Thursday, December 11, 2014


I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.

Recently, three published pieces raised the question of our expectations as artists and how we present our work.1 While not all discuss the same topic, each one raises, at least by inference or implication, the question of how an artist can fulfill his or her expectation of a reasonable living wage in our current environment.

These pieces, addressing various aspects of this topic (which I have been mulling and discussing with colleagues for a while) are: Why “Where”? Because “Who”: Arts venues, spaces and traditions by Brent Reidy of AEA Consulting for the James Irvine Foundation, Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists, a report by BFAMFAPhD, and The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs. Two of the pieces, Artists Report Back and The Pomplamoose Problem detail the gap in the reality of making a living that artists face. The third, Why “Where”? Because “Who” details the changed expectation of current audiences and the changing relationship between audience and artist regarding the space in which the art takes place.

The heart of the matter is that we expect to be able to earn a reasonable living through our art, but the current environment makes this an unrealistic expectation except for a very select few. We partially find ourselves in this situation because of the overwhelming success of our funding and cultural policies and strategies during the twentieth century (particularly the second half of that century) that aimed to professionalize the artistic landscape and broaden the reach of culture throughout our society.

While there has always been a commercial industry that existed alongside amateur practitioners, commercial opportunities were traditionally limited and selective. Through the use of “leveraged funding,” pioneered by the Ford Foundation and then adopted by the government and other funders, we built a strong and vibrant professional non-profit creative sector.2 A natural outcome of this “professionalization” was an increased expectation for all participants that it was possible for the first time, certainly within our country’s history, to earn a living as an artist.3 This sense has been strengthened by the institutionalization of arts education and training that came with the professionalization and to which Artists Report Back responds.

As we have transitioned into the twenty-first century, however, the demographic and social milieu has fundamentally shifted, resulting in a gap between the expectation of artists and the expectation of audiences. To put it another way, audiences are increasingly skipping the traditional artforms (often referred to as “high” or “fine” arts) because these artforms, at least as they are traditionally presented, no longer deliver the value they once did. The success of our strategies of the past hundred years in increasing the supply of artists has not been matched with strategies to insure sufficient value and demand for the work of those artists. The result is the gap many funders are now seeking to address.

It is well documented that our country is in the midst of a major demographic shift from a European based Caucasian culture to a multi-ethnic culture. The vast majority of the traditional arts that have been professionalized in this country flowed from a European background and aesthetic system that is not the same as that of other heritages, many of which have a different (or additional) set of cultural artifacts and experiences that they value. As the ethnic and racial balance in our country shifts, so do the cultural experiences and artifacts in which audiences find value, which is directly linked to demand.

At the same time, disruptive digital technologies have eviscerated the underpinnings of many industries and the previous generation’s work, turning the business models of our sector upside down. The underlying issue - the inability to rely on making a living as an artist today - is not limited to the non-profit sector. Taylor Swift’s recent withdrawal of her catalog from Spotify and the pitched battle between Amazon and Hachette are indications that the pressures from these shifts are also wreaking havoc with the commercial segments of the creative industries.

Many of today’s funders and analysts in our sector are understandably focused on the changing rules of engagement between artist and audience. Some, like Bill Ivey, have nostalgically focused their writing on the shift or return to a public engagement with the arts that is reminiscent of past times and norms.4 Unfortunately, this earlier kind of engagement never included a professionalized sector, and consequently the expectation of artists that they might reasonably earn a living from their art did not exist or at least did not exist on the general scale it does today.

Reidy, looking at it from the audience point of view, urges artists to go where the audiences are and not expect audiences to come to them, as they have in the past.5 For Reidy, these changes are irrevocable:

The most shortsighted of these efforts are calculated attempts to hook new patrons and somehow convince them to come back to the places they do not currently attend. Increasing attendance back at base is possible, but only when an organization can re-legitimize and ground itself through efforts that reach new patrons in genuine ways. For the work to be truly effective,[ ] it must be part of the mission, not only of strategy, and an organization must be committed to meeting its current and future patrons where they are, not where that organization wishes they were (emphasis in the original).6

Looking at it from the artist’s point of view, both The Pomplamoose Problem, and Artists Report Back urge that we address the crisis of the difficulty artists have to earn a living. Each assumes artists should be able to earn a living. Perhaps just as Reidy acknowledges the reality of a changed expectations and desires of audiences, so too must artists acknowledge the changed reality of their situation. And some may already be doing so.

The Pomplamoose Problem responds to a report by the band Pomplamoose, in which the band details the costs and revenues of their recent self-produced tour. While the band believes that their investment and personal loss on the tour was well worth it, their loss is bemoaned in the Pomplamoose Problem as a sign of how we are failing our artists and this forms the basis of the post’s call to action. The only real difference I can see, however, between the Pomplamoose artists and the Pomplamoose Problem commenter is that they have different expectations.

Along with Brent Reidy’s findings and recommendations, it seems that this is the real message that more and more are suggesting for our sector: changing expectations are required to continue making art and being satisfied with the return on that work for the artist. Such a change, though, may spell the end of the “professionalized” arts sector we have come to expect. As the Pomplamoose band's reactions shows, it is possible to be successful in the current environment, though to do so, today's artists may need a different set of expectations than those of artists of a previous period.

1. Many thanks to Thomas Cott and You’ve Cott Mail for alerting us to these and many other salient conversations.
2. A second outcome of this process was the solidifying of a dichotomy between “high” and “popular” art. With the return to an earlier relationship between artist and audience, as Reidy and others report, this distinction is also waning or disappearing.
3. For a concise and enlightening history of this process, see, for example The Performing Arts in a New Era, from the Rand Corporation for the Pew Charitable Trusts, 2001.
4. See, for example, Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy, Counterpoint Press, 2012.
5. While not explicitly stated, the report appears to be addressed more to institutional readers than individual artists, but his points are just as applicable.
6. Reidy, p12.

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