Generosity Advent e-calendar: A daily email about gift and generosity

I’d like to invite you to join my Generosity Advent e-calendar and get a daily quote, thought or question on the subject of generosity via email from the 1st – 25th December.

This is part of a research project I’m doing on the subject of gift, generosity and sincerity and is my way of sharing my reading and thinking on the project so far.

To join, email [email protected] with ‘Generosity Advent Calendar’ in the subject heading. You can subscribe or unsubscribe at any point during December. Your email address will not be passed on or added to any other mailing lists.

Season’s Greetings!


Talking in the pub after work last night with X, another artist, about Hans Abbing’s book “Why Are Artists Poor” (which I am currently reading) kickstarted some interesting discussions about art and money.

I’ve just finished Chapter 2 which is called “Denial of The Economy: Why Are Gifts to The Arts Praised, While Market Incomes Remain Suspect?”.

In this chapter, Abbing posits that the arts adhere to the values of the gift sphere, which has a high status, and reject the values of the economic sphere, which has a low status: “giving has a higher status than buying and selling…works of art often symbolize the superiority of the values of the gift sphere and the inferiority of the market sphere’.

However, Abbing goes states that the market is not absent in the arts, but merely denied and veiled. The profit motive exists, (and accounts for half the art world’s income) but because of the high status of the gift sphere, the arts must not be seen to be openly embracing the market because it is seen to devalue and debase art.

“It is often commercial to be a-commercial. Expressing anti-market values can add to one’s success in the market. Artists, dealers, or editors who exhibit a lack of concern for money may well enhance their market value.. Artists behave a-commercially because they are artists. In the course of the history of the artistic profession this type of behaviour became part of the artist’s ‘character’. Artists have learned to ‘play games’ in two spheres. That is how they earn a living”

So we got talking about how we negotiate this complex and contrary double system, how we approach money in terms of own experiences and practices. We both agreed with Abbing’s assessment of high value/low value of gift and market economy in relation to judgements we make about our own and other artists’ practices. For example, being involved in DIY and self-funded projects both in artist and curatorial roles is something that we are both proud of and esteem highly. We share a disapproval of artists who ‘sell’ themselves or their work too openly; one of our regular rants is about artists whose work we have shown (via curatorial projects we have worked on together) who were ‘pushy’ about promoting themselves and seemed motivated by self-interest. We tend to abhor and avoid these people, whereas we are attracted to working with artists who show a more reciprocal and generous approach – e.g. giving time, showing interest and support. Although money wasn’t a direct factor in these experiences, the mismatch of values (generosity versus self interest) are the same as gift sphere versus the market sphere. Self-promotion equals selling yourself equals totally not cool.

We then went on to talk about earning a living and how we describe our jobs to other people in the art world. (both of us have part time jobs in hospitality). X described a recent discover recently via a blog site about a number of painters who he thought of as successful (in terms of gallery shows and reputation) still having full time or part time jobs. He talked about his surprise but then of feeling encouraged by this in terms of his own employment situation. We talked about how information like this – i.e. the realities of how we as artists make a living as often veiled or hidden. Particularly if jobs are in lower status areas of employment like ours as opposed to jobs within the arts sector – teaching, admin, management etc. We talked about how we describe our employment roles in various situations. I for example would cheerfully declare my catering job to other artists who I felt shared my value system, (see above) but might be more circumspect when talking to an arts organisation/commissioner/curator. I may mask or not mention my role in case I was taken less seriously. Why?? The sub text being, you’re not a proper artists if you’re doing this kind of work?

Artists and money: Double standards, judgements, hierarchies.

A whole can of worms here, and this one only just opened.

There will be more.

‘Why Are Artists Poor?’ can be downloaded free from here:


‘… Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call …’

Exhibition and talk event: Wild Pansy Press Project Space, University of Leeds 15 October 2012

I wanted to write about attending this event in the context of generosity and gift for a number of reasons. At a time when I was (and am) struggling with articulating my own work, and feeling an aversion to finding words for what I do, this event was an affirmative, generous experience of artists sharing practice. It made me reconsider the worth of the sometimes painful struggle to articulate practice and this I consider a gift.

I became aware of ‘… Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call …’ from Emma Bolland, a Leeds based artist who I followed on Twitter but who had not met until the talk event. Over Twitter, we had discovered a shared admiration for Werner Herzog and this had led to a postal exchange of Herzog and Tarkovsky DVDs. Anyone who loves Herzog I automatically consider a kindred spirit, so when Emma began posting about the project I checked it out.

From the website:

‘… Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call …’ is a collaborative project by visual artist Emma Bolland, Photographer Tom Rodgers and curator Judit Bodor. The project began with the collective reading of David Peace’s ‘1980’, a novel which re-imagines the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ of late 1970s/1980s West Yorkshire. Through visits to key sites described in the novel, the project explores memories, resonances and interpretations of a real and mythologised recent history. Using performative research and meditative documentation of sites and texts the project also seeks to investigate creative and collaborative processes, and the blurring of the boundaries between visual practice, curatorial intervention, research, documentation, fictional and theoretical writing’

I was pulled in by Emma’s poetic communications and Tom’s beautifully ambiguous black and white photographs on the website. I became intrigued by a number of aspects of the project; the nature of the collaborative process between curator, artist and photographer, its open-ended-ness, the performative aspects, and the use of a fictional account of a series of real events as a basis for the work. I was also very interested in the description of judit’s role as a creative one, which made me want to know more about her curatorial practice.

Prior to the exhibition and event on responding to an open offer on Twitter of free print work I received a stunning poster of text and image on the project to date. This made my mind up – I needed to go to the talk.

The event began with Emma, who talked both eruditely and accessibly about the origins, references and starting points for the collaboration, followed by Tom (Judit was ill unfortunately). The time was split evenly – an hour of presentations, and an hour of questions, discussions.

I was struck by the way with which both Emma and Tom approached the event. There was an open-ness and honesty, coupled with an active engagement with the participants to explore ideas and questions around the project. Doubt, ambivalence were expressed as well as confidence and belief. The sense of intensity and close attention from both artists and attendees was almost palpable – a roomful of people talking, listening, exchanging. There was no feeling of hierarchy or superior knowledge or bestowal. This was a genuine and reciprocal exchange. A gift.

This experience has worked on me in a number of ways. As well as illuminating my understanding of the project (regretfully there isn’t enough room to talk in any detail here) attending the talk has re-instated my belief in the value of artist talks, and encourages me to aim for this quality of exchange in future discussions about my own practice

Lewis Hyde discusses the need for a gift to continually circulate throughout a society in order to keep its ‘gift’ qualities ‘The gift must stay in motion’. I hope that naming and recognising the transformative generosity of this encounter has helped to move this particular gift along.

Thank you to Emma Tom and Judit.

To find out more about the ‘… Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call …’ visit


I’m aware I can’t address ideas of exchange, generosity and reciprocity between artists without looking at money (or the lack of it).

I’ve just started reading “Why Are Artists Poor” by Hans Abbing (downloadable from this link and plan to blog my responses to that as I go along. As I do this I will also be looking back on Emily Speed’s blog ‘Getting Paid’ as via a Twitter conversation she mentioned that both the Hans Abbing book and also Lewis Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ were triggers for her blog.

For now though, I want to record some of my own experiences of generosity and reciprocity as an artist working with other artists.

The gift economy, whether it operates via formal,informal,adhoc or structured projects, is both a necessity and a strength of creative networks. Our greatest resource is each other – fostering reciprocal relationships with other artists is an essential part of our survival. I recently took part in a Twitter debate instigated by Zeitgeist Art Projects entitled ‘How Do I Survive As an Artist?”. Many of the comments published in the subsequent publication reflect on the value of support, time and attention from peers.

I hope that documenting my own experiences of generosity and reciprocity, looking at both the positives and the negatives, will give me a greater opportunity to articulate ,and reflect more closely on what meaning and impact these ideas have had, and continue to have on my own practice.

I’ll be posting blogs in the coming weeks about my experiences in the following areas.

1. Sharing practice

2. Collaboration

3. DIY projects, collective working

4. Networks, in real life and online

This list might grow, but it seems like a good starting point.

My posts on ‘sharing practice’ will include:

1. Writing on an artists talk event I went to in Leeds in October given by artist collaboration ‘… Milky Way You Will Hear Me Call …’ who are Emma Bolland, Judit Bodor and Tom Rodgers…

2. My experience of blogging here on a-n Artists Talking


Following (and maybe as a result of) my slightly panicky post on Thursday, I decided against a give away of my text piece ‘Recipe For Reciprocity’ at the Inhospitable private view in Leeds last night. Which is probably just as well, as I got caught up at work and couldn’t make it over to Leeds in time. In any case I think it was the right decision. I think it would not have had any impact as a generosity action – I feel I need to do a bit more readng/thinking/researching and think things through more thoroughly before I’m ready to ‘do’ something. Thanks to Bruce Davies of Basement Arts for being up for facilitating a potential action and apologies for the last minute flakiness…

The last few days have thrown up a whole load of generosity based stuff in the form of an upcoming symposium, current exhibition and a slew of conversations (IRL and online) with other artists. All of this is massively exciting and galvanising.

Firstly via New Work Yorkshire e-network I came across:

Economies of Generosity Symposium, happening on Saturday 1st December 2012 at The Bluecoat, School Lane, Liverpool, 11am to 5pm…

which is described as

‘A day of presentations and discussion, the Economies of Generosity symposium provides an opportunity to explore the role of gift-giving and generosity in both capitalist and alternative economies, as thought through themes of education, sponsorship, volunteering, piracy and theft. With central government endorsing/enforcing projects such as The Big Society and Workfare, a parallel force, in the form of the financial crisis and ‘austerity’, forces communities to think about alternatives to capitalist transactions; Economies of Generosity provides a chance to talk through some of the issues at stake.’

THE perfect symposium at THE perfect time in my research! When does that happen? Never. So I’ve booked a space.

The Symposium is part of a wider project called Giving in to Gift describing itself as ‘a meeting point between artists, their peers and the public, Giving in to Gift is the beginning of a conversation around ideas of generosity and reciprocation and how these themes manifest’

The website also details interventions and performances (in Liverpool, most of which I have missed) and other material, and in particular a great reading list which I am in the midst of sourcing articles and books from.

I’ve also been alerted via Franny Swann’s blog and also from Kate Murdoch to a current exhibition at the Jerwood, ‘Now I Gotta Reason’ which is co-curated by Marcus Coates and Grizedale Arts and ‘focuses on art production as a useful and productive activity’

This inlcudes an ‘honest shop’ skill swap bazaar, craft school. lunch clube, and many other participatory activities structured around exchange and gift. I would love to go – maybe I can endure a megabus mega journey to get down to London to see it before it closes on the 9th December?

Also, some really interesting and useful conversations with other artists are sprouting up: I had an exchange via twitter with Emily Speed about the book ‘Why are artists poor?: the exceptional economy of the arts’ by Hans Abbing and also Lewis Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ and she alterted me to her blog ‘Getting which is going to be really helpful to look at. Sophie Cullinan and Kate Murdoch both a-n bloggers, have been sharing links and books with me, via Twitter and email which has been great. Also been talking to Leeds based artist Louise Atkinson about an upcoming alternative economy project she’s planning.

Thanks also to Franny Swann for expanding on her upcoming group show on gift on her blog, and also for signposting me to her posts about ‘Collection Plate’ an exchange project she did last year – the posts about the distressing letter left particularly have given me a lot of food for thought re potential things that can happen when you invite participation.

It’s great to be having these exchanges as I’m planning my next batch of writing to be about reciprocity between artists..