We decided to start a conversation about artists.
“We” in this context is The McKnight Foundation, a foundation based in Minnesota that, among other things, has given fellowships to artists for the last 30 years. Thirty years of support to artists—more than 1,500 awards to 1,100 individuals and counting—should be marked somehow, shouldn’t it? As we plotted what kind of commemoration to make, we were drawn to the irresistible tributaries every discussion about funding for artists inspired. What makes a fellowship successful? Ought artists be obliged to use their talents for social good? Is it harder or easier to be an artist than it used to be? Should fellowships support only artists who don’t find commercial success in the market? Is YouTube a benefit or a threat to an individual artist? What makes someone “professional”? Who decides who’s an artist anyway? What value do artists have in the world?
From all our mental meanderings, we came to two conclusions:
- A formal study of the program over time would likely result in the not-very-radical conclusion that fellowships are good; and
- It is more interesting to engage in a conversation about the future for artists than about the past.
Within the cultural sector, conversations about artists often derail in one of two ways: Either the discussion quickly turns to one about “the arts” rather than artists, spinning unspecific platitudes about “intrinsic value” or building wobbly arguments about the economic benefits of having a big theater next door to your restaurant.
Or the talk is about artists, but becomes rather hyperbolic. We characterize artists as perpetually under attack by the narrow minded and short sighted, by shallowness or prudishness, or greed, or laziness, or evil. Somehow the artist becomes our only chance against mediocrity and meaninglessness. It’s a hefty calling. One wonders that artists don’t crumble under the weight of their own specialness.
Real questions, and real answers, tend to get lost. There is little consistent data, for example, about the lives and livelihoods of artists. What is the starting salary for a sculptor? How has the high unemployment rate affected theater artists? As Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Arts and Community says, “You can find out far more about barbers in your town than about artists.”
So we decided to start a conversation about artists—or perhaps several conversations about artists. In the months to come, we will invite to this space contributors who identify themselves as artists and those who do not, those who are advocates for artists and those who think them scoundrels, those who think the artist’s time has come and those who think the very notion is outmoded, outlandish, or elitist. In the next month, look for articles from Patrick Scully, Laura Zabel, Marcus Young, Diane Ragsdale, Mary Ellen Childs, Bill Cleveland, and others. We’ll also launch a video series by Works Progress, introducing us to a diverse group of artists and the big questions they want to ask.
Welcome to the State of the Artist. Let the conversation begin.