Moving Towards Cultural Democracy
Written by Angela Suh
What can community-based models of working and the economies they produce teach us about value in the art market?
The myth of scarcity
When talking about the art market there is a tendency to focus on a very specific part of the market, one that is occupied by high profile artists, blue chip galleries and global art fairs. This is no surprise, as this image of the art market is obsessively reported and reproduced despite it being largely inaccessible for a great number of artists and creatives. Value in this market is staunchly defined by a belief in the scarcity of talent, resources, and opportunities. Despite the fact that there is no concrete evidence or data set to support this myth of scarcity, it is nonetheless sustained through a hierarchy of respected decision-making bodies and taste-makers determining who and what is worthy of attention and value. Jason Bailey of Artnome muses on the $64 billion valuation of the art market during the Shared Infrastructures discussion:
“we don’t even have a basic inventory of how many works there are and where they are, but we’re obsessed with inventory and scarcity….there’s all these companies that claim to be doing sort of analytics around art but how sophisticated can your analytics be if you don’t even know how many?”
Entry into this slice of the art market is mostly gated behind the usual paywall of money, education, and networks. Putting aside the fact that higher education in general is itself a barrier for many, average BFA programmes in the UK cost upwards of £35,000; more than double this amount if you’re an international student outside of the EU. Meanwhile only 36% of fine arts graduates are in full-time employment, well below the overall average of 55% across all graduates. That’s already a deterrent for a lot of people, and this doesn’t even take into consideration the expectation of unpaid labour, lower wages relative to other fields, and limited opportunities for career progression. This relatively typical pathway comes at a cost debt only few can take on, let alone outright afford, and puts the onus on individuals to endure this hostile environment.
Ecologies not Economies
Of course, there are other pathways. Alternative models that are based on a more collective understanding of value, one which centres solidarity, community, and collaboration.
One such example presented by Zain Dada, in Reconsidering the Local, is Khidr Collective, a multi-disciplinary arts collective platforming the work of Muslim artists, writers and creatives in the UK. Originally founded by Zain and others as a zine for British Muslim artists to express themselves through fiction, illustration, photography, and poetry, it has since evolved into a network for collaborative practice and community building. In addition to the now annual print journal, Khidr nurtures emerging creative talent by working with other community spaces and organisations to share space and opportunities. The value of these spaces can thus be defined by its usefulness, in their ability to connect, care for, and teach which is recognised and affirmed by local markets.
“…eventually you’d have publishers approach and say, can I talk to this particular artist, or this writer to publish something on this? And I think that, you know, that created a sort of pipeline for emerging artists to really kick on and develop their practice.” – Zain Dada
This is in opposition to a capitalist outlook of value in terms of its exchange-value which favours the profitability and potential monetisation of commodities such as physical spaces, over other valuable outcomes like community wellbeing, social services, and creative cultivation. The result is an all-too-familiar phenomena of community groups constantly at risk of losing their spaces and access to funding.
Another example of an alternative model of sustaining art practice is the ‘lumbung’ economy, highlighted by Farid Rakun of the Jakarta-based art collective, ruangrupa in the Redistributing Power panel discussion. ‘Lumbung’ is the practice of pooling and sharing all resources, including knowledge and skills, sustained by a collective governance model. This is best understood through Gudskul, a public learning space and collective formed by ruangrupa and two other Jakarta-based art collectives, Grafis Huru Hara (GHH) and Serrum. Using the principle of ‘lumbung’, income is generated and pooled together via a learning programme of residencies, short courses and other experience-based studies that draws on the knowledge and skills of each collective.
“Because it’s a collective of collectives, we…experimented with how to govern resources together, so if you get ahead, you’re not only getting ahead by yourself, not only by your group, but the larger agenda will succeed” – Farid Rakun
Prior to coming together as Gudskul, each collective sourced operational support from sponsors and member contributions. With ‘lumbung’, this also goes in the common pool and is distributed proportionally according to each collective’s needs. A business division based on a cooperative model also exists as part of this ecosystem, providing capital and resources for artists to fund their projects. In this way, Gudskul is a working example of a sharing economy that is self-sustaining and designed to support its members not just financially but also with knowledge, skills and creative resources. All this is managed by maintaining financial transparency with each other and practicing collective decision-making underpinned by the principles of equality, sharing and community.
Resisting solutionism at scale
So how can these examples of localised sharing economies be applied to the global art market? Jason Bailey of Artnome points to initiatives like Dada NYC that use digital infrastructure to facilitate a sharing economy for its community of artists all across the world.
Founded by Beatriz Ramos in 2014, Dada NYC is an online platform that allows anyone to make collaborative drawings using Dada’s integrated art tools. Since 2017, artworks generated on the site can be sold and bought via the gallery page using Ethereum cryptocurrency and blockchain protected smart contracts. As the platform does not allow any uploads, each artwork is verifiably generated on the site making it a “provable rare digital artwork”. For each artwork sold, the artist receives 70% and the community of registered users on Dada all share 30%. It’s a model that has the potential to provide a basic income for artists as well as providing a space for creative experimentation for anyone, not just artists.
While digital infrastructures like blockchain and Ethereum enable this, it’s the choice of the community to share that inevitably makes Dada NYC a sharing economy. As Jason Bailey remarks, “there is no technology that inherently makes things sharing, it’s really a community thing.” In opposite terms, the conditions that produce a hostile environment for people outside of a specific strata to access and participate in the arts are equally chosen by people. Without addressing these social conditions and equity concerns, new technologies or digital interventions will continue to reproduce and accelerate the same political, social, economic and environmental issues. Cade Diehm of New Design Congress makes this observation on the interconnectedness of infrastructure and power during the Expanded Formats discussion:
“all infrastructure itself is an expression of power, and indeed the act of building infrastructure, be it from a digital startup through to social networks in the real world, or every piece of infrastructure that’s built, is an expression or desire to express some form of power in the world.”
If the goal is to move towards cultural democracy, or the idea that everyone and anyone should be able to participate and access culture, we must first understand what is required to participate and second, recognise the diversity of roles and pathways in the larger ecosystem of the art world. Otherwise, the same power structures will continue to determine what is best for the whole. Cade Diehm notes, “…solutionism at scale, which is what we have from a technology perspective…reinforces existing inequalities.” Drawing from suggestions put forward by panelists in Reconsidering the Local, this starts with making higher education free for all and strengthening public investment at all levels but especially at a local level in physical spaces and social infrastructure for creative practice.
 “…it is clear that there is more money overall but it is being distributed amongst fewer artists and sellers.” Lucy Rose Sollitt, ‘Future of the Art Market Report’, 2019.
 This is important to note as much of the discussion around the art market still centres around a few ‘international’ cities. The majority of the infrastructure – educational, monetary and networks – are based in these select cities like New York and London. In order to participate, people outside of these cities or respective countries are greatly disadvantaged.
 In Marxist theory, ‘exchange-value’ refers to the quantitative aspect of value, as in the price/cost equivalent of a commodity in capital terms. This is contrasted by ‘use-value’, which is the qualitative aspect of value, “the human needs it fulfills”.
Curated by Lucy Rose Sollitt, FOTAM 2020: Redefining Value in the Art Market took place online 19 – 30 October 2020. Delivered in partnership with Creative Scotland, Creative United and UCL, the programme of events and discussions followed on from the Future of the Art Market Report (2019), and Unconference event in November 2019.