At Art League Houston, Helping Artists Assert Their Value
In the popular imagination, artists are so devoted to their craft that they’re willing to forego money, recognition, shelter, and even food. Think Vincent van Gogh toiling away in obscurity, or Jean-Michel Basquiat squatting in cold-water apartments on the Lower East Side. In reality, of course, most artists want to actually make a living from their work. Helping them figure out how to do that is the purpose of Charge 2016, a three-day symposium presented by Art League Houston at their Montrose headquarters that runs from Friday through Sunday.
The symposium is being organized by ALH’s visual arts director Jennie Ash and Houston artist Carrie Schneider, who were inspired by a similar event they attended in 2014 at the University of California–Berkeley called Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. “It just blew our minds, and we thought that we had to bring something like this to Houston,” Ash said. “The topic of better compensation for artists was something we felt artists were talking about here, but mostly in the privacy of people’s homes.”
Ash and Schneider organized the first Charge event in late 2014. It featured presentations by artists and administrators about the challenges of making art pay, and provided attendees with strategies they could use to assert their value. This year’s conference will be a bit more informal. In addition to standard presentations, it will include a number of interactive workshops and games, including ones modeled on Deal or No Deal and the board game Life. Thanks to grants from the Houston Arts Alliance and the Texas Commission on the Arts, registration for the symposium is only $10.
“Last year was a little serious, but maybe this year we feel a bit more comfortable talking about compensation, so we can be more playful,” Ash said. This year, the organizers also enlisted the participation of the Houston cultural organizations Project Row Houses and the Fe y Justicia Worker Center.
One of the symposium’s goals is to help artists learn how to assert the value of their art in the face of widespread exploitation and marginalization. Although many organizations claim to value art, few are able or willing to adequately compensate artists for their hard work. Even fewer give the artists a real say in how their work is used. “From an artist’s point of view, it’s hard to talk about it, because there’s this fear of missing out on an opportunity, of being deemed a ‘whiny artist,’” Ash explained. “So we wanted to create a place where these voices could be heard. Artists make the world a better place, but so many times it’s like everyone benefits from it but them.”
Artists sometimes fear that if they insist on fair compensation they’ll simply be replaced by an art school grad willing to work for free. Ash calls this “the pyramid scheme of dreams.” “There are thousands of artists coming out of BFA and MFA programs that are willing to do anything for exposure. So if you’re an artist who says, well, I want to be paid, the entity can say, we’re going to find someone who will do it for free.”
To prove that it’s still possible to say ‘No,’ Art League Houston has installed an exhibition in its front gallery, entitled “Non-Participation,” that features actual letters from artists rejecting offers from prestigious organizations. “Artists can come in and see other artists saying ‘No’ to big institutions like the Whitney, or the Donald Judd Foundation,” Ash said. “It’s a very empowering show.”
Charge 2016. $10. January 8–10. Art League Houston, 1953 Montrose Blvd. artleaguehouston.org/charge-2016