In December of last year, I left my beloved art world job for something completely different – a field in which I was a total newbie (the entertainment industry), working on the cutting edge of digital media and online education. I had many reasons for making this shift – I continue to believe strongly that online education is an important piece of the puzzle in broadening access to arts education, and although this job is not in the “arts,” the subjective content of the online curricula I am developing seemed applicable. Plus working for a business with the resources to really experiment, research, and invest in developing excellent products in this untested educational space is an experience I know I would never be able to have otherwise.
I also get paid a lot more.
As jolting as the transition was, and as much as I am still actively freelancing, writing, and advising on a number of art initiatives, it allowed me some time and space to reflect on my prior job experiences. Again and again, this consideration of resources – their scarcity or relative abundance – kept rising to the surface of my thoughts. I have never before worked for a business that made any kind of money – only public educational institutions (i.e. the public school system, elementary to college level) and non-profits. I have often worked for free, or for far less than I should have. Though I tried to avoid it as much as possible, I have also asked others to work for me for free, or for very little pay. I became accustomed to scarcity, resigned to disparity, and I am not the only one. Recently a friend admitted he was sick of working his heart out for underfunded arts non-profits and living in near poverty, and another friend who just earned her PhD marveled that her new highly-sought-after curator job barely paid more than a graduate school stipend. Though it is not the only reason I made the switch, a salary on par with my skills was certainly one factor in my decision. An organization that invests appropriately in its people (in real, monetary, salaried terms) is not unheard of in the art world, but it is exceedingly rare. This is a particularly egregious recent example, but how many paid internships in the art world can you find? And how many artist honorariums exceed a couple hundred dollars (if they even get an honorarium)? There just aren’t enough resources to go around.
This is not to say business is good, non-profits bad, or the reverse (Bad business! They only care about making money, not things that matter, I myself thought for years). But I wanted to understand how money could be made, how an arts organization could become profitable, at least enough to sustain itself and grow a little without relying on the fickle trends of donors and grants. This was prompted by a series of interviews I did for KCET Artbound in the fall of last year (with collaborator Emily Anne Kuriyama) on seven small artist-run spaces across LA. At least two of those spaces no longer exist because of their extreme precarity, and others still struggle to piece it together month after month – often by dipping into their own pockets or relying on free or volunteer labor. How to position these interesting, radical, culturally rich practices on solid ground? And how to offer their value in a way that would also sustain their output?
I had no answer at the time, and I still don’t – just the question that emerges again and again. I thought maybe I could gain some insight by working for a profit-driven business with a commitment to excellent cultural products meant to be consumed by a broad general audience.
I also embarked on a project with artist Glenn Kaino, who asks similar questions about systemic investment and leverage in his work, called Cipher. This series of zines, each on a different theme, explore societal micro and macro-systems and our relationship to them – both in the generation of knowledge and art for the zine and in the production process of the zine itself. The first issue, Cipher #1, addressed artists, commerce, and capital – and was funded through the production and sale of luxury shoes that Glenn and a group of collaborators produced. We discussed this unusual funding model in depth in an interview with urbanist Neil Brenner, contrasting it with donor-reliant or grant-funded methods of funding.
I have yet to discover any clear answers to this systemic reality, but our hope through Cipher is that the question continues to be asked, and that young artists know no restrictions in experimenting with new models.
Check out the full issue of Cipher #1 here.