‘Giving it Away’
by Cindy Stockton Moore
I am one of six members of Grizzly Grizzly, a small artist-run collective with an even smaller gallery space on the second floor of the 319 Building in Philadelphia. All of us are practicing artists, but we function as a curatorial collective for the purpose of the gallery. As a rule, we do not show our own work in the self-funded space. When explaining the mission, I am inevitably stopped, “wait, then what’s in it for you?” My rote answer is simple: I help bring shows that I want to see to Philadelphia. But the actual answer is complex, partially because it challenges ideas of value and partially because it requires faith in collective reciprocity.
Recently, there has been backlash against the exploitation of artists in The New York Times, including a convincing essay aimed at young practitioners to stop “giving it away.” (1) For me, the arguments have particular resonance against the backdrop of CITYWIDE, a collection of over 25 artist groups, whose members not only work for free but often pay for the right to do so. The underlying sentiment is that working gratis makes one an amateur or–even worse—a dilettante. Looking at the collection of professionals behind CITYWIDE, I see something remarkably different. Coming together to develop a month-long series of exhibitions and events, over one hundred and fifty artists, curators, and writers have worked together as an eclectic whole.
Most of us get paid for services similar to those we give away to initiatives like this. In our paid-professional lives, we receive money for web design, accounting, photography, marketing, or gallery administration. In our daily lives, we work within the market to generate the income needed to pursue our external goals. When I look at CITYWIDE, I don’t see a massive web of self-exploitation. I see a system of people working outside of the capitalist system to create value, not to make money. While I am not getting paid for the hours I put into this project, I am banking social capital. In my immediate circle, that time creates what sociologists would call ‘bonding capital.’(2) It builds a peer support system and offers insight into my otherwise-solitary studio practice. Even more valuable is the ‘bridging capital’ of projects like CITYWIDE that takes me outside of established circles of friends, coworkers or former classmates. By necessity I work with a larger group of people dedicated to pursuits that run parallel to mine. I learn more, and—to use Matthews Higgs’ succinct phrasing—I meet more “interesting people doing interesting things.”(3)
Although the goals are lofty, my day-to-day experience working within collectives is not utopian. Inequitable divisions of labor and interpersonal politics can (and do) temporarily sour working relationships. We are all giving away precious time. That time could have been spent in the studio; it could have been spent with our families. Those sacrifices can breed tension if left unchecked.
Since the results of our labors are not quantified in market capital, they are difficult to tally and easy to doubt. They rely on a spirit of reciprocity, which promotes and requires trust. Working collectively is a precarious balance that is, in the end, faith-based. I believe in what we are doing, and so I volunteer my human capital to make it happen. I think of this as a philanthropic gesture; its sentiment is echoed throughout CITYWIDE. Despite the variety in approach and outcome, all of the participating groups are filling what they consider to be a cultural gap. For example, member organizations like NAPOLEON, Tiger Strikes Asteroid and Vox Populi offer project spaces where artists can experiment outside of a commercial gallery model. Traction Company and Fjord combine the physical need for shared workspace with a similar exhibition program. Marginal Utility, Grizzly Grizzly, and Little Berlin function as curatorial collectives. PRACTICE provides a home for non-object based work, while Title Magazine and The St. Claire bring much-needed critical perspective to the scene. Termite TV and OOF Animation Collective highlight their chosen media through screenings and community projects. Each of our distinct groups fulfills a specific mission; collectively, we enrich Philadelphia’s cultural life.
Like any philanthropic gesture, there are more and less worthy causes. I do not donate artwork to anyone who asks; I do not provide my services for free to someone who will in turn make money from those efforts. I agree that artists deserve to be paid for their services, and I see that our contributions are often overlooked or trivialized within the economic discourse. But I equally believe that imposing the tenets of a capitalist system is not the only solution to these concerns.
Outside of funding projects and providing exhibition space, there are real human issues that artist-run initiatives (like Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota or Transformazium in Western Pennsylvania) are tackling nationwide: providing low-cost health care, creating alternative financial structures, offering emergency relief, and revitalizing neighborhoods from within. Artists are an integral part of the economy, but we also function within a different system that Lewis Hyde terms a ‘gift economy.’ A gift economy is not about direct reciprocity. It relies on the fact that some forms of capital are not depleted when shared; they are multiplied. I can’t measure what I’ll take away from a project like CITYWIDE, but I know it will be more than I’ve put in.
Cindy Stockton Moore is a Philadelphia based artist, writer, and member of Grizzly Grizzly. She is currently working on paintings for ‘Other Absences,’ an installation for Eastern State Penitentiary opening this Spring.
(2) See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community (2000) or Better Together (2003).
(3) Higgs used this phrasing while discussing his role at White Columns during the Navigating CITYWIDE Panel (November 13, 2013). His ideas of moving work from “the local to the regional to the national to the international” reflect one of the outcomes of ‘bridging’ social capital.