The pinch many artists and nonprofits felt after the 2008 recession is now turning into a full-blown garroting. Nationally, Donald Trump has an axe hanging over the neck of National Endowment of the Arts, threatening to make the U.S. one of the few countries in the world without a federal arts program. Locally, the never-ending budget battle in Springfield has neutered the Illinois Arts Council and many other social and educational institutions that have been central to our culture-making and community growth for years.
While the arts community is rightfully anxious about irrelevance in the face of renewed nationalism, military industrialism and political egoism, our moment presents a crucial opportunity for arts practitioners, leaders and entrepreneurs to reclaim the ethos that gives art the power to speak truth and transform culture.
For too long, the arts have spent more time in sidebars than on the front page. This is as much a condition of political complacency as it is institutional obeisance. Now that that the institutions are threatened with obsolescence, it’s time for the artist community to grow back its canines—a process that unfolds in three critical phases:
1. Recognize that the arts have always been contingent.
The arts as we know them can’t live outside the body of grant systems, schools, museums, MFA programs and other bureaucracies comprising the U.S. arts economy (at the risk of being labeled amateur or, even worse, experimental).
Nonetheless, the relatively smooth operations of this arts apparatus has given the community a sense of stability and occasional importance. But like a mansion straddling the San Andreas Fault, it’s tough for the arts to recognize their fragile contingency.
“It commonly happens that in the ages of privilege, the practice of almost all the arts becomes a privilege,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his prescient Democracy in America, suggesting that democratic art is “open to all”—compared to its aristocratic ancestry, anyway. In practice, artistic “success” and “talent” is ultimately tied to market whims.
When artists aren’t struggling just to stay alive, they’re often forced by the market—the definitive barometer of American success—to sacrifice substance substance for utility, mass appeal and maximum efficiency (it’s no accident that Paint-by-Number is an American invention). American artists “rarely an opportunity of displaying what they can do,” Tocqueville writes. “They are scrupulously sparing of their powers; they remain in a state of accomplished mediocrity.”
If the realities of the free market aren’t enough to pound an idealistic artist into mediocrity, a quick look at the National Endowment of the Arts sends a grim message: If federal spending of $3.9 trillion was an $50,000 annual salary, the NEA budget of $148 million would be $1.50. Which is to say, the federal government thinks of the arts the same way we think of a Snickers bar.
Despite a national indifference to the arts, much of the arts community can’t function without the NEA or similarly indentured benefactors, further entrenching the contingency of the arts community and damaging its chances at independent sustainability.
Recognizing this is the first step to fixing it.
2. Reinvent the art community’s fundamental approach to art—and business.
While the arts community generally recognizes that Art For Art’s Sake is outmoded, it’s a philosophy still implied in the mission statements of many young artists and organizations looking to make a name for themselves. It has its academic attractions, but it’s a bad business model.
And then there’s art for the sake of an idea; protest art, concept art, performance art, and so forth. It’s rare that you’ll see a play, reading or a gallery show that doesn’t walk you through its worldview or beat you over the head with it.
Though this latter approach takes art out of the realm of pure aesthetics, it forces artists to specialize, not only in medium, but in implementation. For example, let’s say an independent literary publisher wants to produce a poetry anthology by transgender authors focused on transgender issues — something that aims to enlighten the masses.
They’ll put out a call for submissions through their social media, literary websites and LGBT groups. They’ll sell a few ads, run contests, launch crowdfunding campaigns or request grants from funders that specialize in exactly this niche for exactly this reason.
Finally they launch their anthology to their public. It earns the expected praise and criticism from the same social media, literary websites, LGBT groups and funders that brought the project to fruition. And after all this, the publisher is lucky to break even. In the end, the publisher had a worthy idea, but despite the talent of its contributors and their revolutionary message, the project’s potential for real cultural disruption was limited by the nature of its specialization.
The publisher faces an obvious bind here: generalizing their mission may increase their reach, but only at the risk of diluting their core idea. This isn’t a sacrifice most artists or businesspeople want to make.
Fortunately, there’s a way out. Innovation.
It’s not just a business buzzword, but a philosophy of adaptability and reinvention. Even Chicago’s own Lyric Opera, a longstanding symbol of conservative, implacable art, is embracing innovation. As reporter Lisa Bertagnoli highlights in a recent Crain’s Chicago Business article, the Lyric is diversifying its programming, modernizing its marketing, revamping its budget, engaging its board and forging new partnerships (including a first-ever collaboration with Joffrey Ballet) to effectively grow its audience and its profits without losing focus on its core idea.
If the Lyric can reinvent its approach to art and business, anyone can.
3. Collaborate with those outside the arts community.
If recognition is personal, reinvention is corporate, and collaboration is communal. And it will becoming increasingly key to the survival of the arts as the institutions we’ve relied on in the past are slowly drowning in the rising tide of fascism, state media and hyper-partisanship.
Collaboration isn’t a new word for the arts community, but usually only references the kind of manic teamsmanship we’ve seen with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí or Björk and Matthew Barney. Otherwise, beyond the occasional architectural flourish or marketing partnership, the art community rarely attempts to build functional bridges with other disciplines (and vice versa). This is largely because the arts, like other disciplines, have been safe within their own contingencies and thus lacking the incentive to expand their community horizons—until now.
As organizations like the NEA and the IAC threaten to fold, it’s up to the arts community to find new ways to thrive. Fortunately, there are already a ton of tools and resources at the ready.
Fiscal sponsors like Fractured Atlas and Tides provide a huge range of nonprofit services, grant matching and consulting on the national level, similar to what groups like Resilience Partners or the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events do locally. Organizations like Taproot or the Arts & Business Council of Chicago match pro bono business volunteers with arts and nonprofit organizations to support everything from financial planning and board development to marketing and strategy—while also building relationships with like-minded leaders and volunteers across disciplines. And even some of our local tech and innovation hubs, like 1871 or the Built in Chicago community, are always on the lookout for big ideas.
In the midst of this time of monumental change, it’s easy to decry the dissolution of state-sponsored arts as signs of the apocalypse, but the abolition of these institutions presents a golden opportunity for artists and organizations to rediscover themselves—and possibly even reclaim their subversive tempers—as they’re freed from the restrictions of contingency.
Of course, the grass won’t be greener, but as Jane Addams (one of Chicago’s patron saints) once said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” Together, we can make the arts thrive.