- About Censorship in Camouflage
- Censorship in Camouflage I: The Censor Within
- Censorship in Camouflage I: Free Markets and Free Expression
- Censorship in Camouflage II: McDonalds or McDocumenta: Artistic Freedom in a Global Economy (Panel)
- Censorship in Camouflage II: McDonalds or McDocumenta: Artistic Freedom in a Global Economy (Discussion)
Censorship in Camouflage I: A Project about the Unexplored Aspects of Censorship
Discussion Series I, Summer 2002:
PANEL I: Free Markets and Free Expression?
June 4, 2002
Robert Atkins: Welcome to our panel tonight, Free Markets and Free Expression?. Once again I’m indebted to Sondra Farganis, dean of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, who makes so many programs like this one possible. Tonight’s panel is the first of two under the umbrella title of Censorship in Camouflage, the other will take place next week—same time, same place—and is titled The Censor Within. I’ve been working with Antonio Muntadas, the artist who produced The File Room—an online archive of censorship and a conceptual artwork, and Svetlana Mintcheva, who is the Arts Advocacy Coordinator at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Before going any further, I want to introduce them both.
Antoni Muntadas: For me, the origins of these panels started in 1989 when I was commissioned to create a work for Spanish Television. At that time there was only one Spanish TV channel. I was asked to do a work about TV itself. Living in the USA, I found it an interesting opportunity to deal with my own memories about my native country and the history of Spanish television. After two years of work, the piece was finished and I was paid, but it was never broadcast. I didn’t regard this work as a work for a gallery or for an institutional context, since it was made for broadcast. I spent almost three frustrating years thinking what I should do, especially since I was living here where polemics from across the Atlantic would not make so much sense.
While spending time in Chicago, I began to work with the Randolph Street Gallery—an alternative gallery that has disappeared—to create a work about art censorship that became The File Room. And the first case I posted on it was my own TV case. In a way, my frustration was caused by thinking about the way we define censorship. The ways censors operate nowadays are much more complex than burning books, destroying films or erasing texts. Besides the religious and political realms there are economic values and commercial situations involved. The File Room was completed in 1994 and it is still online. It has changed servers and is being maintained by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Robert Atkins, Svetlana Mintcheva and I realized that there was a need to define the various ways censors work now. We decided that the issues of economical and self-censorship are complex enough to create these panels.
Svetlana Mintcheva: When we were planning these panels we did not realize it was going to be the so-called Arts and Outrage month in New York. I just came from the opening of the Arts of Outrage exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea, which made censorship seem extremely glamorous. There are a variety of pieces in the show. None of them is exactly about money, but the whole event was about money. It was a glamorous Chelsea opening and the work we do at the National Coalition Against Censorship is, unfortunately, not as glamorous.
When people talk about censorship and public funding one thing they believe is that when you are censored you get more publicity. There is a belief that maybe public funding, which necessarily has strings attached to it, should be just abolished and art left to the free market. “Let the best ones make money and the worst ones to be forgotten.” The market censors as well, but it is never researched and never analytically discussed. So, when we were thinking of this panel, that was clearly one kind of gap in current debates. During the nineties there was a very lively discussion about censorship of art in relation to public funding, but corporate funding and the complexities of this alternative to public funding were never analyzed. Public arts funding comes with certain First Amendment responsibilities. However, the First Amendment does not apply to private funding. Private funders can legally choose to censor this and display that. Exclusively relying on private funding could really skew what we see and what we hear.
Finally, I want to remind you that if any of you, or your friends, encounter censorship, there are number of organizations that can help. Even if they don’t have the glamour of TV or the Robert Miller Gallery, these are the organizations that do the grassroots work.
Robert Atkins: Now we are going dive in. You’ve already heard that our purpose in organizing these panels is to broaden and refine our ideas about what constitutes censorship. Censors are both more brazen and more subtle than ever, but supporters of free expression haven’t changed our tactics of resistance at all over the past decade. Censorship has been too narrowly and legalistically defined. It is no longer exclusively a black-and-white question of whether governments suppress particular points of view. In the United States, proponents of limiting speech now use more sophisticated—or perhaps more sophistic—arguments about the need to suppress expression.
For instance, it is often noted that the Supreme Court protects literary expression far more fully than visual expression. But consider a new book you might have heard about called Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex by Judith Levine. The publisher is University of Minnesota Press and practically the entire state legislature has threatened the press’s funding—without reading the book of course. The Press, by the way, had the book vetted by three-times-as-many outside readers as usual, anticipating that the subject alone might raise hackles. Liberal groups are so afraid of being tainted by the charges of pedophilia that Levine has been left with shockingly little support and you can be sure that the University of Minnesota Press isn’t going to publish another book on this subject. So political pressure on this exemplary university press is our first example of economic censorship tonight.
This doesn’t mean that plain old-fashioned censorship no longer exists. Cobb County, Georgia, eliminated all of its arts funding in order not to fund a Terence McNally play; that is a gay-themed play by a gay writer. As with the Sensation show, politicians can try to suppress publicly-funded free expression, and sometimes succeed. Thankfully none of ex-Mayor Giuliani’s taxpayer funded assaults on the First Amendment held up in court. But the Supreme Court has allowed the National Endowment for the Arts to not support certain kinds of “indecent” artistic expression, based on Congress’ vague “decency” clause. (This was Finley et al., the so-called NEA 4 case, which was, surprisingly, not resolved until 1998.)
As an historian, I am always shocked and incensed by our cultural amnesia, which primarily helps those who try to paint the status quo as inevitable. Homelessness or inefficient and inhumane medical care are the result of policy decisions. How many of you know about CETA, which stands for the Comprehensive Training and Employment Act? It was a seventies’ program that by the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration was channeling more than $250 million annually to artists and art workers, mostly as employees in community arts agencies. That’s more than the budget for the NEA has ever been. And yet it’s conventional wisdom that the only American model for employing artists was the WPA of the Depression.
September 11th yielded a climate of jingoism and patriotism that sometimes equated critical thinking with anti-Americanism. Precisely the opposite of the way our democratic culture ought to work. Covert censorship is at play when institutions, presenters and artists feel such a "chilling effect." I’m not just talking about vicious attacks on Susan Sontag for her outspoken words in the New Yorker. Consider these examples of intimidation, harassment and censorship. In December, the FBI raided the Texas Art Car Museum in Houston and interrogated the staff after an anonymous tip that there was dangerous work in the show. That work was a painting about the Gulf War 10 years ago with the Houston skyline in flames. The same month in Daytona, FL the Director and Senior Curator of the Southeast Museum of Photography resigned after the curator was told to cancel a February exhibition of photos of Afghanistan. In Austin, TX on January 3, the Austin American-Statesman published its annual review of the local music scene. It had a cover image of a burning amplifier, intended to evoke the World Trade Center blaze and signify a bad year for local music. Scores of readers called for editors to get axed but editor-in -chief Rich Oppel refused to fire anybody and blasted "bumper sticker patriotism." Nevertheless, he also apologized for the cover.
These are generally acts by individuals. But they are also acts by individuals who feel empowered to make them. The system—which includes the media—allows them. But does it encourage them? Our task is not only to analyze how new forms of censorship work but how they can be combated. This week we’ll be dealing with the question of economics. Or questions. I’ve already mentioned the literal and figurative costs of defending oneself in the court of public opinion, as with the University of Minnesota Press. In an era of intense expansion among museums the never-ending quest for money has broad implication for art culture in the US. Museums have embraced the corporate dictum that bigger is better. Just as with donations to politicians, people and corporations want something for the money they contribute. The interests of a small, moneyed segment of the population are well-served.
A quest for wide audiences encourages the Smithsonian to travel a Star Wars exhibition. How does that jibe with that museum’s stated, taxpayer-supported, educational goals? Or any museum’s educational mandate? There are only so many exhibition slots and if Star Wars fills one, an actual art exhibition doesn’t. This is the same Smithsonian willing to take huge amounts of money for a so-called "Hall of American Achievers," which was fortunately kiboshed. But in 1980, Thomas Messer said of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, "We’ll never, never rent it out for parties." Something tells me we’re going to see that Hall of Achievers sooner or later.
I’m going to say a little about corporate arts funding since, despite thirty invitations, and a couple of initial acceptances we have no corporate funders here. Some are at Documenta instead. I don’t want to overinterpret this, but in twenty years of organizing more than fifty panels let’s just say I’ve never had this problem recruiting panelists.
There was an interesting piece in the May 28 New York Times about Jean-Marie Messier, the CEO of Vivendi Universal and his involvement on big cultural boards in New York like the Whitney’s, where it’s expected that board members will contribute or raise at least $100,000 a year. As David Resnicow, president of Resnicow Schroeder, which matches museums and corporate sponsors said: "What better way to integrate yourself into the political, business and cultural leadership than by getting involved in museums and other cultural institutions?" So it’s clear what Messier gets and it’s clear what the Whitney gets. It’s unclear what the public gets. I don’t think there’s a case to be made that bigger budgets and institutions make for better programs.
But what is tragic is that none of the corporations that link their advertising with the shows they sponsor open their wallets for art world’s crucial research-and-development labs, that is alternative spaces, or as they are now known, artist run organizations. Many are going under and their demise will alter the ecology of the art world. Commercial galleries can’t be expected to support non-commercial art. MoMA’s Project Room is not Artists Space. This is a problem for Washington, Albany and every foundation funder as well. There is no vision about the ecology of the art world as an interlocking system.
I could rant on, but I’ll introduce our first panelist, Martha Rosler, a well-known artist who works with images and text. She lives in Brooklyn and has been teaching at Rutgers for many years. You may have seen her retrospective last year, which was split between the New Museum and ICP. It examined her very consistent engagement with social issues manifested at extremely varied sites including the TV set, the kitchen, the transportation system and the streets.
Martha Rosler: When the assaults on the public funding of art were first instituted in the early 1980s, I participated in a panel at a 1982 photo conference. I wrote up a set of what I called “theses on defunding.” I want to consider what is the same and what has changed since then. My theses began:
- The presence of monetary support for art cannot be viewed as neutral.
- The source of monetary support cannot be viewed as neutral.
- The presence and the source of funding have a sys¬temic influence that is both economic and ideological.
I went on to suggest some differences between government support, which has to seem, as I wrote, “disinterested and depoliticized—that is, that appears firmly aesthetic—and has supported work that satis¬fies criteria of newness and experiment” and corporate support, which has to answer to the demands of public relations in enhancing the “good name” of the corporate enterprise, which tends to put it in the arena of “aesthetic territory that is already known and ideologically encompassed, territory necessarily barren of present, “cutting edge" art, ideologically engaged art, or any¬thing other than the safe.”
In the intervening years, what has changed? The answers are cultural and ideological as well as financial. The ideological changes in the larger society include the immensely successful refurbishment of the image of the businessperson—the ground trooper of capitalism— from the man in the gray flannel suit to the intrepid warrior and combatant of “actually existing socialism.” The demise of “actually existing socialism” led to the faltering of the dominant utopian model of alternative ways of organizing social life, alternatives to capitalism, that is.
Within the art system and its subculture, we need only point to the vanquishing of high culture by mass culture, which has led to the further imposition of the “success” mode of celebrity culture onto the art world.
In these years, the arguments over funding and censorship have matured to some degree. The battle itself produced something of a renewed public exploration of the questions surrounding the social meaning and public presence of art and the sources of its support, whether governmental, institutional, individual, or private. This renewed exploration has not necessarily produced good outcomes for us. The politically amplified attacks on certain forms of art and art institutions have intensified as the public has shown that it does not at all mind seeing politicians or religious interest groups attack artists—those deceitful charlatans and snake-oil salesmen! The course of the battle has inoculated enemies of any art that has aspirations beyond the clever and the decorative against the most obvious charges of censorship and helped them develop other arguments aside from their touchstone argument, which is that the works in question are not suitable for hanging above the couch or being exposed to children. (They have even learned to say, adopting language of the left, that such work offends their identities, usually as Christians.) But basically they argue that government money is taxpayers’ money and that most taxpayers despise this work. This is the sort of argument you make about charitable giving and falls in the same category, say, as services to the poor, the destitute, and prisoners—that it is done without much gain to yourself as a citizen and certainly not from those to whom you are giving money. Ultimately, though, the new arguments for censorship cast the support of all categories of art back onto the market, which of course is pernicious in that this argument simply normalizes art production into just another commodity, which tends to cause artists to bridle.
It also cynically obscures the actual operation of the various elements in the art system that are necessarily implicated in having an artist reach even the buying public, let alone the wider audience, while at the same time relying on those self-same complexities in the hopes they will extirpate the art it claims not to censor. Casting any particular work onto the market to support it is to cast it into a very uncertain situation in which all sorts of factors may wind up causing the work to be suppressed, from its riskiness to its lack of salability.
The tactic of censors in the past decade who seek to avoid the taint of censorship, is to defund, or threaten to defund, publicly supported institutions or groups that exhibit the work. Former Mayor Giuliani threatened to defund the Brooklyn Museum in relation to Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary in the Sensation exhibition and was stopped by the court. But this kind of defunding has actually happened at many institutions around the country since the early 1980s. As the Brooklyn Museum episode showed, the ideological dimensions of any particular skirmish are much more important than the facts, since few opponents bothered to look at the work, or fairly to describe it, or even to talk with the artist about his intention. In the battles of the early nineties, which centered on photography, the apparent “facts” of the representational image could easily be used to obscure questions of intent and interpretation.
The defunders very early, thanks to the arguments of Hilton Kramer and friends, successfully destroyed government grants to critics, removing not so much a sure form of income, which these grants certainly were not providing, as the idea that critics are public intellectuals. Thus making it easier for only right-wing or centrist critics to be widely heard, since rich publishers run the gamut from center-right to far right. Less than twenty years later the defunders’ arguments about critics were used to bring about the end of grants to individual artists.
Between the end of the seventies and the present, we have seen the complete re-emergence of the careerist model of art making. The word “career” itself, taboo up until then, has become the be-all and end-all of artistic goals in the minds of many inside and outside the art world. The concept of “art worker,” a popular alternative in the populist seventies, has been buried.
Let me explore this a bit further. Having a successful career means starting early and within sight of the top of the enormous pyramid of competing art-makers. It means that you are not so much having an art “practice”—sounds like a term from the lexicon of professionalism, as art worker was drawn from the proletarian or craft model—as you are running a career that seeks a mass audience, or other form of mass public recognition and significant financial reward. Having a career means you have accepted or become part of the dominant discourse of capitalism, in the sense of having a strategy for future material reward. I hear from current art graduate students that in effect this career runs them: Graduate school is for many seen as the try-out for gallery representation, which means that the mental space for experimentation is reduced. Between that and the steeply escalating cost of grad school, the notion is that grad school is a training ground for entry into already existing art institutions.
As I pointed out in my original ‘theses on defunding,” however, the very enormity of these pressures toward institutional harmonization also produces an obdurate group of practitioners who refuse to adopt the implicit cynicism and social disengagement of the dominant mode. These artists hold to a reworking of the Romantic vision of artist as seer, interpreter of the present and prophet of the future. Most have, like Walter Benjamin, demoted or excised the metaphysical element from this in favor of the idea of social transformation while retaining a notion of authentic voice.
So what now does public art consist of? As I remarked at a conference on cultural capital a year ago, it is “probably not large abstract sculpture… it is probably nothing than can be construed as antithetical to the image of any social group. It is not critical, and on the model of the YBAs Young British Artists, it may be downright unthinking. Most likely, it is spectacle. We have seen the enthusiastic return of three elements besides the aestheticism previously forsworn by ‘advanced art’: Mysticism, Technics, and Fun. Enthusiasm for these strategies stems from collectors, dealers, and funders. They persuade the various publics that art may be beauteous, cuddly, awesome, even ‘edgy’— but it does not threaten one’s world view or credo.”
So how do artists think about inserting themselves into the discursive space of the putative public sphere? Many young artists’ involvement with the everyday reflects an almost Foucauldian vision of the multiple links or networks of power between individuals, groups or collectives, and the state. It is oriented to the whole field of practices that structure agency and activity—from Seattle (WTO) and sweatshops to street-corner surveillance in New York City. The political rationality of neoliberalism seems to work simultaneously in an individualizing and in a totalizing manner. Who knows what kind of art will come out of that?
Just as the assault on public funding signals the death —or at least the drastic shrinking—of the public sphere, a collectively produced imaginary space in a society where the search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful might be located, it necessarily entails the death of the private sphere, since public and private are two sides of the same coin. What this means for the pursuit of art as an endeavor apart from marketing, public relations, decoration, and stylishness is the question at hand.
Robert Atkins: Now I want to introduce James Baumgartner who is, in his own words, an “RTMark agent and creator of VoteAuction.com.” The RTMark collective is a culture jamming group that legally operates as a mutual fund, raising funds for hybrid art/anti-corporate projects and taking the legal heat for them. RTMark matches donors and activists for a variety of activities, not to mention impersonating officials of the WTO. These activities include projects replacing buxom gals in video and cd-rom games with kissing boys, to subsidizing the work of the Zapatista flood net, which distributed software to temporarily disable the web sites of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo in support of the Zapatistas.
James Baumgartner: I am going to show you a video, which is a general overview of what RTMark does. In terms of censorship, the video shows that a big part of RTMark’s program is corporate sabotage, but another major component involves blacklisted cultural production. I created VoteAuction.com, a satirical website that claimed to be a marketplace for votes in the 2000 presidential election. People could sign up on the website to auction their votes and affect elections. I thought it was pretty obvious from the site and the language used that it was satirical, but some people didn’t see the satire in it and decided that it had to be shut down. The first was the election commissioners of Chicago who brought a lawsuit against me and several other people involved. The site was shut down for a few days. The way they did it—which is typical of Internet censorship—is that they go after someone who stands to lose money. We didn’t have much, so it was not a big deal. So they went after the company I registered the domain name through and listed them as a defendant in the suit. They revoked the name, which effectively shut down the site. That’s one example of a different kind of censorship that has nothing to do with funding. Just go straight to someone who is producing the work and sue them until they cannot produce the work anymore.
RTMmark’s website allows people to post a project that they want to have. And they try to find workers who will work on a project. So I posted VoteAuction.com on RTMark to get some funding and I’ve gotten a few hundred dollars, as have lots of other projects. One that has quite a large amount of money behind it is a project to convince a company to pay a couple to have their baby tattooed at birth with the company’s logo. It’s one of those projects that’s never going to happen.
Another project that I’ve been working on is Inverse Radio Remix, which is also tangentially related to censorship. I take hip-hop songs that are censored for the radio and then do an inverse radio remix. Radio remixing of a hip-hop song is where they remove objectionable words, so there are blank spaces in it, or words that have some sound effect on them. In these songs drug references are very often taken out. The word “valium” was deleted from the Eminem song I just played, where the word “pills” was replaced with “hills.” I took a song and converted the remix so that all you hear are the censored words and everything else is either obscured or deleted. I created a CD mix of them and would like to print about 500 and distribute them through shop-giving. You’d legally buy something, take it home, modify and bring it back to the shelf. In this case it would be the burned CD, so I am not taking something from the store, but I did buy the original song. This will ensure problems with the companies that put up these songs, who would probably have problems with copyright infringement, since I copied a song and altered it, although this which is arguably legal under the provisions of fair use.
That’s all what we’re up to for the moment at RTMark.
Robert Atkins: I am happy to introduce our next presenter, Ruby Lerner who is CEO and President of Creative Capital, a New York-based foundation. She came to that position with a wealth of experience. Ruby has served as Executive Director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF); publisher of The Independent Film and Video Monthly; Executive Director of Image Film/Video Center in Atlanta, Executive Director of Alternate Roots, a coalition of performing artists in the Southeast, and Audience Development Director at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Ruby Lerner: Regarding overt censorship matters, attention has focused primarily on the public sector. What is much more difficult to examine is the subtle role that private sector philanthropy plays in determining what kinds of art and ideas get produced and then disseminated. It is hard to call the practices I am going to describe as censorship in any of the ways we normally think of it, but the point is we don’t know what important ideas and people we’re not getting access to as a result.
I’m going to focus on living artists creating new work. Often when people talk about support for "the arts", it seems that they mean anything but support for actual living, breathing artists. As James Baldwin said, "Everybody wants an artist on the wall or on the library shelf, but nobody wants one in the house."
Years ago I read a wonderful article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine by
composer Lester Trimble, he was lamenting the state of support for contemporary composers; he said, "Year after year we starve the horse while applying layers of gilt to the cart. But for all our grand expenditure of money on concert halls and theaters, we are not enriching our culture by one jot."
I am completely baffled by people who believe work shouldn’t be supported unless the artist is long dead and the work has "stood the test of time." Think about applying this ludicrous principle to support for scientific research. Well, there wouldn’t actually be any scientific research, would there? You’d just have scientists endlessly writing essays about experiments done a century ago. Think of what we wouldn’t have now. So, nothing could be more important than support for our contemporary creative voices.
In fact, I’m going to posit a radical proposition that perhaps it’s possible to judge the health of a community or a society by how well it supports its contemporary creative voices in all areas—education, science, business, humanities and in the arts.
So, what are some of the policies and practices of private sector philanthropy that may, either knowingly, or—since I prefer to be optimistic, unconsciously—discourage the fullest expression of diverse ideas? How much private sector philanthropy is going to support and promote the work of living, breathing artists? Or, in other words, do funding policies and practices in private philanthropy actually reward dead artists at the expense of the living?
Private philanthropy consists of support from individuals, historically the largest source of private contributions, foundations, which are second, and corporate support, which comes in third. According to the Foundation Center’s most recent Arts Funding Update, in 1998 all private arts giving totaled $7.66 billion, with the foundation sector, (56,600 strong, by the way), providing an estimated $3.69 billion for arts, culture, media and the humanities in 2000.
Just to focus on the foundation sector for a moment, $3.69 billion dollars is a lot of money. Where is all this money going? Again, from the Foundation Center Update—38.2% went to specific project support, 32.4% went to capital support, generally that would be construction support for building expansions or to help create or augment an endowment fund, and 21.9% was provided for general operating support.
What might these numbers tell us? That the least amount of money is going toward the ongoing capacity building of organizations; this is particularly important money for the small and mid-sized organizations that support individual artists and innovation more generally. Instead these organizations are forced to perpetually invent new programs in order to continue attracting project support, the largest category. This eats up a lot of energy.
Also, we’ve seen valuable initiatives created to address a specific issue in the field, sometimes for a three-five year trial period, during which many demonstrate their importance, only to be financially abandoned so that they can never come to full maturity. I’ve been saying that our field is littered with the corpses not of our failures but of our successes. We’ve lost the NEA’s Advancement Program and the Regional Re-grant Program, to name just two important public sector initiatives. But I suspect that there’s a village of lost ideas out there.
Back to funding. About a third of foundation funding is going toward capital expenses. I’m just speculating, but I don’t think it’s unfair to assume that most of this money will be going to larger and more traditional arts organizations.
The discipline breakdown is also revealing. The performing arts received 32.2% of arts grant dollars, and the report stresses that there is especially strong support for symphony and opera, 29.1% went toward museum activities, 9.9% went to media and communications which includes public television and radio, and multidisciplinary arts, especially multi-purpose arts centers, arts councils and arts education programs accounted for another 8.8%.
Now, of course, in each of those broad categories, some of the funding is going to artists creating new work, but, I think you can begin to see my point which is that relative to the total arts giving, support to living artists will be small. It would be really great to have the actual percentage of total arts giving that IS going to support the work of living artists, and to the organizations that support the creation of new work. This would be a great graduate student project, for instance, to sort out support for museum exhibits of living vs. dead artists, and of the living, how many are not already "famous." This information would be tremendously helpful to those of us attempting to advocate with foundations specifically, and the private sector generally (which also includes individuals and corporations.)
We need a Percent for Artists program. By this I mean putting artists back into the arts and bringing artists into the house. Perhaps we could think of it as tithing for the future. What an amazing difference just 10%, just 10%, of that total $7.66 billion (or $766 million) would make for the work of contemporary artists creating original work as well as sustaining the organizations that help working artists.
Further, we need to evaluate how well all institutions, programs and projects support artists. If endowment funds are being raised, what percentage will go to support artists’ projects? What percentage of annual operating budgets support artists’ projects directly? Boards need to monitor this; funders need to monitor this. If we care about the future, it needs to be of concern.
Question from the audience: Why do you think individual artists are so poorly supported?
Ruby Lerner: I think Martha said it extremely well: The individual is a locus of uncertainty, unpredictability—which are things that are very fearful. I was meeting with a wonderful foundation person, a major arts donor and she said that on her board only one person had ever heard of the Walker Arts Center. This is an organization that is giving a lot of money to the arts. So there’s very limited accountability, there are no requirements for people who sit on the boards of these foundations regarding knowledge of the field they are engaged in. There are still big accountability issues in this arena.
Robert Atkins: This also brings us into the legal arena: It is the state Attorney Generals’ role to monitor the accountability of boards. I was struck by what you said about operas and symphonies, Ruby, because it’s always taken for granted that operas are going to lose huge amounts of money.
Question from the audience: Is there research on how much money goes to the production of contemporary art?
Ruby Lerner: I am not aware of any research, that’s part of my point that it’s hard to make the case without having enough information, but who is going to pay for this information? This is going to be very time consuming, if I would retire right now, this would probably be my project. It would be very revelatory and I think it’s actually necessary to create a greater level of awareness. We figured out today that Creative Capital, which is a very small entity, is one of the few places that are funding individual artists today and collective creation nationally and across all disciplines. And our budget is two hundredths of one percent of those $7 billion that are allocated. It’s too pitiful. I started really thinking about the ramifications of this information. It’s a scandal.
Robert Atkins: Another thing: Some ways artists are fetishized in our celebrity culture, while the supportive structure for the field is not even referred to.
Ruby Lerner: Yes, and it’s killing to try to keep those smaller organizations alive. I ran a grass-root cultural organization of performing artists in the South, I ran the regional media center in Atlanta, I ran the National Media Organization and always the same: You get better and better at what you do and it only gets harder and harder. It’s a brutal environment; I think NAAO—the National Association of Artists Organizations—is a good example. It was one of the only places that was willing to engage the battle of the Culture War. And it practically killed them.
Question from the audience: How do you enter the arena of “MBA-speak” without being co-opted.
James Baumgartner: You could see clearly the appropriation of “enemies’ language” in the RTMark video you saw. It’s meant to look like a corporate training video. In my work on VoteAuction.com I consistently use business language and business buzzwords—and there’s a danger when you start using those elements you start thinking more and more like a free market capitalist. One other RTMark project, which unfortunately I am not with, is www.gatt.org. Its website takes on the look and feel of the World Trade Organization. A number of times they’ve been contacted through the www.gatt.org website to speak at various symposia abut globalization, international trade and the like. Essentially they go to these symposia and impersonate WTO staff. They’ve done this a number of times and they keep getting invited. The first time they did it they presented VoteAuction.com as a viable method for investing in democracy, as a good example of free market democracy. Another time they demonstrated means of maintaining control over your workforce via surveillance video. Each time they speak people completely buy it. They recently issued a press release saying that the WTO is going to dissolve and reform under completely different rules and they outlined those rules. Instead of saying that the WTO’s new goal would be to facilitate trade, they said that its goal was to make a better life for the people of the world.
Ruby Lerner: They moved through critique to envisioning—they gave the WTO a new mission. RTMark is one of our grantees and I’ve learned a lot from them. They have appropriated language from the dot-com boom and the venture capital world. And I didn’t know much about venture capital; I’ve spent my life running arts service organizations. So now I can use that language in those situations. But my goal is to integrate public service processes into this very private sector of funding. There’s a vacuum that we think we can fill. I want to see whether by both designing and articulating a more comprehensive system we could assist artists in having more impact.
So we have four components in our system now: The first is sustained support for projects, so people can come back after the initial award and ask for additional support. In fact we’ve reserved additional support for each artist—people don’t believe this. And what we are trying to create is something very pragmatic. We also provide support to a grantee beyond a project; we are interested in people coming out of this with a greater sense of control over their careers. What’s problematic about the traditional career thing is putting an individual at the service of whatever is out there. We want people to be able to control their own fate, because that system infantilizes artists. The third thing is nurturing the community of funded artists. This grew out of my experience running a performing arts collective in the South. We did an annual retreat every year, and I saw what happened over a period of time: Incredible relationships would build, artistic collaborations happened; a whole new way of talking about a work grew over a period of time. So I knew that bringing people together would be one of the most important things that we could do.
The last component is engaging the public, and we are currently taking a year off grant making to promote the artists’ projects we have already funded. There’s more and more. We are trying to focus on individual, already existing projects instead of producing more and more. Besides promoting work within particular arts disciplines I think the most interesting thing that we are going to be experimenting with is looking at how the work organizes itself thematically across disciplines. You name an important issue of our time and we’ve got a collection of artists working on those issues. It’s a very different model. I would like to think that we are trying to put out something into the world and as someone who came of age during the sixties and seventies, I think the most exciting thing about those times is that there were so many ideas circulating. There were a lot of alternatives; there were a lot of institutional models. What’s saddening to me now is the constriction of this kind of creativity.
Robert Atkins: Thank you so much Ruby, the other panelists, and all you in the audience for your attention and participation. See you next week!