The following essay 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.
In my eight years of working in the arts as a curator and administrator, I have often debated whether to just leave the field. While still in the early stages of my career, I am frustrated by the lack of genuine change taking place in the art world, especially in comparison to the grassroots movements occurring throughout the country.
Perhaps federal and state funding for the arts and humanities is always threatened because institutions have not proved that the arts can make a difference in communities. Art has a significant role to play in addressing universal problems like affordable housing, climate change, and mental illness. But art that engages with these types of issues is not seen in the United States outside of a few major cities that really cultivate the culture.
In both Canada and the United Kingdom, the arts—thought to have a major impact on all parts of a person’s life—are largely subsidized by federal funding. Canada’s federal granting agency, the Canada Council for the Arts, recently changed its grant programs to emphasize engaging and sustaining communities as well as highlighting Indigenous cultures. The Canada Council recognizes that Canadian art has entered a new era and wants to support the impact of the arts for all Canadians.
Perhaps art would be more robustly supported by the public if it were more relevant to their lives, but this cannot occur until art and art organizations alike reflect the communities from which they arise. Major galleries and museums still, by and large, exhibit the art of white, educated men, curated by white, educated men. All art organizations need to hire diverse staff, especially in higher management positions, and recruit diverse board members and donors. By hiring applicants of color, disabled applicants, and those of all gender identities, new points of view will be provided and should be followed.
Imagine if major art museums stopped showing art for a year, and instead, the exhibition budget were used to create programs in community centers, libraries, homeless shelters, and religious institutions. By working with these non-art institutions, museums could have access to non-artistic funding by collaborating and cowriting grants. Instead of participating in the capitalist artist market, institutions can support a public, who might not appreciate or fully support art, understand how art is everywhere and can affect lives.
There are hundreds of examples of artists and organizations that have already impacted diverse and vulnerable communities through artistic practices. Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz designed inflatable shelters that would use exterior vents of a building’s heating system for his ongoing project known as paraSITE. The Toronto-based Starving Artist Collective created The Artist Soup Kitchen, where each week different artists were invited to cook a free hot lunch for other artists and the general public. Project Row Houses is an organization that enriches Houston’s Third Ward by offering affordable housing, artist studios, and incubator grants. Use these examples to help expand what organizations deem to be art, vary grant opportunities, and work to solve larger societal problems.
Regan Shrumm is an independent curator and writer who currently works at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Her curatorial work has focused mainly on cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of underrepresented communities.