What’s the point of direct funding to artists?

January 16, 2012

Diane Ragsdale has a fascinating article about the value of direct subsidies to artists.  Although it’s about the American context, the points she makes are equally relevant in Europe.  She references Hans Abbing’s book Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts in which he makes these points about why the poverty of artists is structural


  1. The social construction of ‘art’as something holy, a notion which is contradictory to the notion of commerce and monetary exchange. He writes: “Although the arts earn approximately half of their income in the market, the arts can only maintain their sacred status when people associate the arts with the values of the gift sphere rather than the market sphere.”
  2. While artists do care about money, they tend to care more (than other professionals) about rewards such as personal satisfaction, recognition, and status. He says that most artists have been socialized to this preference and that it is ‘hardly a virtue’. As a manifestation of these preferences, he says that (for example) most artists will work their day jobs only long enough to earn sufficient income to go back to creating artistic work.
  3. Given that artists tend to exchange money for rewards such as personal satisfaction, direct subsidies do not lead to higher incomes for artists. Instead, they may simply provide incentives to more people to become artists, thereby increasing competition, and making it more difficult for any to make a living. As Abbing writes, “Subsidization increases the number of poor artists per hundred thousand inhabitants and thus increases poverty.”
Diane finishes this really interesting post by concluding
And it perhaps goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) subsidies (grants, gifts, or other forms of support) may not only lead to an  increase in the number of people who want to be artists but also the number people who want to form arts organizations.
There’s so much that’s interesting here in terms of arts and cultural policy and many questions to be asked (and answered).  I may take up some of these issues with cultural policy students in UCD next week when I meet them to discuss ‘unmentionables’ in the arts.

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