Marketing the Entrepreneurial Artist in the Innovation Age: Aesthetic Labor, Artistic Subjectivity, and the Creative Industries



This article analyzes marketing seminars for visual artists and arts organizations that I attended as part of my ethnographic field research about artistic subjectivity and aesthetic labor in the California Bay Area. The marketing seminars, along with the concomitant rise of statistical data on the creative industries, reflect and generate contemporary trends that focus on crafting the visual artist as innovative entrepreneur. These entrepreneurial artists are expected to fundraise and promote their projects and to demonstrate high levels of professionalism and market savvy. While artists in the West since the 18th century have been engaged in these types of activities, finding ways to earn a living and support their artmaking practices through forms of self-promotion and distribution, today the emphasis has shifted to more explicitly capitalistic modes. This crafting of the ideal entrepreneurial artist mirrors broader patterns of neoliberal orientations – for example, privatization, free trade, and decreased social services. Specifically, these patterns can be detected as visual artists have become responsible for micro-fundraising through their personal networks, promoting their own “brand,” selling their artwork directly to the public, and as artists have been encouraged by funders to collaborate with social service agencies as forms of socially engaged practices. These expectations of entrepreneurialism serve to generate additional labor for artists.

Introduction: Dynamic Adaptability

The queer performance artist's sequined vest reflected sparks of electric-blue light that reached the balcony of the ornate Herbst Theatre in the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. He was not pleased with the subdued audience response to his call, and he commanded us to repeat once again: “Hey, Muthafuckers!” Within 10 minutes, Oakland-based artist Philip Huang's fundraising demonstration had persuaded audience members to donate $207.59, for an as-yet-unformed idea about a performance that could be held in front of membership gym windows. “Witness to Fitness,” it would be called. When asked about the point of this project, he responded: “Art does not need a reason to exist.” Thunderous applause followed.

Moments before, the audience had heard a presentation about the role of the anterior superior temporal gyrus in the production of metaphors and the processing of jokes, as well as other recent neuroscience research findings that author Jonah Lehrer presented in his talk, “Creativity and the Brain.” Lehrer explained, “Art isn't just about aesthetics, it's also about truth. It teaches us about what is vital about the mind and what life is all about.”

Later in the day, we would learn about a new model of online fundraising (“a high-conversion environment”) that brought together entrepreneurs, artists, and social networks. The goal was to “turn networks into patrons,” by asking individuals to make small donations to support creative projects, within a specified time frame and for a small reward. The company, Kickstarter, was a funding platform “focused on creative ideas and ambitious endeavors. We're a great way for artists, filmmakers, musicians, designers, writers, athletes, adventurers, illustrators, explorers, curators, promoters, performers, and others to bring their projects, events, and dreams to life.”1 By October 2011, this practice had become commonplace and was known as crowdfunding. This particular model was similar to a public radio fundraising matching-challenge grant, in which a company pledged to match a certain amount of money if individual donors called within a specified time frame. If the target amount was not raised in the allotted time via the Kickstarter website, no money changed hands. Kickstarter backers or funders could donate as little as $1 to support various projects; if projects succeeded in meeting their fundraising goals, Kickstarter retained 5 percent of the amount raised.

The setting for these diverse presentations was a conference entitled “Dynamic Adaptability: New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts,” which was held in January 2010, and was sponsored by a consortium of organizations committed to creativity and the arts.2 I attended the conference as part of my ethnographic field research about artistic subjectivity and artistic labor in the digital age.

I attended several of these types of marketing seminars organized by California Bay Area arts organizations. Although they were offered as workshops, conferences, or community discussions, I refer to them as “marketing seminars” because the content approached marketing-oriented topics from primarily a business mindset, such as how to increase audience participation, anticipate and adapt to changing demographics, and survive during economic downturns.

In this article, I discuss the marketing seminars, along with the concomitant rise of statistical data on the creative industries, the increase in expectations of professionalism, and the various challenges that visual artists face as they navigate their careers amidst these shifts. I suggest that these marketing seminars both reflect and generate contemporary trends that focus on crafting the visual artist as innovative entrepreneur. These entrepreneurial artists are expected to fundraise and promote their projects and to demonstrate high levels of professionalism and market savvy. While artists in the West since the 18th century have been engaged in these types of activities, that is, finding ways to earn a living and support their artmaking practices through forms of self-promotion and distribution, today the emphasis has shifted to more explicitly capitalistic modes. This crafting of the ideal entrepreneurial artist mirrors broader patterns of neoliberal orientations – for example, privatization, free trade, and decreased social services (Brown 2003; Harvey 2005), as well as “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (Brown 2003:7). In the United States, visual artists experienced massive decreases in government support for the arts in the 1990s. The infamous “culture wars,” spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms in 1989, shifted the focus to a critique of artistic content – deemed “obscene” and “indecent” – and resulted in a 40 percent budget reduction of the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s (Bolton 1992; Wallis et al. 1999; Wu 2002).3 Today, neoliberal orientations can be detected as visual artists have become responsible for micro-fundraising through their personal networks, promoting their own “brand,” selling their artwork directly to the public, and as artists have been encouraged by funders to collaborate with social service agencies as forms of socially engaged practices. Other aspects of this crafting of visual artists as innovative entrepreneurs can be seen in the rising use of statistical data on “creative industries” and the professionalization of the individual artist within a discourse of innovation.4

The complexity that these shifts pose to working artists is twofold. My field research reveals that many of the people who commit their lives to artmaking often believe that this is something they must do: whether as a calling, a personal desire, a cathartic release, or an inherited obligation. In other words, they believe in Art and their role in its creation and that what they produce is, in part, a reflection of themselves. I refer to this as artistic subjectivity. The second challenge is that artistic labor has long been framed in the West as ambiguous labor, that is, it is hard to quantify and define the actual “labor” of artists. Within these two discursive systems, the expectations of entrepreneurialism serve to generate additional labor for artists.

There have long been tensions between art and commerce that are enmeshed within well-worn Western Romantic discourses about creative genius and art for art's sake (Becker 1982; Plattner 1996; Batschmann 1997; Caves 2000; Pohl 2002; Stallabrass 2004; Velthuis 2005; Thornton 2008). Anthropologists and sociologists of art have engaged with issues of distinction, classification, circulation, and production of categories of art in various contexts (Hauser 1958; Becker 1982; Bourdieu 1984; Wolff 1984; Clifford 1988; Zolberg 1990; Steiner 1994; Marcus and Myers 1995; Gell 1998; Graburn 1999; Price 2001; Ebron 2002; Myers 2002; Chibnik 2003; Morphy and Perkins 2006; Schneider 2006; Svasek 2007). Today, the fervor of the neoliberal marketplace, the flexible laborer, and the valorization of innovation for the sake of the market put visual artists in a particularly challenging position. While discussions of the arts in these marketing seminars are often framed in terms of the importance of art in culture, personal identity, creativity, and freedom of expression, it is necessary to bear in mind that the arts are imbricated within larger markets and economic motivations. However, framing the discussion primarily in economic terms runs the risk of commodification and increased levels of control of artists and their creative labor, particularly during a period in which creative industries are being positioned by advocates as increasingly important components of global economies (Florida 2002; Hesmondhalgh 2002). The marketing seminars and the increase in statistical research are evidence that the relationship between art and commerce is being made more explicit and openly embraced, albeit with an emphasis on socially engaged practice and innovative design thinking.

About the Marketing Seminars

Various private foundations and public arts agencies have produced these seminars.5 One organizer has been the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), a nonprofit corporation founded in 2001. CCI's mission is to “promote knowledge sharing, networking and financial independence for individual artists and creative entrepreneurs by providing business training, grants and loans, and incubating innovative projects that create new program knowledge, tools and practices for artists in the field.”6 Since 2002, CCI has offered entrepreneurial training for artists in the form of an 8-week workshop, titled “Business of Art.” Topics include: Work Like an Artist, Think Like an Entrepreneur; Strategic Planning; Marketing and Promotion; Money Management; Legal Issues; and Financing Your Project. This type of training is certainly useful for many self-employed artists who work independently and may not have access to this information otherwise. One artist explained that when she attended her MFA program at a fine arts institution in San Francisco in the early 1990s, the only discussion of how to make a living from one's artwork happened “during the occasional brown-bag lunch,” implying that the topic was outside the scope of her formal arts training. However, this particular emphasis on business training clearly seeks to bring the focus to the domain of the market.

The seminars I have attended have been 1-day seminars, free and open to the public, and have included lunch. The seminar entitled “Beyond Dynamic Adaptability: How Changing Participation is Changing the Arts,” which was held on October 24, 2011, at the Marines Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco, charged $25 to hold the reservation but that fee was returned after the registrant attended the conference. Approximately 400 people involved in Bay Area arts communities attended the event. The seminars have featured a range of speakers and topics addressing the future of the arts in the California Bay Area.

Primary funding for this conference came from the Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropic foundation committed to “building appreciation and demand for the arts.” In 2007, the Wallace Foundation chose San Francisco as one of six cities to receive financial support to identify, develop, and share effective practices to reach broader audiences. California Bay Area arts organizations received $7.7 million. $1.47 million of that amount was allotted to support audience building in the nine Bay Area counties.7 The Wallace Foundation Cultural Participation Initiative was in part a response to the National Endowment for the Arts' 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which found that American adults' participation in art activities such as attending live performances and visiting museums was at its lowest levels since the survey began tracking it in 1982 (Harlow et al. 2011). The Wallace Foundation's financial support to increase audiences at Bay Area arts organizations suggests a belief in the value and support of the arts. However, as anthropologists since Marcel Mauss have pointed out, the “gift” – be it in the form of humanitarian aid or philanthropy – can include a political-economic engagement with an agenda (whether intentional or not), as well as specific, measurable deliverables (Malkki 1996; Mauss 2000; Bornstein 2009).

For example, in the case of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC), which was awarded one of the 2007 Wallace Foundation Excellence Awards for Bay Area arts organizations, one of the long-term goals stated in the Wallace grant was that SFGC would expand marketing efforts to increase audience participation by 10 percent in 4 years, increase collaborations with other arts organizations, and engage artists for self-produced concerts. These were specific, measurable goals that required collaboration with other organizations and some of the artists to “self-produce” their work, that is, absorb production costs. Melanie Smith, executive director of the SFGC, explained:

The long-term goals outlined in the Wallace grant included an overall expansion of marketing efforts, designed to increase audiences by 10% over four years. Other long-term goals, intended to increase overall participation, included more collaborations with other multi-disciplinary arts organizations, engaging prominent guest artists for self-produced concerts, and ongoing commissions of new work. All of these efforts were proposed to help address an ongoing and fundamental challenge – how to broaden audiences for our public performances beyond “friends and family.” (, accessed February 5, 2012)

In a Wallace Studies in Building Arts Audiences report, Attracting an Elusive Audience: How the San Francisco Girls Chorus Is Breaking Down Stereotypes and Generating Interest among Classical Music Patrons, Smith described the increased marketing efforts as a “life-changing” process for the organization, as SFGC came to see itself as a “world-class performing arts organization,” and how this shift in professionalism then influenced every other organizational decision, from whom she hired to staff the front desk to the marketing materials produced (Harlow et al. 2011:40).

These types of marketing efforts are not specific to the Bay Area. The national nonprofit organization Americans for the Arts sponsors a program called the National Arts Marketing Project, which provides “information, tools, and practical ideas to design high-quality, cost-effective marketing programs and strengthen arts organizations.”8 Its annual conference was held in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011. Americans for the Arts also features an ArtsBlog ( and sponsors “CreativeConversations” between and among arts organizations across the country.

While the marketing seminars intend to help artists and arts organizations to successfully navigate the business aspects of art, and many artists do need assistance in these arenas, the seminars shift the focus to a commercially centered realm. This serves to subtly shift the responsibility – and the risk – more directly to the artists themselves from what since the 18th century has been in the realm of art dealers and gallerists. Artists today, according to this marketing-focused discourse, must “crowdfund” their projects through their social networks, directly market and promote their artwork, and be responsive to the needs of their rapidly changing “customer” base.

Statistical Evidence: Its Collection and Uses

Another component of the marketing seminars has been to include reports about current demographic and statistical trends, a phenomenon social theorists have long discussed as a critical technology of management (cf. Foucault 1963, 1975; Rose 1998). Since the 1990s, there have been numerous public and private studies conducted to develop statistical information about cultural activities. In the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Irvine Foundation, the RAND Corporation, the Urban Institute in DC, WolfBrown, Americans for the Arts, and others have funded and produced reams of data about the state of the arts in the United States. The data range from specific types of art (performing arts, visual arts, or arts education) to specific regions or populations (urban and rural areas, ethnic communities), arts participation, arts philanthropy, community partnerships, individual artists in the workforce, and artists during the recession. In 2010, Americans for the Arts published the first National Arts Index that measures annually the “health and vitality of the arts in the United States: 1998–2009.”

This trend to produce data can be seen internationally as well. In 1986, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published the Framework for Cultural Statistics, which was the first comprehensive attempt to develop common methodologies to capture statistical information about cultural activities. In 2006, UNESCO's Institute for Statistics released Guidelines for Measuring Cultural Participation, in western countries and in non-Western countries, with case studies in Bhutan, Thailand, and Uganda.9 In the United Kingdom, the Creative Industries Mapping Study, produced by the U.K. Department of Culture, Media, and Sport in 1998, became the “template study for numerous other studies commissioned by governments at the national (including those of Taiwan, New Zealand, Singapore and Australia), regional and even city level (for example, Queensland, London and Brisbane).”10 The study set out to raise awareness of the creative industries, their economic contributions, and the challenges they face. In this study, creative industries refers to “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property” and include advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, designer fashion, film and video, interactive leisure software, music, the performing arts, publishing, software and computer services, television, and radio.

The Creative Industries Mapping Study is simply one of many. These studies reflect a broader phenomenon: creative industries are becoming increasingly larger components of global knowledge economies. Proponents like Richard Florida argue that the “creative class” (of scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, designers, and knowledge-based professionals) includes a third of the United States workforce (Florida 2002). However, those framed as members of these creative classes, and the cities that attempt to attract them, become subject to other forces. As cultural geographer Jamie Peck has pointed out, “Rather than ‘civilizing’ urban economic development by ‘bringing in culture’, creativity strategies do the opposite: they commodify the arts and cultural resources, even social tolerance itself, suturing them as putative economic assets to evolving regimes of urban competition” (Peck 2005:763). While the flourishing of statistical data seeks to quantify the arts and the work that artists do, the focus can also become both a measuring stick and an economic validator.

One difficulty with economic validation as the focal point of artistic activity, of course, is that becoming wealthy is not typically a primary goal in the pursuit of the arts by artistic producers. Those who engage in the arts, broadly speaking, rarely begin with the desire to build a financial empire; most of the artists I interviewed mainly wanted economic stability and security to allow them to continue to produce their artwork. The arts have complex benefits for the producers, receivers, participants, and collectors. My ethnographic data reveals that these benefits can range from the affective to the aesthetic, the economic to the ethical, the phenomenological to the material, and back again.

Complexities of Aesthetic Labor

Embedded in Western classical and romantic versions of the solitary artist is the notion that artists have received the “divine gift of creativity” and are therefore obligated to use this gift to be of service to humanity (Hyde 1999). This tension often manifests in informants being comfortable only in giving their work as gifts or in not being able to put a price on their work. Further complications ensue because the labor practices of artists can get truncated in the final “product” of art. In many cases, it is impossible to tell how much labor, whether mental or manual (cf. Arendt 1958), has been involved in the process. For example, the actual creative labor may have gone into the making of the initial work in a series, and the other productive labor may involve only replication or execution (particularly in the case of digital production, in which copy and paste or save as enable exact replication without degradation of image [cf. Christiane Paul 2003]). Anthropologist Ariana Hernandez-Reguant has written eloquently about similar complexities of aesthetic labor in the context of Cuban cultural producers under Cuban late socialism, during which period artists were granted ownership over their individual work “in a quasi-global copyright form that attempted to reconcile socialist ethics with capitalist practices of authorship” (Hernandez-Reguant 2004:9).

Aesthetic and artistic labor in western contexts inhabits multiple spaces of ambiguity. A professor of digital illustration and painting at one of the local art colleges relayed this story: Many years ago, when she first claimed self-employment status as a professional visual artist, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) audited her. An IRS employee visited her studio and asked, “What are your hours of operation?” She explained, “The IRS employee had no idea about how artists work.” Simplistic equations of raw materials, time, and human skill sets, overlaid with complex notions of use-value and exchange-value, cultural capital, and social capital, are also infused with philosophical and art historical debates about aesthetic and conceptual valuations of “art,” all of which then engage directly or indirectly with art markets. Back on the ground, this complexity simultaneously exists in the day-to-day lives of working artists, who typically engage in more than one type of artistic labor, whether in the form of seemingly discrete employment (e.g., sculptor and museum installer) or jobs with more obvious overlapping practices (multimedia painter and rotoscope artist). Furthermore, artistic labor also requires visual perception, affective sensibilities, technical (both analog and digital) abilities, and conceptual skills, as well as access to training, materials, resources and, most critically, a social and cultural setting in which all of the above hold meaning.

The Professionalization of the Visual Artist as Entrepreneur

Individual visual artists appear to be experiencing these shifts in terms of a rise in expectation of professionalism. Visual artists are expected to engage directly in marketing, networking, and self-promotion. In most commercial galleries, there has traditionally been a table placed somewhere discreetly with a binder full of plastic sleeves containing artists' resumes and a few press articles. Today, it is commonplace for master of fine art students to have business cards and websites to promote their work. At MFA shows, visitors will find creatively printed business cards, postcards, and even self-published coffee table catalogs, with full color digital images that look more like a mature artist's mid-career retrospective, rather than a body of work created during the past 2–3 years by an emerging artist. Current students hope to get signed by a gallery before they graduate. Similarly, MFA programs are accepting students who already have an established art career but are primarily getting their advanced degree so they can teach at the university level. Moreover, today there are PhD programs in art, whereas the terminal degree had been the MFA (Elkins 2009).

My ethnographic research reveals how these expectations of professionalism have various effects. One example, Nina, a 60-year-old mixed media artist, was frustrated because she was not able to get an image in the Open Studios catalog. She “did not know how to turn a.jpeg into a.tif” file (or one type of digital image that is better for screen viewing into another that is better for print viewing). This task is as simple as choosing an option on a pull-down menu, but she did not know how to do it, and she did not have “a hundred dollars to pay someone to do it” for her. This example reflects shifts in both digital technologies and resources to access information, which precluded this artist from advertising her participation in the annual open studios event.

In another example, I recently purchased a small paper piece from an emerging artist at a members show for $150. Soon after the exhibition, I received a printed thank you letter in the mail, with a business card and URL, and an invitation to visit the artist during an upcoming artist residency. This example reveals a desire to cultivate a professional relationship with someone who has purchased one's artwork. Again, this is not an entirely new phenomenon, but the form and level of professionalism by the artist was distinctive; for example, the artist had to get my name and address from the gallery and draft the individual letter, generate the marketing materials (business card and website), and advertise the next art event.

A curator who was using social media technologies to fundraise for an upcoming exhibition at a nonprofit arts organization said it was “agonizing” to try to raise money “without sounding desperate.” She described how she was trying to carefully word her Facebook postings, and then making phone calls and sending emails to her various networks to get them to publicly support, “like,” and donate online to support the project. This type of marketing and fundraising requires multiple skill sets, as well as time and energy, and is becoming a more common aspect of artistic labor.

These are brief ethnographic examples of increased professionalization for visual artists working in the digital age, as they strive to become even more “flexible” (Martin 1995, 2009), whether in their use and access to technology, to funds, or to protocol.11 Angela McRobbie has noted this as well among visual artists in the United Kingdom:

While the working practices of graphic designers, website designers, events organizers, “media office” managers and so on inevitably share some features in common with previous models of self-employed or freelance working, we can propose that where in the past the business side of things was an often disregarded aspect of creative identities best looked after by the accountant, now it is perceived as integral and actively incorporated into the artistic identity. This is illustrated in the activities of the young British artists for whom the commercial aspect of the art world is no longer disparaged but is welcomed and even celebrated. (McRobbie 2002).12

Although not all visual artists are embracing the entrepreneurial spirit with such open enthusiasm, there is awareness that this behavior is becoming the expectation.

Challenges to the Entrepreneurial Artist: The Blurring of Boundaries between the Professional and Nonprofessional Artist

The challenge in this edict to develop one's “audience base” is that in this moment in the digital age, participation in the arts is increasing, while actual attendance at formal arts institutions is declining. During the most recent marketing seminar in October 2011, this was a primary concern. John Killacky, former program officer at the San Francisco Foundation and long-time Bay Area arts advocate, remarked, “People are creating their own content. Arts organizations need to catch up!” The corollary to this is that boundaries between professional and amateur artist are blurring. The customization and personalization of sites like Flickr, YouTube, and Tumblr offer countless examples of individual and collective creative expressions of visual culture, available at no cost, and at any time. While artists are becoming more professional, the formerly not-artist population is becoming more “creative.” In this scenario, how does an artist distinguish herself professionally from the countless others who are doing similar things, nonprofessionally, and for free? This conundrum is not entirely new, of course. Since the decline of the patronage and artisan guild systems in Europe in the 18th century, there have been challenges and contestations to artistic legitimacy that have continued to the present moment, in various forms, whether through state-run salons, academic institutions, critical discourse, venues for circulation and display, or aesthetic and conceptual content (subject matter, style, material, processes of production). What makes these challenges distinctive today is the number of producers of visual information, the speed at which it is generated, and the breadth to which it extends globally.

Direct-to-Public Sales: Fine Art, Finally Affordable

Artists have responded by having artist blogs, by establishing online stores, and by using their social networks. One artist created a General Store to sell her art directly to the public using PayPal, an online payment processing service. On the “About” page of her store, she wrote, “You need art. [The artist] needs health insurance. It's a match made in heaven, financially speaking.” The General Store, however, is a separate website that is not available directly from the artist's professional website. Instead, the artist sent an email that contained the link to the General Store website to a specific group of people. Other artists I interviewed have similar split professional identities via the Internet, for example, separate and nonlinked websites for their graphic design work or children's mural painting business versus their fine art painting practices. These splits reflect broader cultural distinctions between commercial and noncommercial art that still govern how these artists learn to police themselves, even as they become entrepreneurial workers. These divided professional identities between the artist-as-producer and the artist-as-promoter are uneasy terrains to inhabit, particularly amidst blurring boundaries of the professional/nonprofessional artist.

This blurring of lines works in other veins as well: there have been attempts by private companies to make “high art” affordable to the general public. Sites like Shop Art We Love, Fine Art Finally Collectible ( is a website “dedicated to creating affordable yet exclusive museum-quality art editions with leading contemporary artists. Editions are limited, and priced between $50 to $600.” Founded by Laurence Lafforgue, former advertising executive turned entrepreneur, this and other companies like it are evidence of direct-to-public sales enabled by digital technologies (i.e., the site itself, secure shopping, archival digital printing). The premise is that artists are no longer necessarily mediated by institutional art world gatekeepers and “connoisseurs” (Bourdieu 1993; Steiner 1994; Price 2001); artists can use sites like these, as well as their own social networks, to promote their work directly. However, fine art protocols still pervade in these arenas as well. Particular artists are invited to participate, based on their work having already been vetted by existing art institutions and art collectors.13 Editions are in the form of photographs and prints in standard frame sizes. Editions include artist signed-and-numbered certificates of authenticity. Ultimately, sites like these serve to simplify the process of acquisition, ownership, and the commodification of art, within an egalitarian message to “make art collecting available to all!” as opposed to making art available to all.

Socially Engaged Practices in the Era of Innovative Entrepreneurialism (and Entrepreneurial Art?)

The actual practices of artists and their production has shifted as well; in the past two decades, there has been an emergence of collaborative and collective modes of artistic production in countries around the globe (Jackson 2011; Kester 2011; Thompson 2012). In the 1990s, relational aesthetics, a somewhat new form of artmaking practices that emphasized social interactions over object-based art production, emerged in international cosmopolitan art scenes.14 The term was coined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud and referred to a set of artistic practices that take as their “theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space” (Bourriaud 2002:14). He cites various examples: “Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector's home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup. Philippe Parreno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line” (Bourriaud 2002:7–8). These practices can be interpreted through digital, informational, and global shifts as well, as artistic producers, like the broader communities in which they live and work, have become accustomed to access to information, imagery, and immediate, interactive engagement. The “white cube” of the formal commercial gallery setting, in which the individual artist communicates typically through a static object and the audience chooses whether and to what degree they would like to receive that communication, is no longer the ideal environment in which to experience art. The relational aesthetics Bourriaud describes are a response to the shift from industrial forms of labor to the service economy, where artists choreograph an experience rather than display an object.

There has been much critical debate about relational aesthetics as posited by Bourriaud (Bishop 2004, 2006, 2012; Kester 2004, 2011; Stallabrass 2004); one of the key issues in these debates is the extent to which these relational works are politically engaged in social change. Art historian and critic Claire Bishop describes these works in her essay The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents, “This mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, antimarket, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life.” However, she critiques the emphasis on the ethical practices of the artists rather than the artistic quality of the work.

For these [Bourriaud and Kester] and other supporters of socially engaged art, the creative energy of participatory practices rehumanizes – or at least de-alienates – a society rendered numb and fragmented by the repressive instrumentality of capitalism. But the urgency of this political task has led to a situation in which such collaborative practices are automatically perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: There can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond. While I am broadly sympathetic to that ambition, I would argue that it is also crucial to discuss, analyze, and compare such work critically as art. (Bishop 2006:179–180)

Bishop argues that these works need to be engaged as art, that is, within an art historical discursive and evaluative framework. This line of thought brings up earlier debates within Western art historical discourses about the function of art, the aesthetic and conceptual attributes of specific works of art, and the value of artists and their labor. Is the function of the artist to engage in overt institutional critique? This discussion needs to be considered in terms of the impact on artists and their production as, for example, both funders and academic art institutions encourage independent artists to collaborate with social service organizations. What does this expectation do to emerging artists who are trying to navigate their careers in an environment of entrepreneurial art as social practice?

While I do not mean to argue here whether artists should or should not be involved in social critique or dialogic engagement, my intention is to examine the broader sociopolitical context in which these discussions are taking place, as well as their impact on the working lives of artists.

Is Innovation the New Creativity?

Although the terms “innovation” and “creativity” are often used interchangeably, “innovation” has a slightly different inflection from the term “creativity.” Creativity is typically synonymous with originality, the generation of something new and valued. Innovation, on the other hand, does not need to be completely new and different. Innovation might just be version 2.0, a slight modification that actively steals whatever was learned from the market or design flaws of version 1.0. This embeds the concept of innovation into the marketplace. Diffusion of innovation, or how quickly people adopt a new idea or technology (Rogers 2003), has long been a market interest, with research focusing on early and late adopters and the impact of peer-networks. Innovation that is too advanced for the marketplace can actually be considered a disadvantage. The discourse of innovation today has been embraced as a national endeavour. In President Obama's State of the Union address on January 26, 2011, he explicitly enmeshed notions of American-ness, free enterprise, and innovation: “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. … In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living. Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation.”

Because of the ties between innovation and the market, the concept of innovation typically has not been associated with visual artists in the same manner as creativity. Definitions of creativity as they pertain to visual artists have been focused on the originality of aesthetic and conceptual aspects, and how they extend discourses of Western art history. However, today innovation is making its way into the curriculum of art institutions. At a prominent Bay Area art school, a new MBA in design strategy strives to prepare “the next generation of innovation leaders for a world that is profitable, sustainable, ethical, and truly meaningful. This unique program unites the perspectives of systems thinking, design and integrative thinking, sustainability, finance, entrepreneurship, and generative leadership into a holistic strategic framework.” In many ways, programs such as these can be interpreted as a welcome addition to the typical education of visual artists, when we consider the historical economic disparity of visual artists in the West compared with other professionals with commensurable education and training levels (Wassall and Alper 1992; Menger 1999; Jeffri 2005). However, we also need to consider the wider socio-historical and political-economic landscapes in which these changes are taking place at this moment, for example, by looking at the changes in the university-as-corporation. As anthropologists, we must ask, why these particular shifts, why here and now, and how are they being implemented?

Conclusion: Innovation Drives Industry

The marketing seminars, the statistical data, and the rise of professionalization are evidence that visual artists are being crafted as innovative entrepreneurs and expected to engage in entrepreneurial labor to support – or even create – their artistic work. This entrepreneurial artist, in addition to generating ideas and producing art, ideally must also be able to fundraise, advertise, collaborate, perform, network, and be engaged in civic projects. For visual artists, this presents numerous challenges, ranging from how they are able to distinguish themselves from other people who engage in similar practices, to how they promote themselves and actually sell their work, to whether or not they are able to adapt to current expectations. When viewed in this context, recent trends toward socially engaged artistic practice need to be considered carefully. Because the visual arts in Western historical trajectories have been integrated with notions of art as personal expression, artistic subjectivity as naturalized, and how an artist might, as Judith Butler (2005) puts it, “give an account of oneself,” the possible dangers in embedding the market as a central activity and focus of artistic practice become apparent. When art is popularly described as a human instinct or, as Lehrer put it in the introduction, art “teaches us about what is vital about the mind and what life is all about,” then the stakes for those who are the artmakers is already quite high. Furthermore, if the marketplace becomes the hub from which these “vital” ideas manifest, if artists are asking whether their new ideas are viable through crowdfunding or appealing to arts organizations because they are socially relevant or statistically valid, what projects will forever remain on the table or in the studio?


I am indebted to the informants who generously participated in this research. I am also grateful to Tania Ahmad, Hannah Appel, Amy Berk, Michael Chibnik, Lydia Nakashima Degarrod, Adrian de la Pena, Mark Dutcher, Paulla Ebron, Jim Ferguson, Ayya Gunasari, Miyako Inoue, Liisa Malkki, Gordon Markham, Mick Markham, Ramah McKay, Zhanara Nauruzbayeva, Kevin O'Neill, Anne Pycha, Arnd Schneider, Suzanne Tan, M. Gabriela Torres, Izzie and Tika Win, Maw Shein Win, U Shein Win, Jon Winet, Sylvia Yanagisako, the anonymous reviewers, and Anthropology of Work Review editor Sarah Lyon for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this work. A version of this article was originally presented on the “Artistic Employ and Aesthetic Production” panel at the 2011 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting.


  1. 1

    “Kickstarter Basics,” Kickstarter website, accessed February 2, 2010,

  2. 2

    The San Francisco Arts Commission, the Center for Cultural Innovation, LINC: Leveraging Investments in Creativity, Grants for the Arts, Helicon, the Wallace Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation were the organizations that sponsored the January 28, 2010 conference, “Dynamic Adaptability: New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts.” The Wallace Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation, Grants for the Arts, East Bay Community Foundation, City of Oakland, and the San Jose Cultural Office sponsored “Continue the Conversation: Bay Area Cultural Participation,” which I attended on December 2, 2008.

  3. 3

    I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer who noted that these funding reductions “significantly influence the contemporary context in which the market dominates artistic production and necessitates an entrepreneurial attitude among artists.”

  4. 4

    Culture industries and creative industries have sometimes been used interchangeably. Horkheimer and Adorno (1994) originally used the term “cultural industries” to refer to industrially produced commercial entertainment – broadcasting, film, publishing, recorded music – as distinct from the subsidized “arts” – visual and performing arts, museums and galleries. Most definitions of the cultural industries are based around a combination of five main criteria – creativity, intellectual property, symbolic meaning, use value, and methods of production (Galloway and Dunlop 2007).

  5. 5

    The conference, “Beyond Dynamic Adaptability: How Changing Participation is Changing the Arts,” was held on October 24, 2011, by Grants for the Arts, the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Wallace Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation.

  6. 6

    Center for Cultural Innovation, accessed November 1, 2011,

  7. 7

    “Million Grant To Bay Area Arts,” the Wallace Foundation press release, accessed October 30, 2007,

  8. 8

    The National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP), accessed November 1, 2011,

  9. 9

    The leadership group on cultural statistics (LEG-Culture) was set up by the Statistical Programme Committee in March 1997 in response to a request from Member States with a mandate for building up a system of coherent and comparable information at EU level that could contribute to a better understanding of the links between culture and socio-economic development” (Guidelines for Measuring Cultural Participation, by Adolfo Morrone, UNESCO Institute for Statistics, December 2006). There are eight cultural domains: artistic and monumental heritage, archives, libraries, books and press, visual arts, architecture, performing arts, and multimedia. For these domains, there are three primary types of participation: attending/receiving, performance/production by amateurs, and interaction.

  10. 10

    From “Creative Industries Mapping: Where have we come from and where are we going?” Peter Higgs and Stuart Cunningham. Creative Industries Journal, Volume 1 Number 1 © 2008 Intellect Ltd.

  11. 11

    Other examples include an executive director from a local gallery, who told me artists who are “more organized and aggressive,” that is, those who send their materials promptly and clearly are the ones she chooses to work with. These artists demonstrate a level of professionalism, as well as being adept with digital practices, as today most galleries expect artist packets in digital formats. Another curator of a group show told me that she was surprised that the most professionally successful artist was the first to respond to her request for a digital image, whereas the other artists in the group show, who were less well known (and therefore would benefit more from the exposure and proximity to the more well-known artist), took several days to respond to the curator's request. This could also indicate that artists who learned to respond more quickly to requests for information were having more professional success.

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    “Mentor and tutor to the Goldsmiths graduates (including Damien Hirst), Professor Michael Craig Martin reputedly encouraged the students to consider the partying and networking they had to do to promote their art as a vital part of the work, not as something separate. He also insisted that artistic values were not incommensurate with entrepreneurial values. To some extent this more openly commercial approach is also part of the logic of breaking down the divide between high and low culture. If, for example, art is not such a special and exceptional activity, if it ought not to see itself as superior to the world of advertising, then what is to stop the artists from expecting the same kind of financial rewards, expense accounts and fees as the art directors inside the big agencies? The new relation between art and economics marks a break with past anti-commercial notions of being creative. Instead young people have exploited opportunities around them, in particular their facilities with new media technology and the experience of ‘club culture sociality’ with its attendant skills of networking and selling the self and have created for themselves new ways of earning a living in the cultural field” (McRobbie 2002:520–521).

  13. 13

    We invite artists to create exclusive limited editions with us based on the artists' career, his relevance in today's artworld discourse, as well as our members' preferences. We never commission works that we would not want to collect ourselves' (, accessed on December 4, 2011).

  14. 14

    Precedents of aspects of relational art exist in Western art historical contexts, for example, in the found-object works of the Dada artists and in the performance-based and conceptual works of the Fluxus and Happenings movements of the 1960s–1970s (Lippard 1997; Kwon 2004).