As a producer of events around art and culture, I am aware of many complaints from artists (including musicians, writers, visual artists, etc.). They’re a complaint-prone species (and it’s definitely grumpy musician season), but they’re rarely wrong about how serious things are.
Artists usually differ on the source of their distress. Musicians have it tough in Columbus for many reasons. Visual artists struggle for reasons that are different from those of musicians, which are, in turn, different from the reasons that writers struggle. Don’t even get me started on theater people; they are in a class of their own when it comes to working-class recriminations. And, to be fair, it’s hard everywhere. If most of the performers in a given scene were successful, they would be swarmed by equally hitched performers from other cities overnight, blowing the curve.
The reason for these constant struggles can largely be attributed to the feet of a large, amorphous entity, something I have referred to for several years now as the Arts Industrial Complex.
The arts industrial complex is a network of entities (organizations, institutions, platforms, and people) that control and direct arts and culture in a given location with the primary purpose of supporting a profit economy. If this definition seems harmful, it is because it is.
There has been a similar framing of the type of system I am describing. A form specific to the visual arts has been called the “museum industrial complex” and the “gallery industrial complex”, but both refer specifically to the creation, value and market of the visual arts. What I define is much broader than that at both ends. One end – let’s call it the input end – encompasses not only the visual arts, but also music, literature, theater and artistic disciplines (non-creative; artistic – more on that distinction in a moment). On the output side is gain, or profit. This is what all art becomes, what it generates, what it sustains.
Everything between those two points is part of the industry, and that’s where the sausage of your local art scene is made. This is where the problems that most artists experience live.
The entrance looks quite innocent. Art goes from art, so there are always people ready to take on an opportunity that seems reasonable: to apply for this grant; sit on this board; paint this mural; take this commission. These are largely civic exchanges, or opportunities offered by official organizations and platforms that are essentially the city in drag. The problem with the industrial arts complex is that it is not exclusively civic. Like many socio-economic systems, it is supported equally by those who want access to it and those who control it. So every gallery that looks like an outsider or independent operator is not. For every truly independent outlet, like the William H. Thomas Gallery, there are 10 other art spaces that spend most of their time trying to get the city or state to support their efforts and then to dealing with art and artists who will facilitate this. process and this process only. More often than not, an artist who encounters a gallery, concert hall, or residency does so because that entity is committed to the goals and values of the arts industrial complex, not the art and the artists.
There is a lot of creative biological determinism applied to Columbus artists, mostly centered around their work ethic: “Columbus artists are lazy” or “Columbus artists have no ambition”. If you’re outside of an art scene like ours – active, busy, heralded within an inch of its life – these statements might sound strange. Yet if you ask 10 local artists about the state of their respective scenes, no less than half of them will share a similar sentiment. Is it true? Not really, but why such impressions exist is important. Columbus is a small pond when it comes to artistic opportunities. We have many artists in many disciplines. What we don’t have are plenty of ways for them to learn, hone, build, perform, and succeed in their craft. Artists have almost no chance of sustaining their profession in local circles. They have very few places to learn and hone their skills. There are less than a handful of places that offer publicly accessible, hands-on resources for artists. This is largely the fault of the arts industrial complex and the organizations and businesses that wish to align themselves with it.
Despite its name, the purpose of the Arts Industrial Complex is not to generate or preserve art; it’s about using art to promote the city to potential consumers and transplants. That’s why you can’t miss artists of color on every ad, annual report, or billboard, but you can’t find them performing on any given weekend. There are always exceptions, of course, but nothing quite like the sense of status quo that the city presents for tourism and fundraising purposes. I once attended a meeting where the purpose was to review a federal funding proposal that basically wanted to spice up the application with cultural elements and ideas to make the city more connected. (Ideas, mind you, that its recipients never intended to implement.)
The overwhelming wave of development that overtook Columbus crushed more culture than it could ever create. It killed small independent businesses; gentrified into artsy neighborhoods that later turned around when the money got good; praised learning to circumvent affordable housing demands in new mixed-use construction; and swelled the incoming local population to the tune of 10,000 new residents per year. Somewhere in there, a bar threw a karaoke night and called it culture.
The arts industrial complex isn’t made to stop that. It exists to support it. The Arts Industrial Complex is the commercial arm of the city. If it achieves a useful level of support for real art by real artists, that’s an added bonus. But the goal is to claim as many cheap art builds as possible with the intention of bringing them to market later.
We know that art is not the business of the arts industrial complex because, although it generates billions of dollars in various sectors under the label of creative industries, almost none of this money revolves around the arts themselves. In what is known as the Columbus area, the creative industries generated a total economic output of over $12 billion. Once you remove ad agencies, design houses, software designers and TV broadcasters from the mix – you know, the “creatives” – somewhere down the list is the arts we know and pretend to love. And while the arts are not responsible for $1 billion in economic output in the Columbus area, the amount spent on hiring, building spaces, and engaging art as a commodity is always important. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet the people who create such works – musicians, writers, sculptors, dancers, actors – are offered pennies on the dollar under the banner of opportunity. Opportunities, mind you, in which artists are required to brand their platforms while their likenesses are used endlessly for purposes unrelated to art (such as when the image of a artist painting a Black Lives Matter mural was used to advertise real estate).
The average amount of a local grant awarded to an artist is approximately what an artist could earn if they sold a decent painting, or played two to three concerts, or sold 50 books of poetry. The industrial arts complex makes a living claiming to be the key to cultural sustainability, but it’s really a killing floor where artists are herded, their art censored, then refrigerated for public consumption, all for a few pennies. Well, pennies to artists. That’s millions of dollars for the CEOs, programmers, and institutions that keep all this culture that we keep saying Columbus doesn’t have.
Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Ohio State Parks partners with the Ohio Arts Council for a year camaraderie (a fancy way of saying “work”) that will require an extremely creative and hardworking person to “create emerging Art in Parks programming, providing new ways for people to enjoy Ohio’s 75 state parks.” They want the Fellow to provide artistic programming (live performances, exhibitions, festivals) that utilizes professional and diverse artists and organizations and that can be replicated statewide. They want someone to do this huge amount of work for 20 hours a week at the rate of $20-24.50 an hour. It’s a part-time job, and at $26,000 a year before taxes, it’s a cheap part-time job.
Conclusion: The arts industrial complex manifests itself in many ways and intersects with urban life beyond the arts. This treaty, it is me who gives you the definition of it so that when you see it in action, you will know what to call it.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts association Streetlight Guild.