Art Works Blog

A Fight to the Death for Arts Funding?

The debaters pose for a (mock) action shot mid-debate. (left to right) Steve Lambert, Alexis Clements, and Deborah Fisher.

A “Death Match” focused on arts funding? Sounds bloody and dramatic, and like something that might involve a lot of paper cuts. Probably best to be avoided.

But this January that’s exactly what I found myself involved in. And because the organizers didn’t tell us speakers any of the specific rules before the event, I couldn’t entirely be sure if acts of physical or verbal violence weren’t involved.

Would I be willing to die for my position on arts funding? And what do they even mean by “arts funding?” What do I mean by it?

Of course, the title was hyperbole. And, in the end, it was a good-humored energetic debate, organized by Flux Factory, an arts organization based in Queens, New York. My fellow speakers, Deborah Fisher and Steve Lambert, didn’t take predatory stances. In fact, the two of them had previously exchanged some arts funding with one another---Fisher’s organization, A Blade of Grass, gave a grant to the Center for Artistic Activism, the organization that Lambert co-founded. And based on their introductions, each of them receives the bulk of their incomes from various traditional arts funding sources, such as private philanthropy, grants and prizes, and income from their respective arts organizations.

Over the course of the evening the three of us addressed a handful of questions from the organizers and the audience, ranging from the influence of wealthy donors on individual artists to the proliferation of Master of Fine Art (MFA) programs in the U.S. to competing political ideologies.

It was certainly among the more playful and interactive panel discussions that I have witnessed, and certainly the most fun among the panels that I’ve sat on. But it’s always a little tricky to figure out what comes out of these discussions in the longer-term.

For me, a couple of things stood out when all was said and done. First, it’s essential to recognize the full scope of funding that artists make use of if we’re going to get a clear picture of how funding works. And second, institutional and traditional arts funding seems to exacerbate problems that exist within the arts and across the culture, particularly when it comes to the exclusion of poor artists, people of color, women, queer and trans artists, artists with disabilities, and artists following non-traditional paths (career changes, older artists, artists working outside of institutional settings, etc).

At the outset of the event, the organizers (Flux Factory’s Executive Director, Christina Vassallo, and Douglas Paulson, the residency director) asked us to describe how we get paid. I could have simply said that a very small percentage of my income comes from my playwriting and other creative writing, along with my journalism work, while the bulk of my income comes from a non-arts related part-time job. But instead, I wanted to highlight some of the issues that extend from the pervasive thinking that one’s income can or should be tied to direct earnings from one’s art work.

Here are some of the points I started with, and a few that I didn’t have a chance to finish before being smoked out by the smoke machine and noisemakers that told us our time was up:

  • According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2008 Artists in the Workforce report, female artists make 65 cents to the male artist’s dollar. There is no reference in the report to transgender or gender non-conforming artists.
  • That means the gender-based wage gap in the arts is actually worse than it is in the larger workforce, where, depending on who is reporting and how it is calculated, women make 77-81 percent of what men make (Source 1, Source 2---among others), with lower percentages for women of color, particularly Latina women.
  • Follow that up with the reality that, for instance, only five percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is by women (Source), only nine percent of film directors are women (Source), and only 17-20 percent of plays produced in the U.S. are by women (Source). And those numbers only scratch the surface---almost none indicate statistics for trans-women or lesbians. Finding accurate statistics about the representation of artists of color across artistic genres is maddeningly difficult, but it is safe to assume from the few stats available for specific communities within niches of the arts that the percentage of opportunities they receive, along with other under-represented groups, is achingly small.
  • Add to that the results from the 2010 survey conducted by the group WAGE (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), which shows that out of a sample of 731 visual and performing artists a full 58 percent of the artists were paid nothing when presenting their work in New York City venues. They weren’t even reimbursed for direct costs.

Top all that off with the further reality that the bulk of philanthropy in the arts goes to only two percent of the nation’s arts institutions, who are among those with the largest budgets (Source).

To restate the above succinctly: the vast majority of traditional arts funding (large grants and private philanthropy) goes to a tiny minority of arts institutions and organizations, and we know that many major arts orgs are among the worst offenders in terms of excluding under-presented groups. Not to mention, many of the institutions that are getting funding are failing to pay any of that money to the artists they do present.

Which is to say, traditional arts funding, by and large, appears to be complicit in a system that rewards discriminatory practices, and much of the time the money that is distributed fails to reach actual artists.

One easy solution to this problem that I mentioned at the debate: traditional arts funders and board members at arts organizations can tie their support to requirements that artists receive a portion of the funding and that there be increased representation of women, artists of color, and other under-represented groups.

I can imagine that for some, the above statement will ruffle some feathers, but the reality is that when the National Museum for Women in the Arts is estimating that 51 percent of artists are women, but only five percent of opportunities to exhibit within museums are going to women, discrimination is clear and in desperate need of correction, for all under-presented groups.

But the above also begs the question---if so few artists are being paid to present their work by private philanthropy or government (the NEA offers almost no funding directly to individual artists, and state arts agencies give only three percent of their grant dollars to individual artists), then why do we typically only think of them when we think of arts funding? How are artists actually paying for the time and direct costs associated with making their work? Why don’t we refer to any source of money that an artist uses to fund the making of their work as part of a larger, more complete understanding of arts funding?

The reality is that there are a huge array of arts funding models that artists regularly make use of. There’s crowd-funding and the starting of non-profits. There are temporary employment models, where artists are used as consultants or asked to provide services that relate to their art. For a huge portion of artists, a larger chunk of their funding comes from themselves, in the form of non-art-making employment (day jobs, seasonal work, etc.). And of course, for centuries, many artists have simply been supported by their families or spouses. That continues to be true for many artists today. Others have had and do have wealthy patrons. Certainly these last two funding sources are not options for many artists and I am not advocating for any of the above models by acknowledging their existence. What I’m pushing for is a more clear-eyed look at the real sources of funding behind artists, because I think that more accurate information about how artists are actually funding their work might help us get a better picture of the conditions necessary to succeed within today’s arts institutions and make the institutions of the future more accessible to a wider spectrum of artists.

There are many other funding sources besides those mentioned above. A few years back I read a memoir about a couple that lived in an RV and sold their blood to help fund their work. Talk about a death match! Again, I’m not advocating for that, but what all this demonstrates is that funding for the arts comes from many sources, and if we ignore the non-traditional streams then we’ll fail to understand the real role that money plays in offering opportunity to some while standing in the way for others.

Meanwhile, I think my time is up on this debate for the moment. I’ll leave it there until the next round!

Alexis Clements is a playwright and journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is also a fellow at Cultural Strategies Initiative. Her creative work has been produced and published in both the U.S. and the UK. She is the co-editor of the two-volume anthology of performance texts by women titled, Out of Time & Place, which includes her performance piece, Conversation. Her articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in publications such as Bitch MagazineThe Brooklyn RailThe L MagazineNature, and Aesthetica. She regularly writes about art and performance for Hyperallergic.

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