As European-style government funding for the arts is unlikely to continue, and as the idea of the ‘American Model’ of arts funding is being promoted abroad, it seems ever more urgent that we have a conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of arts funding in America and how to bring coherence, sustainability and resilience to the cultural ecology.

It is important to note that there is no single American model of arts funding, but rather a hodgepodge of public, private and philanthropic resources assembled into a constantly shifting and volatile landscape. Usually – but not always – this works out in favour of the already advantaged. The ‘American Model’ as espoused by Michael Kaiser and the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center – and aggressively marketed both domestically and abroad – is only one possible model. Deeply rooted in an older European funding model – that of pre-democratic patronage by nobility – it draws its primary practices from corporate America.

Over the years, the gap created by scant government support in the US funding landscape has been filled by a chaotic and disaggregated system of public, private and philanthropic support. This chaos and volatility is deeply American and quite central to our values as a country. While in the past this dynamism has frequently led to social innovation and economic progress, at the moment our system seems to be broken.

Our legacy funding systems are not designed to meet the needs of a cultural sector so radically transformed by the past 30 years of demographic, political, social and economic change. In fact, the United States is increasingly incapable of having an essential public conversation on the relationship between the public, private and philanthropic sectors, so much so that the ‘American Model’ of anything – not merely arts funding – is up for grabs.

Old wine, new bottles

This situation sets in context the emergence of the trend of ‘Artist As Entrepreneur’, a result of an exponential increase of self-identified artists, combined with the persistent challenges of identifying resources in the ‘American Model’ and our enduring romance with the ideal of the Self Made Man.

The original version of Artist As Entrepreneur is as much a product of the late ‘90s dot com boom as anything else, marking its first iteration from the launch of Creative Capital in 1999. This first ‘start-up’ era gave rise to other trends like venture philanthropy and, eventually, social capital investing.

After the dot com bubble burst in 2000, and after 9/11, the implementation of Artist As Entrepreneur was moderated to a more modest position of skill building and professional development. However, in the current start-up era – powered by social media and new technology and the continued growth of venture capitalism in the post-2008-crash economy – we are seeing the rise of Artist As Entrepreneur 2.0, which is, to some extent, old wine in new bottles.

While I mark the beginning of Artist As Entrepreneur as 1999, in fact American artists have a long history of balancing their art and business practices. Walt Whitman was the editor of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and not only self-funded the first edition of Leaves of Grass but did much of the typesetting himself and then sold copies door-to-door. The American modernist composer Charles Ives maintained a ‘day job’ as the director of a successful insurance agency. Andy Warhol was an art director at an ad agency before he was a celebrated visual artist. There was a time when it was not shameful to have a job and be an artist, when having a head for business didn’t disqualify you from being artistically viable. In other words: all artists are entrepreneurs.

This is not a new or innovative way of thinking. An entrepreneur, by definition, is ‘a person who organises, operates, and assumes the risk for a business venture.’ Most American artists I know assume all the financial risk for their projects, whether or not they consider them businesses.

Not for profit

The essential (and most controversial) conceptual pivot of the modern notion of Artist as Entrepreneur was to frame art-making as business. In principle, introducing sound business practices into the arts sector is a good idea. Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with giving artists the tools to create and manage their careers in a responsible, economically sustainable way.

But there is a considerable difference between merely giving artists business training and mandating that they should behave like entrepreneurs in a for-profit economy. There is a reason that the arts, humanities and education, not to mention a great deal of mathematics and science, are situated in the not-for-profit sector. It is because they are not for profit. They’re for something else.

And that is where we encounter an almost unbridgeable chasm between the artist and the business person, between the idea of the Artist as Entrepreneur idea currently being promulgated by major public sector and philanthropic funders and the reality of most artists. Artists want money so they can make more art. Entrepreneurs want money so they can make more money.

When we look at the way artists actually operate in the world, the way they create extraordinary works of art in resource-scarce environments, we also discover that they regularly develop inventive, innovative, adaptive and resilient systems that corporations spend millions of dollars to try and build. There are battalions of corporate consultants selling their services as innovation experts who, at best, lead middle managers through awkward role-playing and team-building exercises to develop the creative problem-solving skills that artists already possess.

Writer and artist Amy Whitaker has proposed that we look at economics as “a collective creative design problem.” Her key insight is that systemic social dysfunction – whether in economics, politics or public life – is as much a failure of imagination as it is a failure of infrastructure. It is a critical deficit of creativity, a disastrous inability to imagine other possible futures.

Artists not only need to take the lead in this conversation, they must reach across the table – as daunting as it seems – to the funders, institutions and for-profit entrepreneurs, and help them to see what artists actually do, see our resilient economies and inventiveness, our collaborative creative processes, our ability to create real value, real change and real transformation out of scarcity. We must make ourselves visible through collective action, educate ourselves to their concerns and come to the table as trusted partners intent on co-creating change.

If funders truly believe in the humanistic value of the arts, they mustn’t compel artists to merely adopt the practices of for-profit entrepreneurs. Instead, they must advocate for the value in what artists already do. They must resist the inexorable logic of the so-called free market, and advocate for the fundamental core value that there are things in this world that are not for profit, they are for something else, something more vast, meaningful and enduring.

This article is written to coincide with the Third Ear symposium, Don’t Panic! The Arts In Austerity, at Southbank Centre, London, on Friday 6 December.

As part of the symposium, a-n’s Director Susan Jones will be leading a workshop on negotiating professional fees for artists.

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Arts in Austerity: symposium to explore new economic realities – We preview the event on 6 December.