Confronting Inequity: Do We Really Need a Make-A-Wish Foundation for Famous Artists?

by Whitney Kimball on March 28, 2013 · 19 comments Opinion

Nick Cave's "Heard NY" at Grand Central. Image courtesy of TimeOut.

Most of the creative people I know are struggling. On the phone the other day, a friend who’s living in Vermont told me she almost gave up looking for work when she got turned down for a cashier job at Michael’s. “The craft store,” she added. “They said I was under-qualified.” This friend, a liberal arts honors graduate, cries when she hears a story on NPR about a kid with Down Syndrome who started his own restaurant, not because he has Down Syndrome, but because he has a restaurant. I asked if she’d heard the one where Chana Joffe-Walt, of “This American Life,” goes to Alabama to find out how a quarter of the people in town are getting disability benefits (one laid-off worker memorably relates his re-training officer’s advice to “Just suck all the benefits you can out of the system until everything is gone.”) Screw them, I thought at the time, as they’re getting almost double what I make as an art critic.

Still, I consider myself lucky. I went to art school. I have an enabler mom and sympathetic friends who consistently set me up with freelance work, without which, I would need to move back home. For every one of me, you can bet there are thousands of artists and writers who had to give up.

Given this landscape, is it conscionable to have a Make-a-Wish Foundation for famous artists? This week, thousands of people are crowding into Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall to see Creative Time’s latest project, Nick Cave’s “Heard NY.” The movements were familiar from previous Nick Cave performances in major museums and blue chip galleries; Cave’s grassy, embroidered horse costumes shuffle and spin around to, respectively, a harp and drum. Both dance and song felt like a watered-down tribal something, but the costumes were convincingly horse-like, making it about the same as watching a herd of actual zebras through the window of a tour bus. I didn’t think much more about the piece until after that phone call with my friend, I saw the Nick Cave subway ads again, passing one at the station and another in my car. How much did that cost, anyway?

I wouldn’t wonder had Creative Time not set out to align itself with the ideals of social progress through events such as its annual summit. In last year’s glamorous gameshow-style edition “Confronting Inequity,” Creative Time set its mission at activism through edu-tainment, with comedic breaks to rehash tweets about curator (and host) Nato Thompson’s shiny pants from certain well-followed audience members. The whole production prompted critic Mira Schor to comment that the event was “marked by a relentless positivism embodied in its chosen style of presentation, a style derived from the equally relentlessly positivistic and corporatized TED Talks…” All of it counteracted its purported, activist goal of “Confronting Inequity,” which means not being entertained, risking your popularity, shut-up-and-do-the-damn-thing. With the hindsight of half a year, the event didn’t so much confront inequity as made everybody feel better about it from a safe distance for two days.

Said colorful presentation continues to be a thread in the projects which Creative Time champions: Herculean efforts, often centered around social issues abroad. Summit presenters Invisible Borders, for example, travelled across Africa documenting different cultures; Conflict Kitchen serves food and culture from countries with which the US is in conflict; Michael Rakowitz (Creative Time-grantee) brought Saddam Hussein’s dishware to the United States.

It should be noted that the summit did include several local (national) presenters– not least of which were Martha Rosler, Occupy’s journal Tidal, Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ), Jodie Evans of CODEPINK– and the organization has sponsored more practical projects like the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Teach 4 Amerika” and artist Tania Bruguera’s “Immigrant Movement International.”

But when ideals of social change are given Creative Time’s main stage, there seems a tendency to shoot them all into space, even literally, as Trevor Paglen (vocal critic, though he is) did this summer with his CT-sponsored “Last Pictures” satellite. Before that, Creative Time brought space to the Armory in Tom Sach’s engrossing but utterly ego-centric “Space Program: Mars.” These are ideas for fatter times. Historically, the only bust-era machine to rival this scale might have been the Works Progress Administration, which mobilized so many artists and left a lasting cultural legacy. Here, it’s tasked to realize the singular vision of an already-famed individual.

The hope is that successful artists do a greater social good, mobilizing the communities they touch; Creative Time throws its heft behind programs like its current “Global Residency,” sending successful artists abroad to explore culture, and “Creative Time Reports,” sending successful artists abroad to be journalists. They’re on-trend with what AFC’s Paddy Johnson calls a “brand-building” mission to broaden internationalism in arts circles, like Performa’s recent addition of international pavilions, or BiennaleOnline’s mission to bring underserved foreign artists to the attention of Europe and America.

At best, such projects add some insight to the tunnel vision of participants in the New York art world. But better than sending successful artists to do other people’s jobs, it seems, would be sending some money upstate, or to New Jersey, or Alabama. Albeit it’s less glamorous, but there’s no question it would make more artists here. We need it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

    The first paragraph of this piece is grotesque. The last just makes no sense.

    • WhitneyKimball

      Why?

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      Please explain.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

    Well, for starters, the idea that a “liberal arts honor student” is inherently qualified for retail is just silly. Maybe you’ve never worked retail? Or don’t have a liberal arts degree? I have, and do. And that’s obvious. If your friend wasn’t upset over the guy having Down’s Syndrome, then WHY DID SHE (YOU) mention it??? Please.

    • WhitneyKimball

      Okay, you don’t like the personal stuff. That’s more of a style preference. Thought some cornball true story here was necessary to sketch out an idea of what a recession-era space launch project might look like from an outside perspective.

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

        You also may (or may not) be aware of the healthy debate online over that particular episode of TAL and the many specious claims it makes. Also of note is that the cherry-picking you do is eerily reminiscent of the cherry-picking from the story which has been ongoing in the right-wing media (re: those scamming people of disability). “Planet Money” (underwritten by Ally bank, formerly GMAC) has a definite political (read: economic) agenda. Perhaps you agree with it, perhaps you don’t. If not, you might think again of leading off a piece with a nod to their programming.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

      No, actually your intro is pretty offensive, and displays the ‘tunnel vision’ you lament later in the piece.
      And the last paragraph doesn’t make any sense. That’s not a “style” issue.

      • WhitneyKimball

        The point of the story is this is an example of someone who’s reached a point of desperation where she’s qualified to do any number of things but can’t get a job she’s overqualified for because the economy is so bad. Everyone is inherently qualified to work a register. I don’t see what’s offensive about that.

        How does the last paragraph not make sense?

        • Lady Ann

          Who isn’t overqualified these days? Is that a reason to disparage an inspiring event that’s accessible to children and possibly commuters? AFC suffers from terminal bitterness.

        • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

          “anyone is qualified to work a register” is the most arrogant tunnel vision navel gazing statement I have heard in quite some time. It’s frankly, and patently, false. I have no idea about your friend, but a lot of artists are space cadets and spazzes, Many others are hopelessly self-absorbed and convinced they (not only can but ) SHOULD BE doing something inherently wonderful, b/c, well, they’re artists. None of these qualities makes for a good retail employee. That’s just how it is. This piece starts off with a casual swipe at the disabled and goes downhill from there. You should be ashamed. And so should your friend.

          • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

            beyond that….VT is probably one of the easiest DIY survival spots for artists. VT has (especially relative to small population, few commercial galleries, etc) an abundance of arts organizations, grants, and the like. Space is abundant and cheap, and that being the biggest crunch on most artists I know, suggests that any artist worth their salt should be able to get by up there. As previously mentioned, I made it work for over a decade. My best guess is your friend ‘works’ with ‘non-art’ materials in her/his ‘practice’. You don’t think a seasoned Michael’s manager can see through that shit?

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            You’ve made your opinions clear, and they have been noted. Let’s not flog a dead a horse. If you’re really that curious about Whitney’s friend and her practice, you can ask her about it.

          • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

            No, in fact I’m not (interested in W.’s friend, etc), and clearly the horse lives b/c you don’t get how ridiculous the opening to this piece is, as well as the disservice it does to working (but not living off of their art) artists not currently employing the ‘sour grapes’ approach. Honestly the whole piece is staggering for the type of navel gazing it ultimately criticizes. One question I have that hasn’t been addressed is did AFC actually confirm how much was spent on those subway ads? My best guess is that being as the show was in Grand Central, the MTA had every interest in promoting it. It may have even been a clause in whatever partnership agreement btw CT and the MTA/GCT that yielded the show.

          • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

            Give it a rest David. This conversation doesn’t live and die by us conceding your point of view.

            And, nope, we never did confirm how much was spent on the subway ads. The question wasn’t asked because we wanted to know what the exact number was, but rather to point out a perception problem. Creative Time is producing increasingly glitzy events in a time when a lot of artists are struggling. Is that appropriate? Whitney doesn’t think it is, and I don’t either.

            Anyway, you’re more than welcome to continue this conversation on facebook, but I’m closing this thread. You’ve already made your feelings clear about the intro, and the conversation about advertising is based entirely on speculation. I don’t see that going anywhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

    Full disclosure: I lived in VT as a ‘struggling artist’ for a dozen years. It ain’t easy, but it’s also not without myriad benefits.

  • http://c-monster.net/ Carolina A. Miranda

    Whether or not you like the opener (which I think is more of a writerly device than anything to be taken literally), I think Whitney’s piece does raise an important question about the types of art non profits support — especially an organization that purports to be interested in issues of social change. I’m not necessarily against the idea of the Cave piece (it can be nice to run into some random performance in the middle of a harried commute). But when taken together with Paglen’s space piece (a project whose cost certainly could have funded elementary arts education in several U.S. metro area school districts) and the Tom Sachs install at the Armory (which, for the record, I found totally irritating: a whole warehouse of cutesy bricolage + hipsters on skateboards?!? REALLY?), the collective nature of some of the work Creative Time supports does come off as quite glittery. In the end, it’s tax deductible dollars burnishing the reputations of the already well-established. We can sit here and pick apart the turn of phrase in this piece, but I think the larger issues that the writer raises are interesting food for thought.

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.kearns.353 David Kearns

      It’s a “writerly” device that takes a casual swipe at people with Down’s Syndrome. Class act….

  • http://twitter.com/dhaggag Deana Haggag

    I think that this:

    “With the hindsight of half a year, the event didn’t so much confront inequity as made everybody feel better about it from a safe distance for two days.”

    …is an incredibly important critique of the work that Creative Time is doing. Furthermore, I believe that organizations like Creative Time NEED to be consistently and properly scrutinized. They set their own standards and, in so many ways, asked the ‘public’ to be their ‘advisory board’- and that is exactly what is happening here. I say this as someone who is profoundly invested in the type of mission that Creative Time operates under. I believe in the power and impact of socially-engaged arts practices and I very much appreciate articles like this for reminding me to keep my game on point.

    Also, this comment made by an earlier reader: ‘Is that a reason to disparage an inspiring event that’s accessible to children and possibly commuters?’ makes absolutely no sense. Literally, zero sense. This is the exact type of reaction to art criticism that keeps things at a standstill. Terminal bitterness? Give me a break.

    • Lady Ann

      Wow! I’m way out of my league. I’m just an artist who enjoys other artists’ works. HeardNY seemed amazingly creative and uplifting to me. Apparently, I’m not smart enough for adequate reactions to art criticism. So be it. I’ll read kinder art blogs.

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