Interstitial artspace: thriving in hostile environments

The following essay by Thomas Vannatter is part of “Beyond Survival: Public Support for the Arts and Humanities,” a call for reflections on and provocation about the precarious state of arts funding after decades of neoliberal economics and the long culture wars.

We are living in interesting times, as the curse goes. With the near constant saber-rattling of economic austerity programs to remove public safety nets and support for the arts on one side, and arts and cultural organizations being tasked to solve social problems across the spectrum on the other, the arts have ended up in quite a strange predicament.

Recently, arts and cultural organizations have increasingly become an incredible social forum and catalyst for addressing inequality, injustice, and institutionalized violence. Exhibitions have become the “language of the unheard” and any missteps by cultural organizations come under almost instantaneous scrutiny, from the Dana Schutz controversy and the Walker’s removal of Sam Durant’s Scaffold to, more recently, artists pulling their work from an exhibition of protest art at the Design Museum in London. These and other controversies have been like seed crystals that spur conversations that desperately need a public forum.

At the heart of all of this is a conflict between arts organizations needing financial support to keep the lights on, and the cultural necessity of prioritizing timely exhibitions with social and political impact. This conflict has a very tangible chilling effect—and we need only look to the firing of three very high-profile woman curators this year due to what can be boiled down to sociopolitical differences of opinion to understand its consequences.

The response at the level of programming has been to balance a politically charged exhibition like the 2018 New Museum Triennial with an exhibition that essentially acts as a high-priced Instagram backdrop. The new blockbuster in the main hall helps to pay for the political dissidents in the gallery upstairs. It is nothing new, but it strikes of insincerity.

We are looking for models that allow cultural organizations to survive, but it seems any one solution by itself upends the cart. Lean in to the patron model and you get zombie formalism; rely too heavily on earned revenue and you have to keep producing blockbuster shows. Many organizations walk that thin line, and some are treading new ground. Meow Wolf operates more like a tech startup than a typical arts organization. With seed money from the likes of George R. R. Martin, they operate as a for-profit organization and are in near-constant production. Crowdfunding can work if it is scaled sufficiently and there is a dedicated audience. For instance, Minnesota leads the country in per-capita arts spending because they allocate 19 percent of sales tax to art and environmental projects statewide.

Partnering with social justice, public health, and environmental groups opens up new areas of funding generally restricted to the sciences and human services, and cultural organizations have begun to insert themselves into the organizational structures of power through residencies in government and manufacturing. Organizations like Philly Mural Arts are working to combat the opioid epidemic, art is being used to help police understand institutionalized racism, address housing instability, and combat gentrification in rapidly changing neighborhoods.

There is no magic bullet, but a balanced hybrid model of increased local government support and strategic cross-sector partnerships can help create a more responsive arts ecosystem.

Thomas Vannatter is the program coordinator at the Northeastern Center for the Arts in Boston. He has a background in visual arts that led to an internship at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, which opened the door to his career in arts administration and his drive to help provide the necessary structures to support working artists.

The next response in the Models and Case Studies chapter is “Self-Directed: A Crash Course in Opening (and Closing) a Gallery” by Nancy Zastudil.