believe they need to bring their work before the eyes of the funding and recognition-bestowing art establishment (and in fact are explicitly taught to do so by arts administrators in workshops by their very organizations!)
The artist has a hard enough time of it cracking through to mainstream society! Workshops could be given not by administrators but by working artists successful (in limited fashion) at selling their work (artistic product or service) for profit to individuals, businesses, corporations! But to again and again ask for support– what an artistic colleague of mine here in Pittsburgh, Christiane Leach, defined as “having to redefine yourself as an artist from square one, over and over each time you approach an artistic funding body”– this continual re-marketing of one’s creative abilities to the inside establishment is indeed the basis of Creative Folly. (And what my brother Mark appropriately and humourously tagged as “the ask hole”– of course hinting at the ineffective outcome each subsequent ask usually warrants.)
What is the consequence of this? Artists are not spending adequate time creating work because they are so busy trying to get funding or recognition for that creation by the very people that, after a time or two, ought to know better, in fact ought to certainly know the body of work, the capacity, the drive, the talent, the ambitions of the asking artist. Creators are called upon to submit works for consideration, and apply for small monies available for only a miniscule percentage of those that apply. They are encouraged to enter contests and submit works to juries with condescending and ludicrous policies. They are manipulated to rally around causes (which they were already for) by volunteering their talent.
Pretty ridiculous when you think about it. If someone really has talent, really has applied him or herself, in fact maybe even applied the outcomes or processing of their work to good use in communities or with youth (as American artists are hit over the head to do in order to score points with funders)– should they have to continually prove themselves, raise their hands and remind local “arts leaders” that they are out there, clamor for national recognition, beg for scraps of funding morsels in the form of mindless application process as many times over as their exists the “contest” or call?
I had prepared myself to tackle this professional “requirement” in excellent fashion—had my deadlines all lined up over the rolling course of a year, each year. I felt I met all the described prerequisites in the preceding paragraph (artists must have accurate self-assessment and esteem accordingly or they will wither before the game even begins). I was sure to do all the necessary work– lengthy Essays on prospective plans and Statements on previous works (This predisposes the literate artist to success, and not the equally-talented sullen painter. Little good it did myself, the English major, though!)
All artists committed to their vision and not afraid of hard work can attest to similar tedious preparation and execution– applying left and right everywhere, and going back to organizations that previously rejected but still encourage application. The only problem in all this? Working artists will tell you—an honest figure of successful monetary outcome of these funding asks ranges below 2%.
20 years is a long time. Why did I spend so much energy on little monetary outcome from grantwriting? (My artistic output, in comparison, is two published books, a CD of original music, community creative work galore and much more creative accumulation and collaboration than my number of grants could credit.) And why have artists of all genres participated in this game since the beginning of time? Would small businesses survive in such a model? Then why artists? And why do funding bodies and those working supposedly for and in tandem with artists encourage it?
What’s the answer? To give up on the “Ask Hole” completely? (I’d recommend that with the current state of affairs right now, and encourage artists to focus instead on marketing their work to those that don’t yet know them– rather than those that should know better) Or might there be a better way for the American art establishment to support individual artists? (And thus do more to support art than any other method.)
None of what I am describing thus far, or am about to propose, would mean much without testaments from other working artists in this country (certainly to be found in this book, as well as inclusion of the few successful means and models of support and artistic communities out there).
I have been among a community of artists for decades, being long-established here in Pittsburgh but also by mingling with others in New York City and across America, whose creative paths have crossed with mine a myriad of times. It is for these many, whose experiences are similar if not identical to my own, that I write.
Funders and arts organizations, albeit largely unintentionally, are wreaking havoc on artists—playing a frivolous game that only leads artists on. Not unlike mainstream America, they seem to consider artists exceptions to the labor market—their goods and services somehow outside of normal realm and thus not genuinely compensatory. I couldn’t disagree more.
The solutions I’ll propose are based on one central premise, and would no doubt be welcome by most artists, as it born out of our collective incredulous experiences of the wrong way to go about giving support.
What I will propose is a fundamental change in the way individual artists can be helped in this country. Radically simple. But because of that first word, it will surely scare off most and be denounced and fought.
But this writing is to expose the ploy, the folly, the illusory support. American art organizations and funders, as much as they’ll defiantly declare otherwise, are not championing the cause of artists. It is my fellow artists’ creative voices, essentially, across these coming pages that will speak to everyone genuinely interested in understanding and bettering the professional creative experience in America– changing the policies, changing the rules, so that much of the professional world of being an artist no longer remains a stupid game.
Also posted on Occupy with Art