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A Soiled Picture of Art and Labor

Research & Commentary
September 08, 2016

by Bruce McKaig

The deeply unequal art world’s current economic model simply isn’t working, as the story of one public art effort demonstrates quite clearly.

Washington, D.C.’s Canal Park neighborhood, as captured by artist Janelle Fernandez

Washington, D.C.’s Canal Park neighborhood, the site of a public art effort that helps reveal the art’s world rampant systemic inequality. Photo by Janelle Fernandez

By Bruce McKaig

Home care givers, fast food workers, and adjunct faculty all work in multi-billion-dollar industries — and have to fight for livable, sustainable wages.

Artists also work — and struggle — in a multi-billion-dollar industry. Their $700 billion-a-year Industry of Art runs rampant with systemic inequality. Those who contribute the most typically get compensated the least.

The arts today don’t fit any convenient monolithic definition. Alongside the traditions of symphony and ballet, art is spilling out onto the streets and into the neighborhoods, and that’s resulting in a gap between traditional arts funding structures and actual arts practices.

A quick glimpse at one public art effort — the Cube@Canal Park project in Washington, D.C. — can help illustrate our ongoing systemic problem. This project began in 2012 with an appeal to artists for some A/V projections for Canal Park in Washington’s near Southeast. Funding initially came from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Simultaneously, another project asked artists to make animal-shaped sculptures to be permanently installed on street poles in the same neighborhood. Funding for these sculptures came from the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Local artists and their allied community chose not to restrict their work to these narrow points of origin. They built instead a larger, more comprehensive project, This Place Has a Voice, an effort that by 2014 would involve 28 artists — and two historians — who collectively produced projections and sculptures as well as performances, walking tours, mural-sized portraits, and a public Event Day in the park.

Funding for the historical research came out of the D.C. Humanities Council. This funding and all other project funds would actually be funneled through the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, a local nonprofit agency.[pullquote]Funds almost always go to art administrators, not directly to artists.[/pullquote]

This funneling, in turn, reflected common practice in the arts. Funds almost always go to art administrators, not directly to artists, an approach to funding that, as Tyler Cowen has written in his Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding, is “making the American art world more bureaucratic.”

In Canal Park, the original six-month project pilot phase would devolve into a three-year ordeal as artists and community worked to build a larger story and the arts administrator kept kicking the can down the road. Finally, in June 2014, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop withdrew entirely from the project without fulfilling a single obligation and, at the same time, withholding some of the available funds.

The agency’s formal letter of withdrawal from the effort made no claim to be acting in the interest of art or community. The agency only stipulated that it was breaking no law.

This bureaucratic lack of respect for artists, community, and the tax dollars designated for the arts offers up only one example of the challenges today’s artists and their communities face.

In this Canal Park case, artists and community would go on to successfully complete the project. Then, in a survey after the project, participating artists shared information that revealed just who, in the end, paid the cost of that completion.

The survey asked artists to indicate how much they were paid personally, how much they paid for materials, and how many hours they worked. The numbers they provided tell a distressing story.[pullquote]The $700 billion-a-year Industry of Art doesn’t include much of what artists contribute in its official accounting.[/pullquote]

If we multiply the number of hours artists on the Canal Park project worked by the minimum wage at the time, then artists matched each funder dollar with $0.77 in unpaid labor. If we use the $38.69/hour value of volunteer labor in D.C., then the artists surpassed each funder dollar by $4.36.

If we value the artists’ work based on their opportunity costs — their earning potential per hour — then for every dollar funders provided the canal Park project, the artists contributed $6.12.

The $700 billion-a-year Industry of Art doesn’t include any of these artist contributions in its official accounting.

By official accounting, the Canal Park artists were paid with tax dollars to produce community art, all brokered by salaried administrators. In real life, the government funders provided $85,000 in cash, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop pocketed part of that, and the artists provided over half a million dollars in product.

Official arts accounting also overlooks the human, facility, and other resources that pour into projects like the Canal Park effort from the local community.

In the Canal Park project, these resources came in abundance from the Arthur Capper Senior Center, a residence for older citizens who lived in the local area long before its gentrification. These seniors gave the Canal Park project countless hours and insights. They shared their meeting rooms and personal photographs of the neighborhood. This immense contribution appears nowhere on the official arts accounting ledger.[pullquote]Traditional arts econometrics paints a terribly misleading picture.[/pullquote]

Traditional arts econometrics, in other words, paints a terribly misleading picture of who pays and who plays in the arts. The current art-world economic model simply isn’t working.

“Artists should be a partner in creating public spaces,” as author Kriston Capps puts it, “not a subcontractor.”

We don’t need to just paint a new picture. We need to reframe it.

Bruce McKaig is a visual artist and advocate for ethical funding policies and practices in the arts. A professor in the Art and Art History Department at Georgetown University, he’s currently a 2016 Fellow with New Economy Maryland, an Institute for Policy Studies project. He’s also building a barter network among artists and tradespeople in Baltimore, funded by a Crusade for Art Engagement grant.

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