The New Business of Art

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

These days, the current economic crisis is most often compared to the Great Depression, since we have nothing in recent memory with which to compare it. Things are bad; they will get worse; but we’re not quite sure how or when, making it difficult to pull ourselves up by our collective bootstraps. No generation has had the knowledge, technology, resources, or power at hand to actualize its wild dreams and ambitious plans like ours, yet we find ourselves in this moment, hearts overflowing with everything but milk and honey. Entrepreneurial ideals have failed miserably in our neo-liberal marketplace. Deregulation has not allowed the most innovative and creative ideas to thrive, but instead has encouraged predatory and protectionist business practice in nearly every sector, the cultural sector being no exception. Is it possible, though, for the cultural community to respond to the ways in which financial crisis produces greater scarcity through collaboration rather than protectionism? How do cultural workers support each other through innovation and creative enterprise? How do we stop relying on competition and fundraising shrewdness? Some artists and organizations believe the secret to thriving under pressure lies in fostering different kinds of working relationships, exchanges, fiscal sponsorship, and resource sharing, allowing them to reach into and across the arts community. Nevertheless, in times like these, is that enough?

Insight Arts, a Chicago-based contemporary arts organization dedicated to supporting progressive movement building, found itself facing these challenges head on. In late 2008, the organization learned that one of its major donors lost money resulting from the Madoff scandal and would not be able to pay a confirmed donation. This unexpected loss would greatly diminish the organization’s operating cash flow for the first quarter of 2009. In an effort to practice its mission as an organization dedicated to increasing access to cultural work that supports progressive social change, the board and staff strategized ways to lessen the impact of this loss on programs and initiatives. Staff members halved their paid hours to cut costs and turned to established relationships (and began building new ones) to carry on through the crisis. Board members hosted a small, impromptu fundraising event and discussed creating an intensive volunteer schedule to maintain program capacity in the interim.

Insight Arts continues a practice of selectivity in cultural community alliance because of its commitment to working class people working in the interest of working class people. While it remains unclear whether transformative social change can occur by working inside existing, institutionalized structures, Insight Arts has found that it is not necessary to self-protect, enter into unbalanced alliances, or jump through questionable philanthropic hoops to advance a cause or maintain one’s place as a valuable provider of progressive cultural programs. Even though scarcity leaves most people hurting, organizations and artists may find a bit of shelter in uncertain times by drawing upon art making’s communal aspects, and realizing that the value of the work can be internalized and understood in ways that extend beyond organizations and individuals. ◊

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