I’ve been pondering this for many (40+) years and have yet to figure out how a non-commercial art world can support artists. In the late ’60s some of us in the Art Workers’ Coalition proposed galleries run by and supported by artists or by those chosen by artists or by the entire community. Not just 10th Street or Mercer Street or A.I.R., but something grander, something that would rival the biggest and best commercial galleries, with the money going to artists instead of dealers. It depended on “famous” artists abandoning their dealers and entering into this scheme as equals with their less fortunate colleagues. All art workers would donate one percent (I think) of their annual income, kind of an independence tax. One night, in high spirits at a bar, several rather successful artists agreed to it. The next morning, not. The major sticking point was frankly expressed by Al Held: “I’m not telling the world how much I make.”
Artists’ spaces in the late ’60s and ’70s emerged from a similar though far less ambitious initiative, as did Seth Siegelaub’s and Robert Projansky’s Artists Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement. The real problem, of course, is not the various ways such alternatives might be set up. Since then, a lot of ideas have been tried out, sometimes with relative success, so long as the scale stays small and the administration intimate. The real problem is that “alternatives” can only go so far when surrounded by a capitalist system based on very different values. Artists’ strikes on galleries and museums can be effective “actions,” but scabs are always lining up around the block. Academia is not the answer. Freelancing is not for everyone; living frugally limits but does not exclude the risks of co-optation. The bottom line is that if artists/art workers can’t make at least a modest living there will be little challenging art.
I hate to think that the art world is doomed to remain a playground where anything goes until we exit into the “real” world and have to pay our bills. But I suspect that real revolution (hardly in the forecast), not just “paradigm shift,” is the only thing that would shake everything up enough to create true alternatives. In the meantime, Occupy Everything and see what happens.
LUCY LIPPARD is a New Mexico-based writer, activist, and sometime curator, author of 21 books on contemporary art and related subjects; two more in press.