Back in March when the pandemic erupted in New York City, I was working on a 45-minute showing of my current work BABYLIFT, which was supposed to open at the end of the month. I did not think the show was going to happen. Having flown back from Vietnam in January as Asia was already fighting the COVID-19 outbreak, I was baffled at how most people here were so nonchalant about the virus. Anyway, I remained in conversation with the production staff to see if there was anything we could do. March 12, I started coughing and came down with a fever.
The same day, Broadway theaters shut down. Other performance venues soon followed suit, before New York State issued a stay-at-home order on March 22. The rest of the Spring season was officially canceled. All of my artist friends became unemployed, partially or completely. The fate of our promised payments and commissioning fees was unclear; we didn’t know if we would even receive our grant money since we couldn’t produce anything within the fiscal timeline. Unemployment tried to include us freelancers for the first time, but no one knew how it worked, or would it even work. So there we were, the first ones left to drown when a crisis surfaced—the artists.
Nonetheless, I managed to stay afloat. Because I am an emerging artist, most of my income comes not from making and performing my work. At the time, I still received a weekly check from my above-minimum-wage marketing internship at BAM (Brooklyn Academy Music). No one knew how long the gig would last, but to keep the money coming in, I worked remotely as much as I can while being sick from what seemed like COVID-19.
Beginning of April, there was the news that MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) laid off all of its freelance educators, following/setting a precedent that is both predictable and upsetting. “[I]t will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services,” the museum said in an internal email. As the pandemic unfolded, it was clear that the two most important workers in the field—the artist and the educator—are simultaneously the most disposable parts of the art institution.
Isn’t the field supposed to be called the arts?
Artists and arts educators, at the bottom of the economic ladder, became a cushion absorbing the shock of the pandemic to the fullest extent, before the pressure could percolate upward. Eventually, the administrators had to take a hit. Mid-April, BAM sent out a press release to the New York Times announcing that its president and executives were taking a voluntary pay cut (30-40%) for a few months until August. Several days later, most of my BAM colleagues, including myself, were laid off or furloughed; the few who remained worked reduced hours. There were no press releases for us, unfortunately.
To defund arts administration is to fundamentally reimagine and rebuild a field where the little money we have in the arts can go directly to artists and educators. With the current economic structure, if we were the first ones to bear the impact of the pandemic, we will certainly be the last ones to benefit from any stimulus packages as the economy enters future phases of reopening and recovery. Any loans, fundings, or donations secured by the institution will be filtered through the salaries of the Executive Director, the Artistic Director, the Curator, the Development Director, the Communications Manager, etc. These are the people ensuring the sustainability of an institution within a capitalist system that is ultimately unsustainable.
I borrow this rhetoric from the current call to defund the police across the US, which is not just a matter of cutting and redistributing funding from a power structure that violently upholds capitalism and white supremacy. The movement also provides a concrete opportunity to radically imagine alternative social and economic structures that render the police obsolete. This mode of thinking—the world doesn’t have to be what it is—need to be brought into every pocket of life that we traverse.
I wouldn’t say arts administration to the arts is the equivalent of the police to the society, per se. Nonetheless, arts administration is similarly a business of capitalism, and consequently, a gatekeeper of whiteness—it is no coincidence that the people in administrative positions of power are predominantly white gays and white women. In that sense, any Black Lives Matter statements issued by organizations cannot be taken seriously if there are no efforts to transform, if not dismantle their own institutional structures.
It is difficult to imagine what alternative systems are possible when capitalism is the de facto mode of production in the larger society. Art institutions function as corporates, while artists are essentially entrepreneurs embarking on one precarious project after another. Of course, doing business requires administration. And administration only leads to more administration—emails lead to more emails, meetings lead to more meetings, budgeting leads to accounting, grant writing leads to grant reporting.
I often fantasize about how downtown New York artists in the 60s could just “do it”—having their own lofts in SoHo as incubators for radical artistic experiments, which were often funded by wealthy patrons. Perhaps, it’s only a fantasy. History does have that mythical aura to it, as the patronage system was probably fucked up too. But this historical daydreaming reminds me that alternative structures are possible. There must be a society where artists can focus on making and creating, rather than on running a successful art business.
Thus, the purpose of defunding arts administration is not only to abolish the middle men through whom money is filtered before reaching art workers, but to also transform what it means to be an artist. Artists should not spend most of our time in front of the laptops, instead of being in the studio or whatever artistic incubator space. If I were to make decisions, grant writing would be the first to go, as well as the economic structure revolving around it—foundations, agencies, and grant panels. Too much administrative labor goes into this pseudo-merit-based system, which forces artists to quantify and qualify their works in legible and oppressive modes of language. Instead, I would experiment with more informal structures of curation and presentation that are not contingent on the professionalization of the administrator/curator, but arose within the artistic ecology itself.
There are no comprehensive answers to this problem of arts administration, and frankly, I am not paid to come up with specific solutions. But we all have the responsibility to imagine and enact alternative systems through small experiments at a local level. As a field defined by an extreme condition of lack, the arts is instrumental to the project of capitalism, creatively explore new forms of economic precarity and labor exploitation that can inform the larger society. Being at the forefront of capitalism also means we have the opportunity to dream up something else altogether, to build communes where art workers take control of the means of production are currently in the hands of the executives and the administrators.