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The official graphic for The Artist as Debtor Conference (via

On Friday, January 23, some of the most progressive thinkers about the financial realities facing artists will convene in the Great Hall of Manhattan’s Cooper Union to explore a topic largely ignored in the art world: the artist as debtor. Organized by artists Noah Fischer and Coco Fusco, the one-day gathering will bring together people like Andrew Ross, the author of Creditocracy, academic Greg Scholette, artist William Powhida and Martha Rosler, writers Brian Kuan Wood and Julieta Aranda of e-flux, members of the W.A.G.E. activist group, and others to discuss the plight of the artist in the age of speculative capitalism.

It’s a difficult subject, one that cuts to the heart of the art world’s mythology and the faith people place in the notion that art is above material things. “More and more [art] students are talking about debt,” Fusco told Hyperallergic during a recent conversation at her home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. “They are told art is not about money, but about something else, which creates the conditions for financial exploitation.”

One of the items designed by Noah Fischer for a protest by G.U.L.F. at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (via noahfischer.org)

In 2013, Fusco penned an article for Modern Painters magazine that offered her thoughts on the MFA system. “Given the skyrocketing cost of tuition, mounting student debt, high interest rates on loans, and a tough job market, you’d be crazy not to measure your education’s value against the risk involved in paying for it, especially if you are considering a master’s degree in art or design,” she wrote. The response to her words surprised her in the form of notes and emails, and it also convinced her that more work on the topic needed to be done.

For his part, Noah Fischer is no stranger to stepping back and taking a larger look at the art world and its interconnectedness with the financial industry. A longtime artist who graduated with over $70,000 of debt after attending Columbia University’s MFA program, Fischer has more recently made headlines as an avid supporter of the Occupy movement, particularly as one of the core organizers of the media-savvy Occupy Museums group. His recent work with the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) has included protests at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, for which he helped organize a wide coalition of groups who see the art world as an important stage for discussions about global financial systems.

“We’re interested in an intergenerational conversation,” Fischer explains about the “Artist as Debtor” conference, “and a structural analysis is the goal.”

To Fusco, the art world today seems so much more enmeshed in the world of money than ever before. She finished her education in the 1980s at one of the country’s best colleges, Stanford, with only $10,000 in debt. “You know how much time it took me to pay that off,” she says. “Nothing … a few years. I was precariously employed for 13 years after college, with no full-time job. Even in the 1990s, student were not having conversations about debt, but as time went on and tuitions rose, things changed.” Fusco says her research has found that since 1978 college tuition in this country has increased 1000% — a mind-boggling number.

Fusco and Fischer agree that the art school climate radically changed for the worse during the last decade. “I brought up the issue of my debt in college, and I was told that the market would pay it off, in almost a matter-of-fact way,” Fischer says.

“It was worse than that,” Fusco adds with a nod. “At that time, the head of the department I was teaching at would tell students he wanted, ‘we’ll make you rich.’”

Both say that in the early aughts, the overheated art market propelled dreamers into art school with bigger financial aspirations than ever before, often imagining they would reap the benefits of headline-grabbing auction prices and envisioning workshops filled with studio assistants churning out pieces for shows across the globe. But that dream only became true for 2% of art students.

“What we’re trying to do is to get behind all that and look at the ideological level on which this is operating,” Fischer says. “There’s an ideology in seeing the debt tied into the market as a reasonable transaction — to accept that you have to buy into an ideology that places art inside the market as a definition. Then there’s a structural analysis of extraction in the art market and different kinds of institutions, and we’re trying to flush that out on Friday.”

The conference, they explain, isn’t about finding a magic bullet, which Fusco calls a particularly US obsession with solution-oriented thinking, but about sharing information and understanding the parameters of the growing problem. The fact that it’s taking place at Cooper Union, a school that last year famously changed a 150-year-old tradition of free tuition for art students in favor of a paid system that mimics other schools across the US, makes the location of the conference quite charged.

“What I began to realize, slowly — and this is after 20 years of teaching — was that there are certain characteristics of art school and the art world that art students are tied to, that make art students particularly vulnerable. And I think some of that is the tangible stuff, like the precarity of art and the economics of being an artist versus the cost of going to school, so it’s not like a lawyer or a doctor, where you are likely to pay off your loans more quickly,” Fusco says. “Then there’s the intangibles, like this dominant ideology of the art world that art isn’t really about money but about something else. You shouldn’t do it for the money, but you should do it to improve yourself, do it because you’re really a genius and you need to be discovered, you should do it because you love art. This whole ideology creates the conditions for accepting exploitative labor conditions and assuming great financial risk.”

She calls this art school mentality a “culture of indenture,” wherein “you’re exploited because someone is making a lot of money, but it’s not you.” Fusco and Fischer have planned the conference to consider the connections between unpaid interns, artists, curatorial assistants who make minimum wage and work 60 hours, and adjunct professors, who constitute more than 90% of the staff of art schools and art departments and make little for their work. They think now is the right time to have this discussion.

“Debt has been building up for a while now, so this isn’t the first year where people are in existential debt … but Occupy has also set the stage for an emancipation from a frame of mind where you are silent about your debt and you’re shamed about it, because capitalism has this perception of winners and losers, and what’s the mentality of winning and losing? It’s shameful to be in debt and not pay it off,” Fischer says.

“Artists think they will survive because they are geniuses,” Fusco adds. “So their individual talent will allow them to elude the problem, and everyone else is bitter, instead of looking at the problem more rationally.”

The two hope that “The Artist as Debtor,” which will be livestreamed at www.stopmotionsolo.tv, will be a first step toward examining the problem rationally, and from there, moving towards a greater understanding.

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16 replies on “Accounting for Artists’ Debt”

  1. Great article. I think to add to that are the artists who don’t want to make debt, but also cannot fund active participation in the art world. The prohibitive cost of gallery and museum exhibitions. If you don’t have the money you can’t prepare, courier and display your work, or start expansive new projects.

  2. An alternative to the college or university education system needs to be developed: either a widespread revival of the apprentice system or organizations based on the Arts Students League of NYC need to be created in various cities. One good way for the latter is for more intense classes put on by local artists Guild or leagues.

    The Social Justice crap is not the answer: one has no business robbing Peter – via the power of the State – just to pay Paulette the artist. That the artist lives poor and has economic hardship is not a consequence of exploitation.

    Don’t like how much it costs to exhibit at established galleries; then, start a co-op and become exploiters of each other when you realize how expensive it is to have a building, pay for rent, pay for utilities, pay for maintenance, pay for advertising, and pay for exhibitions expenses. Or you can learn how to build a web site and create an on-line gallery. (You’ll have to learn on your own because web sites are expensive; and you don’t want to be exploited by those evil web designers – of which I am one.)

    http://pinelandsalmanac.com/genekronberg/galleries/GalleryIndex_new.htm

    I speak as an artist who is dead broke and currently unemployed, having moved recently form New Jersey to North Carolina. Am I being exploited because I have to pay storage fees to a New Jersey self-storage because my car couldn’t carry all my art? No. Are dark , capitalist forces exploiting me because I cannot currently afford to print my digital images? No. Are the same dark forces exploiting me because I cannot run out and buy the supplies I want? No.

    Am I being exploited as an artist by the dark forces of this web site; because in order to comment I have to give my personal Facebook or Google information to Disqus? Yes.

    1. With the greatest respect, this is a stupid comment – except for the first paragraph. The main thrust of the article is the sky-rocketed and rocketing cost of education that is forcing young artists (and non-artists) to start life so far behind the 8-ball that, short of hitting the Jack-pot, they can never catch-up. That impressionable students are being duped by college admissions and professors into mortgaging their futures on spurious promises is exploitation.
      The fact is, the struggle to pay off that debt is the thing that prevents art students from become artists – all of the things you mentioned, the materials, the studio, the storage facility etc, cannot be paid for while a large chunk of one’s income must service the student loan debt. Thereby making the whole exercise of having gone to that “good” art school utterly counter-productive.
      Re exhibiting at established galleries – if you can get one and then prove to be a cash cow so they’ll keep you on, you are in a tolerable to good situation. If you are paying the gallery to show your work – and therefore the gallery could care less if anything sells, you might as well forget about it.

      1. Students are “duped”??? With all due respect that is a ridiculous assertion. Nothing is hidden from their eyes. Students may be young, but they are adults and should not enter into adult business relationships if they are not ready. Students need to better assess their probability to succeed and contemplate how they will repay the money they borrow.

        The sad truth is that most art serves the artist better than is serves the viewer. If there is no market for an artist’s art, cash flow is always be a problem… the artist’s problem. The artist must choose the market to which he/she will appeal, to pay debt, to buy supplies, to live comfortably, to continue to speak through his/her art.

        So please stop begging, whining, demanding, deflecting, accusing, or making other spurious comments. Artist, show the courage of entrepreneurs, take your chance and live with the outcome.

        Godspeed all.

        1. Dear Enemy of…
          It is the case that students (and their parents) are misled. Schools are still trotting out statistics about the value of
          an education and still insisting that it is a good investment.

          That we now refer to the “Education Industry” without a trace of irony says it all. When did
          education become an industry? Our duty as a nation is to educate the
          young to be successful in life, to contribute to society and enrich it – that includes with art and, oftentimes, the value of art isn’t obvious at the time. This education is not just for their own personal advantage and gain but for the good of the nation, and to ensure we are competitive in the wider world. That is an idea that has been lost in this country where our children are used as cash cows, fodder for rampant capitalism. I have two children – one that was educated in Europe and one here. Both are about to graduate this year, one with an MA and one with a BA. The European educated child will have substantially less debt with an MA than her sister has with a BA, despite the fact that we have helped the younger one (financially) ten times more. Think about it, as the article said “since 1978 college tuition in this country has increased 1000%” – it has increased elsewhere too but nothing like here. American kids are being gouged, simple as that.

          1. Thanks for you thoughts Clarniluan. If students are duped then people need to go to jail… But I for one have not heard of any indictments. The problem as I see it is that young artists are not honest with themselves. They may well be susceptible to flattery, but that does not change contractual obligations.

            As for the education industry, you could not be more right. As soon as the government guaranteed loans and bankruptcy was not an option, costs skyrocketed. If you want to bring down education costs, get government out if the loan assurance business. Right now it’s risk free money to universities. Just look at the 6-year graduation rate around the country, it is criminal.

            If government is to make loan, it should be in the areas where we need professionals, like dentists, or engineers, or mathematicians. Everybody who wants to study something else must find their own way. That will rebalance the marketplace.

            Cheers, EOTH

    2. I agree with most you have said. The problem, as I see it, is there is little respect for art in todays world, at lease in the U.S. If you want an art degree, it is best to get another degree in a field that will pay the bills. Then work into the art world slowly until you have a name. That could take quite a while – sometimes you die first. VanGogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but look at him now.

  3. the alternative that needs to be developed is a life in art for anyone that wants it. no stupid claims to genius, which is a false old paradigm concept. the only ones winning that game are/were the ruthless. we need a society of creators instead of consumers. these creations should be personalized and speak to the communities in which they originate. and those compelled to this practice should not be penalized with abject poverty or insane work hours to support the art. think of most low wage jobs. totally destructive. selling poisonous food and junk made by slaves. those jobs, in a society sanctifying the life spirit, would be illegal. academia and banks? the “educational” system? government? please. nothing should be recompensed that harms life. in other words, most of us should NOT be “working”.

  4. A good article that expresses how art as a financially viable career path is dead. Talking about fine artists here, and their challenge to pay back school loans, but I just want to point out, as a professional graphic artist for over 25 years now, that other related visual careers too, like graphic design, photography, and illustration have also been affected. Once considered the way for an artist to actually make some money, graphic design is being replaced with templates and stock art. Technology has dumbed down the ability to make a really unique web site because web sites now need to be “responsive” (i.e. they have to fit multlple screen sizes, so the best way to do so is with a simple grid system). User Experience is more important than graphic design now (even thought they at their most basic address the same thing: design). Soon designing a web site will also have to consider the watch screen size. How much art and design can you fit on the face of a watch? Not much. And print is dying. What I would like to know is, is there a way for a visual artist to make a real living anymore? And if not, where will art go? Will people continue to work for nothing and posting their hard work on stock sites for peanuts—if they even get lucky enough to be thrown a peanut? How will it evolve from here now that technology has become stronger than creativity?

  5. “Sure. I’d like to live regular. Go home to a good looking wife, a hot dinner, and a husky kid. But I guess I got film in my blood. I love this racket. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking. “~ Weegee

    Being an artist is tough biz. No one ever said it was easy. But when you produce something fantastic…there is nothing that can fulfill your need for expression like art can. Art is part of our make up – going back to the cave dwellers that decorated their caves.

    I’m a photographer. I did not get into photography to make money. There are lots easier ways to make money than with photography. But photography provides a satisfaction to me that money can’t buy.

    As a social documentary photographer I shoot ‘ugly photography’ as opposed to sunsets, star trails and smoky water that people like to buy at art fairs and hang on their walls. But social documentary photography is what interests me. Freezing time is in my blood and people are my landscape.

    “A society without jaywalkers might indicate a society without artists.” ~ Paul Theroux

    Personally I self-fund my photography. That way I can pursue what I want to and not have restraints. Every artist is not as lucky. I’m not rich, but I am older, worked, saved and have enough to be able to live modestly and have some left over to do some of what I want to do.

    I feel sorry for the kids nowadays with the high costs to go to school. When I was in college in the early and mid 70’s, college was very affordable. L.A.C.C. was $6.50 semester. Cal State L.A. was $63 a trimester. Add a few used books for $10 or $20 and you were set. You could take all the classes you wanted to for those tuition fees as welI.

    I was accepted into Art Center in L.A. but could not afford it. I think it cost $1800 a year in the early 70’s. Worked out fine for me. I’d have made a poor commercial / fashion photographer. But I didn’t know myself that well when I was 18. (Google my name and you can see some of my work.)

    Health care was a lot more affordable as well. Colleges and hospitals were not big money making ventures as they are nowadays. Back then, they were run for the benefit of the people with profits secondary.

    I don’t have any silver bullet for fixing your woes. But if art is in your blood you must find a way to scratch that itch.

    “Never give up” or “Don’t listen to the haters” or “Don’t try to be an artist unless you can work and live in isolation, without any thanks…” bleak, but needed until you get to the much lauded place. – Scape Martinez.

    Good luck!

  6. The culture of indentured includes nonprofit workers too. And I’m seeing a gender issue where women are expected more often to volunteer and/or work pro bono. Thanks for the great article.

  7. The artist as debtor has been an historical fact for many many years. While Holland has created a funded recognition of payments for artists that is an exception, not a rule and it also has its own failings. The costs associated for students to study art at prestigious colleges have risen to commercial levels of payment but there is no guarantee that attending a prestigious college will guarantee graduates = artists (art schools & uni’s may see themselves as ‘creative factories’ but there is no effective ‘industry’ for graduates to move into). Many favoured artists are only acknowledged after their deaths, if they are lucky. The whingeing protestations of self proclaimed young or emergent artists who hail from a few select colleges that they should be recognised and supported immediately is obscene. This does not happen in any of the arts so why should artists expect any difference. Also the digital revolution is destroying much of the geographical emphasis of art as well as the very notions of what Art is in the early 21th C. Can a static crafted image now represent or stand for anything in the digital age? There are also many online sharks looking to make money from artists while promoting an artist’s work (Red Bubble being one specifically over charging organization). Teaching marketing or promotion may help some artists but it does not help their work. Those artists I have known who have made enough money to live on are able to network and spiel as well if not better than they make work. Those I know who are great and forward thinking artists have and do struggle to keep afloat with grant applications and project proposals. This is a good topic but the way it is addressed must be viewed in a proactive way rather than through protestation.

  8. Excellent article. Problem… I went over to the site to listen and watch the video of the conference. I couldn’t hear the presentations because of the poor sound quality. This was to say the least very disappointing. The poor sound quality defeated the purpose of sharing this important conference with the online community.

  9. Sadly, all this debt and unemployed artists point to the inescapable conclusion that there are far too many artists in the marketplace. Most art costs about as much in materials as the finished work, meaning vast oversupply. For many art is a vanity profession, so artists need to not expect to be paid for indulging their inner muse. It’s just not valuable to everybody else.

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