A Blade of Grass is a co-presenter of Open Engagement and active in framing the discussion around the role of artists in everyday life and the sustainability of socially engaged art. Here, ABOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher considers the way socially engaged artists articulate a value proposition within their own projects, and how this might inform how this emerging field is supported. Originally published by Temporary Art Review.
The Value Proposition for Socially Engaged Art
Value proposition: a promise of value to be delivered by the seller, and a belief from the buyer that value will be delivered and experienced.
This is an entrepreneurial term that art tends to avoid. A good business plan is anchored by the clear, believable articulation of a value proposition by the entrepreneur. Artists, on the other hand, tend not to perceive themselves as being in control of their value proposition. Art tends to accrue value more passively, by accumulating sufficient market, institutional and curatorial attention.
It’s interesting that socially engaged art projects of the type A Blade of Grass supports—that are partnering directly with communities to enact a specific social change at an ambitious scale—require artists to think through their value proposition, first within the context and micro-economy of their own projects. When a project claims to serve a specific community and is depending on cooperation for both aesthetic and practical outcomes, artists do need to figure out why people would want to invest their time and energy as participants; whether the community wants an artistic intervention; and what compelling need or desire the project is responding to. Time, interest, and energy are usually the resources being exchanged instead of money, but these are straightforward value proposition questions.
For many artists working to enact social change, declaring the value of the project opens new resources and paths to economic sustainability. Many artists are transforming projects into nonprofits; creating projects that act as resources for other artists; getting funding from foundations with a social justice agenda who are more interested in their work as activism and communication; creating more and less sustainable businesses; crowd-funding projects*; thinking through the nuances of corporate sponsorship; and in lots of idiosyncratic ways embedding themselves in more or less supportive and visible contexts through partnerships, jobs, and informal residencies.
“Is our work art? It depends. What kind of grant are we applying for?”
–The Yes Men, at a panel discussion hosted by Vera List Center for Art and Politics
While none of these examples of new resource streams is generating vast wealth, it’s true that each of these examples expands what’s possible, and depends on the artists leveraging their own value proposition instead of waiting for the art world to notice them. This re-positioning of the artist as the one who declares the value proposition is a key source of inspiration here at ABOG HQ. We want to know how much we can re-think how art is supported when artists are actively declaring their own value proposition. Is the role of the arts organization to protect art from having to articulate a value proposition, or is it to partner with artists and leverage each project’s value proposition in an effort to make a bigger shift away from the market and traditional arts philanthropy, which are both serving an increasingly small, white, wealthy audience? Is it possible, or necessary, to do a little bit of both?
*This is problematic.
>>Deborah Fisher, Executive Director of A Blade of Grass