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Survival of the Artist: An Interview with Abra Johnson

To Art & Profit Log0, 2011. (Image Credit Abra Johnson.)

To art and profit. That is what every creative practitioner works towards. During a time when the war on the arts is getting brutal, conversations about how art and culture will survive are critical. Over three months this spring Links Hall will present the To Art & Profit Performance Festival which combines entertainment with practical conversation through the visual stimulation of live performances and public discussions with artists, educators, administrators and anyone else willing to join the conversation. Will you join the conversation? The second installment of the festival is entitled Quit Bullshittin’: Recognizing Division and Building Solidarity in the Arts—that sounds like a challenge for all of us to join.

To learn more about the festival I asked Co-Artistic Director Abra Johnson some questions about why this festival is necessary, what inspired it and why the question of profit in the arts is such a challenging one.

Tempestt Hazel: How long have you and Co-Artistic Director Meida McNeal been working together?
Abra Johnson: We’ve been working together creatively for the last 10 years.

TH: What led to the development of To Art & Profit?
AJ: There were several things—namely not seeing the labor of art capitalistically valued in the same way as corporate or educational work, yet artists were/are doing all of that sort of work; this current economy and the way artists and other culture workers were fairing; the deep funding cuts to arts-based education and programming, and those cuts to arts-based organizations. All this seemed to create a perfect storm for discussing these issues and then doing something about them.

Abra Johnson during a performance, 2011. (Image Credit: Toni J Photography.)

TH: How did you select the artists that are involved? How is Links Hall affiliated?
AJ: This festival really does begin and end with Links Hall’s Artistic Associates program, for which we applied; we sent a proposal conceiving To Art & Profit. As associates through Links, we curate the festival.

[As far as choosing artists is concerned], we really did select from a place of familiarity. Each of us knew or were a fan of the these artists; we dig their work and wanted to help promote them, get their work out to larger audiences and folks in different areas that may not get to see them. From here, we combined artists considering what pairings would be the least likely to manifest independently of the festival, that is which artists had not yet worked together as far as we knew, and when we envisioned them together, could we imagine work that was deeply provocative, thought provoking, incredibly dynamic and energetic. This is really the impetus behind the pairings from my perspective.

TH: You chose to have each part of the three-part festival in different neighborhoods around the city. How were the neighborhoods chosen? Why is it important to move this around Chicago?
AJ: We knew we wanted the festival to traverse neighborhoods in addition to Links, that, insofar as we know, had not yet been connected to Links. What we love about Links is that this is also part of their mission.

We knew that we wanted at least two of the locations to be west and south sides, or near west/near south. So many arts resources are north side and downtown. We really wanted to help build these bridges between communities outside these areas but to do so, we have to be honest about the gaps, about their existence, about resulting tensions from lack of adequate access, and about the way art production is impacted by lack of full participation in our arts market. Many communities/neighborhoods have been producing so much innovative work using techniques and paradigms typically marginalized or not seen as “art”. Centered artists have expressed to us, in talk backs, in programs, etc., a desire to move away from the center and to make contact with culture workers on the fringes, so to speak (though they are central to their own communities!) and vice versa.. We simply thought that if this desire exists on all sides and yet minimal bridge-building exists to manifests such demands, then we should use our work to bridge connection; and Links Hall provided this opportunity and would be, again, fertile ground in such an experimental, fruitful, necessary undertaking.

To Art & Profit Promotional Poster, 2011. (Image Courtesy of Abra Johnson.)

TH: As far as the main questions that you are asking the participating artists to address are concerned, what experiences have you had in your own career that has served as a testament to the necessity of this dialogue? (What is the value of creative labor? How can we practice a more conscientious capitalism, one that allows art makers to make a living while still nourishing the human spirit? How can we democratize art production, widening the scope of creative voices and expressions brought to public spaces and stages?)

For me this really is a notion of the “personal as political”.

Watching Meida, and other artists–brilliant, well-educated, savvy navigators, making great and honorable decisions–still struggle with the economic side of artistic production (finding/cultivating audience, marketing/advertising, filling seats, garnering broad-based sponsorship, etc.) has had a profound influence on me, on the way I see art as an artist, that is, art as highly labor-intensive, on the way I analyze and read art as a sociologist and educator, and the way I value and support it as a consumer. Wanting to do more, has left me with a resounding question: why are these workers in particular so intensely undervalued? The work of artists is essential to our everyday lives–clothing, electronic technology, mass market books and music, movies, etc.–and yet, there still seems to be the notion that art is a luxury, and that as such, art is not significantly socially and economically affecting.

To me, this is exceptionally ironic. Here we are, daily facing the impact and imperatives of artistic production, and yet we behave economically as if it isn’t really work or significant work.

Working with Meida, I have also experienced [and] witnessed the difficulty in placing/positioning the work produced; this is especially given dominant lexicons/tropes of art, dance, theatre, performance, performance art. From my perspective, there has been this struggle to really name what it is we do given linguistic parameters of both artistic and bureaucratic categorizing–either from us trying to use established language or from elsewhere, seeking to label/commodify all the things we do in singular performances and broadly as a collective..

Then, of course, there are so many local artists with whom we wanted to work or, at the very least, witness their process. But we weren’t sure if we had the tools or the time to make all these connections happen.

Through organizing this festival we’ve been able to make time, bridge connections around shared themes and goals, and have the luxury of not concerning ourselves with categorizing/labelling the works produced. Moreover the participating artists are sharing space, ideas, crafts, and dialogue that we hope will encourage and deepen future exchange/sharing and productive collaboration. In this spirit, one great outcome of the festival is that the collaboration between JSun Howard and Jennifer Karmin (“Utopic Monster Theory”) in weekend has resulted in them applying to Dance Bridge together to further develop piece they developed for the festival! This is a perfect example of what we envisioned for the artistic collaborations!

Abra Johnson during a dance performance, 2011. (Image Courtesy of Toni J Photography.)

TH: Why, in your opinion, is placing value and worth to creative products and services such a difficult conversation to have and such a complicated or mysterious process?

I am uncertain why this seems to be such a difficult discussion or a mysterious process. But I suspect that this is the case precisely because we’d have to consider the far reaching impact of art to establish value. If we did that, we’d be confronted with the critical functions of the arts, in every way, at every level, every day. How does one begin to place value on what seems to be limitless influence and, therefore, infinite value?

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, is that assessing the value and worth of creative products and services requires a process that is clearly different from capitalistic/free market assessment of value; to do so we’d have to think outside the free market/free market ideologies. Typically, in the free market, consumers vie for supposedly scarce resources because they are supplied by firms with limited inventories. The resulting prices not only symbolize what consumers will pay given what is supplied, but also reflects the actual products available at any given moment.

Herein, artistic creativity is different, at the very least, in theory. Creativity is essentially endless in supply. Artists are constantly creating, and creating the supportive services to compliment what they produce. In a free market system, a constant supply certainly lowers the price of product. However, this lowering of value cannot be the case of artistic products and services in that each product is distinctive, unique, [and] one-of-a-kind, therefore rare and scarce! On the consumer side of this equation, arts patrons tend to be far more educated about the products they consume and the artists who create them (unlike other products where so many of us are clueless as to the chains of both production and supply). So often, they have access to the supply side, that is the production process (how many of us have watched our tee shirts and shoes being made) which deepens product knowledge and resulting support as now we have an idea of the kind of labor required for production. All this results in arts patrons making rational and real choices about arts consumption. If we don’t know how products are made and supplied, what’s in them, who’s affected, are we really making ‘choices’? Then, does our behavior really reflect an influence on price or being subject to it by firms, that is price-taking behavior?

Abra Johnson & Meida McNeal, Artistic Directors of To Art & Profit Performance Festival, 2010. (Image courtesy of Meida McNeal.)

Moreover, and unlike other products whose value wears off over time and after continued utility, conceptually called marginal utility, artistic products and services are more likely to gain value over time and from constant, critical utility. Time makes people more knowledgeable and savvy about artists and art. The creative process makes people a part of the process–even if only as audience members assessing as well as consuming. Every time that product is consumed, then, one becomes increasingly a part of production and more invested in the art produced.

All of this shakes up capitalism/free market system! Under capitalism, and in these ways, art is and always will be a luxury item–very valuable item if we were to recognize and organize the labor and services of artists/culture workers in ways that resemble other forms of labor organizations (e.g. unions, unionizing). This contributes to the difficult discussion and the view that art is unnecessary if it’s a luxury. However, organizing arts/culture labor around different economic principles and systems while maintaining the philosophy of limitless creativity of unique products and services, and therefore limited competition from other artists and few middle men between artists and patrons, (all this is essentially a capitalist oxymoron!), will very likely either produce a radical change to free markets as we know them or introduce an entirely different economic system particular to arts production and consumption. This is of course reason enough to be disconcerting and to avoid such a complex discussion, particularly if you’re committed to contemporary capitalism or at least, find it highly beneficial and lucrative!

Abra Johnson, Felicia Holman & Meida McNeal in Ladies Ring Shout, 2011. (Image courtesy of Meida McNeal.)

TH: I was recently talking with a friend who said that conversations about pricing and value are not ones that should be had in institutions because it takes the focus away from artistic development. What are your thoughts on that?

AJ: Firstly, these are conversations that we can’t afford not to have, especially in an urban center that thrives on and continues to support, in part, what may constitute an (elite) arts-based identity. Secondly, these are conversations that ought to be wherever art and artists congregate and create; and artists ought to be leading these discussions concerning the value of their own labor. Moreover, like other workers trained within institutions surely artists are concerned with their livelihoods, and thus, the market for their products and services.

However, I can definitely understand the necessity of focusing on studies and training, of focusing on mastery. To this I ask: If not within institutions of artistic development, then can extraneous institutions include a focus on identifying, marketing and organizing artistic labor, remaining essential to ensuring the viability of creative lifestyles and living standards?

How can institutions imply that everyone else except artists focus on making a living from their studies?

TH: The festival also seeks to explore ways in which art can be profitable, accountable and accessible. I understand the profitable and accessible (through moving it throughout the city), but what do you mean by accountable?

AJ: What’s interesting about a free market system, and we might even say problematic, is the minimal, if any, accountability for the impact of production and consumption on social and natural environment, workers, and the disenfranchised. We can now see some similar impacts of minimal and/or lack of accountability in local and broader arts-based markets on these same environs, artists and other culture workers, and arts patrons and consumers. We can also begin to see one glaring effect , I think, which is the prominent notion that arts practice, performance, and programming cannot be profitable, accessible and hold mass appeal if it directly engages our social climate, social problems, and minority/marginalized populations and communities, that is, if we even call such production “art”. Thus, the question as to whether or not such work is really “art” can also be viewed as inextricably linked to accountability. To acknowledge and to develop a festival around these precipitants of our local arts economy as well as to the economic struggles of many artists within it is, in part, what we mean by ‘accountable’

Additionally, using themes gauged from our current national economy and pairing artists of diverse backgrounds while encouraging then to respond to themes in any manner they choose, engages this notion of accountability for artists themselves, the mass appeal of socially-charged productions AND to the status of these works as “art”.

To Art and Profit Festival April & May Programming. (Image Courtesy of Abra Johnson.)

TH: Are there specific aspects of artistic practice and profit that are particular to Chicago’s creative community, or do you feel that this is a conversation that could take place in other parts of the country and globe?

AJ: Both. There is a Chicago arts ethos AND this conversation could and absolutely should take place across the country and globally, if it isn’t already. Though, I also think there are sectors of the country and definitely societies around the world that already value art and work, and treat artists as such; we have much to learn from these spaces!

Insofar as a Chicago arts practice and ethos: I see, generally, folks born and raised in Chicago tend to have such reverie for artistry of the past, especially for that of parents and grandparents, generations which also seems to be inextricably fused to heightened political awareness and the particulars of generational social climates, a linkage definitely neither lost on nor forgotten by many of us, irrespective of social diversity and division; one great example of this is our lush, local old school/Disco/House music genres and culture.

Within such reverie there is both a purist (almost puritanical) commitment to preservation of these past forms AND a highly experimental praxis wherein we make thorough use of both a mythic past and the past of our own personal histories, in the present. I think local artistry reflects all this in beautiful synastry with a love of big city, a conflicted allegiance to our 70 neighborhoods, of intense diversity rigidly segregated, of an inspirational downtown landscape of well-known skyscrapers and 26 miles of Lake Michigan! I also think our ethos reflects love and respect for hard work, for intense labor, and our unique history of organizing around labor solidarity.

In many ways, as represented by Mayors Washington and Daley, we see art as important work that refreshes and enlivens the City. Nowhere is this more glaring than in our processes/cycles of gentrification which has been both historically and within the last 25 years, initiated by artisans and craftspeople. We see this, infamously, in the gentrification of both Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park in the late 1980’s and early to mid 1990’s sparked by the migration of local artists and art students, followed by the backward migration, post-graduation, of professionals who grew up in these neighborhoods.

TH: How was the To Art & Profit Fundraiser at Defibrillator?
AJ: To Art & Profit Fundraiser was INCREDIBLE. Artists, Hosts, Jo De Presser and J GRILLA turned it OUT! We danced way PAST midnight! In short, if you missed it, you missed out!!

Check out the second installment of To Art & Profit, Quit Bullshittin’: Recognizing Division and Building Solidarity in the Arts on April 15-17!! The evening performances will be Friday and Saturday, at 8pm at Links Hall. The public workshops and spectacle are followed by amazing panel of scholars.

Sunday, April 17th, 4-6pm
The Maekeen Room
2147 S. Lumber Street, Suite 405
River Front Lofts, Pilsen

Order tickets via Eventbrite.

Check out Links Hall for more festival details:

Join The Conversation about the value of creative labor by adding to the blog. Email if you’d like to contribute your own blog post speaking to issues related to the value of art and creativity in contemporary society.

For those who just CAN’T make it in April, you can do so in May AND still support the performance festival via the IndieGoGo Fundraising Campaign. Support the To Art & Profit Performance Festival!


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