Report: Art of Survival
In this two-part report, Paddy Johnson examines the day-to day survival of commercial and mixed-economy art organisations in New York, while Jennifer Thatcher assesses the new conditions fully-funded UK spaces now face
Getting by in New York isn’t easy. The cost of living is high, and for all the big opportunities on offer, the challenge of finding funding and pay is constant. The culture is built upon these pressures. ‘If you come here you better have some money, or a way of making it, because otherwise you are going to be utterly miserable,’ artist Marcin Ramocki tells me. He bucked that trend, arriving in need of a work visa as a Polish immigrant, and was lucky enough to get a tenure track position at a local university (a rarity given that many institutions cut costs by hiring professors a semester at a time, and a situation that doesn’t require universities to offer health insurance or to pay as much).
The difficulty in making enough money to take care of yourself also contributes to a culture of large workloads, typically described as the city’s ‘pulsing energy’ – a rather flattering term for a nervous condition most other cities label an addiction. When I speak to curator and Prospect New Orleans biennial founder Dan Cameron, he expresses a desire to clone himself, a sentiment expressed so often in New York it’s a cliché: ‘My biggest hurdle has to do with time management.’ He worries that his career happened because ‘things happened to him’, more than they did from planning.
Meanwhile, Sean Horton, a New York gallerist who recently opened a second space in Berlin laments, ‘A few of my European colleagues have remarked that there is more to life than work.’ He describes Berlin as more laid back, but notes that the percentage of sales against cost of living is roughly the same as New York in his experience.
Horton’s take on the subject of survival verges on superstitious. He is reluctant to discuss the matter, though when he does he offers practical advice. ‘Success temporarily helps survival, but it’s very fickle,’ he remarks. ‘From my perspective, survival is a daily challenge: don’t sell to collectors who bounce checks and then leave for foreign countries, try to pay artists as quickly as possible, get curators out from behind their desks to see gallery shows, and do everything in your power to keep your artists from leaving for some corporate white cube.’ In Horton’s words, ‘try to prevent the elite and collector culture from draining the life out of art, while still participating in commerce.’ New York culture is nothing if not liberal.
It is also not particularly thrifty. It’s difficult to go for a week without being invited to an after-party at a restaurant or bar. Even the poorest New Yorkers don’t network without laying out a bit of cash, particularly in the case of artists, whose work and social life are one and the same. Judith Braun, a 61-year-old artist most recently known for her participation in Work of Art, a US reality TV show, describes vastly different competitive social circles at different points in her art career. When she left the art world for a decade during the mid-1990s, she dropped all her art friends. ‘I stopped ordering the magazines, I wouldn’t go to shows and I stopped going to places where artists were going to be.’ Braun got embarrassed when she saw her former friends on the street, ‘There’s a hierarchy that’s very clear and everyone is competing for these little spots. So when I stopped, and when I’d see people and I didn’t have a show, I felt depressed about it. I just dropped all those kinds of friends and they dropped me too!’
Braun returned to the art world several years ago, and is once more deeply ensconced in the scene. The severe social structure Braun describes is most common among gallerists, artists and critics, a group that looks down on hobbies that can’t be applied to professional life. (A small sub-section of native New Yorkers experience a slightly different social reality as they tend to maintain relationships with high school friends.) This is also true of many high-level curators, whose profession requires engagement with a broader cultural universe. ‘You have access to so many kinds of people in New York, and it’s a perk of being a director’, observes Lauren Cornell, executive director of Rhizome, a new media art organisation, and adjunct curator at the New Museum. ‘You have to be engaging with those people because you are not just promoting art to an art audience. I am promoting Rhizome to the New York start-up community and technology world.’
Rhizome affiliated with the New Museum in 2003, which among other benefits, gives the non-profit organisation office space at the museum. The expense of real estate is a huge issue in the city. As the recession bites, a few places are using temporary, donated space that’s proven difficult to rent. Triple Canopy, an online publication enjoys a rent-free 5,000ft office on condition that the lease is renewed every three months. ‘I lost a job because of, in part, the recession,’ programme manager Peter Russo tells me, ‘but it allowed me to focus more intensely on Triple Canopy and also see the non-profit application through.’ The week they received non-profit status, the Warhol Foundation invited them to apply for an award, which they were subsequently granted.
Harlem’s similarly named non-profit gallery Triple Candie, run by Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett, say it takes three years to build up the track record needed to regularly receive grants in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. For this reason, they told me longevity typically plays a role in the success of most gallery programmes. ‘It takes time for people to catch on, for word to travel, for people to grasp and process difference,’ they explain. ‘It also takes time to show people that what you are doing is possible, potentially sustainable, and elastic enough to be exciting.’
Like many professionals I spoke to, Triple Candie is critical of New York’s commerce-centric art world, actively creating programming to push against it. In 2005, the gallery stopped working with artists, as a means of encouraging discussion about art. This, however, meant a 67% reduction in their funding, since most grants require that organisations work directly with artists.
But it’s a tough road worth following. ‘For us,’ say Bancroft and Nesbett, ‘being in New York isn’t so much about being close to art-world power, but rather being in its shadows, curating shows that challenge basic economic and social assumptions, and then taking advantage, when possible, of New York as a media centre to get the word out’.
Paddy Johnson is the editor of ArtFagCity.com
A year before its launch in July this year, Creative Scotland (previously Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen) offered its first initiative, the Innovation Fund. Like Arts Council England’s £40million Sustain, CS’s £5million fund acknowledged the ongoing recession and the likelihood of a political situation less favourable to bankrolling culture. CS awaits its first board meeting and, more importantly, confirmation of its principal source of funding when the Scottish government publishes its budget in November. Chief Executive Andrew Dixon says that CS’s board is ‘aware of the economic climate across the public sector, but it is in no doubt of the need to protect the vital cultural infrastructure that keeps our creative life so energetic’.
Perhaps because Scotland’s cultural strategy has been under review for the best part of the 2000s, CS appears stoical about its future, despite the likelihood of cuts and a reassess-ment of its regularly-funded, ‘foundation’ organisations. It says that the majority of its budget is committed for 2010 / 11, and includes non-emergency priorities such as the environment and supporting Gaelic arts activity.
Down south, panic and speculation are growing. Arts Council England has published an urgent message to the new Tory-Lib Dem government called ‘Why the arts matter’, replacing New Labour buzzwords like ‘participation’ and ‘diversity’ with on-message terms ‘efficiency’ and ‘value-for-money’. ACE’s ‘advocacy tool-kit’ recommends staying positive, displaying reckless optimism in coinciding the launch of its 10 year strategy ‘Achieving great art for everyone’ with the coalition’s euphemistically titled ‘Spending Review’ this autumn.
ACE is vulnerable on two counts – the coalition’s plans to cut £6billion in public spending, and it’s dislike of quangos. In an era obsessed with transparency and consultation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has given ACE a choice of two ropes with which to hang itself. Firstly, the DCMS has launched a public inquiry into the funding of the arts and heritage, asking for 3,000-word submissions on ‘what level of public subsidy… is necessary and sustainable?’, the results of which even ACE admits will be too late to influence the ‘Spending Review’. Secondly, it has asked ACE, among other public bodies, to ‘model’ a 25–30% budget cut across four years. Arts Council Wales has already committed hara-kiri, ending its funding of 32 RFOs following the organisation’s spending review.
Given this insecurity about public funding, will it be possible to increase the percentage of funding from non-state sources? Do private sponsors need the initial stamp of approval from state funding – the £2 generated for every £1 ACE invests? Aside from a handful of controversial partnerships like Tate / BP, corporate sponsorship of the arts in the UK is often sporadic and short-term. Many institutions have invested in development departments, but it can be difficult to match brands with experimental art activity, particularly without celebrities. The rewards have to be substantial to be worth the distraction from core activities or to risk letting a bunch of suits sip wine in front of your priceless collection.
Ironically, Arts & Business, the charity that promotes ACE’s mixed-economy model, has already suffered a 4% cut in its £4million ACE grant. Its current advice for organisations looking for sustainable funding is to look at how the retail sector has developed customer loyalty, pay more attention to what funders want (whether more customers, making a difference to a community, or learning about the work of an organisation), and improving ‘donor care’ – basic stuff like sending thank-you letters. Resource sharing, such as joint marketing and collaborative research leading to cost-effective touring exhibitions, is another possible idea. The Big Arts Give, comprising 125 arts charities, is an example of a joint approach to lobbying – aiming for £1billion private-sector pledges before Christmas. Less sexy than money, ‘in-kind’ donations – and not just beer – will look increasingly desirable.
In one excruciating sketch of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is upstaged by Ted Danson, who takes the moral high-ground by offering an ‘anonymous’ donation to an LA museum while simultaneously arranging for his identity to be leaked, making Larry’s choice of having a gallery named after him appear vulgar. If the new government has its way, such philanthropic dilemmas might become commonplace throughout the UK, despite the current lack of tax incentives and the fact that British arts trustees are rarely obliged to pledge individual funds or raise a target amount.
Nonetheless, US-style philanthropy is far from ideal even in the US, where reliance on wealthy individuals can lead to power imbalance. If competition between super-collectors is driving an increase in private institutions, competition between causes is also an issue, with philanthropic organisations like The Funding Network organising Dragon’s Den-style events to help donors determine worthy charities.
While sponsorship development officers are having a tough time, spare a thought for the new raft of trust and foundations officers charged with the time-consuming task of applying to the gamut of private grant-giving bodies, such as the Henry Moore, Esmée Fairbairn, and Paul Hamyln foundations. Anecdotally, it seems that instead of the expected rush on grants, some organisations have decided to defer applications until the political announcements this autumn in Holyrood and Westminster determine their survival.
More entrepreneurial options include selling artworks – after all, why shouldn’t charities gain from the market like everyone else? However, few organisations have the level of strong insider support that allow them to hold an annual charity auction like the Drawing Room, and even fewer can boast a spare Picasso in their basement like the ICA. Most organisations can knock out an edition or two, and on a grander scale last year, ZOO Art Fair launched a successful editions area. But while editions potentially supplement income, there is the real risk of a market saturated with cheap works of art, and commercial galleries are unlikely to welcome the competition.
Most radically, institutions will have to make their own cuts – staff, programming, opening hours. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is full of utopian ideas about civic responsibility and volunteering. It’s paradoxical that the arts, already full of volunteers and social values, are being made to define themselves according to financial values.
Jennifer Thatcher is a freelance critic, lecturer and project co-ordinator for the 2011 Folkestone Triennial