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William Powhida, “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System” (2010), graphite on paper, 11 x 14 in (courtesy of the artist) (click to enlarge)

To anyone who receives news alerts, the world might seem to have fallen apart in a wave of terrorist attacks, failed coups, wrongful killings, police assassinations, and accidental withdrawals from European coalitions, to name a few. What appear to be problems of politics and economics are actually matters of creativity and imagination. Even with the creep of the financial market into the art world, we are surprisingly cut off from our ability to diagnose and deconstruct the market with artistry and imagination. A widespread lack of understanding of the market — and its role in education, in social unrest, in campaign finance, in economic stability, in protest votes of the disenfranchised against entrenched elites — is one of the greatest threats to modern democracy.   This is why I teach business to artists, and anyone else; because the way forward is to think about business and imagination simultaneously. It’s art — as a process — as much as geopolitical rigor that can save us.

These issues are personal to me because I have both an MBA and an MFA. I believe that Excel is one of the great inventions of the 20th century, but also that the world bends to a pioneering spirit and a paintbrush. When I was getting an MFA in painting in London in 2004, MBA already in hand, I began teaching business to my fellow painters, taping the newspaper, triple-ply, to my own paintings, and using it as a blackboard. The class was not about how to market your art; it was an invitation to include people in the world of ideas about business. What I came to experience was the pleasure of seeing artists think wildly and creatively about the construction of the market itself. Putting tools of business in the hands of artists is a proxy for teaching any of us to think creatively and independently about the future of the world we live in.

I place methods of teaching business to artists into a framework of versions, from 0.0 to 3.0. They form a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs of the creative self struggling to deal with the market. At the bottom, the market is ignored, then reluctantly engaged with as a set of rules. Toward the top, the market becomes a creative medium itself — something we can build hopeful structures out of — and then a civic medium for conversation of the highest public kind — the sort that allows us to collectively build pathways forward. It is the top of this pyramid that we all need right now.

(illustration by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the 0.0 version — think of it as the prequel to Business 101 — everybody pretends that business does not exist and acts in a vacuum. This attitude characterizes most education of artists up until a decade ago — the “just focus on your art as if the money part does not exist” approach. In fact, whether you are a commercial banker or a conceptual artist, the market is the ocean that we all swim in. And, to stay afloat, everyone needs a boat. That boat is built out of the tools of the market. Some people will be professional boat-builders — they will work in the market itself — but all of us still need a boat of some kind to survive.

In the 1.0 version, business is presented as a set of rules to be followed, or a secret society to be entered. For artists that means either accepting business wholesale as received wisdom — which often turns people into single-minded self-promoters — or rejecting business outright. But rejecting business means rejecting the two main things business can do in service of artists: protect space in which to make your work, and amplify the reach of your ideas.

In the 2.0 version, business is not a set of rules to be absorbed or rejected. It is a set of structural tools and building blocks that anyone can use in service of their larger, non-business lives. The goal of the 2.0 version is not to become a businessperson but to be a person who understands business. Here, business is not an identity or a belief system, but a skill — like writing or calculating or drawing.

This 2.0 version is the one that I most often teach: business as a design medium itself. Economics is a mechanical medium of cost structures and breakeven points. Finance is a time-based medium of risk and return, and money over time. Like any other medium — wood, oil paint, steel — capitalism has strengths and weaknesses. It is only by understanding those possibilities and limitations that you can use the medium well.

Far and away the greatest advantage of having an MBA, or any other education in business, is being able to trust yourself wholly when something besides the market — measurable or not — is more important. For instance, a museum might track its visitor numbers and have all the information about what exhibition brings in the most revenue, but it can still choose to host the small, mission-driven show, or champion the free event — like Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern — that engages the public broadly and deeply, or even changes how we see art. Similarly, an artist might be able to make more money by continuing to work in a recognizable style, but decide to try something new anyway. In the same way that the perfect is the enemy of the good, the quantifiable can be the enemy of the important. Truly designing with business at this 2.0 level means including all the non-business aims in the picture.

The 3.0 version exists because our democracies are currently built out of economics as much as out of governmental structures. Or, at the very least, they are marbleized with money and charged with market oversight. If the 2.0 version invites ingenuity and resourcefulness with tools of business, the 3.0 version allows us to enter into civic conversation with each other about the collective design of market structures. This kind of conversation and the independent thinking behind it comprise the greatest levers of power in any democracy. But one needs to understand the market in order to use them.

In fact, we need all of these levels of business to operate. For the 1.0, we are all beholden to a rules-bound level of business. (Just ask the IRS or try to start a Delaware C-corp.) The reason I teach the 2.0 of business is to give artists the tools to carve out spaces in which they can explore and take risks developing new work. The 2.0 is essential because it engages people’s artistic methods — of form and composition, of material resourcefulness and curiosity — with the tools of business itself. It is this level that allows artists — or anyone else — to use business to protect space for research and development and to trumpet finished projects more widely. It is the 3.0 level that allows people to come together, to share problems and challenges we all face, to realize many of those problems are commonly held, and to join in conversations about the future of the field — be that visual art, dance, or the way we live in general.

When I teach, I often paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: Ask not what economics can do for you, but what you can do for economics. It is my great dream that artists — by which I mean all of us — will take on the market as one of the largest and most significant design challenges of our time.

The next time someone asks you what you think about the Brexit, or the Trump candidacy, or the economic hopelessness behind the anger that fuels fringe political movements of many stripes, take it as an invitation not just to a conversation about politics and economics, but one about creative ingenuity — art in the broadest possible sense — as a pathway forward. Visit an art museum or get out a sketchpad or take a walk and reflect. The world needs our imaginations, but it demands our facility with business, too. Understanding the mechanics of the market — with the most creative parts of ourselves — will help us to build the world we all want to live in, in the midst of the messy one we have.

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Amy Whitaker

Amy Whitaker is the author of Art Thinking: How to Carve Out Creative Space in a World of Schedules, Budgets, and Bosses (Harper Business, July 2016), a book about how creativity and commerce...

12 replies on “Why Teach Business to Artists?”

  1. I’ve never understood why art schools, art supply stores, art book stores and any forum where young artists are engaged seems to be a “reality free zone”. Discussion of the business side of art is forbidden. Grads of many schools are immediately bewildered and exploited because teachers so valued keeping them in a bubble of pure creativity and fantasy (the 0.0 version) – all while they were racking up very real student loan debt.

      1. I remember a study that praised art students in an undergraduate program because, compared to other majors, we were less concerned with earning a living. As if we could skip that and move on to a “higher” calling.

  2. I’d be interested in more concrete ideas about what the author thinks 3.0 would look like. Cadres of artists in recent years–Powhida’s piece used as the graphic is a representative example–have been discussing creative/alternative ideas for economic structures in art and through art but very little seems to have changed in terms of the art markets or any other markets.

    1. Yes, there are a few different levels of conversation here. One is about collective action to redesign various fields within the arts. Others are about artistic design around larger social and economic issues.

      Re art, Esther Robinson (art home), Caroline Woolard (collective real estate ownership), and a number of other artists have been convening these conversations. Monograph tries to make artists owners of equity in their work. Franklin Boyd redesigned the artists resale royalties contract. The W.A.G.E. movement is creating a conversation about how artists are paid. To me, the most important thing is that we continue to talk about the business side of artistic practice, so that we can design the best, most hopeful, and most creative solutions. That may sound vague, but to me it is simply taking responsibility for understanding the market as a medium, and then using it as part of addressing large, common complaints, whether that’s lack of grant funding (dance), difficulty of home ownership (most artists I know), student debt, etc.

      In my hopeful, pie-in-the-sky moments, I want artists also to be able to use those skills to enter into thought leadership about everything from the economic policies espoused by presidential candidates from Trump to Sanders, to imagining future consequences of the Brexit, various trade accords, and social issues like immigration.

      1. Right, thanks. I am aware of some of the initiatives you list (and good on them), but the general lack of wider results despite diligent work over time is telling. (Great to have a resale royalty clause in sales contract, but does anyone compel their dealer to use it? Has one major institution adopted the admirable WAGE’s fee structure?) Discussions like this have been going on for decades and little changes, or if there is a blip the far larger social and economic powers soon force a reversion to the mean. That said, if the conversations and efforts do nothing more than make artists better informed about their industry then fine.

        Also, as nice as it sounds in the abstract, I am not sure what artists have to offer to macroeconomics or global trade that enlightened people who think about those things all day can’t offer (and I sure don’t want Nigel Farage in my studio, ever).

        This from Robert Irwin today might interest you: “If you look at the art world, it’s not an art model, it’s not a creative model. It’s an economic model. It’s the idea that half the business is carried on in these art fairs which means the only things that can be shown are things that can be put up in a day, profitable, on a patched wall with temporary lighting. Modern art is much more interesting and more critical.” http://theartnewspaper.com/news/news/robert-irwin-plays-with-light-and-dark-in-marfa/

        1. Thanks for the Robert Irwin link. (Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is one of my favorite books.) And thanks too for the bracing image of Nigel Farage giving a studio visit. Yikes indeed.

          I just don’t think people have really been teaching business in art schools that long. They’ve been teaching professional practice as a set of rules, not business as a set of design questions that also require you to answer a set of personal political questions about how you want to interact (or how you want your work to interact) with the market.

          I think most complex problems require interdisciplinary teams and deep conversation across fields, so artists and macroeconomists, as it were.

          1. Me too on the Irwin. Here’s another recent interview if you are interested that’s both serious and cheeky: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/getty-salad-garden-robert-irwin/

            Re: second paragraph, well and good, but practically it’s all a bit vaporous. The personal political questions are obligatory; artists take them on as a matter of course as we try and figure out how to sustain what we do in a way that aligns as closely as possible with our broader ambitions for life and the world. But that goes right to the question of money and how you acquire enough to do your work. And for that to be anything much more than a thought experiment you need options beyond the binary choice of chasing down dealers or not quitting your day job. (I’m not counting teaching or part-time work as an answer.) In the 60s, artists could live in a loft on Coenties Slip and get by working for the Police Athletic League 15 hours a week (true story). Those days are long gone, along with the myth of the noble bohemian, and for all the interesting ideas out there nothing else is financially sustainable beyond sales and significant outside work (though other forms of income and support can accrue once you have established market viability).

            You could just accept that, but if you don’t the whole structure needs to be dismantled and reassembled if more artists are to find support in it. Perhaps your work will push that along (brava!), but it’s not even clear economically that there’s enough interest/investment out there to sustain a significant restructuring (i.e. just not enough dollars or other resources to support more artists than are currently supported). Maybe start with the simplest question: Is the art market leaving people out who would like to participate (let’s say at something less than the $75,000 per painting level). From my conversations the answer is undoubtably “yes,” which suggests the system has efficiencies. How much inefficiency and what next?

          2. Many thanks for all this. Much agreed — and I’m also fascinated by the history of artists’ day jobs and how larger systems have shifted.

            I wrote a book — Art Thinking — that came out a couple of weeks ago, which is about these larger themes of how creativity and the market go together.

            Here’s a link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Thinking-Creative-Schedules-Budgets/dp/0062358278

            And to an FT piece about it: http://on.ft.com/29gxG9UThe problems artists face are particular, of course, and idiosyncratic to each person’s working process and politics, but these are also larger issues that almost anyone faces, of navigating the paradox that the market depends on creative work in the long run but makes it hard to carve out space to explore projects before their value is known, in the short run. Workers in the “gig” economy, and even corporate teams, face a version of these same tensions.

            As to the next wave of viability for artists, I believe, as I discuss later in Art Thinking, that ownership and technology will pave new pathways toward owning portions of the value anyone creates. We can think differently about pay, about fractional ownership, and about using technology to manage these systems of value with less friction.

            We need to make space for art as a process — inventing point B not just going from A to B — in most areas of life. The economic difficulties are just most obvious in the fine arts.

            Thanks again for the Irwin link — planning to read shortly.

            And perhaps you’ve already seen this but if not, Nina Katchadourian’s exhibition Day Job at the Drawing Center: http://www.drawingcenter.org/en/drawingcenter/5/exhibitions/363/day-job/

            – Amy

  3. Where have you been?
    At every art school II’ve taught at the students have been more concerned with showing and selling their work than making anything credible.
    It’s your particular point of view that has made the current art world so full of artists whose main intent is to have market penetration rather than penetrating ideas. There’s little interest in adding in any way to the dialogue or taking the risk to make something significant.
    .

    1. I’m not sure I agree with your point, if i understand you correctly. The call to action here is not to sell your work and penetrate the art market. It is to take on the broad, public-intellectual role of the artist in helping us all make sense of the human condition and in imagining institutions and social structures of the future–by understanding business well enough to do so. What you describe as an absorption of business as a somewhat myopic form of wanting to succeed in the art market is closer to the 1.0 level described in this essay. I probably agree with you about the need for more rigor regarding what you call the “credibility” of the work. But the larger argument here is actually a critique of the attitude you’re describing, and a call to a larger social and creative responsibility toward understanding the economy itself, far outside the narrowly defined art world.

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