Tonya Lockyer (Velocity Artistic + Executive Director) originally published this essay in CityArts magazine.
Our image of artists has changed radically throughout history. Today they’re often considered “creative entrepreneurs”—a model some people worry heralds the end of the artist entirely. It doesn’t.
Bach considered himself an artisan, not an artist but a master craftsman. He was a problem-solver, famously commissioned by a count to compose variations to help him fall asleep. The age of the artisan was the age of the patron, with artists as sort of feudal dependents of the wealthy.
But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Western values elevated individualism, rebellion and originality. Romanticism arrived, along with Blake and Beethoven, and the artist as isolated genius entered the Western cultural imagination. This image of the solitary artist, living on a higher plane, possessed by mysterious gifts, perhaps above the decency we expect of mere mortals, is such a powerful cultural force it still informs how we think about artists today.
Throughout the last century, America built an arts infrastructure to harbor these geniuses: symphonies, opera houses, ballet companies. MFA programs sprang up to produce “professionals.” Artists competed for secure tenured professorships. In the heat of the Cold War, the National Endowment of the Arts was founded. What better way to spread the word about America as a pillar of free expression than to fund radical individualism?
While we were investing in this formal infrastructure, another, independent system also emerged. Artists began to create their own organizations and collectives, often focused on sharing resources, mutual advancement and community. They were de-bunking the idea of the artist as solitary and separate from society.
A more collective idea of the artist began to take root in the early 20th century. Around 1913, Duchamp fixed a bicycle wheel to a stool to illuminate how the context of an object, its institutional frame, determined if it was art or not. He later said, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone.” Just as Einstein’s theory of relativity validated the importance of the subjective experience of the observer in science, artists began to validate the importance of the subjective experience of the audience in art.
In 1952, Merce Cunningham took self-expression out of the equation altogether, rolling dice or tossing coins to determine a dance’s content and structure, and the pianist in John Cage’s infamous 4’33” opened the lid and sat listening for four minutes and 33 seconds, inviting the audience to listen to the music of silence. Artists were becoming less interested in how things, sounds, movements, objects represent other things—and more interested in how they act in the world. They wanted to acknowledge and invite the audience into the creative process. And increasingly, they wanted to create real social change.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, Rick Lowe’s “social sculpture” Project Row Houses transformed a long-neglected Houston neighborhood into a visionary public art project. A lasting arts venue and community support center, PRH activates the creativity of communities through constant collaboration with artists, local residents, architects and urban planners. Lowe sees his art as “symbolic and poetic but it also has a practical application.” PRH is both an art project and a nonprofit organization.
Seeing communities and social contexts like PRH as forms of art can be challenging. Artists like Lowe blur our distinctions between artist, curator, producer and entrepreneur. For some, the entrepreneurial artist signals the triumph of market-driven values, a death-blow to protection for artists, a trick to get artists to fix failed social policies. But artists helped manifest this world and it’s part of a decades-long movement to more meaningfully integrate the arts into the fabric of life.
In 2015, thriving artists are more like social entrepreneurs. They’re not only creators of commodities and experience; they’re increasingly providing value in the new economy of ideas, public life, social and community design, and the creative and cultural health of our communities. In business, entrepreneurs minimize risk to maximize reward. Artists dare to maximize risk, to create value.
When artists bring their skills and imaginations into communities, they animate the assets of a place. They remind us of who we are, and what matters to us. They create platforms for us to come together, and learn from each other. They inspire us to imagine new futures and build things in new ways—creating a public good in which we all have a stake.
I was raised in a professional ballet school, studied with Merce Cunningham, worked as an “independent” dance artist for 20 years, acquired an MFA and thought I’d become a tenured professor. Instead, I’m leading one of Seattle’s many artist-founded, artist-led cultural hubs and incubators, Velocity. I am an embodiment of how this history lives in our cultural DNA.
Just as artists in the last century questioned the hierarchy of art above life, we have an opportunity to dismantle hierarchies that can make the arts seem inaccessible and elitist, that segregate the arts by class, race and gender and create a top-down dynamic between organizations and the artists they were created to serve. We have an opportunity to bring together our artistic and entrepreneurial imaginations to more meaningfully weave the arts into the fabric of our city.