Three artists received the distinction this year of a municipal individual artist grant from Cincinnati: Tim McMichael, Anthony Baysore and Amy Bogard. They're the latest in a long line of artists whom the city has recognized since 1989.
Individual grants are rare, according to Carolyn Gutjhar, Cincinnati's arts grant programs manager. Only one other local organization, Summerfair, consistently awards individual artist grants.
The grant amounts from both sources are each roughly equivalent to an average month's net wages, but the money is entirely intended for project expenses -- it's not a salary. No one is complaining, though.
"Grant money's really great, especially right now," says McMichael. "I've been doing a lot of work, basically with fabrication materials, which are very costly. I do have a couple other jobs. I would love to be able to make art for a living.
"Bartending and construction is what pays the bills. Selling artwork is fantastic, but I certainly don't count on it."
Baysore, who received a grant to create multilayer stencils with spray paint encouraging urban cycling, agrees with McMichael's desire to make art for a living.
"I have a full-time job," Baysore says, "but art for me will be a lifelong pursuit."
A few weeks ago, I wrote that not only has our culture neglected to allow contemporary artists to make a reasonable living making art but that supporting artists isn't even in our collective discourse (see "Supporting Individual Artists," issue of May 24).
The fact that several readers responded critically to my column showed me that people are eager to enter a public discourse. But rather than detailing the many ways we already support artists, such as the city's grant program, much of the criticism took offense at my call for artist support in the first place.
One dissenter offered this bit of rhetoric: "If I like an artist's work, I'll pay for it.
If not, let the artist find somebody else to like it and pay for it. If nobody likes it enough to pay for it, 'Would you like to supersize that?' " In other words, the only art that should exist is art that people will buy. The natural extension is that art will be made solely for wealthy people. Artists making non-sellable works should instead choose a career in fast food, where they can neither afford to make or buy art.
Clearly, many perceive support for artists to be supply-side enabling systems, tantamount to handouts, and that by supporting artists beyond purchasing their (sellable) work we're creating a culture of artistic dependence. As Rick Gray wrote in his letter to the editor: "Forcibly taking the fruits of another's labor so that healthy, able-bodied individuals may express their creative urges is unnecessary" (see "Artists Should Make Their Own Way," issue of May 31).
The subtext: What artists do is "express creative urges." What everyone else does is fruit-bearing labor. Could it be that this assumption -- that artists' work isn't actually work -- is destroying the value we place on their efforts?
Please allow me to try to dispel this myth now. Art is a vocation, not a hobby. Yet those who have chosen a career in art educate themselves in the profession; purchase tools and materials to produce, preserve and display their work; and offer their work gratis to the public eye and consciousness, all at great personal cost both in time and finances.
We not only wish for artists to keep personally financing our enjoyment of art, we also expect them to re-energize areas of town most of us won't venture to.
Artists take risks, moving into depressed, "unusable" areas of the city newly repurposed as studio space. Artists enhance and beautify these areas until it's nice enough for everyone else to come in, then they're pushed farther to the fringes to other depressed areas.
"I think that downtown a lot of artists are trailblazing the way for gentrification," Baysore says. "I think there should be respect paid to artists who are creating the systems."
One thread of city debates over the years has been that arts and culture will revitalize struggling urban areas, ultimately conducting civic miracles. Instead, we need to create infrastructure that supports the arts first.
Following will be artists who wish to take risks. Following will be that revitalization we expect art to bring. It's a ride on a see-saw, but we have to stop forcing artists to make that first push.
Grant recipient Bogard says, "I don't think you can support artists too much. Where there's a burgeoning art scene you have success. In an area where the arts are successful, the city is successful."
Bogard, whose grant will support her creation of a puppet film with artist Bekka Sage, bemoans that artists are leaving cities like Cincinnati to go to the coasts.
"Artists are really the backbone of the culture in our city," she says. "And we need to support that. Cities that support the creative class maintain a vibrancy."
When we cast about for reasons why we can't slow the exodus of Cincinnati residents, when we complain about our broken city government, crime and (erroneously) lack of things to do, we're ignoring the necessity of giving creative individuals positive reasons to stay.
With a newly reported leak in Cincinnati's population, we have great opportunities to infuse this city with new residents. In that population decline puzzle we're all trying to solve, one small piece should be the serious, substantial attraction and retention of artists who could both make art and a living here.
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