The marketing world has long been familiar with the “pay-to-play” style of doing business. There are many websites and publications where articles are published or institutions are listed in rankings only when money changes hands. For instance, many magazines that cover issues of interest to lawyers charge contributors hundreds of dollars to publish an article, since authors displaying their expertise is a form of advertising their services to potential clients.
In the art world, people don’t like to talk about the growth of “pay-to-play.” Spending money to have your work reach the public smacks of self-promotion and vanity. But increasingly, and quietly, arts organizations are charging artists to present their work. Many literary publishers are asking writers to buy a certain number of books in order to cover their costs; more and more literary magazines, presses, and contests are charging ever-larger fees for submissions; many theaters are requiring playwrights and performers to pay for expenses such as space rental, tech services, and marketing; and some galleries are charging artists to show their work.
I don’t blame arts organizations for passing some costs along to artists. It’s not as if nonprofit theaters, publishers, and galleries are raking in big bucks that they’re hiding from artists. The arts organizations are under enormous financial pressures that have forced them to adopt the “pay-to-play” model, often against their own inclinations. I do think it’s worth discussing the “pay-to-play” phenomenon in the arts, though, because it has implications for whose work is presented, and how and when artists attempt to reach the public.
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the arts were often supported by wealthy patrons. I recently visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, for example, and was reminded that Peggy Guggenheim supported a number of artists and writers in the mid-twentieth century, including the painter Jackson Pollock and the writer Djuna Barnes.
If you read the letters of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you can see that he diligently corresponded with his numerous patrons, updating them on his artistic progress and requesting funds or places to work.
One cause of the current “pay-to-play” situation may be the increasing number of artists competing for funds and a public. For example, the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in North America began in 1972 with a couple of hundred attendees. The most recent conferences have all averaged well above 10,000 attendees. With so many artists vying for attention and venues to present their work, arts organizations have also proliferated. The funding sources for these organizations have not kept pace, and government support for the arts in the United States, for one, has declined or remained mostly flat for many years.
Another reason that arts organizations are asking artists for support is that the wealthiest philanthropists currently are finding other outlets for their gifts. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, for instance, we have recently seen a wave of hospital construction and rebuilding, including the stunning Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto; and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital renovation, both in San Francisco. Those are wonderful additions to our communities, and my own family has benefited from the fantastic care at one of these institutions. But where is the tech philanthropist who is going to support independent theaters or literary publishing? You don’t have to be in the arts to fund the arts. The Guggenheims didn’t make their fortune as surrealist painters, but Peggy Guggenheim helped surrealist painters by buying their work.
The downside of the current regimen in the arts is that many artists can’t afford to “pay-to-play.” Their work is at risk of being lost in today's art economy. Even those who can occasionally afford to fund-raise and use personal resources to launch a project in the arts may find that their ability to generate funds through crowdsourcing campaigns is not as great as their creative output, forcing them to limit the number and ambition of their projects.
I would like to see more discussion of “pay-to-play” in the arts, not to point fingers at nonprofit arts organizations, but to explore the implications of this phenomenon and to try to brainstorm alternatives.
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe
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