What are the aims of direct subsidies to artists?

Polly Carl has posted a new piece on HowlRound, A Virtual Theater Movement,  in which she remarks on a recent trend in arts philanthropy: increased direct support for artists. This philanthropic trend prompts me to ask, “What are funders hoping to achieve by providing direct subsidies to individual artists?” and to raise the ideas of a colleague from Erasmus, artist/economist Hans Abbing, who wrote a book in 2002 called Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts, an excellent summary of the chapters therein you can read here.

Abbing crafts a well structured rationale to which I cannot do justice in this post; however, I will mention a few key points. Abbing suggests that the poverty of artists is structural and relates this to a number of factors, including:

  1. The social construction of ‘art’as something holy, a notion which is contradictory to the notion of commerce and monetary exchange. He writes: “Although the arts earn approximately half of their income in the market, the arts can only maintain their sacred status when people associate the arts with the values of the gift sphere rather than the market sphere.”
  2. While artists do care about money, they tend to care more (than other professionals) about rewards such as personal satisfaction, recognition, and status. He says that most artists have been socialized to this preference and that it is ‘hardly a virtue’. As a manifestation of these preferences, he says that (for example) most artists will work their day jobs only long enough to earn sufficient income to go back to creating artistic work.
  3. Given that artists tend to exchange money for rewards such as personal satisfaction, direct subsidies do not lead to higher incomes for artists. Instead, they may simply provide incentives to more people to become artists, thereby increasing competition, and making it more difficult for any to make a living. As Abbing writes, “Subsidization increases the number of poor artists per hundred thousand inhabitants and thus increases poverty.”

So, what is achieved through subsidies to artists? Here are my own reflections:

Direct grants to artists may make it possible for an artist, at a particular point in his or her career, to make (better or more ambitious) work (by removing the necessity to maintain a day job). Funds may be used to help an artist acquire a critical resource or asset that has longer term returns (a marketable artistic output, knowledge and skills, marketing and promotion, staff, representation, a piece of equipment, a studio, a car, etc.). And often direct grants (particularly if competitve or associated with awards) send a signal to other gatekeepers (funders, donors, producers, press, intermediaries, curators, etc.) that a particular artist is worthy of time and support and may result in more resources and attention flowing to that artist. (It may be worth noting, however, that this ‘signaling’ effect can contribute to the ‘winner-take-all’ phenomenon that sometimes exists in the arts and make it even more difficult for new entrants to emerge and find resources.)

However, it seems to me that direct grants to artists are unlikely to (1) solve the longer-term systemic issue (which Polly also points out in her post) that funding to arts organizations in the US seems to increase flows not to artists but rather to buildings and administrations; and (2) (if we agree with Abbing’s point about subsidies providing incentives more more people to become artists) improve the structural poverty of artists.

It seems that these two issues will require a re-thinking of some of the bedrock ideas of the arts and culture sector in the US, among them: (1) to be legitimate you need grants and to get grants you need nonprofit status and administrators; and (2) aesthetic value and market value are at odds. There are others …

And it perhaps goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) subsidies (grants, gifts, or other forms of support) may not only lead to an  increase in the number of people who want to be artists but also the number people who want to form arts organizations. We have incentivized the exponential growth of the arts and culture sector in the US and, despite significant resources (government and private) flowing into the sector on an annual basis, we now find that both artists and the large majority of organizations are poor. There’s a lesson there.


Postscript: I want to close by giving a shout out to David Dower, Polly Carl, Vijay Mathew, Jamie Gahlon and everyone working at the New Play Institute. The move from Arena to Emerson strikes me as inspired and I am excited to see what comes of placing the Institute (now The Commons) in an environment suited to both academic study and practice. David’s vision for the Institute came to life through the talent and hard work of a dedicated crew of interns and staffers at Arena. And it is staggering to consider the impact of HowlRound (the brainchild of Polly Carl) in its first year (not even) of existence. Kudos to all and I look forward to seeing what emerges from The Commons.



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  1. says

    One other thought. The broad and lively undrgound created by arts funding might increase the number of people living in poverty, but they would still be a miniscule fration of the population, and even a tiny part of the popualation that is poor.

  2. says

    I wonder if any empirical information exists that increased funding for the arts is disproportionally spent on buildings and administrators. Wouldn’t this depend on how much infrastructure already exists? And would that vary from country to country, since regions like Europe already have massive physical infrastructures for the arts like theaters, opera houses, and concert halls, while many American cities lack adequate facilities? And since the money for buildings and administrators serve artists, how valid is the dichotomy in question?

    As funding increases, more people are allowed to be artists. Does that simply mean more impoverished artists, or does it create a more cultured society where increased demand for the arts creates a pyramid where artists at the top become better paid, and those at the bottom create a broader and more lively underground?

    Thank you for the interesting thoughts.

  3. says

    This is a big and important topic area, Diane. As is my habit, I see it through the lens of infrastructure. I’ve been making different experiments with the balance between direct funding to artists and funding to institutions FOR artists for twenty years now, since we opened The Z Space Studio in San Francisco. A few points to contribute from that experience:

    — It has been the case, over and over in my time, that programs designed to create direct support to theater artists struggle to generate enduring outcomes for the artists on their own. Invariably the direct support to theater artists has to connect somewhere to infrastructure for development and production: rehearsal space, fiscal management, business management, production space and support. Without being able to “dock” with the elements of theatrical infrastructure that it takes to move from idea to audience, the artists cannot capitalize on the opportunity of the cash grants to create professional or artistic momentum. Some artists have that built in– a home base in the world where they are able to engage infrastructure. Some are able to leverage the cash grants to attract interest and support from institutions. I have seen very, very effective outcomes for direct support to artists who have a place to “dock”. And I have seen many examples where no enduring outcome was created because these elements never coalesced around the money. Most commonly, I have seen the “direct support to artists” function simply as a pass-through to institutions– the artists forking over most or all of the money to get the infrastructure.

    — A second, and to me more troubling discovery of the years of doing this, is the tendency of both the artists and the infrastructure to “clump up”: the various direct-cash programs and opportunities seeming pile on to a small universe of individuals rather than seeding a range of artists. What has developed now is a sort of heirarchy of prizes in the theater world. At the extreme end, you can look at things like the regional direct-to-artists grants, the Alpert Award, the USArtists awards, the Mimi’s, the NYTimes Outstanding Playwright, and the MacArthur Fellowships and you see a handful of people rising through them. No judgement here as to whether the individual artists are worthy in every case. But I question the sense that all of these programs are contributions to the overall ecology, fanning out to create a distributed network of resources that has a real systemic impact. Yes, there is a lot of money coming into the environment, but what’s the net impact to the field?

    This “clumping” is even at work in the world of playwright residencies, as many have noted (some loudly) in criticizing my work with them at Arena. A:) they have gone to mid-career playwrights, who– to a person wrote very compellingly about their need for a residency at this stage of their lives– rather than helping to create momentum for early-career playwrights. I stand by this decision and have argued it repeatedly in other contexts, so I won’t here. But B:) some of those writers have subsequently been offered (and taken) second residencies. Both the offer and the acceptance, to me, seem disturbing but predictable.

    At Z Space there were multiple stories of artists with important, but modest, grants that were intended to help the playwrights attract infrastructure– the support of a producing organization. They were meant to, as Christine suggests, give the artists agency in the decision about where they would “dock”. But these grants were rarely sufficient, on their own, to create that agency. A $15,000 gift to a writer to write, develop, and produce their play– where there is no infrastructure already in place to support them– evaporates once the writer starts trying to acquire that infrastructure. The grant, rather than support the writer’s time, winds up being re-purposed to rent it. Even the Civilians, god bless them, with their $750,000 award for The Great Immensity have had trouble “docking”– though thankfully the indispensable Eric Rosen has stepped up for them at Kansas City Rep.

    I continue to look for the right balance of cash and infrastructure for artists as I go. It seems the balance we are looking for is that which directs the most support toward artists but “docks” them effectively in settings that can help them leverage these opportunities to their own enduring benefit so that we, as a field, can then spread out and seed additional voices with these important resources. It seems to me that the potential of direct grants to artists is entirely dependent on the extent to which that balance is achieved.

    Can we uncouple grants for infrastructure and grants for artists– ensuring that the effective environments for artists to “dock” with are healthy and distributed around the entire ecology while separately ensuring that the artists have both agency and a true shot at a living wage? I’m not sure that grants directly to artists OR grants meant to trickle down to them through the institutions are the best or only options. There’s got to be a middle path, where the balance is what is judged in the funding decisions. Effective “docking environments” will be those that have figured out how to direct the highest possible percentage of “artist-focused” resources directly to artists. And effective candidates for direct support will have demonstrated that they have a means of coupling the cash with infrastructure– and a commitment to turning the opportunity into one that fosters enduring momentum both professionally and artistically.

    Thanks for the kind words about the work we’re doing, Diane. It is a joy and an honor to have the opportunity to pursue it.

    • Dominick Balletta says

      I would contend that there needs to be another organism in this universe – the support organization that can be loosely attached to an artist while they are creating work. This org is a hybrid nonprofit structure/manager/negotiator that is available to the artist as needed (I think of Performing ArtServices and pentacle as variations on this type of structure). Note I did not use the term fiscal sponsor, as I think that has become a burden and a drain to most artists and not of very great value – Fractured Atlas being the standout exception in that field. But the driving need is to be able to staff up the artist when he/she needs it, so that they can work with an appropriate ‘docking organization’ that has the resources to present the work as peers as opposed to simply being allowed the ‘honor’ of turning over their work. There are few artists that have the support organization in place (Tectonic, Civilians, SITI all come to mind) so this intermediary organization is an essential part of the ecosystem and one which needs to be developed.

      David, congrats on the move north.

      • says

        I totally agree, Dominick– the importance of these non-traditional, non-institutionalized supporting players like Fractured Atlas, Performing ArtsServices and pentacle needs to be factored in and fully understood as essential to the overall infrastructure for new work in the current landscape. Increasingly, as the lightly-institutionalized ensembles come into the frame, the role of a MAPP or Morgan Jenness or Beth Morrison or Tommy Kriegsman is the catalyst for both achieving the professional and artistic potential of their projects. Same is true of the development labs, for both playwrights and ensembles. Critical infrastructure for new work that is emerging outside the context of a producing theater. And it’s worth noting that the three companies you name– Tectonic, SITI, and the Civilians– are perpetually looking for places to actually commit to filling in the missing pieces for them in terms of their own ability to produce their work. I sit on panels and participate in discussions all the time where these groups and others like them are fighting to get out of the limbo between development and production. (The Great Immensity is one project example, but if we talk with Anne Bogart we’ll hear stories of many projects that are struggling to come to fruition for want of access to the necessary infrastructure as well.) So, whether it is cash to an individual or to an ensemble, the capacity for those investments to generate the intended artistic and professional outcomes is as dependent on their ability to connect the infrastructure dots as it is on their capacity to fulfill their artistic aspirations. I understand the concerns of funders around the effectiveness of the “trickle down” to artists of their funding of the heavily institutionalized organizations. But I’ve not seen the move to direct funding of artists make the case for this as the alternative. Strong, balanced support of the full spectrum– from the artists through the intermediaries to the producing institutions, with a demonstrated capacity and commitment to partnerships along that spectrum, seems to me the most promising path to unleashing the potential of the resources at play in new work sector in the US.

  4. Joanna Woronkowicz says

    I once tried to develop a framework for thinking about the question, “Why do artists choose to be artists?” and it made sense to me to think about it in terms of where an artist gets his/her utility from. We can think of the choice “to be (or not to be) an artist” as being a function of a number of different variables: the income a person earns from artistic work, the income a person earns from non-artistic work, the satisfaction a person gets from being an artist, recognition, status, and others. Here, we have a theoretical framework to understand how an increase or decrease in one of the aforementioned variables affects the artist’s (or would-be artist’s) overall utility, and let’s us compare how marginal utility with respect to each variable differs (e.g., by how much does income have to increase to affect overall utility and compare that to how much satisfaction must increase). Using this framework, we can also try to figure out what the marginal rate of substitution is between income and satisfaction — in other words, how much additional income does an artist need to earn in order to forgo the satisfaction he gets from being an artist?

    I think if I understand Abbing’s argument correctly, he’s saying that an artist’s marginal utility of income is less than that of satisfaction so the artist is willing to substitute satisfaction for income, thus contributing more to overall utility and making more artists choose to be artists. Hence, we have the dilemma where more subsidies (income) generate more artists, more competition, and more poverty.

    In deciding whether or not we need more direct subsides for artists, or whether subsidies are better suited for arts organizations, or even whether subsidies should take a different form (e.g., space, materials, time), I think we need to know more about what the actual relationship between subsidies and its effects are. This requires better methods of measuring inputs and outputs as opposed to relying on conjecture. I think both Abbing’s and Diane’s observations in her post are extremely astute and provide strong hypotheses for what the effects of subsidies on artists and arts organizations are, however, I’m a strong believer that we need to look into these issues by using real data and empirics to strengthen our claims. Only then will we know what effects our efforts in strengthening the cultural sector might have.

  5. says

    Thanks to both Diane and David for provocative thoughts here – this “docking” idea is challenging, but glad to have a name for it as we at Epic go forward with trying to figure out an institutionally-meaningful but artistically-propelling “playwright-in-residence” program in the next few years!

  6. says

    Interestingly, there is a parallel article by Claire Breukel over at Hyperallergic– http://hyperallergic.com/44650/faltering-over-the-shape-of-the-art-economy/ –that I would encourage everyone to take a look at. She is covering a talk with Hans Abbing that happened last night hosted by Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) at Artists Space.

    One of WAGE’s aims is to come up with guidelines on how and when artists should be paid for their work. The interesting observation from the talk is that according to Abbing, if artist’s wages increase, the value of art will decrease.

  7. says

    As a composer/arranger who has applied for very few grants over the years but has always worked within the music field and been fortunate to have commissions from some leading institutions, I’d like to note that one of the things that discourages me from applying for grants is the enormous amount of paperwork involved in many of them. How can one justify taking two or three days to write up proposals when one is in the middle of work and family.

    Unless you are well established enough to be able to afford someone who is good at grant writing and can do these chores, one of the best ways for an artist to get work is to network with individuals who are in a position to recommend him/her to those with the means to hire/commission, etc.


  1. […] Diane Ragsdale has a fascinating article about the value of direct subsidies to artists.  Although it’s about the American context, the points she makes are equally relevant in Europe.  She references Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts in which he makes these points about why the poverty of artists is structural […]

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