Artist Funding

A working page for a research project on writer Virginia Woolf and funding for artist communities. Sources for images appear as links below the image.

Virginia Woolf’s work, A Room of One’s Own addresses the ongoing challenge of funding for the arts and its impact upon individual artistic expression. In illustrating her struggle to gain a space in which to conduct her writing, Woolf describes the experience of the female artist in the context of overtly sexist early nineteenth century society. Her impassioned prose frames the struggle of artists to remain committed to their work and simultaneously secure the funding they need to do so.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

Artists that are not adequately funded and connected to a robust artist community are ultimately excluded from the world of art. Contemporary artists are supported by a precarious patchwork of private and public sources. These structures are inadequate to support a thriving community of visual artists, writers and innovators. This lack of financial support for artists has far reaching impacts upon individuals and society at large. Virginia Woolf defines her exclusion from the literary world in economic, not political terms. She asserts that being funded is more useful and has greater impact upon her life than her newly acquired right to vote.

A Room of One’s Own is based on a lecture Virginia Woolf gave at Cambridge in 1929. It is a scathing criticism of British society and an important feminist work (Gubar 2005). The author asserts that her inheritance of 500 pounds a year, a modest amount that provided for a space to work and her basic needs, was invaluable to her ability to function as an artist. In the context of modern culture this assertion remains relevant. The influence of a single artist, isolated from society and community is usually not adequate for the artist to gain freedom of artistic expression or secure a sufficient income. The issue of funding is a persistent challenge that affects the work and myriad aspects of the lives of artists. Many artists choose to live in poverty rather than compromise their practice of art. Still more choose to subdue the creative process in order to make time to generate income.

Evidence suggests that American society does not value the arts relative to the contributions artists and designers make to society. Contemporary funding for the arts is comprised of public funding and private foundations. In 1999/2000 approximately $214 million dollars was spent to fund individual artists. Local private sources and foundations provide the most funding with state agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts providing the smallest amount of capital. Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was drastically reduced in 1995. In 2001 there were an estimated 2.5 million artists in the United States. This $214 million averages to approximately $100 per artist (Galligan, Cherbo 2004).

Virginia Woolf asserts that it is most important to have a place to work, and the financial support to allow time to devote to that work. In an environment of inadequate funding and increasing numbers of artists, artists are generating solutions, creating affordable, accessible art space and attracting funding. Artist cooperatives are one of the ways that artists work together to make studio space and create intentional artist communities. These organizations can create an uninhibited creative environment that is artist centered. A drawback to artist-lead projects can be issues with organization and longevity.

A fascinating example of this phenomenon is the Tacheles art center in Berlin, Germany. The project began in the early 1990s and houses an international community of artists. The center is located in eastern Berlin in an historic building that has had diverse occupants including a department store, electrical company, office space for the Nazi party, an engineering firm, a dog groomer and a movie theater. In 1977, the GDR government demolished half of the building as a display of political power.

In response, a group of Berlin artists and musicians occupied the building, founding the art center. They named it Tacheles, which is Yiddish for “speaking clearly and directly”. Facilities include a woodshop, silk-screening studio, café, theater, exhibition gallery, nightclub and sound studio. The community received support from the Berlin city government, which provided 1 million German marks in renovations and subsidized employment for the residents. Tacheles continues to struggle with problems maintaining leadership, and with addressing issues of ownership, local regulations and legal problems (Stuckert 1992).

Tacheles Art Center BerlinTacheles Art Center, Berlin

Capitalism has also expanded its reach to capture the talents of heretofore excluded groups of eccentrics and non conformists. In doing so, it has pulled off yet another astonishing mutation: taking people who would once have been viewed as bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe and setting them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth… The creative individual is no longer viewed as an iconoclast. He—or she—is the new mainstream. (Florida 2, 2002, 6)

Corporations are a major source of contemporary funding for the arts. The organized discipline of corporate management could provide structure and longevity to support of the arts, but often the opposite is true. An example is the story of Minneapolis based First Bank Inc.’s art collection. The Bank owned an extensive collection of controversial contemporary art including  a photograph by Andres Serrano, aptly named “Immersion” or “Piss Christ,” depicting a close up shot of a small crucifix immersed in a glass of urine. First Bank’s investment in this collection performed well financially. The initial cost of the collection was $5 million, and was insured at $10 million, but is worth exponentially more on the actual art market (Parachini 1989).

With many controversial pieces hung in bank branches, beginning in 1985, bank officials became aware of growing employee resentment toward the artwork. First Bank decided to liquidate hundreds of its most provocative art works, as many as 25% of the total 3,200 pieces.

Moreover, it is all very well for you… of your own to say that genius should disregard such opinions, that genius should be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them… it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others. (Woolf 1929)

Artist Ai Wei Wei is perhaps China’s most well-known and controversial artist. His story illustrates the powerful political voice that a single successful artist can employ, as well as the tragedy that can befall a rebellious individual in an authoritarian society. As an architect Wei Wei has more than sixty realized projects (Dennis 2011). He collaborated with Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron to design the Bird’s Nest, the Chinese Olympic stadium. In 1993 he helped to found a radical conceptually based underground movement and artist community in the East Village of Beijing. He has been an increasingly outspoken critic of the Chinese government through his art, interviews and a well-read blog (Cotter 2011).

In 2009 was severely beaten by Chinese police and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that required surgery. Later in 2009 his blog was shut down and in 2010 authorities destroyed his studio in Shanghai. He was then put under house arrest in Beijing and ordered not to leave China. He made known that he intended to move a new studio in Berlin. He was taken into custody, but not formally arrested by police in Beijing on April 3, 2011 while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong (Cotter 2011).

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds

Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds

Ai Wei Wei’s sculptural piece “Sunflower Seeds” was shown at the Tate Modern in London in late 2010 and early 2011. It is comprised of millions of “seeds” that covered the floor of the Tate’s immense Turbine Hall. The seeds were made of hand-crafted painted porcelain, made by artisans in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, the city that traditionally made Imperial porcelain.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao was presented as the sun and the people as sunflowers turning towards him, so there is a revolutionary ideology somehow implicit in the use of that object. Wei Wei has very strong memories of growing up in extreme poverty in northern China and, particularly in northern China, sunflower seeds were very prevalent; people would eat them at commune meetings during times of great uncertainty… – Tate curator Juliet Bingham

Art funding and its impact upon artist expression is a multifaceted subject. Virginia Woolf was a visionary, and able to clearly define this problem in a social and political context. The more we value art and literature as a society, the more successful we can become intellectually, culturally and financially. This is important to recognize, for that which we value is that which receives the attention, funding, and planning for growth. While great gains have been made in funding for the arts, there is much more work to be done to create an environment that supports creativity in art and literature.