The Work of the Institution in an Age of Professionalization
The institution is in an age of professionalization, now as always. Imported and internalized narratives of corporate structures inform every level of our organizations, as our nonprofits are non in name only. This non, the definition of which can be stated as “not of the kind of class described,” is itself negated in our forms – our boards, our outcomes, our communities, our committees, our various attempts at sustainability. However, as Ben Davis staked out in the first of his 9.5 Theses: “Class is an issue of fundamental importance for art.”
We are exactly of the kind of class described: profit.
The institutions of art have become antagonistic to the space of art itself. Insert an MFA, perhaps Cooper Union or USC. Insert the museum, perhaps MoMA or better, the Broad. Insert the grant cycle, the fair season, the public education system. Insert our own moments of imagination, in the studio alone listening to ourselves talk, watching ourselves make, wondering if it is worth it. Insert Instagram, where our insecurities stream out, swipe down, and we wonder if we’ve taken an improper path, that ___ has appropriately patterned his steps, that someone is selling, that something is being sold, that at least some people are traveling to Venice, to Miami, to LA, to Mexico City, to Middle America, and that perhaps this is the work itself.
It is a moment of boom><bust, startups and gilt groups, biennial-as-spectacle over biennial-as-organism, biennial-as-flower, biennial-as-root system. It is a time of the accumulation of debt, the privileging of privilege. It is a moment of protest, of outrage. It is a moment where there are more artists than ever and fewer who know what to do next. It is a moment of protest, of outrage, and that perhaps this is the rage we use to propose new ways of articulating our way out.
What is the work of the institution in an age of professionalization? Andrea Fraser locates the roots of the nonprofit within a general distrust of the public sphere, stating in L’1% c’est moi that the private nonprofit model “has its ninteenth-century origins in the same anti-tax and anti-government ideology that led to the current situation: the principle that private initiatives are better suited to fulfill social needs than the public sector and that wealth is mostly productively administered by the wealthy.”
As arts organizers attempt to stake out positions for non-non profits, anti-profits (as in this publication), unprofitable for-profits, and hybrids between each of these, what is the future of the nonprofit, this negated space we’ve put so much stock in to sustain the arts?
Perhaps our institutions, for once, can help lead us, as they are where the bodies of artists meet, where the work of artists often make it to the public, where the public rightfully expects us to show up and show something of value.
We must articulate the forms of an art organization we can live in and with. To re-envision the reasons to continue, to perhaps propose a future for the nonprofit art space in America.
Manifesto for an art organization we can live in and with
I. To critique by building. We must build conscious alternatives to the world as we experience it: sustainable structures that support artists, support ourselves, and model a world we want to see embodied more broadly. An idea is not enough. The structure of our critique must also be a place to live.
II. To embody and enact structures that are sustainable, just, conceptual and diverse in idea, manifestation and act. Many things exist, exhaustingly, so we must propose new forms, as well as adopt and extend old forms that work. There must be an aesthetic and ethical, ideological and material justification to continue. The forms of organization must advance alongside artistic practice, manifesting in as many iterations as art itself as a collaborator and co-conspirator rather than a passive container of inherited ideas.
III. To support artists and organizers in their arc as individuals and practitioners and create a place for many people. Not all will be ‘in-common’ but will create common ground for those involved to flourish. Our organizations must be survivable for founders and organizers, seeing the institution as a collective of individuals with diverse needs and concerns. In an age of precarity, anxiety and over-labor, we must care well in the ways we can.
IV. To hold money as a tool to be used and a horizon to be overcome. The methods of accessing money should be ethical and the uses of money should be to grow the whole structure, to support the needs of artists and of the public, and to care for the individuals within it. As a nonprofit, this articulates a fundamental aspect of the form: for money to be a tool for public good, to take care of those individuals and ideas our society does not. To echo the attempts of for-profits through accumulation, competition, and over-professionalization is to empty the form of its force. It is to fail every level of what we mean when we say the public, who have enough businesses as-is, but too few forms of care.
V. To view art as a start, not the end. Forms of care, shapes of living and platforms of meaning are the end. Art emerges in this arc. Art has no other life than this: to course through communities as a charged object altering our attempts at communicating meaning, one to another, one to many, many to a multitude, a multitude to one.
VI. To understand our place in complex politics, ecologies and communities within and beyond art. The precarity within art does not exempt us from engagement and existence within un-abstracted communities, as neighbors, as citizens, as advocates. We are no longer naive about our role in processes of gentrification, capitalization, and spectacle. Artists may often be both perpetrator and victim, yet we must actively oppose these new social roles.
VII. To consider the intersectional implications of our actions in the Anthropocene, in America, in an evolving present. Injustice has no place within an institution. The new institution, as with the new artist, protests.
VIII. To age well, to sustain or end well. An organization is also a kind of organism and it must not simply last, but live. As it ages, it must either retain an essential vitality through evolution of concept or form or it must end appropriately, supporting others still in its fall.
IX. To create a continuity of history. We aren’t operating to sustain ourselves in a perpetual present: we inherit complex histories, we are a home for a time, and we propose alternate futures. We do not always need to live into the futures we propose: this is the after-life of the institution, embedded in its present.
This text was initially written as an internal working document for The Luminary, a nonprofit arts organization in St. Louis, MO. It was an attempt to propose the value and future arc of the organization for those directly involved in its evolution.
The accompanying graphic was created by US English based on the ideographic language of Blissymbolics.