For the love of art

  • by J.K. Fowler
  • Wednesday June 14, 2017
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J.K. Fowler
J.K. Fowler

If our community is interested in moving toward the institution of sustainable arts and culture organizations, then we must put our money where our interests lie. At Nomadic Press, we have consistently produced quality shows in quantity not because we appreciate the challenge, but because we believe that arts and cultural programming are vital to any society worth living in.

As a community, we must move away from treating our arts and cultural practices as ancillary to the day-to-day reality of paying bills. There needs to be a shift from "I write/paint/create because I love it" to "I write/paint/create because it is what I do as an occupation, as something I do to sustain myself, my family, my children." The donation scheme instituted at many of our arts and cultural programs within this country necessarily maintain arts and cultural organizations as ancillary to mainstream society, as things that people participate in when they have the free time, as those things we do after our 9-5 day jobs that many of us dread going to every day. Small-scale donations, while immensely appreciated, do not pay people's salaries, nor do they create sustainable arts and culture organizations. Sustained purchases from arts and culture organizations and regular, sizable donations do. We must always accept what people can afford to give, and while affordability is a reality for many (i.e., we do not have a diode in our bank account to give), there are others whose affordability is really a subjective assessment that places value of one thing over another. It is rare that the arts and culture are valued monetarily; more often they are valued for being "powerful," "interesting," "beautiful," and so on.

"Powerful," "interesting," and "beautiful" do not pay the bills. "Important" or "indispensable" do not pay the bills. Dollar bills do. For as much talk as we as artists discuss the importance of feeding our souls with the arts, we simultaneously support and promulgate systems that attack, denigrate, and undermine the institutions that create the art that we have come to appreciate, and therefore the soul-feeding institutions that we love. We suck the life out of organizers with little regard or concern for what it takes to produce arts and cultural programming and offer little but praise and the occasional dollar in return. This must stop. We must literally put our money where our mouths are.

Those mad or passionate enough to start an arts and cultural organization know the across-the-board drain it causes on leader's lives. We are driven by the projects we begin – deeply in love – and will do what it takes to maintain, sustain, and grow them, even at the expense of our own personal lives. And when we cannot take it any more and burn out, those that appreciated the work that we did when we were thriving and in the stage of growth before the burnout are, sadly, nowhere to be seen. It is unacceptable for those that appreciate the arts and culture that such organizations produce to simply move on to the next and create a culture of disposable arts and culture organizations once again relegated to the "when I have time, I run a press/studio/etc." as ancillary hobby, a side thing rarely noted.

If you want art in your community to survive, you need to give artists money: not just your tacit or involved support, but dollars. This is your responsibility as a member of the arts community if you are ever interested in arts and culture to be sustainable and central, supported from the bottom-up. This must be paired simultaneously with financial training for arts and cultural organizations to ensure that when monies are given to arts organizations, the resources are well spent. Let's please keep in mind that every single day we: give money to businesses that strip workers of their rights; denigrate the environment; support illegal governmental activities; and sell our privacy to the highest bidder. So our high horse can only be so high. Oversight is important across a society, however, but training and skills development when it comes to business acumen and money management is key for the arts. So many of us are not only averse to money management, unfortunately, but downright petrified when it comes to asking for money for our products. And yes, art and culture is a product in capitalist society. Wishing it weren't and interacting with art and culture through this lens is dangerous and hurts the very arts we are claiming to protect from the claws of the capitalist system.

You have a literary journal that you appreciate? Pay for it. Buy it, donate to the organization, and forgo other things to do so. You have an arts and culture organization that consistently produces in your community? Support it by attending, spreading the word, buying their products (again, yes, books are products), and give them money – collectively give them enough money so that they can not only pay their electricity bill but they can actually pay their performers and those that work for the organization. Pay them enough so that, gasp, they can grow and expand their programming. Growth does not always equal a lessening in the quality of programming. Starving as someone involved in the organization and having to scrimp and scheme to make it will lead to choices being made by those in the organization that may adopt hardline capitalist practices. Why? Because the so-called supporters, no matter how much they clapped, didn't pay for what they appreciated and therefore took it for granted and built their enjoyment on the backs of the workers within the organization, many or all of whom donate their time day in and day out, again often at the expense of their own personal lives and well-being.

The alternatives to collecting money from those that attend one's events or buy one's books, CDs, or paintings are to join the nonprofit industrial complex, apply for grants, and run the great risk of beginning to tailor programming to the funding rather than the original mission and vision of the organization, as so many groups have. The other alternative is to run the organization for as long as one can, likely burn out in the process, and close shop within five years, again as so many organizations have done.

The issue is this: We say that we love the arts and writing; that we bleed ink. But we refuse to accept the reality that arts and culture organizations need your direct monetary support. We can believe this simultaneous to, and alongside, going outside to purchase a cup of coffee. Why? Because coffee baristas need to be paid wages as part of the capitalist system of work and wages. But why do artists not need to get paid? Why is it OK for an arts organization not to receive compensation for arts and culture programming, pay not only their performers but the management of the organization as well?

We are in a Trump presidency, a presidency that wants to strip all funding away from behemoth national arts and culture organizations. And we are saddened by this, and rightfully so. Yet we do nothing with the fact that our local arts and culture organizations are stretched far beyond capacity, receive a pittance of donations for the hours of work that they are doing, and have workers that burn themselves out. Part of this is no doubt the responsibility of the organizational workers themselves; but part – a part arguably much less talked about – of the responsibility falls on us as consumers of the arts and culture to ensure that the performers and organizers are paid for their time and can survive.

Despite the philistine times in which we currently live, it is heartening to know that the arts scene is still very active. More people than ever are using the mediums of painting, music and creative writing to express their feelings and frustrations and this is commendable and gives a ray of hope. Keep going artists and writers: keep creating and keep being voices for us all.


J.K. Fowler is founder and executive director of Nomadic Press (