A way out of precarity in the arts world

Precarity is more than a lack of money.

What is it like to be an independent curator in Bucharest? This was one of the main questions I had in mind when I met Olivia Niţiş, a freelance curator, art critic and teacher, for an interview. At that time I had already started to focus more extensively on infrastructure and precarity in the cultural sector, and my impression was that essentially, it all comes down to one factor: money. The financial resources available do not begin to cover the needs, and the scene definitely needs more of it. But the interview with Olivia Niţiş made me realize that a comprehensive solution to the problem is more complicated than just adding more money. Precarity is not only about a lack of money, it is also about how artists obtain access to money and under which conditions, how much non-financial support they receive, how isolated or connected they are and how certain they can be that they will continue to find employment in the future. In this post, I will summarize the interview and in doing so not only answer the first question – the working conditions of independent curators in Bucharest –, but also explore some of the dynamics sustaining precarity.

Individualism in the independent arts scene

Niţiş curated the first feminist contemporary art show in Bucharest, “Perspective 2008”, in 2008. She co-curated “Good Girls – Practicing Feminism Here and Now” with Bojana Pejic at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest in 2013. But the exhibition that drew my attention to her work is “Istorii MonuMentale” shown at ARCUB between 17 March and 8 May 2016, an exhibition about the history, meaning and political purposes of monuments (see my review here). When asked about her working conditions, she explains that being an independent curator in Romania is hard work. Since there are few professionals with experience and know-how, she usually has to do everything – from conceptualizing the exhibition to recruiting artists to attaching labels to the walls. Institutions would provide funding, space and limited staff support, she says, but the bulk of work remains with her as a curator, especially as far as networking, promotion etc. is concerned. But even then, when all is done and the exhibition is open to the public, recognition is rare. She explains that she would have people give positive feedback to her face-to-face, but few do so in public, for example by writing a positive review in a newspaper. According to Niţiş, the culture in the contemporary arts scene is highly individualistic – resources are scarce, and thus, competition fierce. She concludes that this has divisive effects on the scene, since a competition-based environment doesn’t encourage collaborations between curators and artists in her view. Some don’t even talk to each other, and she also regards it a problem that many see their work and the arts scene in particular as disconnected from the rest of society, and also from history.

A way out: collectivity

Niţiş’s vision for the cultural scene in Romania includes, therefore, more communication, dialogue, a sense of collectivity among artists and operators, and an increased understanding of the connections between arts, culture, society and history. This is at the same time the standard that she applies to cultural policies. The concept of European Capital of Culture, for example (Bucharest is applying for the 2021 title), doesn’t hold much potential in her view because it is based, again, on competition – a city can only claim to be Capital of Culture because others are not. This is not the spirit that Niţiş envisions for the cultural sector as a whole. It seemed to me that even though Niţiş did name the scarcity of resources as a problem for her work, it didn’t seem to be her greatest concern. Her criticism was primarily directed at the individualistic culture that is predominant in the contemporary arts scene, and she drew parallels to Romanian society as a whole on several occasions, thus living up to her conviction that you can’t depict the scene as if it existed in a bubble.

For me, personally, the interview confirmed my initial assumption that there is an interdependency between the culture in the arts scene and precarity. It led me to explore this relationship more thoroughly, and I will elaborate on my reflections below. It seems to me that the reason why precarity has divisive effects on the community is because it forces people to be competitive. When you want to acquire funding for your projects and yourself, fellow artists become competitors you have to prevail against. The result seems to be the individualistic culture that Niţiş described, and although there might be factors contributing to it that are specific to Romania, the pattern surely exists beyond the local context because it lies in the nature of precarity to discourage collaborations and solidarity. People simply don’t have the time and energy, and it doesn’t appear wise to take any risks when something as fundamental as your ability to make a living is concerned. But at the same time, individualism contributes to the solidification of the situation, because it is my belief that people are most vulnerable when they are acting alone, and the scene is much stronger when it comes to understand itself as having common interests that they then can collectively advocate for.

Berlin’s complicated relationship to its contemporary arts scene

Inspired by the interview, I began to wonder how the arts scene as Niţiş described it compared to the one back home in Berlin. It is always easier to look for differences, but in this case, there are actually some patterns that are similar. Even though Berlin is world-renowned for its contemporary arts scene, artists are increasingly faced with precarious working conditions there, too. Public funding primarily goes to established, so called “high culture” institutions like the three opera houses, while the amount allocated to the independent scene comprises only 5% of the city council’s budget – another similarity to Bucharest. According to Tobias Rapp, a pop culture journalist, the council’s strategy to prioritize “high culture” in public funding “worked in the past because the independent arts scene was able to seek out its own niches undisturbed. Compared to other cities across the world, Berlin was a dirt-cheap place for artists to live.“ This suggests that the strength of the scene in Berlin is not the result of successful policies, but rather owed to low costs of living. In the 1990s, it was possible to live in the city on a relatively low budget and find inspiring conditions for contemporary arts and the alternative scene, but these times have long gone. Artists don’t just get by on their own any more, especially since affordable spaces are increasingly rare. That the local arts scene is struggling doesn’t necessarily pose an incentive for the city to support it, though, since the international reputation for being an artistic hot-spot is already there and can be exploited for touristic purposes. The history of Tacheles, an arts center in Berlin-Mitte that the city council failed to protect as an independent arts space, is a sad example of this development.

Achievements of collective organizing and advocacy in Berlin

Recent events in Berlin, though, seem to prove that collectivity is crucial in bringing about policy change. Faced with increasingly difficult conditions for the independent scene, artists and operators coalesced and formed the Independent Art Coalition. When the senate worked on the 2016/17 budget, they participated in consultations with public policy makers in which they lobbied not only for more money, but also for a different funding structure. For example, they advocated for a shift from project-based funding – which is, to name one of its flaws, extremely bureaucratic – to direct support for artists through scholarships. The system they propose includes different scholarship for different purposes, one of them being so-called “time grants”. They supply funding for (visual) artists for a whole year and are not tied to specific outcomes, but are based on an artist’s reputation and expected future achievements. This scholarship is intended to better live up to the working reality of artists who often don’t work towards single material products (for example a painting), but whose work is a permanent process or who focus on immaterial artworks (for example performances). But in my opinion, time grants also symbolize a significant shift in mentality that can help diminish precarity if adpted more widely. Direct support for artists recognizes that art takes time and that artists need at least a minimum of financial security, for example when they are in between projects or when acquiring funding through a project is too bureaucratic and hampers the artistic work. Luckily for the initiative, the senate approved 70 time grants for 2016/17. This achievement, though, has only been possible when two factors combined: the appointment of Tim Renner as state secretary for cultural affairs; a former music manager who declared himself “Anwalt der freien Szene” (lawyer for the independent scene); and more intensive collective organizing within the scene through the Independent Art Coalition. Renner seemed to show political will to change something, but the coalition was pivotal for political pressure. It shows, all in all, that collectivity can bring about change in cultural policy because governments alone tend to be indolent and don’t necessarily improve conditions for those who are at the end of the food chain.

Conclusion

I take three things away from the interview and my research about recent events in Berlin: First, that precarity is vicious because it encourages exactly those patterns that help sustain it; second, that a collective can achieve more than individuals, and third, that before you put more money in an old system, you should look for structural flaws and potential alternatives first.

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