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Art in Trouble in the 21st-Century
Economy and the Solutions
Living in capitalism means you need to make a living as an artist.
A. The Problems
1. The Perception of Money
You don’t have to love capitalism. But you can’t live outside of capitalism. Living in capitalism doesn’t mean you don’t criticize the problems of capitalism. “Living in capitalism means you need to make a living as an artist.”
2. The Financial Perspective of the Art World
Let me look at the art world from a purely financial viewpoint. Museums and galleries today are employers, and artists are contract workers. Museum directors, curators, and gallerists are hiring authorities. There are almost no full-time positions for artists : There are no museums that pay artists a monthly paycheck. There are a few galleries that pay artists a monthly paycheck. However, in most cases, artists get paid based on sales transactions, meaning a contract. A gallery gets 50% of the sale’s revenue, and the rest goes to the artist. Only a few artists make their primary earnings as working artists. Most artists have a side job to make a living. Artists who get paid “full-time salaries” are university professors and lecturers. Most B.F.A. and M.F.A. students pay a fortune for their education without any guarantee of a job available after graduating. Most college teachers lure young artists to come to their schools without suggesting any financial advice for their future. The young artists’ parents pay the expensive tuition.
3. An Example
Let me give a clear example—a “somewhat” successful painter who sells 20 paintings per year. Let’s say that the average price of each painting is $5,000.00. This means the total annual sale is $100,000.00. And the gallery takes 50%. The artist takes $50,000.00. However, the artists pay materials, the studio rental fee, and taxes. What the artist actually get is $20,000.00 $25,000.00 a year. The artist teaches a local high school or working in a restaurant to make extra money to pay the rent, food, and gas. The artist lives a little bit above the poverty level ($26,500). The real problem is that no one can guarantee the artist continues to sell 20 paintings per year for the next five years. Most artists rise and fall. When they fall down, they broke.
4. Can Art Exist Beyond the Gallery Wall ?
Galleries and museums are not only places where art takes place. The exhibition value suggested by Walter Benjamin doesn’t have to be the goal of every artist. Socially engaged art paved a new road by suggesting that different modes of art can exist beyond the museum walls. Socially engaged art focuses more on the social impact of art. However, most socially engaged art projects are dependent on grants and donations. Foundations that give artists grants or donors are, in a purely economic viewpoint, are employers, and socially engaged artists are contract workers. This is because socially engaged art projects are selected and funded when they meet the foundation’s mission, vision, and value. If not, socially engaged artists won’t get paid for what they want to do.
1. Are There Entrepreneurs in Art ?
Yes. There is one I know–Conflict Kitchen. Artist Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski founded Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant that only serves the cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. They change their menu every five to six months, reflecting ethnic diversity such as Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan, North Korean, Haudenosaunne and Palestinian dishes. Although it was built based on grants and university support in the beginning, they generate enough income to sustain their mission for years :
Conflict Kitchen uses the social relations of food and economic exchange to engage the general public in discussions about countries, cultures, and people that they might know little about outside of the polarizing rhetoric of governmental politics and the narrow lens of media headlines .
In terms of the business perspective, they were one of the most popular lunchtime restaurants in Pittsburgh. They don’t rely on museums, galleries, and other conventional institutions in the art world. Perhaps, they had a bigger social impact. They are recently closed not because of their income shortage but because the artists have other interests to do.
2. Re-inventing the Structure of Art School
The world needs creators more than ever. We need more examples like Conflict Kitchen. We need to change our education system for art that teaches students to be self-stainable or fit in the 21st-economy. Art schools can open new courses for creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs. Also, we need a finance course specifically designed for artists.
There are not many financial resources for artists available or taught in colleges. This means that not many artists know how to save tax by registering them as LLC(Limited liability company).
Second, I suggest a new name for the art department from “the school of art” to “the School of Creativity and Critical Thinking.” Also, instead of using the word “sculpture,” I would use “spatial thinking.” Spatial thinking means “finding meanings in the shape, size, orientation, location, direction or trajectory, of objects, and their relative positions, and uses the properties of space as a vehicle for structuring problems, for finding answers, and for expressing solutions” . This is what we need to train our students. Adobe Creative Cloud and VR/AR programs such as Gravity Sketch, Facebook Horizon Creators’ tools, Unity, and Blender will be the most useful skills to learn. Yet intellectual curiosity and critical thinking should remain at the center more than the technical guru.
The best example I know is Stanford’s D School : https://dschool.stanford.edu/. They combined creativity, innovation, and real-life implications. Their project-based and experiential courses bring together students from all seven schools at Stanford University to collaborate and face real-world problems.
3. Recaching Out to Other Fields
Artist Jon Rubin at Conflict Kitchen reached out to a chef. When the two different disciplines met, the creative business was born. Conflict Kitchen had a more significant social impact than any other restaurants. I see numerous possibilities to take place when creative minds meet other fields of disciplines such as healthcare, business, sport, sustainability, biology, forestry, etc. We need active mediators who can connect seemingly disparate fields of knowledge. It could be a college center dedicated to interdisciplinary collaborations. It could be an online platform that can match professionals who need each other’s skills and knowledge.
You may disagree with me. That’s fair. You might be right. But, you probably agree that artists need better financial solutions. I am suggesting one of the possible directions for the future. Let’s look at the difference between the late Bauhaus and Dada (or the Black Mountain College). The late Bauhaus focused more on the utility of art as they saw new possibilities of art in the emerging machine culture. Dada hated the machine culture during World War I. The Black Mountain College pursued artist’s freedom of expression rather than the utility of art. I am more like the late Bauhaus in the 21st-century. I see new possibilities as I see the emergence of Metaverse, creator economy (such as YouTube), and NFT. Just like Dada took a different direction, I have no doubt that there will be artists who resist these emerging digital cultures and create new types of art.
The cover image is a screen shot of a virtual reality group meeting for the next Mindful Joint Conference.