|So in these tough economic times, you want to start an Arts non-profit? Well you have come to the wrong place. Why yes, I am the president of an Arts non-profit corporation, and could answer questions like, why depend on capitalist greed in these tough times when socialist greed might get you to the land of art fame and wealth?
Arts non-profits. . .here come the visions. . .the allure of easy grant money for your group. What does your group do? Oh, it replicates the efforts of a hundred other community organizations. Well, considering that those other organizations are stacked with politically savvy and connected board members, you can just kiss that easy grant money goodbye, okay? Oh, did you know about the executive salaries? You know, six figures coming your way each year for administering everything. Here’s the other side: the job that you can lose in one simple convening of the non-profit’s board of directors. All they have to do is vote you out and you will be relieved of the position in the group you founded. How did that happen? The Board has all the power. A smart executive director makes sure the board of directors consists of puppets. But it is suspicious for a board member to draw a salary. So instead of being the executive director, be the board president and simply make sure that the director funnels part of his or her salary back to you--it is only a six year term in federal prison if you get caught skimming that extra $8,000 a year. . . You can always plead to the judge that you did it all for the art. Of course, there are those geniuses who claim their “group” is a non-profit when it is not. I once blogged about a local “non-profit” that approached our Board of Directors and wanted us to serve as the umbrella organization to receive a possible grant they were applying for. Dudes do not like having their entire gallery rental sham facade outed--see, being in the elite company of an Arts non-profit board of directors can at least get you inside the constant, brutal machinations of power!
Thanks for reminding me about power. Being on the board is an unforgiving task, a labor of. . .well, it isn’t love, it isn’t glory, it isn’t money, oh yeah it is power! Yes, it is a labor of power, to hear some of my bitter neighbors tell it. I am the President of the Brewery Art Association, the group that sponsors the twice-annual Brewery Artwalk. I was at the meeting in 1995 when the Artwalk’s infamous slogan “World’s Largest Art Colony” was hatched. It came about in a discussion over simplicity. A volunteer had made a flier for the event. Yes children, people promoted events before there was an internet and they did it with fliers. Half of the flier consisted of directions to the event. I noted that we were right by the freeway and--taking a page from Pete Ellis Dodge--recited the simple way to find the Brewery: 5 Freeway, Main Street offramp. The way that groups work meant, of course, that people all got to have their say about the directions to the event. I own my own business and when I want to change something on my website, I just change it, I do not sit around and discuss the philosophical underpinnings of the Los Angeles freeway system. But an Arts non-profit was practically invented to entertain a digression such as this. It was passionately pointed out to me that some of our event’s potential attendees might not be able to figure out a simple freeway exit street as indicative of our event’s location. I had to remind the people at this organizing meeting that if someone was too stupid to comprehend the easiest possible directions to the World’s Largest Art Colony right here in Los Angeles, then they were probably too stupid to be art buyers. If it wasn’t my appeal to the wallets of my flier-designing arts cohorts that worked, it might have been that this exchange took place at the top of my lungs. Ah yes, the raw exercise of power as manifested by shouting down people who long to work in groups yet manage to ensure that those groups never function beyond them serving as a sort of social sewing circle.
If you do not work well in groups, you might succeed in the non-profit world if you are able to succinctly analyze and explain group inefficiencies at any given moment. Having a loud voice and not wanting to be popular can also really help. So shouting at the people in a group meeting knowing that you will see them the next day by the mailbox or in the laundry room will help you hold onto power. It won’t help you hold onto any Ramones tee shirts you leave in the dryer in my experience, though. Artists are a funny group of people to work with. They are so generous. Next to being full of shit, artists should be known for being generous. With expectations of 5,000 people attending our event, an artist will invariably come to an event planning meeting and offer to donate something. Is it their time? Nope. Money? HA! They offer to donate the copyright to one of their artworks to be the postcard and print advertising image for our event. How thoughtful. How selfless. How narcissistically obtuse can you be to think we would let one artist be promoted courtesy of the budget created by fees of every artist?
And then there was the time we had agreed on a course of action over some trivial matter for our event and a generous artist appeared at the board meeting. Her concern? That very bit of minutia we had just resolved! Better yet, her solution coincided with ours, so I humored her and told the board we should do what this neighbor was suggesting. They good-naturedly re-voted on the item. And then the artist said the immortal words that sum up the bottomless pit that every Arts non-profit might think they can fill but that no human army could ever hope to even satiate: “If you ever want advice on what to work on,” she told us, “I am happy to volunteer to tell you all that needs to get done. You can always come ask me for advice or my opinion, I am happy to volunteer those to your group.” The old punk band X said that all you got from life was poverty and spit. All an Arts non-profit gets from the artists it serves is the gift of advice packaged as sacrifice.
These generous artists of course are the artists who want to be part of the big hippie commune of the age of Aquarius. There are those artists who will never accept the authority nor the effort actually required of any Arts non-profit. These non-conformist nobility enjoy confrontation because it privileges ego over accomplishment--the story of their lives and artistic pursuits. These artists want to challenge the very existence of our board. They question us in the same manner that I am sure they question their parents when the money for rent, pot and Direct TV is late. Why does an event with artists simply opening their studios need to be sponsored by a non-profit corporation? They stop whining long enough to effectively sneer at this challenge. You try to answer nicely, pointing out that it is mostly for legal and insurance reasons. Real world responsibilities scare a lot of them away, but they will always come back with new things to whine about. They are always going to whine. They will whine about whatever weekend date you select for the event designed to promote the sale of their artwork. They will whine about any fee you attempt to charge in order to pay the insurance and promote the event. They will never volunteer to wake up at 7 A.M. on the day of the event to hang directional banners. You spend a lot of time catering your event to conform to an insurance policy. You study fire codes. You stay late to make sure traffic cones are retrieved. You then hassle with people who think they can open a restaurant in their studios and grill $7 hot dogs for the public. When I was 19, I would have appreciated the veteran artist who would give me free beer at a public event. Now that I am 44 and legally liable for the event I get called “Artwalk Fascist” because I had to lay down the law to the party animal contingent. The designy hobbyists who want to be taken seriously as fine artists complain that there are too many apparel and jewelry sales at the event--except when they can get some sucker who makes shoe lamps to sublease their studio for two hundred bucks a day. Funny how artistic integrity only exists in abstract theory when photorealist portraits of Benjamin Franklin are involved.
When you are overseeing your arts non-profit, you might get some snippy emails like “are your by-laws public? I want to schedule an appointment for your board to go over your constitution with me.” Why yes, let me stop whatever I am doing and allow 12 years of my efforts to be challenged by Mister Stay At Home Dad. But these subversive, negative artists are always welcome compared to those artists who want to use your group to solve all of their problems. People who work with other non-profit corporations will approach you to “partner up” together on a venture--always of course involving them using your event. You don’t get the offer of crashing their exclusive event, never. Other artists will have a neighbor they do not like and want your board of directors to somehow police this person’s behavior. . .in the name of the arts of course. The maddening thing about these people is that they are shocked whenever their presentations to the board are questioned. But worse is when they actually convince a board member or two that artists selling their art at an open studio event is hand-in-hand with fighting global warming, and that the event needs to be taxed by this person’s not-for-profit re-education camp--er, committee. All of a sudden the board is fighting amongst itself, successfully distracted from the goal at hand: Help the artist.
Oh yeah, helping the artist. So why should anyone want to run an Arts non-profit? Well, besides the thankless hours of struggle and the complete lack of financial incentive, I can tell you why I did it. I wanted to be able to tell people where my office was--The Brewery Art Colony--and, because the event we had produced had been so continually successful, any person hearing my answer would immediately be impressed. I didn’t want the quick benefit of my art on the postcard or the benefit of using the event to profit from subleasing my space to lousy artists. I didn’t want to piggyback my efforts on behalf of saving planet earth, nor did I want to challenge the people who also wanted to positively augment the place where we all lived and worked. I was happy to sacrifice for the big picture, the payoff down the road, the vague possibility that it would create something good that couldn’t be simply measured by a bank balance or another line in a job resumé. The nicest moment of each artwalk is walking around on the day of the event and taking pride in a job well done. . .at least until an artist spots me and begins to complain about some perceived slight or inequity that a neighbor artist is benefiting from. And then I am reminded to remind you that an Arts non-profit, like most paths in the art world, is a hard row to hoe. If you are going to be involved in it at all, it had better be something you love unconditionally, because artists will stay awake at night thinking of ways to make you hate helping them.
Mat Gleason was recently featured offering art critiques on the Ovation TV Network series ART OR NOT.