How Can The Arts Produce Wealth

How the arts can produce wealth

The arts themselves can produce wealth, if institutions are established and organized to support them, using the value of past intellectual property to underwrite artists and researchers in the present. Lewis Hyde, in the United states, used the art-wealth recycling concept to establish a new non-profit granting agency, the Creative Capital Foundation, in much the same way as Ruth Schaffner created the Gallery Watatu Trust, and Rob Burnett went on to establish the Kuona Trust, to support new entrants into the art market in Kenya. The latter two did it with an astute eye for spotting new talent, intelligent understanding of the international art market and its ecological niches, shrewd investment, creative marketing, and generous support from the socially responsible corporate sector, international granting agencies and international foundations. Hyde’s method was a little different.

Creative Capital Foundation,in the US, makes multi-year commitments to the artists they support, extending and renewing grants wherever possible, as well as providing advisory services and professional assistance. The artists make budgets for their new projects, including fair value for time spent, and get help finding and negotiating with galleries, along with insuring their studios and the contents. Established in 1999, Creative Capital,in the first eight years of its existence, awarded more than $5 million to two hundred and forty two artists’ projects, all from private philanthropy, although they still lack endowment that would make them self sufficient. However, there is a difference in policy from that of the commercial art galleries.

“Potential profitability is not a criterion for funding awards at Creative Capital: as with other art funders, we ask our panels to look for originality,risk-taking, mastery, and so forth: we respond especially to projects that transcend Jahazi Vol.2 Issue 1 14 traditional disciplinary boundaries. That said, the principal of sharing wealth is essential to the Creative Capital model. It makes explicit the assumption that all who have succeeded as artists are indebted to those who came before, and it offers a concrete way for accomplished practitioners to give back to their communities, to assist others in attaining success they themselves have achieved.”

Lewis Hyde, in ‘Afterword’, The Gift, 2006 (1983)

This is essentially what Paa Ya Paa was trying to do since 1965, without understanding what it was doing. Its aim of providing exhibition space for young artists, formally trained or not, with well-publicized gallery openings, well-written, illustrated catalogs, and good sales service, seemed to be working for a time. But, Paa ya Paa was trying to do the impossible, since its aim demanded resources it did not have, even though the artists had established themselves as contributive members of society, whose ‘commodities’ were now being looked for. Then, the art market shrank drastically, as their less-well-paid local counterparts slowly replaced the expatriate university lecturers and the international agency staff, and Paa ya Paa had nobody to blame but itself, because it had not created a new audience, or a market, among the local population as had been done in other aspects of the media. There was sometime ago an article written by Osei G. Kofi in the ‘Daily Nation’ (Friday July 24, 2009)entitled ‘African artists poor as rich cousins refuse to hang money on walls’, that pretty much summed up the attitude, or philosophy of Modern Art that has established itself in East Africa. Perhaps it is time to have another look at the possibilities?

I have just finished re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which deals in anthropological detail with the ‘gift’ economies existing before the emergence of the capitalist market economies. I had read it with not quite the same excited pleasure that I experienced on the first reading some years ago, but, I think with much more appreciative understanding. It is a brilliant piece of work, and thoroughly provocative of thought and refection, and the added ‘Afterword’, since the 1983 edition, adds even more thought to the mix – in other words ‘what are we going to do about it?

’“How, if art is a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market? Modern artists have resolved this dilemma in several different ways, each of which, it seems to me,has two essential features. First, the artist allows himself to step outside the gift economy that is the primary commerce of his art and make some peace with the market. Like the Jew of the Old Testament who has a law of the altar at home and a law of the gate for dealing with strangers, the artist who wishes neither to lose his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which his work is created, but once the work is done he allows himself some contact with the market. And then – the necessary second phase – if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts the market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.”

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, 2007 (1983)

Hyde then goes on to elaborate on how the artists have traditionally done this,and there are three distinct ways in which this can happen. The first is to acquire a patron, who subsidizes their needs while they are being creative, thus keeping the whole process within the gift economy – for as long as the artist can put up with being ‘patronized’. In modern times, however, many, or perhaps most, artists have become their own patrons, by taking a second job, most often as art teachers, freeing themselves from financial responsibility. “He earns a wage in the marketplace and gives it to his art.” But this most often proves to be very costly to the sources of his other ‘gift’, and the creation of their personal work seems to suffer, as I know from long personal experience, until I came to Kenya and discovered a freedom ‘that Europe has long forgotten’ - to quote Jomo Kenyatta. The third way is to take a job, often routine or manual, more or less unrelated to his art that does not conflict with it creatively. In any case, somebody has to enter the market and convert the artist’s gifts to wealth,as the patron once did. In being your own patron, it is difficult for the individual artist to disengage from the creative work on hand, and treat it as a commodity, but this is what has to happen.

“He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value for money, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on his own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to sell his somebody has to enter the market and convert the artist’s gifts to wealth, as the patron once did.In being your own patron, it is difficult for the individual artist to disengage from the creative work on hand, and treat it as a commodity, but this is what has to happen.15 Jahazi Vol.2 Issue 1 art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.”

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, 2007 (1983)

All this is extremely difficult to do, and retain any artistic integrity. The most successful in the market can find an agent to represent them, and thus share the load, although not without some form of creative compromise. The paths for the genuine artist are generally not towards great riches, although he may achieve some degree of material and spiritual comfort. The whole question of how is the artist to survive become seven more acute when he, or she, reaches the springtime of their senility, as Gore Vidal put it, and the fame starts to fickler or even go out. The gift economy does all it can to sustain them – assisted, of course, always by the family ties - but even that finally comes to the point of exhaustion, and the load becomes too heavy and then something else needs to be done. And this is where Hyde’s ‘Afterword’ in the republished ‘The Gift’ becomes currently stimulating and provocative in its re-called motivating assumptions.

“The first is simply that there are categories of human enterprise that are not well organized or supported by market forces. Family life, religious life, public service,pure science, and of course much artistic practice: none of these operates very well when framed simply in terms of exchange value. The second assumption follows: that any community that values these things will find non-market ways to organize them.It will develop gift-exchange institutions dedicated to their support.”

Lewis Hyde, Afterword to the Canon gate edition of The Gift, 2007.

Of course, it should! But it does not happen very easily in these modern times, and it calls for a certain amount of ingenuity and dedicated application to some form of institution-building. Gift-exchange institutions are rare phenomena, and only occur generally as a result of vast fortunes gathered ruthlessly in the market, out of which –for a variety of reasons – the international foundations appear with their very selective‘gifts’, and occasionally things like the US National Endowment for the Arts, from governments – for at least a while. Only the Internet has shown the potential for such developments, with many projects on the web – like the open-source software movement - ‘having the structure and fertility of gift communities’. But as Hyde points out, “If we want our institutions to have the longevity they deserve, then the commercial side of our culture needs to be met with an indigenous counter force, not a foreign one.” So, what are we going to do about it? Hyde recounts the U.S. history of government funding in the arts (and science), at first covertly during the beginning of the Cold War, which began ‘propaganda patronage’ against the Eastern Bloc, and continued later more overtly with the National Endowment for the Arts, only to fade when that purpose was no longer needed in the 1990s. We need to think more seriously about something similar in the way ahead.

How Can The Arts Produce Wealth Twaweza Comunications

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