Monday, November 19, 2012

Galway Artists and the Death of Ambition

Riddle me this: how possible is it for an artist to make a living off their work in Galway city?

Impossible? Easy if you work hard? If know the right people? Are we going to assume that artists already have a clear idea of what it is exactly to make a living off the arts?

I'm not.

In my research on artists and business, I came across a terrific framework used in the following study: Investingin Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists, by the Urban Institute, 2003.

Based on interview data, polling and database creation on awards and services for artists, these six factors were determined to be what make up the essential support structure for an artist (this includes visual arts, musicians, dancers, actors, etc), that is essential for them to be able to earn money and keep practicing their art:

Validation: The ascription of value to what artists do.
Demand/markets: Society's appetite for artists and what they do, and
the markets that translate this appetite into financial compensation.
Material supports: Access to the financial and physical resources
artists need for their work: employment, insurance and similar benefits,
awards, space, equipment, and materials.
Training and professional development: Conventional and lifelong
learning opportunities.
Communities and networks: Inward connections to other artists and
people in the cultural sector; outward connections to people not primarily
in the cultural sector.
Information: Data sources about artists and for artists.

You'd think they'd teach this "biznuss theery" stuff in art school, in preparation for the big bad world or art? Nope. Sure that would make sense.

I have to admit that when I found this study and poured over it on the bus ride back to Galway, not only was I illuminated, impressed and giddy with excitement at the prospect of building more Galway-based research out of this, but I was also unbelievably smug to see all of my artist stereotypes and very "wrong" generalisations that I've acquired over careful years of observation become fact through the validity of a research paper. Absolute win.

And, lastly and critically, the “environmental approach of the Urban Institute's research leads us to use place as the organizing principle for our research and findings”.

On that use of “place” as the defining underbelly of the framework, it's time to challenge Galway's reputation for being an “artsy” city, if we're going to see how artists are expected to heat their houses and scrape the mould off their curtains this winter.

Super artsy Macnas Parade: good and creepy.

The belligerent title “Graveyard of ambition” has deeply disturbed the naive and idealistic me ever since I first heard it from the mouth of the collective cynic. I have always known Galway as much for it's activists, organisers, ralliers and ideas people as much as for it's compulsive dole-burners, whingers (ugh) and professional apathetics. Galway is just so fun and free, I had always thought. Galway has a constant magic in the air. This wonderful, a swirling cocktail of Excitement and Potential and some other mystical, addictive substances, shot through with street lights and neon, that hovers in a gaseous mass over Quay Street, stretching over the Corrib mouth and ends in a torrentous twister over the Roisin Dubh. This cloud is sucked in by the live musicians and exhaled in delicious smoke rings by the poets, writers and actors. But in the realm of visual arts, whilst I believe that vision is probably abound, real production is just....limp.

That's a good word to describe Tulca so far, actually. It's a bit...nyeh. Although I did see George Shaw, David Hepher (WOW) and Lisa Malone's really lovely work in the Galway Arts Centre which was very satisfying to my art taste buds. Also: the Galway Arts Centre is the weirdest venue for art shows that I have ever seen.

Now, the visual art is there, and it is there in some wonderful ways - see the gorgeous, properly visionary and up-to-date street art of Basqr and AKACrap (we tried to invite Basqr to come speak and teach an awesome street art workshop for ArtSoc last year, alas he has to remain anonymous otherwise the cops will get him, so sad). The art in Galway is also there in other, more obligatorily high-brow, conventionally art-world, totally publicly-inaccessible ways - courtesy of the hard work of the 126 gallery collective. These, alongside the Galway street artists, have made the most strong and noteable efforts at getting their art into Galway's face as individual movements of art culture. They even have blogs and websites which they update regularly, apparently some art collectives are considerate and sensible like that.

But, but...why can't there be more? This is what I'm always asking. Why can't there be more forms of art (there's more to art than just blotty, abstract canvases hanging in your living room and the whole paint-wall formula)? Why can't there be more art everywhere? Why can't more Galway artists be set free from stereotypical financial shackles and go mad arting their little hearts out? This is taking into account Galway's population size, which is not big Art-scene-Dublin for sure, but this is also considering the ratio of amateur musician, writer and playwright (and yes, they've all got their NUIG Masters to pay back) to layperson that Galway clearly posesses and struggles to support. Is the "Starving artist" stereotype/reality why the visual arts just isn't screaming as loudly as everyone else? Or are they screaming with bold new art, and they are just no where to be seen? (this thought actually kills me a little bit)

When I walk around Galway and breathe in it's magic, I want to see the Art House Tacheles (RIP), converted art spaces, abandoned warehouses jam-packed with artists, a bohemian, Castro neighbourhood with artists collaberating, experimenting, innovating and generally saving the world from apathy and despair.

The Shed is a really exciting new-ish artspace on the Docks. Sadly, it is still misused as a bizarro contemporary art space and dismal as hell on the inside. Each to their own like, but for such a central location they should have thrown the Occupy Galway guys in there and gave them a load of paintbrushes and found art, they would have collaberated and workshopped the fuck out of  that space.

I am all too aware of the legends of hovels of artists hiding away,in suburbs thousands of miles away from the action and connection of the city centre, working their asses off to remain alive in jobs that kill their artistic wakefullness. What if all these artists are failing to balance mortgage-slave life and artist life? What if they are giving up in their droves, under the pressure of  recession-fear and pressure to fall into convention? They could be dissolving slowly and painfully into this kind of disconnected lethargy (as our generation tends to do now), with any impetus to do work quashed by a sick and dying self-esteem, never picking up a paintbrush again? What if they really do spend their time hanging around Neachtains pub bitching about the Arts Festival excluding local artists, whilst not innovating or researching to combat the obstacles they face? What if all they need is a little hope and a lot of business acumen? I certainly know artists who fit these descriptions, and I know more young artists who are in real danger are taking up that same slow miserable march away from the hopes and dreams and away from their divine vocation to make people happy. And there must be scores more, if the discharge of 100 art students Cluain Mhuire GMIT Art college emits every year says anything about professionally-trained artist surpluses in this city.

Sigh. This is all very upsetting.

Is this our reality for artist graduates?? Also do watch this film/read this comic, it's very good.

To finish off my part-investigation, part-diatribe into the struggles of the hypothetical new and energetic young artist settling down their roots in the cutest and artsiest city in Ireland (which may or may not be a real person and may actually be me and not hypothetical at all), here is something very simple and very brilliant from the wikipedia book Business and Artists to stick in one's pipe and smoke:

The artists' labour market
The labour market for artists is characterized by four things in particular:
There is an extremely unequal income distribution within the market segment. A very small group of people earn a high proportion of the total income.
There is a structural excess supply of labour. There are always more people who like to earn their income as an artist than there is demand for them.
There are intangible returns to labour, so that people accept lower wages than their qualifications would earn in a different market.
Non-separation of artist and work. The image their product gives them, is important to artists.

This isn't cited or proven per se, which annoys me, especially as a former law and economics student, but it is brilliantly simple. It is a good, clear place to begin, along with the help of the in-depth analysis of the American study above. What I would love to do is verify this with real data first off, Galway-centric naturally. Then I would like to do something to educate struggling and frustrated artists about this reality (God knows the art schools don't bother with this tedium of commerce and technology, that's why some of us decide that business school may be a better option than art college) and, crucially, work to eventually rebalance the supply and demand graph for artists in this city. This involves encouraging artists to move off the traditional fine-art, painter and ceramic specialisation and finding new, morecommercial artistic specialisations to suit artists that are needed by consumers and business people (whether they know it yet or not, as the capitalist genius Steve Jobs would say). As I hope to uncover in my research, the art of a country reveals so much about the happiness and hope of the nation itself. The lives of her artists reveals surprisingly a lot about the health of the economy. On this micro to macro level, the story of art in Galway reveals just how tragically unbalanced our entire economy is and how our entire labour force, extending far oustide "the arts sector", is negligently disproportionate.

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