Why is an Arts and Culture Organization Interested in Economic Work?

image courtesy of Canva

AmbitioUS is an initiative of the Center for Cultural Innovation to act as an experimental arm of the artist-support sector. Throughout the initiative, Angie Kim, President and CEO, will share her observations and reflections related to this cross-sector, experimental, and systems level work.

When it comes to Center for Cultural Innovation’s AmbitioUS initiative, I am often asked why an arts organization is involved in economic issues. My responses often vary because there is not a single, simple answer. The most common responses I share is that: Systems of support for artists are broken in this country; people face too many hurdles to pursue a creative life; that the commodification of arts economies in film, media, literature, visual art, music, and so forth exploits and undercapitalizes artists’ labor in favor of fetishizing their final product (i.e., the objet d’art); and America’s established understanding of our collective cultural identity centers on Western European classics and its “fine arts” hierarchy, which do not fully reflect the diversity of this nation’s people.

To fix the problems I’ve laid out, much rests on shifting the priorities and structures for how capital flows. Hence, this is an economic problem. AmbitioUS enters the picture understanding that fixing the economic systems is essentially a cultural issue — we need different sets of perspectives, ideologies, and beliefs to govern the flow of capital and concomitant opportunities. We need both technocratic solutions as well as cultural interventions that enable the diversity of people in society to shift the priorities of our economy. This is the time. There is widespread acknowledgement that profit-at-all-costs capitalism and the centering of individualism and competition in neoliberalism have harmed people and the planet. It is imperative at this moment of growing racial wealth disparities and civil unrest that we reckon with the questions of for whom, by whom, and for what purpose should the economy work.

The system we have inherited believes that the best purpose of our economy is to grow. This belief narrowly fixates on defining and measuring progress through dollars and cents. Equating economic growth as the country’s higher purpose has led to extracting natural resources (oil, logging, fishing, farmland, water — the list is long) at unsustainable levels, which has led to depending on extracting from human’s labor in order to continue fueling growth.

Consequently, as one of AmbitioUS grantees Debt Collective has pointed out, we are in a moment of “financialized capitalism” that relies on people’s labor and debt — from college loans to home loans to retirees’ reverse mortgages and to indebting those who are incarcerated — as the bedrock of America’s our nation’s so-called economic growth. Clearly, there is something wrong with this outcome. Instead of a country that works for its people, we are a country that uses its people to realize growth for too few. No wonder there is a general trend away from trusting in institutions, which are part of the machinery that have failed people and their communities, and a re-emergence of localizing economies, mutual aid groups, and cooperativism.

Culturally Preserving Economic Trailblazers are Creating the Future We Seek

In the arts, we see these trends manifest in the ways that artists of the Millennial or younger generations are eschewing starting 501c3 nonprofits. They see how their predecessors constantly struggle to fundraise for their artmaking. They watch as their teachers hustle from teaching gig to teaching gig because full-time teaching and tenured faculty positions are no longer available. They are also seeing older artists left financially vulnerable in their retirement years.

Artists understand that the art sector’s fixation on “quality” and an artwork’s “fine”-ness of art is what fuels an art market and a nonprofit economy that treats creators poorly. In certain industries, like music and documentary film, it’s not unusual for artists to have to relinquish ownership of their intellectual property in order to finance the labor that went into creation, leaving them without future profit.

No wonder they are seeking solutions to realize their artistic and cultural expressions tribally — by working with others who share vision and values to depend on each other to collectivize opportunities, income, bargaining power, and assets and distribute entrepreneurial risk. The desire to become more financially independent from outsiders and become more independent through localized interdependency is a growing common denominator. We see evidence surfacing nationally in the work of grantees and investees from Ekyn-Yefolecv Ecovillage in Alabama to Crux headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., and points in between — East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, Nexus Community Partners, Boston Ujima, BlacSpace Cooperative, ARC Chicago, RUNWAY, and Debt Collective.

The work of those we support is helping us understand that centering the preservation and vitality of cultural identity and expression are strong building blocks for new economic rules of engagement and purpose.

Economic Change is a Hegemonic Effort

We have been frustrated that so much effort to fix broken economic systems attends to technical and technocratic solutions. For example, it is certainly important to debate whether we tax people before or after wealth accumulation, but this does not answer more fundamental questions of, who gets to decide, for whom, and for what purpose should the overall economic system work?

Today’s economic rules, structures, and systems are manifestations of beliefs. For example, here are some false constructs that are so widely understood as to be true: “Prosperity” is equated with maximizing financial growth and profits rather than being a mindset; “wealth” is measurable through financial net worth rather than feeling when one has enough; or “abundance” is measured by things rather than by a sense of well-being. The intersection of neoliberalism and the economy means that rules and structures perpetuate the belief that private-market fixation on profit can actually solve social problems, which leads to the harmful notion that private enterprise’s financial success enacts a public good. All these constructs were honed over centuries with the result that today, we have an economic faith that being “American” is about having an individual right to extract with impunity from human labor and natural resources, and that it is this ability to do so that distinguishes winners and losers.

We know the damaging consequences of these beliefs better today than even a decade ago. Blind faith in profit-maximizing private markets has exacerbated the ever-widening wealth gap, which has rendered false the notion that all it takes is hard work to get ahead. These belief systems about who and what the economy is for have also led to transnational corporations’ gutting of Main Streets and, consequently, the break down of the kind of community-based shared commerce that fostered socio-cultural ties and unique expressions.

Because our AmbitioUS work is about paradigmatic change, we pay attention to origin stories, which can tell us so much about how we got here. What’s hopeful is that there are competing narratives, with one narrative holding promise for fresh possibilities and another in need of retirement. The problematic one explains the Pilgrims and their descendents’ purpose in America as the place to pursue Manifest Destiny. Often described in students history books accompanied by orange-red hued romantic sunsets, this origin story expresses a hegemonic belief that white settlers were entitled by God to conquer and colonize.

Manifest Destiny is a belief that settlers and “westward expanders” were given the land, and all people and resources on it, by God to be “improved” so as to realize divine intent. Manifest Destiny is a racist ideology that white Protestant settlers are entitled to exploitative and harmful systems. The powerful hold that this story has on all systems, including economic, requires deliberate interventions to shine spotlights on and fund enough alternative cultural-economic viewpoints so as to achieve critical, competing, mass. Anything short of standing up unique, federated, localized, and culturally resonate economic efforts will fall short of re-imagining our economy from being an expression of Western European hegemonic identity to one that reflects society’s diversity.

Our support of these alternative, culturally rooted and expressive economic efforts operates at two levels: to shift the flow of capital in tangible ways and to re-imagine what’s possible. In our work, we promote a competing narrative of America’s cultural identity that also has deep roots in shaping the American psyche. The alternative origin story is the immigrant-based roots of the U.S. This narrative is represented by the Statue of Liberty and its 1883 poem by Emma Lazarus with the famous line “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

As it relates to AmbitioUS’s work, this poem is a reminder that so many of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants, joining those who have been indigenous here. It is time for economic systems (and frankly all sorts of systems of justice, education, health, charitable, and more) to shift toward manifesting the diversity of what makes this country unique. Economic systems are cultural expressions. We need many more diverse participants shaping what it looks and feels like. And, what it’s shaping up to be, holds so much potential. Through our funding, we’re witnessing the rich potential of federated infrastructure, a return to community-expressive localized economies, grassroots governance and authority, shifts in accountability to empower those who are invested in rather than investors, and re-prioritizing the use of capital to reflect specific circumstances of each community, whether these are place based or digital.

President & CEO of @CCI_ARTS. Influencing financial self determination for artists and cultural anchors by investing in alternative, just, and new economies.