One of the greatest challenges of creating work at the intersection of art and social justice is finding the resources — read funding — to produce it.
The reality seems to be that art funders don’t seem to have much interest in this type of work and social justice funders are looking for measureable impacts by which to gauge their investment. Those of us doing this work know that our impacts are often immeasurable and that even when they are measurable it may not be possible to see them immediately. At the same time, the impacts are undeniable. So how do we even open the door to funders without becoming professional stalkers or finding a socially conscious, art appreciating angel willing to invest?
The way I see it, the funding challenge affects this work in two key ways.
First, it impacts the quality and quantity of work we can do. As the creative visionary behind One Million Bones, I spend most of my time chasing dollars. I am thrilled that we’re installing 50,000 bones made by thousands of participants in a public exhibit this summer, but I have to ask myself if both myself and Susan McAllister, our project manager and co-founder of The Art of Revolution, hadn’t spent the past year chasing funders, writing proposals, and soliciting donors would we be installing 100,000 bones made by twice as many people? Or would we have a simultaneous installation in another city? Or mini-installations in front of every state capitol in the country?
We have ideas every day about how to expand this vision but we don’t have the capacity to see them through because so much time is spent looking for financial resources just to keep us going. This is a huge loss, not just to the work, but also to our community, to those who we can’t reach out to, and to the viewers of the work.
But perhaps an even more significant consequence of this challenge is that when artists doing this work struggle for funding, they begin to question the value of the work itself. Art is a business: work is produced that has value — cultural value, aesthetic value, personal value — all of which translates into monetary value, thus allowing investment in more work. And the cycle goes on.
But I know artists who’ve been creating work of this kind for years, and because of the struggle for funding they’ve lost their understanding of the value of what they are producing. They continue to do the work because they love it, because it moves people, and because it matters. But when artists (myself included) do this work for free, for less than it’s worth, we are diminishing the value ourselves. This is a vicious cycle and every time it comes back around it makes it even harder to attract resources. I think this is one of the reasons that it is easy for many of the art elite to look at this type of work, shake their heads and look the other way.
Fortunately, a shift is on the way, albeit slowly. There are progressive foundations such as Lambent, Surdna, CrossCurrents, and Nathan Cummings, which have programs dedicated to learning about and funding work at this intersection of art and activism and whom are willing to take risks for the field to evolve.
But there is an unbelievable amount of work to be done, and so, if the field is to evolve at the rate we need it to then it’s important we never shy away from talking about these challenges while always holding the value of the work’s impact on art, culture, and society at the forefront of the discussions.