Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
Before we talk about 21st century art funding models, let’s talk for a moment about 20th century culture jamming. Specifically the Billboard Liberation Front.
If you’re not familiar with the BLF, they were an underground organization established by Burning Man co-founder John Law, who worked with a cadre of Cacophonists (including current Burning Man Education Director Stuart Mangrum) to humorously (and illegally) transform the advertising on billboards into anti-consumerist messages.
You can view their work here (and you should): http://www.billboardliberation.com
John used to not admit his affiliation with the BLF because he was in fact committing crimes that he could be charged with, and any public statements could have been used as evidence against him. But recently he told me that the statute of limitations for those crimes has passed, so the muzzle has come off.
But had he been charged in court, he said, he had an ironic defense prepared: his research has shown that in fact the activities of the BLF did not reduce sales or publicity for the products they turned into subversive, anti-capitalist messages – in fact they increased both those things. The attention their anti-consumerist messages generated also generated attention to the brands which had been hijacked. Far from committing a crime, the BLF – Law said he is prepared to argue – actually added value.
Now I haven’t looked at Law’s data (and I don’t have that kind of time), but we all certainly know that something like this is possible. (If you don’t believe me, read your Adorno.)
John was a little embarrassed by this, but the point isn’t that the uptick in publicity that the BLF’s activities generated undermined its anti-consumerist messaging. On the contrary, these pranks are still too scandalous for companies to accept as part of their branding, and remain inspirational prank-art to this day. It’s that the conflict between the two worldviews that were happening in that moment was a productive conflict: generating more for each side than it could have gotten independently.
Fast forward from the old days of the BLF to last month’s Global Leadership Conference, where Burning Man’s Philosophical Center presented on the issues emerging in the “Art, Money, and the Renaissance” series. Afterwards person after person approached me, saying “I feel like I’ve been waiting for this ever since I became a Burner. I’m a business owner” (or an entrepreneur, or capitalist) “and I know that Burning Man accepts me – Radical Inclusion – but I have no idea how to bring what I do to this community in a helpful, legitimate way. I’m looking for guidance.”
And the truth is that we don’t have definitive answers for that – this is very much a work in progress – but we believe that the first place to look is in the ways that we can make the tension between Burning Man and consumer capitalist values productive, rather than destructive.
The idea for such an approach has been present for some time. In his 2013 essay “Commerce & Community: distilling philosophy from a cup of coffee,” Larry Harvey quotes extensively from an email written by Kansas Regional Contact Zay Thompson, and it’s worth quoting – at length – again here:
“On my community’s Yahoo group, we’ve been talking about the intersection of commerce and community. What is the nature of the relationship between the two? As one person pointed out, it is natural to view people as a resource, as a means to an end, when operating in a system of commerce. I think it’s okay to take this view as long as you can step out of the commercial context and realize that there are other dimensions to people, other values, and other ways of interacting. Commerce is okay if we simultaneously view the world in the context of other values that affect our attitude towards commerce.
Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. When my family plays our annual Thanksgiving soccer game I view the family members on the opposing team as opponents to be defeated. In that context, my classification of them is natural and appropriate. That view is the true nature of our temporary relationship in the context of the game. They are people with the capacity to physically compete with me. Yet, I should always be ready to view my family members in other contexts. If my Dad stumbles and falls, I don’t run over him in my rush to score on his team. My love for him and the value of human life causes me to suspend the game, help him up, and check to see if he’s alright. Likewise, I don’t continue to view my family as mere competition after the game is over. Thus far, I think we’re on the same page with community conditioning competition and vice versa.
So what is the proper relationship between commerce and community? I think that real value of both commerce and community can be simultaneously created from the same event. I think this creation can happen without one value system being used merely as a means to sustain the other. This ideal is possible because commerce and community have peripheral effects that can be translated into value for each other. Think of all the stuff we end up buying to bring out to Black Rock City! All that stuff is purchased for use at the event and then transformed by our relationship to one another.
To return to the soccer game example, playing soccer is fun and strengthens our family ties. But we only have fun if we play by the rules and authentically compete. A peripheral effect of the game’s value system is used to support family value. Likewise, if I want to play soccer, I have to find enough people willing to form teams and compete without killing each other. Our family love and size assures me that I can achieve this. If we start hating each other, then folks will stomp off and the teams will fall apart, meaning the end of the game. In other word, a peripheral effect of our family value system is used to support game value.
And this is not a corrupt or artificial relationship! Producing a competitive soccer game is not the goal of family. Producing family love is not the goal of soccer. Yet, each value system benefits indirectly and peripherally from the other. Neither value system’s end goals are sacrificed, and thus both benefit from each other without corruption. My view is that the relationship must create value in terms of both commerce and community. If there is a communal investment, it must be for communal value. If there is a commercial investment, it must be for commercial value. If there is an investment of both, it must be for value in terms of both.
So, I think one of the major goals in bringing our culture to the default world should be to show society how to simultaneously value commerce and community and not corrupt the two. Let community and commerce do their thing freely and naturally within their own contexts. When they exist in an organic rather than a corrupt or artificial relationship, they’ll naturally benefit each other.”
What could that look like in practice? One Burner out of Nevada has proposed a model. We can’t speak to the soundness of his personal use of it – and as with John Law I haven’t conducted a review of his numbers – but the idea seems like it combines Burning Man’s approach to community with a keen sense of how business works in a way that generates more art, and supports our community, while paying both artists and investors on a new scale.
The central insight of the approach by “Timeless” (Mathew Welter) is that the value of art is enhanced by its presence in our community. That the more a piece of art is seen and engaged with by our community – at Burning Man, at Regionals, and at community and public events – the greater its likely sale value.
Thus Timeless’ system (which he calls Fundiversify – you can read his own description here) creates a model of patronage that emphasizes the civic use of art as an investment tool. This generates value for the art – and larger potential payoffs for the artists – while creating opportunities for art engagement that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
In essence the system works like this: a patron sponsors the creation of an art piece to begin as a playa artifact (in Timeless’ case, a large wooden sculpture), under the condition that it will then be left in the artist’s care for a significant period of time to be used at community and public events. Only after that time can the piece be turned over to the patron, an on-going display stipend negotiated, or sold.
This is as good for the artist as it is for the investor: it allows the artist to showcase their work with the piece itself, not just photographs in a portfolio. It allows the artist more opportunities to get press for themselves and their work. It allows the artist to earn additional revenues from the piece by bringing it to different venues and events. It keeps the work maintained and well looked after because, as Timeless notes, “nobody knows how to take care of these pieces better than the artists who build them.” And it raises the sale price up over time, which gives the artist a better chance of earning large commissions in the future.
“There’s nothing that we own that’s more likely to be worth more in 10 years than our art,” Timeless said – which means that there is a strong hook for people who have the kind of money to invest in art that remains within the community.
One might think at first (I did) that this would end up giving potential patrons too much control over the art creation process – that yes, they would let the art stay in the community for a prolonged period of time, which is great, but that they would demand that the artist design things explicitly to increase their value over time, rather than following their creative inspiration.
However, Timeless says that in his experience, it’s just the opposite: that once an artist starts receiving big commissions to create pieces, the artist is far more financially independent and able to follow their muse for future projects.
“It’s liberated me as an artist to be able to express myself,” Timeless says, recalling that before having this kind of support he funded his first art-installation by remortgaging his home. “I basically use the money from sales to fund my next pieces, and then if I get an investor for them, great, but they’re what I want to do, the impetus is all mine.” Once he has a history of selling pieces for a noticeable profit, investors will want a piece of what he’s going to do, and he can tell anyone who wants to push him in another direction that they can keep their money. He can even go it alone if he wants to, which is the ultimate freedom.
In essence, it creates a virtuous cycle: The value that initially attracts the investor/patron is produced by our culture and its community, and the act of supporting our culture and community creates other kinds of value – relationships that can be formed, connections that can be made, and perhaps even the commissioning of art for the community’s sake rather than just as an investment.
If this works, it could be a whole new approach to financial independence for big artists – and I also wonder if it couldn’t be taken even further. Timeless began his experiment with a more conventional patron – a single person looking for an art piece that would be worth more money than he put into it over time. But if Fundiversify works, why couldn’t it be opened to groups of smaller investors?
Most of us can’t afford to cover the cost of a large-scale playa art piece. But if an artist whose work is known to the community were to put out a call for investors along the terms Fundiversify offers – “I am planning to build a piece like this, and will commit to sharing it with the community for a period of years before selling it, and you will get a share of the profits based on your investment” – why couldn’t smaller investors join in to a kind of mutual fund, receiving their share of the proceeds when the piece finally sells?
This seems to me like a win-win: it is a way Burners can directly support artists to bring art to our community, and a way artists can get more money to do what they want to do without having to worry about a single investor making demands that impinge on their creative process. If it works at least as often as not, it also expands the pool of potential supporters for Burning Man style big art.
This has the added advantage of creating more of a community around each new piece of art – it’s a way for more people to get involved and develop a relationship with artists, which is at the heart of the kind of matronage we want to develop.
Once again, a virtuous cycle.
Timeless is also hoping to expand and attract advisers to Fundiversify by developing an administrative body to help support future projects – to attract investors, help with transportation costs, maintain and housing equipment and supplies, and even volunteer help for set-up. But while we’ll hope for its success, his doesn’t have to be the only one. Others could set such bodies up regionally, or anywhere artists congregate. Timeless explicitly considers this a system that should be open to anyone who wants to engage with it. “I’m hoping everybody can benefit,” he said.
Fundiversify doesn’t represent a whole new way to think about arts and arts funding. But it does recognize that many of Burning Man arts’ organic virtues – its emphasis on community and community-based art – are also valuable in ways that we haven’t leveraged yet, and can support virtuous cycles that generate more art for our community, more revenue for artists, and more ways for people to establish relationship with art and artists: relationships that may end up being just as important as any other component.
The Fundiversify model is one that should be experimented with by different communities, and if it works should definitely be an arrow in our quiver to reinvent the art funding process for the 21st century.
Nor should we forget the fundamental premise: that the tension between our culture and the world of consumption can be productive. The case of the Billboard Liberation Front shows us that this may very well happen whether we design it – or like it. Systems like Fundiversify, which recognize that our community, if its needs are taken seriously, adds value, are an attempt to make that work for us.