I am suspect of anywhere, anytime that people have the world clearly divided into two camps – good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, us vs. them. So it follows that I am interested in the breakdown of the division between the for-profit vs. not-for-profit divisions in the arts.

We are used to a bifurcated system in which for-profit and not-for-profit (nfp) organizations are clearly separate and in the arts, many of us have exclusively lived in the nfp world. Nfp status is a basic eligibility criteria for most arts grants for arts organizations, at least at the operating grant level. Donations from individuals and corporations are just not available for the most part unless a nfp organization also acquires the more difficult-to-achieve charitable status with Canada Revenue Agency. The opportunities to generate revenue outside of grants and donations have seemed few and far between to many artists and arts organizations; sales and box office revenue do not amount to much for many.

As stated in the last post, in recent years there has been a push (coming from such sources at Ministry of Culture and-whatever-it-is-that-year) for individual artists to frame themselves as entrepreneurs and improve their business skills. Surprise! As a self-employed artist you actually are part of the for-profit world as hilarious as that may seem compared to your bank account. I remember years ago when I first attempted a business as a consultant (my second career is always parallel to my career as an artist) that it was initially hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I was part of the private sector when my world was the not-for-profit sector. That was a tip-off to a different way of seeing things.

Consultant Jane Marsland is one person I have heard champion the entrepreneurial model and speak of the terrible cost of the constraints of nfp corporation upon artists. I have heard various generations of young artists speak of the need to find alternatives to grants, and believe me, have felt the heavy weight on my own artistic practice of the constraints of the current system. One of the most debilitating aspects of being an artist for me and many others is the sense of helplessness in the face of the gate-keepers be they curators or grant juries. But where would we be without the arts grants and nobody has ever come up with a better way.

Performing artists in particular are pushed into forming nfp corporations in order to reach for the brass ring of substantial funding and many encounter a lot of frustration. The level of accountability required of us to justify grants is out of all proportion to the crumbs tossed our way. I remember when I was Executive Director of the St. Catharines and Area Arts Council and a new hire for a major local arts organization arrived from the social services. She could not believe the level of work required for arts grant applications and reports for the goal of a fraction of the level of funding to which she was accustomed. And the arts councils themselves are “on our side” (oh no, sides!) and make these demands in order to face their government bosses.

Reactions to the notion of encouraging artists being more business-like include that it amounts to co-option and collusion with corrupt late capitalism responsible for social injustice and environmental destruction. Or, that business-like thinking is incompatible with the creative process. There’s a lot of frustration felt by arts organizations pressured to increase their self-generated revenues when that feels like a distraction from the “core business” of making art and these pressures mount without accompanying ability to pay for the attendant human resources. The artist-as-entrepreneur has arisen as complement to the economic development theory of the creative economy championed by Richard Florida. There is plenty of criticism of the Florida model coming from the arts (as well as support); I have things to say of my own on this topic but will not digress – my point is that it is part of an opportunity for the arts to be part of the breaking down of historical bifurcation around money and profit vs. social good.

I know I am jumping between the individual artist and the arts organization in this post; just to be clear, the focus of MARProject is definitely the individual artist. Last time I said my next post would be about social finance and I am still headed that way! The goal of creating a provincial system of microcredit for artists might seem like a pipe-dream, but for a movement going on called social finance.