Public Funding for Public Art?

December 8, 2011 · Print This Article

I’m writing this from Washington, DC where I’m taking part in NAMAC’s first Campaign and Policy Institute, a three day think-tank with nonprofits across the Unites States to give us all some pointers on how we talk to our policy-makers. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting with Senator Kirk and Senator Durbin’s art staff to advocate for more arts funding. I feel kind of like my Dad when he was chosen as one of twenty high school students across the country to go to the White House and shake hands with LBJ. Of course, I was not chosen to do this out of thousands of people and Senator Kirk is no LBJ. And I am less excited about meeting my elected officials after watching them run and hide from Stand Up! Chicago who had also traveled to Washington, DC to meet them this week.

Particularly sobering today, though kind of awesome in his radical bluntness, was Gladstone Payton, the Associate Director of Federal Affairs at Americans for the Arts. Basically he said that we’re in the middle of a “retrenchment,” arts funding levels are going down and there’s really no upswing in sight. The NEA’s budget has gone from around 165 million to 150 million (which was a deal to avoid government shutdown) and there are proposals now to lower it to 135 million. As he puts it, broader consensus has not been formed around arts and social justice organizations. We don’t have our “thought infrastructure” in place to articulate funding for the arts as important because it’s part of our national identity and we continually fall back on the economic driver and revitalization argument. Where is the counter-Richard Florida argument? “Thought infrastructure” sounds kind of terrifying but so does advocating for arts policy in our current governmental climate. Payton told us another story about Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, who takes every swipe he can at the arts on the Senate floor, yet his daughter is an opera singer and he is a strong supporter of his local arts council and opera company. Some people just believe that the government’s role is not to support the arts and this ideological divide cannot be crossed. Ok, yes, this is kind of depressing. Monumentally depressing when thinking about places like Kansas where Governor Brownback eliminated all of his state’s arts funding this year. Stories like this are multiplying.

So duh, Republicans don’t believe in funding the arts. But some do believe in individual charitable giving, apparently as part of some private sector argument in which arts are supposed to become part of the competitive marketplace. And this is going to be a really unfair comparison, but sites like Kickstarter are also on the individual giving/competition train. And I don’t blame them at all and I participate wholeheartedly. To fund creative projects, who else are we going to turn to for money other than family, friends, and the extended social networks that we are working on building all the time? And what’s more American than good old self-promotion and some healthy competition? That sounds pretty cynical, I’m actually rather painfully earnest. I love love love that tools like Kickstarter exist but doesn’t it also seem like it puts everyone out there on their own individual limb, hoping they made the right pitch to get noticed in all the internet noise?

Which is also why I was charmed when I came across Trust Art‘s “origin story,” as the Statue of Liberty as America’s first piece of public art funded by crowd-sourcing. Trust Art was started by Seth Aylmer and Jose Serrano-Reyes, who choose the projects that become part of the Trust Art network. I met Jose since he’s on staff as a Community Organizer at the Queens Museum of Art, a truly interesting position for a museum that’s interested in public engagement. Trust Art is a responsive model of funding public art in which people on the internet buy shares in public works of art, thereby becoming invested in that project coming to fruition. Their story of the Statue of Liberty, funded partly by dinner parties, small donations solicited by the New York Globe, and motivated citizens, tells the story of how things actually got done, made up of publics with personal stakes rather than monolithic institutions. I was interested in how they thought about the changing landscape of public funding for the arts today, where the majority of non-institutional community-based arts projects are happening via the crowd-sourcing model and where they think all this is going.

First, check out this video that explains a bit more, starring Benjamin Franklin:

How does Trust Art work and how did it get started?

Trust Art is an experimental funding model for socially-engaged and public art.  The model adapts the concept of a publicly-held company to create a community of people actively supporting a public art project over the course of its development. Trust Art issues shares for every dollar or volunteer hour a community member gives towards the development of a project and redeems those shares when the project is completed. Artworks, artifacts and other ephemera from the projects are sold at auction and the proceeds are re-distributed amongst the artists and community members, who are invited to recycle any returns into new projects.

We introduced the model and 10 inaugural projects at the TED Conference in 2009 as an experiment we were intent on learning from.

What are your backgrounds that brought you to initiating this project?

Jose used to work for the New York Fed and has experience in economics and capital markets.  Seth is a philosopher, painter, sculptor, and video maker.   We have been collaborating for 6 years on projects that work at the joints between art and capital.   In a country where half of all public spending goes to military concerns, we have tried to counter the prevailing paradigm and champion funding and support for the arts with the very artwork that we make.  It has been our mission to re-direct capital of all kinds to the arts because we firmly believe in the power of art to transform society for the better.

Can you explain how you think about what seems to be the two different meanings of the word “trust” as the central core to the project?   On the one hand you are actually building a financial structure in the form of a “trust” i.e. mimicking a corporate structure where people take part as shareholders and the beneficiaries of the money are responsible to those investors. On the other hand, “trust” is affective in the sense that you are building a community that feels a stake in these public-oriented projects, where no one person in particular can “own” the work. This seems like a pressing metaphor right now when thinking about movements such as Occupy Wall Street which are so indicative of the fact that people have lost their trust in our government’s ability to have financial institutions be accountable to the regular citizens. 

Yes, we are indeed playing with the different meanings of the word ‘trust’.    Trust.  Equity.  Mutual.  Share.  All beautiful ideas that are present at the foundations of early capitalism, when financial mechanisms were still about getting capital from hand that had it to the hand that needed it.  The use of this word reflects the fact that our work has been less a critique of capitalism than an exploration of what capitalism might look like should it evolve beyond the mentality and propagation of scarcity in which it currently resides.

To us this seems like the perfect time to start re-thinking institutions that are not serving the societal purpose for which they were initially created. In our view, new institutions will only succeed the inevitable trials that they face if they are good at building community. Trust, in the non-financial sense, is a key factor in any community, especially one that is organized around projects involving pooled resources. Luckily public art is a suitable testing ground because it is easier to trust a project which is essentially a gift that beautifies and enlivens your surroundings.

What do you think are the limits of responsive fundraising models like this? For instance, do you think there is any danger in a project being judged on whether or not it serves particular communities well enough or whether it has the right kind of politics? Would a project that has a confrontational element such as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc not make the cut here? Or would something that is perhaps a more traditional approach to public art such as a mural not have a place here?

We believe in abundance.  That’s the first and most important thing that drives our thinking.  All these kinds of work could live together in our societies, and should.

We really do not want to play the role of the curator, and definitely not the role of a censor, but there are in fact other external factors that do limit and shape the type of artwork that ultimately ends up in public space. There are the obvious issues of construction and permitting which must meet a certain standard, but projects must also be able to successfully fundraise which must mean they have to appeal to a base level of supporters to get off the ground. Confrontation can be a wonderful quality in works of art, but artists working in the public realm will quickly realize that they must face a sea of resistance if confrontation is the only thing they are about.

Obviously, Kickstarter has really changed the way we think about fundraising on the internet. There is now a readily accessible infrastructure where people can fundraise for their work through small amounts of money by their communities. But there are some issues there too. One is that it speaks to the fact that traditional funding models are not responding to people’s needs, i.e. the problem with governmental support for the arts being what it is today. But is it a danger to let those larger institutions off the hook when we individually pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and ask our friends and family members to foot the bill for creative projects? This is a devil’s advocate sort of question, since I don’t think it’s so black and white as that but it does raise some concerns about how we advocate for these kinds of projects at the macro-level. What does an ideal infrastructure to support public art look like to Trust Art? 

Also, do you think there is some tipping point where there will be too many kickstarter campaigns in our lives to feel mutually invested in one particular work? Do you think people will get exhausted by all these solicitations?

If you think about them as ‘solicitations’, yes.  If you think about them as invitations to participate in a creative process, perhaps not.

We think it’s important that we move to reflect the spirit of creative life.  The most sustainable approach for us is bringing supporters closer to their spirit as innately creative beings.  We are also trying to foster a greater community than just the family and friends of the artist because it is the public at large that will be benefitting from the completion of these project.   As tempting as it might be to think of the government as a good solution to funding public art, dealing with that kind of beauracracy can be both draining and constraining.

We are hoping our auction in the Spring of 2012 will be a chance to engage a larger portion of the artworld in the funding of public artwork.

And astutely, you point out that crowd-sourcing, gift economies, and community-based fundraising were evident in our most famous public work of art, The Statue of Liberty. So is all this talk about new models really just a collective amnesia about how things actually get done?

The urge for people to rally together to create works greater and more enduring than their transient selves is an ancient one. The story of the Statue of Liberty is especially inspiring because it is a people-powered work of art that dollar for dollar is one of the greatest economic engines of all time.   Imagine the spiritual and economic wealth that can be traced back to this work of art as it greeted and inspired the tens of millions of new New Yorkers that came to this city to looking for a new sense of what is possible.

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