It's a (rigged) lottery. But artists are told our struggles are the result of our own failings.
Most insidiously, we are pitted against each other for these meager resources. We are told we are competing with one another for grants and shows and residencies. If you win, I lose. In fact, we are all competing against an unfair lottery system.
While we envy and battle one another, the art world lottery picks both our pockets.
It's important to remember that these systems are unsustainable even for artists with winning lottery tickets. Whatever artist you envy
—the one who has all the opportunities and honors you dream of—I have worked with that artist. They also struggle, they also face an uncertain economic future, they also look at artists with more resources and think: If only I had that.
Lottery logic has become a reflex in the arts world, a convention so habitual it can be hard to think outside of it.
I partnered with an organization to offer an Artists U workshop, and I told the executive director: “We don’t do applications. Artists don’t apply for our workshops, they register.”
(Many reasons for this, beginning with: Any definition of who is an artist and who is a deserving artist will be crammed full of bias, legacy assumptions, and gatekeeping. Also: applications as unpaid makework. Also: applications as jobs program for arts administrators.)
“What if too many artists register?” he asked.
"Then we schedule a second workshop.”
You know when someone tries to argue their point and ends up proving yours?
“But then,” he stammered, brain seizing up. “Any artist could sign up.”
Ah. There it is.
Imagine distributing resources without rejecting artists.
Imagine opportunities without lottery tickets.
Artists do it, too.
I offered a workshop, Beyond the Grant, for artists who received a specific fellowship. A kind and personable sculptor, loving the experience, told me afterwards she had avoided my open enrollment workshops “because I assume they’re full of artists who are not at my level.”
Lottery winners like to hang out with other lottery winners. That is: we really buy into lottery logic when we get a winning ticket.
Two things that perpetuate lottery logic:
(a) those who suffer blame themselves
(b) those with winning tickets come to believe they are different and better.
Instead of asserting our value and values. Instead of building new parallel systems. Instead of organizing.
One remedy for lottery logic is solidarity. Or, I’d rather say: solidarities.
I do not proclaim universal solidarity among artists. Artists, like everybody, have beef. We bristle. Historical inequities and traumas impact, of course, our networks and relationships.
You don’t gotta love everybody.
But I do want to offer this (which you likely already know):
You have much in common with artists very different from you, things you may not have in common with your non-artist friends and family, the people who ostensibly resemble you but do not devote their days and decades to making art.
I experience this so often that it seems obvious, but I will say it directly: the hip-hop choreographer starting an education program, the playwright reinterpreting an ancient story, the experimental filmmaker working with analog technology, the culture bearer keeping alive sacred ways of telling, and the visual artist obsessed with front stoops: When these five artists sit around a table—and I have been at that table—there are so many nods and laughs and moments of recognition. “Oh, yeah. That.”
Artists have, despite our wildly divergent backgrounds and intentions, the possibility for solidarities.
The opposite of a lottery is solidarity.