The Romance of Community: Supporting Artists in the 21st Century

Lisa Dent
14 min readSep 22, 2018


Photo by Alex Barber; Courtesy of Project Row Houses, Houston, TX

Earlier this month I was invited to give the keynote address at Project Row Houses in Houston during their Social Justice.Social Practice symposium. A version was also presented during the Social Practice Symposium at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City earlier this year.

Thank you. I’m a huge fan of Project Row Houses’ mission and programming but have never visited Houston. I am honored to be a part of this symposium. I want to thank my family and several colleagues, who encourage me to move forward in the face of any setback, find me opportunities to continue with my passion of advocating for the work of living artists, open my eyes to the possibilities for change, and inspire me with their fierceness. And thank you to the Karankawa people for caring for this land, so that we may prosper here today. It is a bonus for me to be here with several colleagues that I have known, or worked with, or admired from afar.

What I hope to do in the next 30 minutes is place socioeconomics into the realm of artistic support more intentionally. I will not be presenting some sort of codified history of social practice art within the canon but will highlight the ways in which this work aligns with institutions and my experience within them. Before you get your hopes up, I have more questions than answers. However, I am willing to, as Miranda Joseph notes in her book Against the Romance of Community, “bring our experience to bear; that is, we can try to learn from our mistakes by equipping ourselves with the analytic tools to read the implications of our practices.” I will attempt to do this with the understanding that any community or individual is not in binary opposition to the other.

Arts and cultural institutions, such as museums, galleries, and grantmaking foundations, have been described as the best outcome of a civilized society. Why — it has been argued — would we lobby against tyranny and fight wars to create peace if for no other reason than to witness the beauty and inspired genius of artistic creation? So, in the 20th century Americans of great wealth and power established institutions and foundations, funneled funds and other resources to their creative citizens and honored them with sustained work that ultimately could be shared with society. In their February 2017 report titled Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project, the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) reminded readers that “…Culture is a right, not a privilege, a point recognized in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Artists — and those who work closely with them — have benefited from this charity for generations. All that has been required for the support of their work to continue is for organizations to follow financial and legal requirements the powerful put in place. Beyond annual audits and the payment of things like property taxes, US non-profit organizations must manage gifts, financial and otherwise, in order to support their missions. Over the past several decades, leaders of nonprofits have presented reports, guides, and metrics designed to illustrate the contemporary enterprise of philanthropy. These materials have helped address the challenges of non-profit arts organizations as government and business representatives at the local, state and national level change.

As someone who has earned income from the cultural system for 25 years, I’ve watched as these changes impacted the work my colleagues and I did. I made changes in my professional work as I came to understand my education, privilege, and power along the possibilities within various sectors. I have experienced the questions and conflicts within small, midsize, and large organizations. More and more I have had to ask questions I believe are important to consider as we steward progress within the cultural sector:

· What if your life in the arts includes interactions at work that provide you with no legal protections or financial benefits?

· What if artists and cultural workers’ safety requires submission to immoral power structures?

· Can creative work made with resources from a system devised by those closest to power and unwilling to relinquish their position mirror anything but the system itself?

· Can and should a system of support be established apart from the non-profit industrial complex?

In my former position at Creative Capital, I worked in the Artist Services department. My role included overseeing the grantmaking process, managing convenings for colleagues, and meeting with individual artists on a regular basis to provide ongoing support for their artistic projects. This included reviewing contracts, budgets, and timelines then encouraging a shift to careful consideration of artists’ personal goals and the idea of a future. When I initially met with people who defined themselves as artists or cultural workers in the US I would go by a few assumptions:

· That the individual lives and participates in the capitalist economy of this country with access to all of the monetary structures available to its citizens.

· That their desire is for their artistic work to be the primary source of income as defined by the US Internal Revenue Service.

· That the artist will participate in various legally binding social structures and relationships, such as marriage or adoption.

· That the artist accepts the current structure of the market for one of a kind or limited editions of artistic objects.

The moment that an artist decides to assume all of the responsibilities, benefits and drawbacks of the current political, economic and social structures described above, the “when” or “how” answers are seemingly standardized. If I discover, however, that the artist is uninterested, unwilling or unable to function within the above assumptions, then the question of when or how one will develop and present their artistic work is addressed differently. Social practice artists often fall within this scenario, as their work often does not result in one-of-a-kind objects. Compensation might be selected from a long list of legal, malleable considerations. More often than not, more time needs to be taken and perhaps more research needed because other options are often not immediately apparent. Many times people have been discouraged by those options — they won’t get shows, they won’t get a gallery, they won’t sell their work — so I took great care to address the fear these conversations inevitably brought forward.

Asking artists how, when, and why they want to participate in the political economy is so that they can be better collaborators. When they are working with small, mid-size or large cultural institutions, they can be engaged in the conversation with some level of understanding and an ability to negotiate for what they need based on their own terms.

Non-profits generally have staff members who possess an understanding of the institution’s requirements and responsibilities to the city, county, state, and country in which they choose to build their constituency. Artists often do not. Our educational system has not supported this. A person can graduate with a bachelors or masters of fine arts in this country never have been asked to create a budget or learn to negotiate a lease on a home or studio space. For years, as Julia Bryan-Wilson describes in her book Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, artists have struggled with what connection to this economy would be most beneficial to them and how they could engage with corporate and governmental entities with, generally, the hope of gaining more power over the acquisition and distribution of their art. I believe this is true, but it excludes other parts of the economy that impact an artist’s life — home, family, community, and political awareness. These are the things that affect individuals and the art that they create. So how can an artist move forward without addressing them?

Artists often do what they do to communicate with the world. As they get older, they begin to consider what they will leave behind for posterity. They want to be a part of the history of art in this country. What do they want to leave behind? In one of Creative Capital’s professional development workshops, consultants ask artists to write their obituary. I’ve heard many artists say this was an incredibly influential exercise. It allowed them to see, in black and white, where they wanted to go and what they needed to do to get there. I have to tell you, regardless of the media the artists were using, regardless of whether they made objects, or films, or participated in social practice work, all of them wanted to engage in the global economy by having their work collected by museums. However, most had no idea how to engage with the policies for acquisition or the people who make the decisions about what is collected.

Who in our society holds the history of cultural production? Where do many people believe it’s important to keep and take care of cultural objects? Museums. If an artist wants to be a part of history, then it is crucial that he or she understands the framework, market, and economy the institution is within. So much of the process is opaque by design. It is overseen by people who have nothing to gain from your inquiry or education and in my experience don’t believe that you should bother. Let them manage it and just do your work. Is it possible to reach your goals, gain the access you desire and attain the freedoms you believe to be important while living in this country without that knowledge?

Artists have, of course, taken on running non-profit arts organizations such as Project Row Houses, and many art school graduates have become curators or educators, working within museums and learning these systems. Even with a cultural space that is led and run by artists themselves, initial choices are made in order to comply with the socioeconomic system. After learning how things are done, cultural workers have wanted to change these institutions and there is an interest in incorporating less oppressive systems into the organizational structure. The resources and needs of individuals have outweighed the artists, audiences, and communities many of these organizations are meant to serve, a trend that has developed to great degree over the last 40 years.

Almost thirty years ago, after legal battles with the National Endowment for the Arts, many non-profit arts organizations in the US decided to harness the power of individuals and private foundations to provide their funding. Due to unprecedented wealth and Reagan-era tax changes, foundation support for art organizations in the 1990s rose by 115%. Individuals, and later private foundations, began to believe they had ownership over the content and character of cultural organizations. Protests and public pressure mounted. In the US it became legally unnecessary to reveal how personal politics might be contrary to diverse opinions. In her new book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, Aruna D’Souza reminds us that in the mid to late 20th century, protests proliferated against exhibitions with racist or sexist content because of the use of state or federal funding sources for the shows. This, combined with media attention on marginalized groups, also provided the necessary pressure for these foundations and art organizations to consider racial and gender equity in their hiring and giving. But charitable giving helped stabilize major US arts organizations, some of which received a minimum of half their annual revenue. This funding allowed these organizations to maintain access to the resources necessary to create, present and share work by artists around the world, so why would they change anything? Outside of commercial film, gallery and publishing efforts, non-profit organizations continued to make the case for the value of their cultural work within the US economy by focused development of individual funding support and audience participation reports. Museums and performing arts institutions posted record numbers of audiences and income last year.

In the 21st century, individual donors provide the majority of financial support for the creation of new work by living artists. This often allows them to have a greater stake in, and influence over, the participation of artists in the economy. Students, interns and entry-level employees, enticed by the marketing of opportunities to engage in cultural work that reflected their experiences, became interested in committing to non-profit work for their professional careers. Curators created diverse artist lists, and educators welcomed public school children to ensure us that everyone was being given an opportunity to learn about the our cultural heritage. However, the programming and support of queer, disabled, and POC artists often mask the toxic workplaces of these organizations, where the desires of white, wealthy, heterosexual colleagues and benefactors have been prioritized over the safety and care of core staff who represent oppressed, intersectional communities. When they do land those jobs, qualified employees of color are tokenized and pressured to perform duties that deny them access to the power needed to make changes within organizations. Fellowship and grant opportunities, some of which specifically support people of color, are often short-term, entry-level awards that have no impact on the upper echelons of the arts sector. While the potential to create a larger pool of professionals of color is there, this is not reflected in the racial makeup of full time employees at these institutions today.

In a 2015 report, the Mellon Foundation noted that the full-time staff of the intellectual and educational departments at museums is 84% Non-Hispanic White and philanthropic foundation staff demographics hold steady at 75% white. A Council on Foundations report found that from 2006 to 2015 the number of people of color in full-time positions had risen by only 1.68%. While considerations of diversity, equity, and inclusion have permeated the sector, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations noted that less than half of respondents saw change in their organizational culture, including lack of leadership that exemplify those values.

How can the intersectional needs of cultural workers, absent from leadership and daily work environments, influence these institutions to make change?

Artists don’t have to engage in the usual trappings of non-profit organizational structures, both an opportunity and a possible cause for concern. Working project to project, in and out of temporary or permanent structures, they have mimicked and highlighted these socioeconomic systems in attempts to show audiences what they do see at times. They explore the freedoms and constraints of doing cultural work.

But what if practices once deemed inclusive and equitable are revealed to be something else. In 2013, Creative Time commissioned Suzanne Lacy to create Between the Door and the Street. On a single, residential block in Brooklyn, lined with iconic brownstones, Lacy invited several hundred women and a few men to engage in quiet conversations about the justice work they were doing (many within non-profit organizations). They wore bright yellow scarves around their necks, so they would be recognizable. The audience was invited to walk up and down the street, watch the conversations, and learn about the advocacy work that was being done throughout the city. I arrived early to find I couldn’t hear a single conversation, even before several hundred people arrived, and the sound of their discussions muffled those of the volunteer actors. It was nearly impossible to learn anything. More importantly for me was the discomfort I felt when I learned that the actors, almost all women of color, had been asked to speak at a low, conversational volume and to ignore any interest or interaction with the audience.

Frankly, I was a bit saddened being engulfed in a Brooklyn neighborhood controlled in a way that was very different from my experience of seeing people talking on the stoop. The set up intentionally kept me from learning anything. Later, on Facebook, through a post by Creative Time’s curator, Nato Thompson, I learned that none of the actors had been paid and no childcare had been provided so many were unable to participate. Not even food had been provided during the long day. When I asked why Creative Time had chosen not to pay anyone, instead of getting an answer I received a phone call from their leadership questioning my allegiance to my colleague in the field.

We are all in an ecosystem of delicate mutuality when it comes to creativity, artists’ needs, and funders’ desires. Each non-profit finds its own way of functioning, the details of which can be felt in their outward facing work, but also in the minutia of decisions around the money they accept and what they do with it. Every organization has a responsibility to present outcomes and endeavors to future funders, whether they are individuals or foundations. This is part of the pledge non-profits make when they accept money in support of their programs, and to some degree, audiences and artists understand this as well. The financial picture of a non-profit is an annual race to the finish and good business practice promotes solvency for multiple years in the future. If cultural organizations are truly committed to the artists they work with and the audiences that they serve, are they reconsidering their financial forecasting or the structure from the top down?

In a non-profit organization, as the structure is legally defined, the staff is not responsible for its health. A board of directors is put in place to oversee the org and ensure that all activities are furthering its mission. Subsequently, in order to lead an arts organization today, executive directors are asked to disregard the daily interactions and musings of their staff and constituencies in order to focus on the big picture with board members. Most non-profit boards across the US are still white and wealthy, not more inclusive. A 2017 report indexing board members across the country noted that board members are still 84% white. Board chair positions in 90% of these orgs are held by whites, 58% of those are men.

Arts workers, inspired by an inclusive group of artists, have begun to demand leaders and managers who amplify their voices, rather than mimic those of a powerful few. This arrangement requires hard work to ensure that an organization promotes the proper treatment of the people in mind. However, the truth is, bringing people-centered policy to the forefront of these institutions is not legally required. Ongoing and competent communication between the artists and the employees, and then the employees and the leadership, is expected but not regularly monitored by the board. It is easier for non-profit organizations to prioritize, measure, track, and report on matters such as fiscal solvency than the care of people.

I believe nonprofit arts organizations that have placed themselves at the forefront of artistic production for decades have become defensive and fearful of these artists and employees. But I believe this can change.

How do the passionate artists, audiences, and colleagues who have watched non-profit art organizations evolve ensure that board members and leadership honor a complex and intimate system of support? They could look at non-western models of business formation. Mark a new path. Restructure. In the meantime, the artists and audiences that these 501c3 organizations serve can ask questions similar to those many are asking of our political leaders. Can staff and audiences vote on candidates for board positions? How tangibly responsive is the organization to the complaints, concerns, and challenges presented to them by artists and administrators? To what degree are artists and their freedom of expression, their access to resources, and their capacity for survival directly obstructed by institutions’ prioritization of obeying the gatekeepers of power and wealth? What policies are put in place to ensure accountability, transparency, and prevent retaliation? To what degree is ethical arts leadership jettisoned for financial solvency? In what ways are the staff and board of cultural institutions asked to engage across socioeconomic communities in the way that artists are? Is it possible to use what we have learned from social practice artists to create an anti-colonialist institutional structure? How do we do that when there is so much to learn from objects in museum collections that have already been acquired and whose valuation continues to be based on colonialist economic policies?

As I warned you, I have many questions. I am committed to asking them as often as I can. I hope you will too.