Do It Together. The position of the artist in today’s art world. — by Delphine Hesters

Although the professionalization of the arts sector continues to rise, and global budgets for art are also growing, alarm bells warning about the precarious socio-economic position of artists are ringing louder than before.

For several years now, a wide range of important political, economic, demographic and ecological changes seem to have shifted into a higher gear. In the year 2019, they continue to cause confusion. They are putting our achievements to the test, as well as what we used to consider self-evident. So too in the arts. At the heart of the arts sector are the artists, in all their vulnerability, like canaries in a coal mine. In recent years, the tensions to which they are subjected have been driven ever higher. This is evident in the following series of paradoxes concerning the position of artists.

The professionalization of the arts sector continues to rise, and global budgets for art are also growing (in the last decades, subsidies have increased, while both the art market and the music industry are currently boomingSee the study, Putting the Band Back Together: Remastering the World of Music by Citigroup about the state of affairs in the music industry (published in August 2018) and The Art Market 2018, by Clare McAndrews, commissioned for Art Basel and UBS.). Despite this, alarm bells warning about the precarious socio-economic position of artists are ringing louder than before. Although there are more and more organizations focused on supporting artists and their projects – just think of studio initiatives, artist residencies, art labs, workspaces and alternative management bureaus – artists report that they are having to invest more and more of their time and energy in production, networking, administration and coordination. ‘The people working for the institution feel like they do everything for art and the artists. Meanwhile the artist feels like she’s the last one on the ladderSarah Vanhee did this during her speech at The Fantastic Institution symposium at BUDA Arts Centre in 2017..This was how artist Sarah Vanhee poignantly characterized the relationship between artists and art workers, as sometimes carrying a bitter aftertaste. ‘Flexibility’, ‘working to measure with the artist’ and ‘innovation’ are part of the DNA of a large number of arts organizations. Nonetheless, debates within the sector today highlight the need for institutional change, and for art institutions to better connect with the needs of artists.

‘What we need is a second Flemish Wave: one of our institutionsThe Flemish Wave, or Vlaamse Golf, refers to the rise of a group of remarkable innovators in the performing arts in the 1980s, including Jan Lauwers, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus, Jan Fabre, Alain Platel and Josse De Pauw. These makers are still leaving their mark on the performing arts in Flanders and far beyond.. On 25 August 2016, Wouter Hillaert spoke these words to the members of the theatre field in a State of the Union speech whose effect would continue to reverberate for some time. His inspired call for a critical rethinking of the way art institutions function, from the perspective of their position in society and the role that they play for diverse generations of artists, had hearts beating faster. His State of the Union seemed to accelerate a critical conversation already taking place about ‘the institutions’, or art organizations, and the need for transition – a conversation that has been buzzing for some years now, not only in Flanders, but in the broader international contemporary arts network. What in fact had a sobering effect on me in the many discussions following the speech was the contrast between the great sense of urgency felt by those who identified with Hillaert’s criticism, and an inability to comprehend just what the problem was on the parts of many others. This latter group rightly noted that the larger organizations that came under scrutiny in the address have already repeatedly reinvented themselves through the years, and that during all that time, they have continued to support artists and their artistic plans. As a result, a chasm was running through the different circles of what seemed to be cosily chatting sector buddies.

In this pocket publication, I attempt to grasp the positions of the artists and the difficulties they experience with the way the art world functions today, with a specific focus on the performing arts, visual arts and music – the working domain of Flanders Arts Institute. It is inevitable that this is not just about artists as individuals, but also about the state of ‘the sector’, about the system as a whole in a world that is rapidly changing. The story I tell is consequently about the entire sector, but now told from the perspective of the artists. With this text, I want to connect with the disillusionment that I felt in the conversations following Hillaert’s State of the Union speech, setting myself the ambition of helping unravel the lack of understanding on both sides, in order to look to the future with a more shared perspective. Thispocket book gratefully gleans material from the publications, symposia and debates that have taken place in the arts sector in recent years, as well as developed under the umbrella of Flanders Arts Institute, in research and development trajectories concerning the (precarious) position of artists, institutions in transition, and the quest for fair practices.

One important starting principle in all that follows is that those things that go wrong can best be understood as ‘systemic issues’. It is a familiar pitfall to try to reduce problems to specific actions or intentions of individual people or organizations, wanting to make lists of ‘the good ones’ and ‘the bad ones’ in order to correct ‘the bad’. What this is about is the functioning of the system as a whole, about the larger mechanisms in which we all participate, and which no one on their own can simply redirect on the basis of goodwill and hard work.

At Flanders Arts Institute, we refer to the precarious position of the artist as a ‘wicked problem’, a term that helps bring the complexity and the enormity of certain social challenges better into viewFor an explanation of the origins and a definition of the ‘wicked problem’ concept, see www.stonybrook.edu. Where wicked problems are concerned, it can clearly be said that there is in fact a problem, but it is not so easy to indicate exactly what makes up a part of the problem and what does not. Wicked problems consequently have no simple description, and the various parties involved – each looking from their own perspective and sets of values – will disagree about what is at the core of ‘the problem’. It is therefore also impossible to immediately define ‘the solution’, or even be able to say when or how the problem might be resolved. There are different potential answers to different partial questions. Efforts to tackle a single aspect of a tough and highly complex problem can in turn reveal or create new problems.

Understanding this does not have to have a numbing or crippling effect. On the contrary. In System Change: A Practitioner’s Companion (2014), Anna Birney shows us how to best tackle complex problems that require a fundamental switch in the system See also www.forumforthefuture.org/school-of-system-change.. The first step is the diagnosis, in which the system as a whole is untangled as comprehensively as possible in order to successfully chart the relevant questions. Of course, every diagnosis of a wicked problem is just one possible diagnosis. Still, the ambition can entail no less than going as far as possible in order to understand the whole complex knot. This explains the first objective of this pocket book: offering a diagnosis of the position of the artist in the art system of today. Hence, it should also come as no surprise that Part 1 of this text not only concerns the socio-economic position of artists and the challenges of building more sustainable artistic careers, but also touches on such issues as the well-being of the other people working in the arts sector, subsidies and grants, the increasing pressures on organizations, technological disruptions and gender inequality.

A good diagnosis is of course only the beginning. We want to change the world. The second step is to think of possible answers and draw up a strategy. However, it is important to realize that you can never change a complex system as a whole, not even based on a master plan that follows clear steps and switches from System A to System B in a predicted timeframe. What it amounts to is choosing diverse, well-considered, well-directed interventions for specific partial problems. That means working step by step, by way of experiments, through actual practice. Change does not happen by simply applying the familiar recipes. As Einstein supposedly said, ‘We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’ Therefore, strategizing is about more than finding the right technical solution. System change requires changing the way we look at the world and behave within it: a true cultural shift and innovation.

The good news is that this change is already taking place. In practice, in the field today, there are various artists, art workers and organizations involved in developing new working models that strengthen artists, redesigning organizational processes in order to create and shape fairer working relationships. They are forging new connections between activities, resources, people and organizations.

The assignment that Flanders Arts Institute gives itself is to stimulate the development of the field and consequently help facilitate this system change. To do this, we first scan the landscape, in search of ‘weak signals’ and ‘windows of opportunity’ for change, in order to bring these together in a coherent narrative: ‘bringing together disparate parts to demonstrate that change is already happening and that the shift is inevitable’. (Birney, 2014)

On the other hand, we also want to actively stimulate new practices. In the spring of 2017, we established D.I.T. (Do It Together), a development trajectory undertaken together with diverse players in the field to reinforce the position of the artistA detailed explanation of the D.I.T. trajectory and its results can be found at www.kunsten.be.. Within D.I.T., we not only supported several individual initiatives, but also established connections. Building alliances is of course crucial in a system change. The turnaround can only come about if coalitions are formed between the various experiments and smaller initiatives, in order to ‘upscale’ the answers and shift value frames on a wider scale. This way, they expand their influence, and more and more people become engaged.

This pocket book not only aims to give insight into the position of artists today (see the diagnosis below), but also to inspire. Part 2 provides an overview of answers that are already being developed today, in attempts to strengthen artists and evolve towards a more durable and fair future. Will these truly make a difference and bring about broader change? Only the future will tell. What we do know is that it is the doers who are showing the way.

Read the entire publication here.

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