Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant
Why does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the “serious artist”?
[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments.–MS]
A few months back, my friend and fellow Baltimore composer Alex Gardner invited me to sit on a panel she was moderating, “Artists Outside Academia,” which was part of the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute. The artists included were those of us in Baltimore who did not primarily make their living as fulltime professors and were therefore outside of the typical presentation opportunities, support networks, and technical resources that university faculty often enjoy—not to mention the full time salaries.
The discussion centered on the various activities, priorities, and lives of the local artists on the panel and how we each, in our own ways, have gone off script in creating personal lives that sustain our creative work. Certainly for me, choosing to live and work in Baltimore was already a conscious choice made for my art practice—relying on the freedom afforded by relatively lower housing costs compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, etc. Other negotiations of time, space, and finances that came up included taking on the role of primary childcare provider, taking on additional training and classes for skills used to piece together side jobs, working seasonally, or making sacrifices in healthcare or housing to balance paying bills with insecure incomes.
For those of us working for our art practice without significant financial support other than what our own bodies and minds can generate, all these negotiations are probably familiar. We always have to consider FOOD/SHELTER against how ambitious a project we can undertake, how quickly we’ll be able to complete that project, and how much energy and self we can pour into that project. All these things change the rhythm of our creative minds and shape what our ART (not the work per se, but the practice), situated inside of our very real LIVES, will have.
My own path for making a living while making art was something that during the panel I referred to as the Bonnie Jones Grant. This “grant” was all the various web-related freelance and fulltime jobs I’ve held during my 17 years in Baltimore, which directly funded my volunteer non-profit, curatorial work, and art practice. In other words, I had a lot of regular jobs, but I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice. I came to music later than most, having in my twenties focused on poetry and performance. Once my focus turned to music, the stuff I was interested in making was often challenging and abstract, produced with cracked and circuit bent electronic instruments. While the international community of noise and improvisation is incredibly stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, the financial sustainability is tenuous at best. So I realized early on that the music and writing I was drawn to might never be able to generate enough income to support my FOOD/SHELTER needs. So I got a job, a job job as artists sometimes call it, or job jobs in my case.
So the other day while working on this blog post, I took a break and watched a documentary called The Wrecking Crew about a prolific group of studio musicians who were responsible for thousands of Top 10 recorded hits from the 1960s and 1970s. You may have never heard their names, but you’ve certainly heard their music. This crew recorded The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” the Mamas and Papas’s “California Dreamin,’” the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The discography is mind-blowing.
Money was on my mind, so it was refreshing to hear these musicians talk about their art WORK. They spoke honestly about their modest or sometimes impoverished childhoods, the hustle of their early years when they were making their names, the sacrifices in parenting they made to support their families (studio gigs would sometimes keep musicians out for 20-hour days), their struggles with addiction and mental health issues as a result of the demands of their jobs and the insecurity of their incomes. They had no pretensions about how their art and their jobs were, by necessity, collaborative and entwined.
Percussionist Earl Palmer (who played on recordings of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” and Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) freely admitted that he didn’t care much for rock and roll, his heart was in jazz, but that to make a living off of rock and roll, he needed to play it like it was his favorite music. There was a general acknowledgement from the musicians that ALL the work you did was the REAL work of being an artist. Palmer’s judicious comment about playing music he wasn’t all that into: “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you.”
So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?
These days funding and jobs for working musicians are fewer and further between—the recording industry is collapsing, arts funding is choked off so orchestras are folding and commissions are disappearing. Even within the world of artists making objects, painters and sculptors are constantly working for free—their work appearing in major cultural institutions with no compensation unless they become one of the few who enter into the art economy as commodity. I think most of us agree that solely making money off your art is becoming a very rare condition.
The WORK part of a working artist’s career has expanded into a variety of industries and jobs that don’t utilize our artistic skills directly. The education industry has probably become the leading source of jobs for artists, while of course generating significant income off of those same folks in the form of MFA, DMA, and Ph.D. programs. This in theory sounds great, until the jobs are all taken and the universities keep creating masters and doctors of art who have student debt but no job prospects. So most artists are still spending lots of time stringing together a lot of different sources of income. Though I think it’s important to note, a lot of them really aren’t at all. A lot of highly visible and successful artists are such because they have financial support from family, partners, or other places not directly related to their art practice and in many cases they’ve always had that. And I think it’s fair to say that that does make an enormous difference in the shape of an artist’s life.
Which brings me to my current fear about the future of art in America. What happens if young artists starting out, with little or no financial support outside themselves, just stop making art and trying to put it out there because they need to take care of FOOD/SHELTER. What if only rich folks can make a successful living off of making art? What if we’re deprived of the benefits of having access to art made from a huge range of human experiences and backgrounds? Or maybe this kind of fear is completely out of touch with how art will be made and distributed in the future? Maybe we’re just witnessing a transition phase?
A side note about my own privileges. I was adopted from Korea and raised in a modest but middle class Caucasian farm family. I had all my basics covered as a child and, with family support, attended a great (cheap) public university that led to some solid job prospects, which led to a secure income working for an internet company, which I was able to parlay into a subcontracting position, which allowed me to go to and pay for my MFA, and which today allows me to work and make money on projects and then take off for months at a time to work on art and touring. Some years I make well above the poverty line and others not as much, but the work is fairly reliable and if the worst were to happen—cancer, psychiatric crisis, car accident, house fire, etc.—I have a stable relationship with my family that I know I could rely on. All of these things I recognize as enormous privileges.
OK, so for those of us who decide to keep producing anyways, because we just can’t stop, because it’s an essential part of who we are, because we’d lose our minds if we didn’t: Sometimes I wonder, is it all on us to just get our shit together and make it work? Does the working artist these days just need to become a better administrative assistant, giving themselves over to the business of art? Or is there a collective issue here that we can examine?
Raise your hand: who has been asked by an institution (typically a large one—university, museum, etc.) to present your work for little or no money for the “prestige”? For “the love of the work”? To build your resume? Who has agreed to $250 honorariums for two days of studio visits and presentations? Who has decided not to apply for a grant because the application or requirements are labyrinthine and exhausting and you just can’t fit the work into your schedule? Who has noticed that funding is often reliant on having gotten funding in the past, on proving yourself in a certain way—often outside of art itself—which means that grants often go to folks who already are receiving the large majority of available grants?
In 1973, avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician Hollis Frampton wrote this letter to the Museum of Modern Art on the invitation to present a retrospective of his work. MoMA was hoping to circumvent the rental fees from the distribution company by having Frampton bring his prints and appear for free. The question this letter so succinctly articulates is: why do museums and major institutions prioritize their incomes for everything but the art and artists? This question becomes even more pressing for time-based artists (filmmakers, poets, musicians, performers) who don’t produce objects or straightforward commodities. The NYC-based organization W.A.G.E., which hosts the copy of this letter that I linked to above, takes up that issue by placing the responsibility on institutions to sustain artists and their work by—well, paying them.
On that note, I’ll leave off with a mini manifesto, because writing this post made me realize that I have a lot on my mind these days about art and money and privilege and power…and I could probably keep on writing, but this after all is a blog post likely being read on a phone, so I’m going to leave it at this:
We must question the value system of capital “A” art and how it designates what is important to the market and therefore to artists and institutions.
For sure we must place institutions that profit from artists at the center of the critique and put our minds towards creating more institutions that don’t profit from artists but still believe in what art accomplishes socially and culturally and who are willing to take some risks in supporting work that might question capital “A” art values.
Without a doubt, we must be honest with young artists and students about what the life of the working artist (bills, jobs, tenuous housing, lack of healthcare, lack of access to materials) looks like, vs. the life of the artist who has more financial freedom from the start (plenty of access to materials, ability to present and create work for free, stable housing and quicker financial recovery from health problems).
I consider myself an artist. I’ve been working to make art for the majority of my 38 years. To be sure I’ve had many successes and recognitions of my work over the years, but few of those have paid the bills. And I’m OK with this, for now. But to a certain extent, I have no idea what the next 38 years will look like, and whether the sacrifices one makes for a life of making art might actually have to be the art itself.