Thursday, April 24, 2014

Valuing Labor in the Arts: Todd Gilens

On April 19, 2014, the Arts Research Center hosted Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum. This daylong event included a series of artist-led workshops that developed exercises, prompts, or actions that engage questions of art, labor, and economics. We have asked participants to send us their reflections on keywords, puzzles, or recurring themes that came up throughout the day. This post is by Todd Gilens, a project- and place-based visual artist working from commissions as well as initiating his own projects. Recent work has involved the San Francisco MTA, the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, the Stockholm Resilience Center and, through fall 2014, a private building fa├žade at 1286 Sanchez St. in San Francisco. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Thank you for a delightful and energizing conference; the positive effects of considering common difficulties in community should not be underestimated, and I wonder how to translate some of the exercises into accessible, ongoing form. Where could I find a dozen practitioners to reflect together on professional dilemmas? How often, in a year, in a career, would such a gathering be useful? Who are my ideal respondents?

The conference I experienced focused on ‘labor’ as time, pushing to the background other aspects of value-creation, such as skill, demand and distribution, all fundamental pieces of professional leverage. Likewise excursions into other professional models might have yielded both insights and new parameters of community, for example how architecture, graphic and game design offices bill for services, or non-profit systems in the conservation community, or the teaching professions; or how real estate developers, in their highly speculative, capital intensive activity, manage risk and investment.

A take on ‘patronage’ is described in Lewis Hyde’s excellent “Created Commons”, an essay which you may know already. His example is Thoreau and the kinds of support, none of it monetary, that he received during his short career. He suggests a model of monetization in creative work as a common pool resource.

Another thing that came to my mind is/was a performing arts initiative I worked under in the late 80’s called the Performing Arts Network. This was a system to book performers into small theaters around the US. Performers and crews fees were set to a ‘fair’ standard and some of the admin work was done by PAN, leveraging tasks and infrastructure that were appropriate at different scales. I suspect this program is no longer operating; even so, it would be interesting to know what influence it had on compensation in a wider scope.

It was exciting and empowering to go through your workshop together, and as a group of artist-persons (I am assuming we were mostly that), we collectively encourage each other. But my sense is that that experience will have little impact, and perhaps little practicality too, without being set in context of the rest of the system.

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