Arts and Money, Another Perspective

Several weeks ago Lightsey Darst wrote a three-part essay called “The Poorest Art: Dance and Money,” which details just how poorly supported dance is in the US, and explores some of what that means. Anyone who has worked in the performing arts knows how hard dancers work and how short their professional lives can be—much like a professional athlete without the perks and the money.

Then just recently, I heard that a regional art center near me was closing its doors because they could no longer afford the rent. Shortly after hearing this rumor, I received an email from the curator explaining that the board of directors had “made a decision to move forward with a new vision” and that they were “right-sizing” the organization. While I recognized this as spin, I was very happy to see that they decided continue to bring art to the community, albeit in a very different format.

These events seemed to bring into focus the sad state of arts support in parts of the US. But then the same month, I participated in a group show that set a record for sales. Then I was reminded there were other records being set by arts auction houses in the past year, and, although I have discussed the high-end art/money interconnection before, more pieces are selling than just the works of recognized “masters.” Jocelyn Noveck, an AP writer, has reported that in some places ballet has hit a high point in pop culture and shows are selling out.

So which is it? Are the arts in terrible shape, completely unsupported by the public or are arts seeing a resurgence, with a great deal of financial support? The answer is, of course, both. Sometimes, you can see both phenomena in the same place, like New York professional theatre. AP writer, Mark Kennedy reports that “God is having a tough month on Broadway – ‘Godspell’ is closing, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is on life support and now comes word that ‘Sister Act’ is going to theatrical heaven. [sic]” Yet, at the same time, Book of the Mormon is still selling 102.63% capacity  in the same environment (although I’ve never been quite sure how they do that).

It just depends on where you look. Not having statistics, it is difficult to determine if the overall financial support for the arts is up or down, or just moving around. An article by Lucas Kavner in The Huffington Post reports that the “fourth edition of ‘Arts & Economic Properity’ reveals that the [arts] industry generated $135.2 billion of economic activity,” which causes Robert L. Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, to conclude that “the arts remain ‘open for business.’ People are clearly still going to arts events.”

It seems that at the same time that contemporary society devalues one art or one company or one gallery or one artist, it embraces another. And while I sympathize with the dancers in Darst’s articles, I have the same sympathy for any artist who feels devalued because society is moving in a direction different from where he/she stands, or popular culture is interested in something else at this particular moment in time. No matter what the ideal might be, the fact is that the arts in the US in the twenty-first century exist in a market economy, subject to the same fluctuations and forces as any market economy. We need to remember that it’s not personal; it’s just the way the market is moving at this particular moment in time. We are just caught in whatever trend is occurring this decade or year or month. And in the long run that may be a good thing, not necessarily for the individual, but for art in general. That arts organization near me may thrive in its newly “right-sized” form and have far more impact that it would have done in its earlier incarnation.

Most of us did not get into the arts for money, and while money is certainly desirable, some of us will stay in the arts whether or not we are paid well. We have to.

And artists are, for the most part, supportive of each other, and I certainly would not change that. We must continue that support each other. Like the artist I mentioned two weeks ago, if we cannot sell our own art, then let’s sell somebody’s—let’s just be sure that somebody’s art gets sold.

Date: Monday, 2. July 2012 1:26
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