Archive for the Re: Underpaid Art Administrators Category

I finished Bill Ivey’s Art Inc. last week, after a long, drawn-out battle with the text. Part of the challenge was my personal circumstances — as I was changing day jobs — but another part of it was the denseness of the text. It helped that I wenty away last week to my wife’s family’s fabulous(ly quiet) cabin, and, with loon’s crying in the background, I was able to kick up the feet without distraction for a change and finish the book. (I didn’t log in once — which, of course, explains the brief CAFA hiatus…)

I’m still somewhat processing the data, information, and suggestions of Ivey in relation to “how greed and neglect have destroyed our cultural rights,” and I am currently pondering writing something more extensive about the book in future weeks—perhaps connecting this text to a book someone bequethed to me, ironically enough, just before I left my previous job: John Frohnmayer’s Leaving Town Alive. But for now I’ll just post a few quotations I found interesting and insightful from Art Inc., and encourage you all to read this intriguing, timely, and important book (note: Ivey’s take on Ronald Reagan, referenced briefly below, actually somewhat changed my view of this president, of whom I’d never had a very positive opinion):

  • “…since the 1960s our cultural policy has pretty much been about bringing more fine art to the American people. Increasing supply made sense in 1960, but this single-minded agenda has made it too easy for self-declared arts leaders to avoid engaging the breadth of America’s unique cultural system, focusing instead on a couple of narrow issues — arts education and expanded funding for nonprofits.”
  • “Back when I was a sophomore living on the third floor of the University of Michigan’s first coed dorm, I asked an artist friend who lived down the hall what his parents thought about his choice of career. I’ve never forgotten his answer: ‘Every family wants a Picasso hanging on the wall, but no family wants one standing in the living room.’ He’d hit the nail on the head; we Americans love — even worship — our artists from afar, but once the curtain comes down or, as Bob Dylan says, ‘the gallery lights dim,’ we’re just as happy if they quietly leave the stage. Americans don’t take artists very seriously.”
  • “One sign of our lack of respect for artists is the persistence of evidence that artists have too much trouble piecing together an income for an appropriate level of long-term material well-being; another sign is the difficulty Americans have accommodating the special vision, knowledge, and insight of artists as leaders in public life. After all, we’ve only elected one real artist to high office, actor Ronald Reagan, and his artistic pedigree discomfited his supporters…”
  • “If, as Freud argued, maturity is measured by the capacity of an individual to hold contradictory ideas at the same time, then the maturity of a society can be judged by it ability to simultaneously honor multiple aesthetics. Our individual expressive lives are enriched as we take in more examples of the nature of the human predicament and as we experience different approaches to the representation of cultural values and different attempts to convey universal truths.”
  • “Back when I was chairman of the NEA, I made a point of handing a dollar to every street entertainer I passed. ‘It’s my job,’ I’d half-joke with friends. ‘I’m the head of the U.S. agency that makes grants in the arts; this is the least I can do.’”
  • “Today, inflation-adjusted funding by state, local, and federal arts agencies is less than in 1992, and arts grants as a percentage of total foundation giving have also declined; foundation giving to the arts actually decreased slightly in 2006. Finally, as Americans for the Arts recently reported, modest recent gains in overall giving to culture disguise the fact that the percentage of overall philanthropy devoted to the nonprofit arts — the sector’s ‘market share’ of all giving — has declined by nearly one-third since the early 1990s.”
  • “As media scholar Philip Napoli observes, cultural policy ‘has never resonated or developed in the policymaking sector as an explicitly defined and institutionalized field of government activity.’ We’ve paid a price: public policy in matters of culture has been poorly aimed, limited in scope, and astoundingly tolerant of incoherence and unintended consequences. And the absence of public-interest priorities in intellectual property law, trade in cultural goods, creative education, and access to heritage has allowed an unrestrained marketplace to cobble together an arts scene that serves narrow commercial interests.”
  • “… at some point public policy must take on the challenge of leveling out or even turning back the relentless growth in the size of the nonprofit sector; a healthy twenty-first-century nonprofit arts system may require some culling, especially among unendowed midsized operations. Today the challenge for nonprofits is not to expand seasonal offerings or build new arts centers but rather to facilitate the downsizing or even the graceful demise of some institutions on the edge of survival in order to free up resources to allow stronger museums, orchestras, and dance companies to exercise greater creativity.”

Lisa Boyle, the owner of the 4-year-old Lisa Boyle Gallery, has just announced on the Bad at Sports blog that she’s calling it quits.

“Why is it so GOD DAMNED hard,” she writes, “to sell a piece of art around here? I can’t help asking myself this as I soon join the ranks of civilians outside the Art World proper and close the doors on my [gallery].”

Boyle acknowledges that she’s in good company, as “a handful of my compatriots are shutting down near the same time. 40000 last December, soon Navta Schulz, Gesheidle and others. Closings here, closings in New York, even my friend in Boston are hanging it up.” This leads her to ask, as many have, “Whose fault is it?”

She ponders the oft-cited local (Chicago) presumed reasons–lack of collectors, lack of critics, lack of museum support, nepotism in the market, competition from LA and NY–and then she comes to a realization:

…here’s the big bad bald truth, people: I’m just not that good at running a gallery. No, thank you for your support and encouragement, and I truly appreciate your assessment that I have a “good eye”, I do! It’s just an unavoidable truth to me that we’re being flushed out of our excuses, me and all the other quitters, by the simple fact that there are a few people out there who have been able to sustain important programs and be happy running a successful gallery in Chicago and certainly elsewhere. In other words, it can be done, so there’s no use in talking about how hard it is to do it… Making a life (if not a living) out of selling arbitrarily priced objects that no one needs is a very competitive venture. Not as easy as it looks. You have to want it. I mean really super bad. If you are going to create a successful system of supporting artists, connecting with institutions, and staying happy and successful as an art dealer, you have to want that more than a lot of other things. Like more than a paycheck, for example. More than every single Saturday for the rest of your natural born life. More than healthy exposure to the sun. You have to welcome payment in the form of some awkward social cache rather than in money, and you have to not mind being chained to a desk between four white walls for years, with the exception of those times you pack up your wares, like a traveling salesman, and take the show on the road. All of these things have to be fun and exciting to you…

Lisa added that she’s going to be working, part-time, in an academic office at Robert Morris College–no doubt relishing a new sense of sanity and stability, even as she gets a regular paycheck. I will add it’s refreshing to hear someone actually come out and speak truth in this matter of artistic failure–in this case, of just one gallery; though her word could just as well be applied to the entire system of arts in this country.

To her words I will add my own: As it happens, I too have just announced I am giving up, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as Lisa, my own three-year quixotic (dayjob) pursuit of a life and career of support in the arts (to go to work in a more stable workplace, associated with academia, that is closer to my home).

Some arts organizations in Boston recently, on January 13, staged a “die-in” in response to a report on the arts economy of Boston published by the Boston Foundation. Called “Vital Signs,” the report, which was released on December 19, suggested that the directors of “struggling arts groups” should perhaps be seeking “exit strategies.” According to the study, while large institutions such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Museum of Fine Arts remain healthy, smaller groups are “losing audience and struggling to balance their budgets.” The Foundation suggests that an organization “whose vision has either dissipated or lost its resonance with its audience or supporters” should consider shutting down.

Apparently, at the “die-in,” which took place in an alternative gallery space in Cambridge, a self-proclaimed group of “artyrs” drank Kool-Aid as a symbolic protest to the report. According to Boston Globe reporter Geoff Edgers, leaders of Boston’s small arts organizations had a lot to say to the Boston Foundation.

“The report takes a very naive position in the end,” said Jurgen Weiss, executive director of Snappy Dance Theater. “What I take from it is, ‘Look, here are these big organizations. They’re big. So they must be good. And all these small organizations are having trouble keeping afloat. So by some kind of Darwinian process some of them should die off.’ ”

Kathy Bitetti, an installation artist who heads the Artists Foundation, [said]:

“They don’t fund us, they never have, and they have no sense of who we are… Unfortunately I think this report does more harm than good. They’re looking at a corporate model. Instead of spending money on these reports, they could actually be funding organizations.”

The Chronicle of Artistic Failure in America is proud to introduce a new feature: Minnesotan Art Failure Tales (MAFT).

MAFT, Chapter the First

Minnesota Loses Its State Arts Board Director (A Continuing Saga)

Tom Proehl announced yesterday, via a cheerful letter to the Minnesota State Arts Board’s constituent members, that he is resigning as director of the Arts Board to take a “leadership post” with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Normally, such an announcement would not carry the weight of artistic failure, and artists and art lovers in this great and humble state I call home could be confident that the once-vaunted local government agency that is the primary state institution charged with fostering artists and arts activities here would carry on its good work. However, it’s my opinion that Proehl’s leaving—after just a bit over one year on the job—leaves the local arts landscape rather desperately denuded.

As I wrote sometime in the year prior to Proehl’s coming on board—during which, owing to various factors, no one could be found to serve in the position—the State Arts Board was rather dysfunctional. In an November, 2006 essay (written a month or so before Proehl’s hiring) called “Adjust Your Sails, Minnesota Artists,” I put it this way:

The Minnesota State Arts Board is one of the oldest such agencies in the United States and has a rich history of supporting art and artists; however, recent times have not been good to the board. Perhaps you’re aware that in 2003 the state legislature, at the prodding of the governor’s office, cut arts appropriations in the state between 30 and 60 percent, depending on which budget line you’re looking at, and not a dime of this funding has since been restored. Perhaps you’re also aware that we’ve been without a State Arts Board director for nearly a year, ever since Bob Booker stepped down last December. But you probably don’t realize the Board itself, perhaps because of the above factors, is a mess, deflated by its inability to hire a top candidate, preoccupied with staff issues and conflicts, and lacking focus in leading up to the recent legislative budgetary request. (I know these things first-hand, after attending recent State Arts Board open-to-the-public meetings.)

“The core issue with the State Arts Board,” I continued, “is stinginess.” The Minnesota State Arts Board pays wages well below the norm. For instance, the offer range for our director position was $20,000 to $40,000 below equivalent positions in several other states. (State Arts Board program officers also make markedly less than their colleagues in similar positions elsewhere; and this is in a state with a reputation for being historically pro-art.)

There’s no doubt today Tom Proehl was lured away by a salary twice (or more, according to Guidestar) what he made as our nordern state’s highest, and arguably most important, public art official. The very fact that such an important figure can so easily and quickly be lured away is one sign of the sad state of local attitudes about the value of art (and a sad state of these artistically failing times).

For what it’s worth, I’d met and interviewed Tom Proehl about halfway through his quick tenure at the Minnesota State Arts Board, and I’d liked him immediately. Even more importantly, I believed he intended to do good things in his position as director. These are quotes by Tom Proehl from that interview that stand out now:

“So we’re moving forward. I think we have a long way to go to make the arts imperative in this state. I think it is about education, and making sure that people know what we do and what the arts do for the population of the state…”

“Right now we’re starting our strategic planning process, which will probably take about a year. We’re going to do convenings across the state—meet with artists, meet with institutions, meet with educators—and try to truly understand how we can support them. What do the artists need, what do the institutions need? We don’t need any more programs where people need to jump through hoops. We just need more funding.”

…[I’m looking to] put our resources into creating a stronger network of resources, putting our financial resources together so that we can create resources for artists, for arts institutions, for educators. It’s truly about making sure that we are serving the state’s population in the best way that we can.”

What’s really unfortunate is over the past six months (since the interview) Proehl had been doing exactly what he said he’d do. He was asking good questions about the Board’s strategies and about its outdated procedures and procedures. He had overseen a restoration of funding levels very close to those of 2003, before cuts were made by a legislature facing extreme budget deficits. He was expanding staff to better tackle the state arts community’s needs. He was beginning to provide a much-needed vision for the arts in this state. While he seemed a little less upbeat the last time I saw him, a few months ago, saying something about how “glacial” was the pace of change in the arts, he was nonetheless still upbeat and gave no indication he was thinking of leaving his position.

Without someone like Proehl at the helm, I’m afraid our Arts Board is going to spiral into more confusion and dysfunction. And without a decent arts life here in Minnesota what are we left with? A very cold Oklahoma?

Ah well, our loss is San Francisco’s gain. All the best to you, Tom Proehl.