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Scott Woods: The Arts Industrial Complex

The primary goal of arts and culture gatekeepers isn’t to generate or preserve art; it’s to use art to promote the city.

Scott Woods
"The arts industrial complex is a network of entities who gatekeep and steer arts and culture in a given place for the primary purpose of sustaining a profit economy," writes Scott Woods.

As a producer of events revolving around art and culture, I am privy to lots of complaints from artists (including musicians, writers, visual artists, etc.). They are a species prone to complaints (and it is definitely Grumpy Musician season), but they’re rarely wrong about how bad things are.

Artists usually differ on the source of their distress. Musicians have it tough in Columbus for lots of reasons. Visual artists have it tough for reasons that are different than musicians’ reasons, which are, in turn, different than the reasons writers struggle. Don’t even get me started on theater folks; they’re in a class all by themselves when it comes to labor gripes. And, to be fair, it’s tough everywhere. If most of the artists in a given scene were successful, they’d be overrun by equally yoked artists from other cities overnight, effectively blowing the curve.

The reason for these consistent struggles can largely be laid at the feet of one big, amorphous entity, something I’ve been referring to for several years now as the arts industrial complex.

The arts industrial complex is a network of entities—organizations, institutions, platforms and people—who gatekeep and steer arts and culture in a given place for the primary purpose of sustaining a profit economy. If that definition sounds nefarious, it’s because it is.

There has been similar framing of the kind of system I’m describing. A visual arts-specific form of it has been called the “Museum Industrial Complex” and the “Gallery Industrial Complex,” but both refer specifically to the creation, value and market of visual art. What I’m defining is much broader than that at both ends. One end—let’s call it the input end—encompasses not just the visual arts but music, literature, theater and the artistic (not creative; artistic—more on this distinction in a moment) disciplines. On the output end is the gain, or the profit. It’s what all the art becomes, what it generates, what it supports. 

Everything between those two points is the industry part, and it’s where the sausage of your local arts scene is made. It’s where the problems that most artists experience live. 

Input seems innocent enough. Art is gonna art, so there are always people willing to throw themselves into a reasonable-sounding opportunity: apply for this grant; sit on this board; paint this mural; take this commission. These are largely civic exchanges, or opportunities offered by official organizations and platforms that are basically the city in art drag. The tricky thing about the arts industrial complex is that it’s not exclusively civic. Like a lot of socioeconomic systems, it is shored up equally by the people who wish to access and the people who control it. So every gallery that looks like an independent outsider or operator isn’t. For every truly independent outlet, like the William H. Thomas Gallery, there are 10 other art spaces that spend the bulk of their time trying to get the city or state to underwrite their efforts, and then dealing with art and artists that will facilitate that process and that process only. More times than not, an artist who bumps heads with a gallery or concert hall or residency does so because that entity is attached to the goals and values of the arts industrial complex, not with art and artists.

There is a lot of creative biological determinism applied to Columbus artists, mostly centered around their work ethic: “Columbus artists are lazy” or “Columbus artists don’t have any ambition.” If you’re on the outside of an arts scene like ours—active, busy, advertised within an inch of its life—these may seem like odd statements. Yet, if you ask any 10 local artists about the state of their respective scenes, no less than half of them will share a similar sentiment. Is it true? Not really, but the reason why such impressions exist is important. Columbus is a small pond when it comes to artistic opportunity. We have lots of artists across many disciplines. What we don’t have are lots of ways for them to learn, refine, build, execute and succeed in their craft. Artists have almost no shot at professional sustainability in local circles. They have very few places to learn and hone their skills. There are fewer than a handful of places that offer publicly accessible, hands-on resources for artists. That’s largely the fault of the arts industrial complex, and the organizations and businesses that wish to be aligned with it.

Despite its name, the goal of the arts industrial complex isn’t to generate or preserve art; it’s to use art to promote the city to potential consumers and transplants. It’s why you can’t miss artists of color on every advertisement, annual report or billboard, but can’t find them performing on a given weekend. There are always exceptions, of course, but nothing like the status quo impression the city presents for tourism and fundraising purposes. I once sat in a meeting whose goal was to go over a proposal for federal funding that essentially wanted to spice up the application with cultural elements and ideas to make the city seem hipper. (Ideas, mind you, that its recipients never had any intention of implementing.) 

The crushing wave of development that has overtaken Columbus has crushed more culture than it could ever create. It killed independent small businesses; gentrified into arts districts that then flipped when the money got good; patted itself on the back for learning how to get around affordable housing demands in mixed-use new builds; and pumped up incoming local population to the tune of 10,000 new residents per year. Somewhere in there, a bar fired up a karaoke night and called it culture. 

The arts industrial complex isn’t set up to stop this. It exists to support it. The arts industrial complex is the marketing arm of the city. If it accomplishes any useful level of support of actual art by actual artists, that’s an additional benefit. But the goal is to lay claim to as much art construction as cheaply as possible with the intent to market it later. 

We know that art isn’t the business of the arts industrial complex because, despite generating billions of dollars in various quarters under the label of creative industries, almost none of that money orbits the actual arts. In what is known as the Columbus region, creative industries had a total economic output of over $12 billion. Once you cull advertising agencies, design houses, software designers and television broadcasters out of the mix—you know, “creatives”—somewhere way down the list are the arts we know and pretend to love. And while the arts aren’t responsible for a billion dollars’ worth of economic output in the Columbus region, the number spent on hiring, building spaces and otherwise engaging art as a commodity is still significant. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet the people who create such work—musicians, writers, sculptors, dancers, actors—are offered pennies on the dollar under the banner of opportunities. Opportunities, mind you, in which artists are required to brand their platforms while their likenesses are used ad infinitum for purposes that have nothing to do with art (such as when the picture of an artist painting a Black Lives Matter mural was used to advertise real estate).

The average amount of a local grant given to an artist is approximately what an artist might make if they sold one decent painting, or played two to three concerts, or if they sold 50 poetry books. The arts industrial complex makes its living pretending to be the key to cultural sustainability, but it’s really a killing floor where artists are herded, their art censored, then chilled for public consumption, all for pennies. Well, pennies to the artists. It’s millions of dollars to the CEOs, programmers and institutions that gatekeep all of this culture we keep saying Columbus doesn’t have.

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Ohio State Parks is partnering with the Ohio Arts Council on a yearlong fellowship (a fancy way of saying “job”) that will require an extremely creative, hardworking person to “craft emerging Art in the Parks programming, providing new ways for people to enjoy Ohio’s 75 state parks.” They want the fellow to come up with artistic programming (live performances, exhibitions, festivals) that utilizes professional, diverse artists and organizations and can be replicated on a statewide scale. They want someone to do this enormous amount of work for 20 hours a week at the rate of $20-24.50 per hour. That’s a part-time job, and at $26,000 a year before taxes, it’s a cheap part-time job.

Bottom line: There are a lot of ways in which the arts industrial complex manifests and crosses wires with city life beyond the arts. This treatise is me giving you the definition so that when you see it in action, you know what to call it.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.