I’m grateful to James Fowler (
@jamesfowler), Social Media Director at aKimbo.ca, for tweeting to ask what the term “new art economy”means. It prompted me to start writing things down that have been swirling around for quite some time now. Here’s what I think the new art economy is and why it has to, and is, coming.
Balancing the red and the black (ink). (apologies to Clyfford Still and the Denver Art Museum)
What is the new art economy?
The new art economy is an open, transparent marketplace in which artists and others working in the arts are recognized and rewarded for their work in ways and proportions that are comparable to other fields. In the new art economy, art circulates freely at all levels of society, is well understood and appreciated, abundantly created and collected, and as a result everyone working in the arts makes a decent living.
Why is this new?
In the “old” art economy, there is room for only a precious few artists to “make it” through to cultural recognition and economic self-sufficiency. They stand at the pinnacle of an edifice shored up by the vast majority of artists, who subsidize their work in myriad ways. This chronic subsidization has adverse consequences: the art world is generally impoverished, artists are chronically poor, but as importantly, tens of thousands of artworks never get to the public for whom they are created. While many people complain about this “system,” about its arbitrariness, hardship and also how opaque it is to real understanding, it is nevertheless widely believed to be inevitable (things must be as they always have been) or, worse, working as it should (true excellence is exceedingly rare, and the sieve must therefore be extremely fine to ensure only the best seeps through).
If the old art economy works so poorly, why do we hang on to it?
This is a good question but one that can divert attention away from finding solutions. Historically and ideologically, there are arguments for and against the status quo in any discipline. As fascinating as such arguments may be, if artists are poor, and it is generally felt that this poverty is a bad thing, then things should change. If analysis and theory are to have a role, it must be to further understanding so things can be designed differently, not to justify and therefor preserve the status quo.
Roughly, my view is that the condition of scarcity – very few art works accessible to very few people – survives because we do not want to let go of antiquated notions of art’s limited availability and how art acquires significance. Historically, few artworks could be produced and access to them was very limited. Many people believe that is still true today when clearly it is not: people are well-educated generally and have access to resources and time. More people understand art better than at any other period in history and moreover have time and the technology to be creative themselves. The mechanics of access, or distribution, are also completely different today. Art is everywhere in public, in museums and private and public buildings of all kinds. Books, magazines and websites abound with information about art and artists.
The artificial condition of scarcity also obviously reinforces historical economic and political divisions by making the control of wealth and power appear legitimate, even necessary. A perhaps clumsy analysis might argue that the patronage of, and association with, art is instrumental, helping elites appear both better educated and more culturally sensitive than the rest, therefor justifying their authority and status. However, the question who should be responsible for identifying and preserving the finest creations of society is complex. It involves layers of expertise and institutions developed over centuries. And there is no question that encapsulating art within the hard shells that money and power can afford to build protects it while promoting its importance to future generations. Still, for publics that are generally more literate and economically more secure than ever before in history, the idea of exclusivity, afforded by the few for the benefit of all, increasingly rings hollow.
Surely somebody is working on this already.
Yes they are. Many people want to see the arts work better economically. However, somewhat too often, since 2008, this conversation pivots on the idea of art’s survival in the “new economy.” Economic survival is taken to mean injecting more money into the existing art world system in the belief that more dollars will mean that artists (and the institutions that support and surround them) will not be poor, or at least poorer than they already are. But analysis shows this is not what happens. More dollars attract more competition and the pie gets split into smaller and smaller pieces.
More interestingly, many people, artists in particular, are interested in, and discussing, alternatives. For example, this series of discussions The New Economy of Art organized by Artquest, the Contemporary Art Society and DACS in the UK: “Many artist projects and collaborations not only question the ability of established organisations to provide the systems they require; they seek to prototype alternatives to take power back from the perceived gatekeepers of the art world.”
Artists’ efforts on this front are to be lauded but creativity alone will not solve a systemic problem. Everyone with a stake in the game needs to be at the table engaging in open and frank discussion. Profound change won’t be possible until there is a clear understanding, shared throughout the visual arts, of how things are working (and not working) now.
So how do we get from the old art economy to the new one?
The new art economy is not a thing, a pre-imagined solution, but a goal and perhaps a process. The movement from “old” to “new” begins with conversation. All we know so far is that the old art economy isn’t working. We also know it is run by a series of gates, with gatekeepers minding each; passage through the art world is controlled by limited information about, and access to, art, artists, galleries, museums, etc. To cite only two examples: esoteric [unreadable] texts that say more about who will not be allowed to understand art than who can or should; or dealers who will only sell to the most prestigious collectors in order to create economic bubbles that inflate prices. When a conversation happens that is not about the art, its merit or who owns it, but about the gates, they begin to become transparent, allowing us to see through to other, hitherto secret sides. In time, once everything can been seen, the gates will become obsolete.
About the term “new art economy”
The idea of a different art economy has been percolating for many years here. The idea that there is a distinct economy, an economy unique to the arts, was uncovered around 2004 through a book by Hans Abbing, Why Are Artists Poor, reviewed here. Interest in looking at the arts through the lens of economics grew through the editing of the book Decentre: Concerning artist-run culture, available from YYZBOOKS, in 2008. But the heat was really turned up over the past 14 months or so through many conversations with artists and dealers, art museums curators and directors, arts councils and foundations, as well as friends, family or just about anyone who’ll stop to listen. Everyone is fascinated to hear about the esoteric but troubled economic conditions within the visual arts, and intrigued and excited (and perhaps a bit relieved) at the idea that things could be different, better.
Most recently, two things led to the crystalization of the actual term “new art economy.” The first was the idea of “living out loud,” which I discovered thanks to a tweet by Geoffrey MacDougall about a pending deadline for applications to the Shuttleworth Foundation. Their use of the term living out loud led me to ask myself whether I am truly living my ideas out loud. I resolved to try, or try harder.
Then, living out loud as it were, with my friend and colleague, artist Jack Butler, he asked, in response to a rather rambling explanation of my preoccupation with how the money works in the art world, “So what is it exactly that you are working on?” It needed a few words, a single phrase, and the title of the elevator pitch was born: “It’s the new art economy Jack.”
p.s. some future posts we are contemplating, about the gates:
The book of the future is not a book.
The university of the future is not a university.
The museum of the future is not a museum.