The Upside: Creative funding for the arts

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I know, I know: no one wants to hear artists complain about how hard it is to make a living. It's as if the freedom from being a cubicle-dweller has disqualified us from ever venting our frustrations with the constant hustle and the ongoing economic insecurity. Remember that know-it-all uncle who told you how hard it is to be an artist? He was right.

So I was especially interested to go to a lecture by artist A.L. Steiner at Portland's recent Time-Based Art Festival. Steiner is one of the co-founders of Working Artists and the Greater Economy, or W.A.G.E, "We demand payment for making the world more interesting," W.A.G.E. proclaims in its "womanifesto."

Let's be clear: these artists are not asking to be paid for making their art. What they're demanding is that they get compensated by the institutions that "employ" them. For instance, you go to a show at a museum or gallery. Sometimes there's a fee, sometimes there isn't. But the employees of the institution get paid to be there. The security guard is paid. The electric, gas, water, and phone companies get paid. Everyone, in fact, gets paid -- except -- hello? - the person who provided the very reason for being there.

Art institutions justify the practice by saying it provides the artist honor and exposure. Speaking as someone who has had both, I have yet to be able to endorse my honor and exposure over to the mortgage company. The problem, Steiner says, is the all-or-nothing approach -- that unless you're doing a commission or site-specific work, institutions rarely give even the slightest honorarium. As if $75 or $100 would be an insult. "We are not alien creatures who live on air," she says.

In other words: go ahead and insult us. It'll buy a week's groceries.

Being creative people, other artists are coming up with creative solutions to funding. Like choreographer Benjamin Asriel of Project Paper Trail, which documented the fundraising process along with the choreographic process. After being asked to do a dangerous, physical-therapy-inducing piece for free, Asriel decided he would not rehearse unless he could pay himself and his dancers. "Paying someone literally gives value to the person, which fosters the dance."

Similarly, artists can fund projects at Kickstarter.com, which is the Coolest Thing Ever (and I'm not just saying that to suck up to them in case I want to use it myself in the future. Not that there's anything wrong with that). Kickstarters must set a funding goal--from $1 to infinity--and reach this goal within a deadline or the project won't fund at all. "It's less risk for everyone this way," the site explains and provides this example: "If you need $5,000, it can suck to have $2,000 and a bunch of people who expect you to be able to complete a $5,000 project."

Artists provide incentives to their funders with "rewards," the personal equivalent of the PBS tote bag. In the four months since the site launched, Kickstarter has helped someone sail around the world, funded a documentary on Mister Rogers, and saved a record label from destroying 10,000 vinyl records.

Looking at all this entrepreneurial success, I feel inspired and invigorated. And as I ponder how I am going to pay the mortgage company with honor, exposure, and air, I definitely feel less inclined to complain.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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