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Are Artists the Next Best Business Venture? Connecticut Is Banking on It

by Liza Eliano on January 9, 2012

A new arts funding plan is brewing in Connecticut that places precedence on cultural and arts programs that contribute to the community and attract new businesses. According to Hartford Business, Kip Bergstrom, deputy commission of the state Department of Economic & Community Development, has merged several arts funding initiatives into one overall program and plans to increase total funding to $1.3 million. The grants, however, will be mostly handed out to arts programming that will help jump start the economy in Connecticut. Bergstrom noted to Hartford Business that he believes that arts funding will increase  “once legislators believe they are no longer funding just arts but greater economic stimulation.”

While its important for state governments to be selective of which arts program they channel money towards, this program initially seems limiting in the types of programming the state is willing to fund. What about artists whose work will not necessarily equal immediate dollar signs? What is the funding criteria for arts programming that is geared towards community development and education rather than business ventures?

Hyperallergic spoke with Bergstrom who explained that the new funding plan will cover a “wide gamut of things from theaters that tend to be major economic engines in downtown areas to something like a neighborhood music school that impacts the community.”

He also emphasized that he hopes the new funding plan will serve as an antidote to the decrease in visitors at traditional art venues that he believes is widely due to the pull of the internet. “Many places are struggling to maintain and develop audiences and this plan is an attempt to reach out and engage,” said Bergstrom.

The new arts funding program may also make it easier for artists to make a living off their art, another goal of the program that Bergstrom highlighted. Project Storefronts, developed by New Haven, Connecticut’s Department of Cultural Affairs, re-purposes vacant storefronts into temporary pop-up gallery spaces and stores that sell artist works. They supported the opening of Detritus, a curated bookstore filled with artist books and zines, as well as the arts start-up City Bench, that creates furniture out of trees cut down by the city of New Haven.

However, capitalizing off of artistic programs can be a tricky venture, and one that many artists are tentative to embrace, especially when states begin to think of artists as business opportunities.

Artist Sharon L. Butler provided her perspective on the matter over Twitter, and she’s definitely got a point:

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  • Sharon Butler

    What I wrote in a longer comment on Two Coats of Paint is that in 2012, artists may be required to consider how an art project can contribute to the economic well being of the community if they want to get grant funding. In grant proposals, artists should start writing about their art practices as if they are “small businesses” that can help increase local economic prospects. In 2012, grant funders will reward communitarianism over personal vision.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Sharon, I understand your concern but I have to say that the current granting system is so removed from actual process that I think it’s just as artificial as the idea of thinking of your art as a small business so I don’t see the difference. I just had a meeting where two people, who write grants, mentioned that they often lie to granters in order to get awards. The current granting system is pathetic IMHO, I don’t see how this changes much.

  • http://twitter.com/sendacanvas send a canvas

    Did anyone ask if these communities had an ART market to begin with? $1.3 million will not buy you a market, if artists live here but are focused on marketing and selling to well established markets elsewhere I don’t see these funding plans working very well to reach those stated “local” goals. 

    I am always asked by painters I know in NYC, why don’t you move out here? Do you sell in Bridgeport?  How are you doing there?  What can I say to this…

    This funding when you break it all down and spread it to the many, the money is very small so what you get in return is window dressing, an image of having an “Art Culture” but they are glossing over the main issues artists face in CT.  And for this funding they are hoping for a lot out of us in return to produce something that benefits our local communities.  We cannot hope to compete with the major established art centers that borders our state not with this level of funding.  When you break down this level of funding and also considering who we are up against… no way this changes anything.

    Living here in Bridgeport, CT I’ve been watching the slow changes in support for Artists.
    I myself benefited from these changes, I live at Read’s Artspace in downtown Bridgeport I have a work space and my rent is low
    still I am not as productive as I would like to be. I think the vision for Artspace in Bridgeport was to bring the artists in and bam change the image of downtown Bridgeport and improve the “Culture” of the community.

    Personally when you cannot sell locally you have to market your work to the nearest art market or think about moving to one.  So if everyone of us stays here for the low rent but must hop on a train to NYC to market and sell the only dollars Connecticut sees is in our taxes but the goal for the local community does not work so well in the end.  $1.3 million cannot create a market no matter how you spin it.  

    If I do not sell I cannot continue to produce.  So where are my art materials coming from when I have no funding to support it?  Simple, production stops no progress is made in developing a career here locally.  I am not sure many here have much studio time as they spend most of the time in other jobs just to make a living. I would love to see things change in CT but this is just politics and not what I would call a real investment in the Arts.
    They need to think a little more about making living here a much more productive environment for artists and less about how they can benefit from having us just hang around town.  What is the point of hanging around when you cannot afford to work on what you love and there is so little support for it? Just asking CT.

  • Sharon Butler

    Hi Hrag,
    Artists need to change how they write proposals, not change their projects. For instance, an artist can write about a storefront pop-up project in terms of its meaning to their art practice…or they can talk about it in terms of its meaning to the community. Same project, different way of proposing it.

    Save a Canvas: You’re right. An art community is more complex than government officials often realize, especially in terms of creating professional exhibition opportunities (not just DIY storefront projects), the importance of art criticism, educating (and creating) a collector base. When the grant money (no matter how small the amount) goes to arts organizations, I’d like to see stipulations that exhibiting artists receive honorariums for participating in projects and organizing events.

  • Mark Cranford

    Hi Hrag, I go to city council meeting in my town and speak to the point about artists being small businesses and should be eligible for “event attraction” funding and grants like the established cultural facilities and civic attractions get. I argue for larger artist grants and challenge them not to exploit the artists. They smile and do nothing.  Downtown Ft. Myers, Fl. is flourishing because of Art Walk and Music Walk despite the fact we are in the middle of real estate foreclosure hell and no job creation hell. Here, Art Walk supports 50 businesses ( restaurants, bars, galleries). The position of the city is to let commercial arts rule and not promote challenging contemporary art. The city is happy to exploit the natural eagerness of artists and not recognize any differentiation about the art except in that which sells or offends( which is oppressed).
     I just got invited by my councilman to paint a stool for another non art related fundraiser, at least they know who I am. It may take years to change the funding and get funding for a critical space and forward artists. I even have a historically noted and critically recognized artist speak to them with me.
    Your publication is a welcome service, especially out here in the backwater. Thanks

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      Sorry for my late reply, Mark. Thanks for saying so. If you ever have a local issue or controversy, we’d love to cover it. The WHOLE art world is our domain. Please be in touch: http://hyperallergic.com/contact

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