Should 21st Century Artists Be “Performing Policy”?


This is a guest post is by Ken Tabachnick – designer, arts manager, dean and thinker.

Performing Policy
Performing Policy

Artists have always had a hard time making a living. Unless engaged in certain commercial areas, they produce unique one-of-a-kind products and cannot reap the rewards of scale that most purveyors of goods enjoy. Performing artists have it even tougher. Their customers can’t walk away with a product; they’re buying an ephemeral experience. Still, to earn a living, artists must engage with the market as others do. They must seek customers, ally themselves with funding sources and deliver their product — often on an agreed-to schedule. It is not unusual for artists to “outsource” these economic functions to producers or managers. Until relatively recently, artists had to choose to work in a commercial environment, serve a patron (a version of a commercial arrangement) or work as an amateur driven by non-market concerns. In all cases except when working as an amateur, artists have depended on the taste and beneficence of others.

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For more than a century and a half, as a result of the continually increasing personal agency and autonomy sought by our Western culture, we elevated the arts and the work of artists to a higher plane. The notion of creating “art for art’s sake” entered the cultural consciousness in the mid-1800s, enabling the “work” of artists to be separated, philosophically, from the vagaries of the marketplace. The nonprofit structure developed by the early 1900s, and, several decades later, a number of foundations, followed by the public sector, made critical investments in building an infrastructure that professionalized the arts.

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In his new book, Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century, artist-academic Paul Bonin-Rodriguez responds to the shifts that have lately consumed our cultural sector. He argues that the 1990s culture wars forced a rethinking of, and retrenchment from, the elevated status that artists had come to enjoy, and that we must reframe the context and connection of artists to the broader culture; they should rethink their relationship to communities as well as to their own practice. Reflecting on his own evolution as a practicing artist, he writes that artists can no longer segregate the economics of their work from their art and practice. In short, they must confront a new cultural ecology.

From the outset, Bonin-Rodriguez sets a high bar for himself:

Performing Policy demonstrates how a movement in arts and cultural policy begun in the 1990s redefined U.S. artists’ roles in American society and enhanced their prospects for the twenty-first century.

Often arguing in definitive language, he seems to propose that the policy initiatives he cites were broadly embraced by the culture sector. In fact, they were successful but limited in their impact. He even admits that of all the policy discussions he cites, none succeeded in offering a clear “job description for the term artist.” Bonin-Rodriguez then offers just that.

The heart of his argument resides in his preface (describing his own journey and evolution), his introduction (outlining the history and making his argument), and his coda (summarizing his analysis and pointing the way forward). In between these endpoints, Bonin-Rodriguez offers a historical and analytical review of three policy paths that have been pursued in reframing the artist’s societal function and purpose. His review of these three paths then alternate with three case studies that illustrate the reframing.

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He writes, for example, of the American Assembly’sThe Arts and the Public Purpose” convening in 1997. At this meeting, a group of committed arts advocates and policymakers responded to the vilification and overall diminishment of the arts that resulted from the aforementioned culture wars. Acknowledging a shift away from the optimistic, post-World War II heights of liberalism, this group argued against the “art for art’s sake” ethos and for one in which the arts imbued value into the culture. Funding programs soon followed the changing rhetorical landscape.

Indeed, the nonprofit organization Creative Capital, formed in 1999, adapted venture capital concepts and made longer term commitments to artistic projects — and linked those commitments to the development of economic skills for their recipients. They sought to

…contribute to cultural vitality by focusing specifically on artists… dream[ing of] a freedom of expression properly administered and strategically marketed.

Leveraging Investments in Creativity, a 10-year funding experiment, focused increasingly on place in the projects it supported seeking to model new methods of cultural support and distribution strategies based on geography, cultural specificities, and the public-purpose roles that artists serve in communities. 

This path, Bonin-Rodriguez concludes, traced an evolution — from a focus on space to a focus on place. He points to the recent creative placemaking initiatives begun by the National Endowment for the Arts and now carried on by ArtPlace America and other groups.

Even as Bonin-Rodriguez focuses on the changing context of art and artists in our culture, he acknowledges that such questioning and evolution is not so unique. He observes that the culture wars were really part of a larger societal trend, one reflecting a shift in Cold War rhetoric: from art symbolizing the triumph of Western society and therefore funded as “a tool of the state,” to a Reaganist faith in “privatization and personal responsibility.” He argues that artists, like other workers “squeezed out of the workforce,” have been forced to rely more and more on their entrepreneurial capacities.

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Yet this shift, as the author portrays it, ignores the fact that there have always been artists who used their entrepreneurial skills alongside their creative practice to get by. He contends that all of the policy efforts of recent decades successfully built a theoretical framework for arts participation and support in our culture, but did little to ameliorate the volatility and availability of actual funding sources for artists to support their work. Artists, like so many others, must fend for themselves to make a living.

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Faced with a continuing disconnect between artists’ practice and what arts policy professionals propose, the author suggests that artists simply accept the new demands placed on them. To succeed and be fulfilled, he proposes that artists must adopt, and our educational system must support, a hybrid role in which artists will not only create art but also produce art. By accepting the increased agency and autonomy of a hybrid role, Bonin-Rodriguez believes that artists can build a career and make a living. Fully engaging and integrating with their communities, taking a politically activist role, artists can bring value to their audiences and build the deep connections their line of work demands. If artists will live the rhetoric of policy makers, in other words, artists will be performing policy

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The book is informative in its historical analysis of attempts by altruistic non-artists to build policy structures aimed at ensuring participation in, and support of, artists in our current culture. Although the author believes this effort was successful, he acknowledges that it is still difficult to make a living as an artist. At the end of the day, as the French say, plus ça changefor artists to make a living, they still depend on the tastes and desires of those who fund the art.

Currently Deputy Dean for Tisch Asia at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ken Tabachnick has broad and diverse experience in the arts. He has managed a large ballet company, worked as an intellectual property attorney and designed lighting for theater, opera, dance, film and television. He is on the Executive Committee of Dance/USA, is an officer of the Stephen Petronio Company and a Trustee of the Hemsley Lighting Programs. Tabachnick’s periodic writing and speaking on the arts can be found at PeriodicArts.