After my last letter there were a few artists who wrote bemoaning the current quality of formal arts education. Some echoed the idea that they were unfit for the real world. And while things are different in different countries — I can give you a few statistics for mine.
Statistics Canada reports that post-secondary institutions graduated 8000 fine arts students last year — double five years ago. They also reported that there are 15,000 artists in this country. In the province of B.C., where I live, 78% earn less than $10,000 a year from their art. In all of Canada there were 2400 applications for the 220 fine art grants available to artists and galleries last year.
It’s too bad that these figures are so suspect. For example, in our findings there are nearly 90,000 Canadians who work professionally or semi-professionally in oil, acrylic or watercolours. Another 300,000 do it mostly for joy. There may have been 2400 who applied for grants, but there were at least 50,000 who were (in my opinion) deserving and didn’t. Also, according to my figuring there have been 31,000 fine arts graduates in the last five years alone. Do over half these folks not count in the 15,000 official figure? Where are they?
Every day someone jiggles this inbox and asks me how one goes about getting a grant. Grants, I often tell them, are a minor blip in the big picture. How valuable are they? Is there a possibility that grants are just part of the mollycoddling that those authors described in my last letter? Is the grant system merely an extension of the unreal world that arts graduates find themselves in? Is there a possibility that grants may actually delay proficiency and give a false sense of achievement?
While the answers may be mired in odd statistics and political mumbo jumbo, I can attest to many noble projects that might have fallen between the cracks without a grant. For example, the Saw Gallery in Ottawa has received $72,000 over two years to present a multimedia, interactive exhibition dedicated to excrement. The show (Scatalogue: 30 Years of Crap in Contemporary Art) ran for five weeks. It was an international effort, with contributors such as Wim Delvoye exhibiting baggies of freeze-dried, vacuum-packed Belgian product. Oddly, some Canadians would rather see their tax bucks go to the Sierra Club.
PS: “This show is a valid critique of the conservatism of galleries in this country.” (press-release from Saw Gallery)
Esoterica: There may be an argument that grants may be like the Kiss of the Spider Woman — deadly. While I have never endorsed or recommended anyone get kissed this way, over the years I’ve been aware of many who have applied and received. With a few exceptions most of these one-time grant-getters are now doing something other than art. In the end, visual artists who get grants are stuck with the same old problem — either become an arts educator, or learn the ropes and do what it takes to access the commercial gallery system.
It’s about the joy
by Nancy Duzan, Bloomington, IN, USA
The strings attached to a grant would be an inhibition to me. I wouldn’t mind selling a bunch of my work for a lot of money, but I would reject association with the Scatology crowd in order to do it. If I’m great, I haven’t been discovered yet. Meanwhile the daily joy in my simple life goes on. It’s not about money, it’s about the joy.
Calling poop, ‘poop’
by Tom Disch, Barryville, NY, USA
There are so few ways of being noticeably bad, or even naughty, that would-be scandalmongers all end up looking nothing more than dumb. Like kids breaking up at hearing someone say “poop!” Not that “poop!” can’t be funny. I love South Park. And every standup comic should have his moon in the sun. But I don’t think it’s ever been necessary for the government to fund such antics.
Or even to fund good painting. As you point out there must be 50,000 worthy applicants painting for sheer joy, and some so well that perfect strangers will pay good money for the result. In an ideal world we’d all be artists, and the world already is close enough to that ideal that almost anyone who wants to paint can do so. If not paint, they can always write. The problem with funding? You can’t force people to like what you do. Even if you establish an official government art gallery in every town of over 2,000 population, there may be no visitors except schoolchildren there under duress, whose reaction as they are marched by the art is just “poop!”
Out grossing the gross
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, B.C., Canada
The report on the Saw Gallery show tends to confirm a theory I have long held. I knew I was right when we had shows featuring rotten meats, used tampons, etc. We are witnessing curators who assemble shows in order to compete with other curators in shocking the public and seriously “out grossing” each other. Decades ago it was nudes, then nude couples, followed by nude couplings (hetero), then homo, now the most basic of bodily functions. I seemed to have missed the bestiality phase.
by Brian L. Jones, AZ, USA
My experience with grants is that the artist rarely pockets very much of the money. Competition usually leads to the full allocation going to materials and not the artist. I prefer to compete directly through the gallery system. Artists have had to make a living by thinking on their feet for hundreds of years. If I strive to paint at the very edge of my abilities and continue to push for higher quality each time I work, I’m certain my work will find a welcome reception and purchases. The difficulty for so-called contemporary art is exactly this lack of certainty over what makes for high quality. My experience has led me to believe that success in the contemporary art world has more to do with politics than the quality of the work. Hence, the grant system can easily become a field of corruption.
Getting a ‘General Grant’
by Bob Ragland, Denver, CO, USA
One of the best artists’ grants that I can think of, is a stack of fifty dollar bills. USA fifties have Ulysses S. Grant on them. Every time I get some money from sales, I get some fifty dollar bills to put in my cash stash. This “grant” system works great for one’s mentality. The amount of cash one has in hand is the amount of rejection one can stand. I don’t break a fifty until I know I’m getting another. I’m never broke, never begging. I’m living without NEA and proud of it. Save some cash and you won’t take no trash.
Working the system
by Richard J. Finnell, NYC, NY, USA
What you have noted is the same here in the United States. There are quite a few people who work the system. Some are deserving but quite a few are using it just for the money. Same for welfare — there are deserving families and there are families where their parents and grandparents were on welfare. It’s a shame but that is all they know and quite a few who call themselves artists work the system.
Give a chance to the new
by Anne Petrie, Calgary, AB, Canada
Instead of just trashing contemporary art, why not make a sincere attempt to find out something about it? There are always extremes that one can use to discount serious new ideas about what art (or any other creative endeavor) can be. As a mature art student (at a Canadian art college) with good critical judgment — and not at all prone to following trends — I have found I have had to re-examine a lot of my assumptions about art. Being negative is easy and safe — giving the new a real chance is the challenge.
Changing the public’s perception
by Lynn Weisbach, Roswell, GA, USA
I have been an artist in the USA for over 30 years. I was a graphic designer for 12 years and currently work as a workshop instructor and do festivals on the weekends. Art festivals are serious trench work. People think nothing of telling you exactly what they think about your work — good or bad. One person will praise you to the skies and the next will take you down to your knees. The one thing I have learned is that the vast majority of the public neither understands nor respects the talent, work or abilities of the average artist. A few artists, like the ones you described in your letter, take the attention away from the rest of us who work hard to advance our craft. Unfortunately, to get attention, this type of “gimmick based art” is the only way to get the attention of the public.
Perceptions about art need to be changed. One way to do this is through education. Our schools have cut funding for all arts programs so this is becoming a real problem. I have heard on numerous occasions television show hosts talk about how “easy” art is and tell the public how cheaply a wall can be decorated. This only compounds the problem. People talking about what a steal a $200 pair of shoes were and then the very next minute, balk at a price tag of $125 for an original painting. This is great for the clothing industry but sad for the arts community.
Until the arts community gets serious about changing the public’s perception, I am afraid we will all have to suffer the consequences of the public’s innocence.
Institutions need not apply
by Nancy Christy-Moore, Glendale, AZ, USA
The artists who have the guts to bring their work to the public through private exhibits and galleries are, in my opinion, traveling the high ground. True artistic expression cannot and should not be institutionalized in any way. Teaching the basics to individuals with an artistic bent is almost too much education, but if done correctly those individuals will take off on their own path searching for their own meaning in the art world, not someone else’s just because they have a degree in art. Did the impressionists have college degrees? Did the renaissance painters? Sure, the great ones worked for and beside the masters for years before going out on their own. But the challenges they faced when leaving that tutelage were similar to today’s emerging artists: Finding their own patrons, commissions, sources of revenue. It wasn’t easy then, and it isn’t easy now.
This is not a dress rehearsal
by Sam Hunter, Simi Valley, CA, USA
I graduated last weekend with a BA in Art (concentration Sculpture). I’m a 43 year old woman who has wanted this since I was six, and it took me a long time through marriages, divorces, bankruptcy, numerous horrid jobs and years of single parenting to get to walk in the hot sun wearing the funny hat. I was asked recently if I thought I would have had a better education if I had gone to one of the big name schools out here in California (Pasadena Art Center, Cal Arts, Otis). I did three years at Moorpark College (a stellar junior college) and, a decade later, another three at the latest jewel in the Cal State system, CSU Channel Islands. I thought hard about this question because, financially, the private schools were never an option for me, nor did they offer to be accommodating to the necessarily odd schedule of the working parent.
Still more excrement?
by BJ Haugstad, Hayfield, MN, USA
I teach a drawing class for children through community education. I found one child’s comment about “good” or successful work so telling. She made a line with a pencil across her paper and told me that it was abstract art. We so easily protect our children from feeling “bad” about not being successful and learning to do the job well, because we desire to protect them. I actually have children who assume they know how to draw, and in a particular instance my work was considered a little better than the best drawer in a second grade class by another second grader. Interesting.
The report of the excrement show is an extension of this kind of limited knowledge of the genuine expression of really “good” artwork. A popular belief in Western Culture is the idea that all truths are valid and equal. Unfortunately, the real artists — as well as those that represent other professions — understand that this is just not a valid belief. If the grants are to be given only because there is equality of truth then let’s at least applaud all future attempts to display more “excrement.” If not then perhaps the solution is ours as a community of working artists who desire to excel at our professions. If the public arena refuses to give our children the tools to do their jobs then maybe we need to give them those tools so that the future generations do not forget the importance of hard work and accomplishment through genuine knowledge.
Private art schools
by John Gargano, Lakewood, CO, USA
The current state of affairs in art education is abysmal. There has been a particularly disturbing trend in the last decade, at least in the U.S., of the expansion of (very expensive) private art schools. I am referring to the schools that formerly offered various types of commercial arts degrees, that now offer bachelors degrees in everything from culinary arts to multi-media and animation.
If it were not for the availability of low-cost government sponsored student loans, none of these schools would exist. Many of these schools promise the world but deliver far less. Many of these schools advertise the excitement, glory and fun that students will have in the process of getting their “college” degree. What baloney!
Too many students are victims of predatory recruiting practices and misleading promises of future esteem and the glory of living an exciting creative life. Many of these small private schools prey on the students that are not fit for a government sanctioned university. Established universities have more applicants than they can take in and they have no need to lower their standards to maintain their revenues. The new batch of private schools cater to the students because without them (and their student loans) they would have no revenues. Babysitting in these establishments is a common practice. I have seen the great effort that faculty and staff go to just to persuade the students to keep at it. In a real university, the students either buck up or flunk out!
Everyone in these schools knows the minimum amount of time students need to attend before the students are obligated to pay the loans — and it isn’t very long. All of this is ripe for an expose on 60 Minutes.
Proper art school opens doors
by Sally Pollard, Weiser, ID, USA
There’s a big difference in where you get your art education. I went to Purdue and to various junior colleges and took some painting and craft classes. The classes and workshops were fun but nothing compared to a real art education. Eventually I got to go to Art Center College of Art and Design. There was absolutely no comparison between art school and university art. My heart aches for the serious student who has to suffer junior college and university art programs. Get thee to a good art school! I went through with an infant son and a spitefully jealous spouse. I think I may be the only woman with an infant to have gone through Art Center. I don’t recommend doing it that way, but one has to take opportunities as they come. My father paid. He died in my third term. For some reason they let me complete the last 4 terms tuition free. The doors open when conditions are right.
by Arthur Nelander, Kaneohe, HI, USA
“As the person who originally mediated the Rockefeller Arts Council money into precedent-setting video grants, my glee at getting the money allocated was balanced by a nagging doubt that perhaps modern art was merely a process whereby the pain of the poor becomes the perceptions of the rich. The rich need these perceptions to maintain their power because they are out of touch with the shifting sentiments of the majority of people. Artists, in touch with the alienating experience of industrialization suffered by most people, translate that experience into an idiom or code (modern art) useful to the few who profit from that alienation. I was asking myself if refusing to make art would result in a more just society. Moreover, since art legitimizes wealth, it contributes to a status quo that can effectively ignore the pain of the poor.”
The above is a paragraph from The Genealogy of Video The term “genealogy” indicates a particular sort of writing concerned with rediscovering struggles without shrinking from the rude memory of the conflict. It is an effort to establish knowledge, based on local memories, that is of tactical use to the reader. Whereas a history is generally written as if a struggle had been resolved, a genealogy assumes that the present resolution is subject to change.
Our art alliance is working
by Lynne Foster Fife, Nashville, IN, USA
We here in Nashville and Brown County, Indiana rejoice in our art production and our professionalism in the arts. While we are basically a scenic, rural community we produce beautiful, meaningful art in all media. In this area we have a number of active organizations earnestly promoting the arts and artful life in our community. Our Art Alliance offers links to member websites as well as contact information and pictures for easy viewing. This year we produced a huge full color brochure featuring 36 artists and 11 patrons. It was a landmark accomplishment paid for by the artists and sponsors. We have banded together to “promote the arts through unity” rather than spend our precious creative time competing for hard-won grant money. It seems we are humans as well as artists, and so with all the skill and talent we can combine we are becoming a recognizable and powerful force for the benefit of the community and the arts — not to mention the individual artists who share their skills.
The issue of grant money has presented itself many times, but we find that we can do more good things unfettered by paperwork and regulation. We don’t judge or classify our artists, we encourage them to present their skills and creativity in their finest efforts. Instead of fund-raising, we can spend our time making art and use our creativity in getting it out there as a public service. We are about to do our first group show which cost each member $15 to exhibit. We have been offered 3 more. We have no brick and mortar and no telephone but we do have a great website and most of our members have gotten proficient at communicating through e-mail. It’s working!
by Janet Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
I teach traditional drawing and painting on purpose, with meaning, and for our sanity: Is it art if no one ever sees it? Are we artists if we don’t label ourselves as such? Do we think and relate to meaningfulness in our lives and in art? Thanks to Robert’s letters, this year I got the courage to write for our local paper a column we call “Art Matters.” In trying to help our under-served artists and our arts community gain more recognition, I wrote about the big numbers. Based in the information from the Colorado Arts Council and some other statistics from supportive documents, “there are 548,000 arts-related businesses in the United States — one in 24 U.S. businesses is arts-centric. It’s a formidable industry — The cultural industry doesn’t just spend money, it attracts it. A destination for cultural tourists, metro Denver attracted 2.8 million visitors from outside the metro area and 1.4 million from outside Colorado. This cultural tourism created $403 million of economic impact — new money for the metro Denver economy…”
(RG note) Thanks, Janet. If anyone is thinking about writing about art for their local newspaper, talk to Janet. Her columns are terrific.
Apologies to Charles J. Sykes
by Jane E. Ward, Crosby, TX, USA
In the last clickback, Myra Mandel writes on “Advice from Bill Gates.” Sorry, it’s a good speech but not given by Billy boy. This list has also been attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but it is actually the work of Charles J. Sykes, author of the book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, Or Add.
This list also omitted the last three rules:
12: Smoking does not make you look cool. It makes you look moronic. Next time you’re out cruising, watch an 11-year-old with a butt in his mouth. That’s what you look like to anyone over 20. Ditto for “expressing yourself” with purple hair and/or pierced body parts.
13: You are not immortal. (See Rule No. 12.) If you are under the impression that living fast, dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse is romantic, you obviously haven’t seen one of your peers at room temperature lately.
14: Enjoy this while you can. Sure parents are a pain, school’s a bother, and life is depressing. But someday you’ll realize how wonderful it was to be a kid. Maybe you should start now. You’re welcome.
Chinese Still Life
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Tim Simmons who wrote, “There are no (as in zero) art programs on the television in the mid-south (local and cable) and most people just work, sleep, eat and don’t view or buy art.”
And also Lane Aldridge who wrote, “It’s no wonder to me that governments (including ours in U.S.) want to cut ‘fine arts’ funding when ‘artists’ who pretend such stuff is “Art” perpetuate such Crap.”