State of the Arts – is art a sociological phenomena?

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

The sociological phenomena of funding the arts

It’s grant season! So, if you know an artist then they are probably working on getting a grant written or procrastinating on writing a grant or wondering if they will ever get a grant or deliberately ignoring a grant deadline. I am struggling with writing a grant right now and perhaps taking time out to write this blog isn’t the most productive thing I could do but there you go and here I am writing, just not a grant.

I was painting last night and realized that it is kind of impossible to explain how art works. But this is what you need to do when you write a grant. You need to tell the jury what you are doing, why it is so important to you and how is it helping your career. I’ve been told over the years that the descriptions are not as important as the imagery you send. I would believe this if the grant I received came with great imagery, it did not. In fact it was one of the weaker assortments I had ever sent.

I used to take a look at what art projects received grants when I didn’t get one. Now I forget about it by the next day because I can’t be bothered any more to care or I’ve become too busy to care, either way, getting turned down hardly registers to me any more. But I still apply because you can’t win one without applying right?

I would prefer not to ever apply but I live with someone who does get them and they can make your life easier if you get one. Isn’t that what they are for? Maybe not. Years ago an arts officer told me that they were not a social organization which is why they don’t ask artists for income statements. Without asking whether artists actually need the grant because they don’t have the money to make their work creates a system where people who are millionaires can get a grant. Yes, they can. There have been several. But these organizations are not social organizations so they don’t ask.

Undergrowth with two figures, 1890. Painted by Van Gogh in the last year of his life.  Mystical, frank, and ominous, his painting makes landscape a thing of the mind.
Van Gogh, the most famous artist in the world, referenced all the time. Everyone knows at least two things about him, he painted and he was poor. Income is an essential part of how we define ourselves.

What is a social organization? I guess it is one that helps people. People without money. But not artists. An artist’s merit is what determines whether they get help. Your merit is based on your imagery from past or current work and once again that description of what you do. Here’s what is really hard about this description, in only a few hundred words you need to explain your art, your philosophy, your project and why the funding is imperative without telling them how much you really need the money. Telling the jury you are poor doesn’t fit under merit.

To me it’s like that Stephen Harper quote about the ongoing violence against Aboriginal women in our country is just a bunch of crimes not sociological phenomena. You can get a cramp twisting your thoughts into such an idea. What this says to me is that Harper believes that the ongoing, unsolved disappearance and violent deaths of over 1000 Native women doesn’t reflect anything but that a lot of bad stuff happened to them. It takes anything remotely nuanced, patterned, institutional and systematic out of the mix completely. I know this is a rather grand and perhaps seemingly absurd comparison but hang in there.

Telling artists that their incomes are not part of the equation when dealing with their merit and that funding for the arts isn’t a social obligation removes the chance for a larger view of how artists are coping with changes in the culture. Asking for a person’s income regardless of the art they make actually puts their intent and commitment on the table and illuminates to the larger public how artists actually get by. These organizations would then have statistics on how much income the artists in our country are making in real terms, and eventually this could turn into an understanding about how we subsidize the culture not the other way around. If people only know how little artists and arts organizations made while creating all the stuff they do they would be floored, and I think the conversation about art might change dramatically.

The way you gauge anything with human beings is to understand sociological processes and phenomena. We need these long views so that we can see patterns among us and safe guard against all sorts of things like having our basic rights compromised. Artist’s incomes are necessary to any discussion about the future of art and culture otherwise we continue on this boring treadmill of having to make a case why art matters every couple of years.

Speaking of treadmills, it’s grant season and I have got to get back to that description!!


8 thoughts on “State of the Arts – is art a sociological phenomena?”

  1. Great post. It does seem absurd that the granting bodies don’t think that income available would have anything to do with their decision making process. The quality of documentation, time available to write the grant, technology involved in the production of work, all have to do with an artist’s income. While these factors are not necessarily indicative of an artists potential to make engaging work, they do factor into the way the work reads in a grant application. Insane!

  2. Thank you for such a great comment. Knowing what things cost helps the public understand it’s meaning to them. I’m not making a case for art as a commodity, I am just championing an artist’s labour.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful post. I was made aware of your study by a colleague. Very interesting and very important. I haven’t read it completely through yet. While I agree agencies are overworked, they do consistently gather information about ethnicity and change their forms all the time in order to gather other kinds of statistical information. Just recently they began gathering stats on age. I can’t see how two or three new questions regarding income could be that much more work. And, they won’t engage in this discussion ever (with me anyway, you perhaps might be taken more seriously) so it is very hard to render why this doesn’t happen.

  3. One issue for collecting info on income is that it is so variable for artists … and there would be the need to separate out income from the arts and from other occupations for it to be meaningful … which would end up making them have to use very complicated questions. As well, and this is something I have been unable to collect info on, the real question is regarding social class which is not necessarily reflected in income from an individual (banker or bay street lawyer spouse can really help out … growing up middle class, or upper class, can give an unequal opportunity in access to education without crippling debt; connections; direct economic support). How does all that get quantified without a full-blown study. I agree, the information would be useful and interesting, but it is a tough one to track in any reliable way. And, alas, bad statistics can and often are worse than no statistics at all.

    1. I totally agree, it would be a big undertaking. I guess I am thinking that these agencies are already in the process of having ongoing relationships with artists. You hit the nail on the head however about issues of class. Lots of people’s parents & spouses help them with their art career and this is really not ever taken into account – it builds a false economy & subordinates activism & change.And I’ve seen examples of bad stats used in the arts and it can mean support being deterred.

  4. Indeed, and even good stats can become skewed through misuse or misrepresentation. The usage of average income for artists, for instance, really really really gets me … average overestimates the typical artist, and it also misses that the vast majority of that income is from day jobs.

    That said, I’m still a believer in using stats … as it has been said, one can always use stats to lie, but its easier if there are no stats to begin with [cue the chopping of the mandatory long form census].

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