How do artists live?

The other face of the system, between opting for freedom and economic hardships

Santa Nastro

How do (Italian) artists live? I have been working for about twenty years in the art sector and this is a longstanding problem that we often tend to overlook. We see artists taking part in some great art festival – made up of events, talks, fairs, and exhibitions – but we rarely ask how sustainable things really are for all those who decide to pursue this very difficult career with all its ups and downs.

The problem of visibility

It is often the artists themselves who want to maintain some clear spaces for experimentation, as offered by research exhibitions, critical experiments, the non-profit and independent dimensions, artist-run spaces, voluntary contributions and professional donations linked to good causes. But there is also a grey area, with a wide margin of ambiguity that stretches between opposite poles and positions. The question of visibility – being in a big institutional exhibition, in a big event, a project in a big collection – has for years eaten away at the need for a healthier regulation of the relationship between the various components of the art system’s professional structure. Like other sectors – the problems of the cultural system are only one slice of a phenomenon of much greater significance – there has been a breakdown. Professional dynamics have become more complex, the construction of careers has become much more difficult, unruly behaviour at various levels has ended up becoming the norm, the perception of works and those who make them by the outside public has changed, and the desire to give art a more glamorous allure – today we would say Instagrammable – has ended up further limiting artists’ room for manoeuvre and indeed research.

The very young and the dead

The problem of building an artist’s career swings like a pendulum between two very important phases of life that see them either in a starting position – and therefore in search of experiences, opportunities, and promotions – or a posthumous one, with the possibility of historicisation and working in a more articulated and complex way on the artist’s entire oeuvre. Rather more complex are all the intermediate steps. The arrival to maturity; which, however, is the most interesting part and the one where our country’s future place in the history of art is played out. With it, of course, is the economic issue. At forty, responsibilities and problems increase: creating and maintaining a family, the complication of family relationships, the aging of parents, motherhood and the related problems, the onset of illness: all this requires, if not economic stability, at least coverage. Yet these topics incredibly seem to vanish from the daily narrative that the art system makes of itself and its artists, in a logic of repression (in the psychological sense). This, despite the fact that in recent years a global pandemic has totally swept away the cardinal axes of our certainties, visibly changing our prospects, the meaning of life and of human relationships, and even our agenda. For instance, artistic events, even ones for the market, have been compressed – it cannot be denied – to certain months of the year; new opportunities to meet outdoors have arisen, and travel and the movement of people and things have decreased, not only for environmental reasons, but also in terms of optimisation; the number of calls for funding applications has increased, while many projects and calls with an opening to the international scale have had to take a different form, at least so far as their most recent editions have been concerned. Italian artists have returned to Italian galleries and museums in a substantial way, with a greater presence than in the pre-pandemic world, making us finally discover that Italy has a solid generation of thirty to forty-year-olds who have elaborated mature and up-to-date forms of interpreting the present.

References and generational issues

As already discussed in an article published under my name in Artribune on 2 July 2020, in response to Gian Maria Tosatti, there are also responsibilities that the entire art system shares with artists. One of the mistakes of the thirty-something almost forty-something generation was to always travel alone. When I had the opportunity to listen to lectures, testimonies, to interview or simply meet the protagonists of the arte povera movement, for example, I was struck by the spirit of fraternity and cohesiveness that animated them, even where there had often been disagreements that entered the annals of art history, and even after the death of one or another figure. There was a sense of union that united artists, critics, gallery owners – everyone. By that, I don’t mean that they didn’t have fights, or debates, or problems over money or other things that make people fight. But there was something strong that united them. And that transcended any event that may have happened. I didn’t see that in our generation. Can we say that our “fathers” adopted the ancient method of “divide and conquer”? We can. But there is also doubtless a certain complicity on our part, as well. Too much protection generates loneliness, cynicism, and mistrust: to some it looks like “resistance”, but it looks rather more like falling into habit and resignation. The reference points – the generation of arte povera artists, to continue with the example – were masters, but also cumbersome parents. Our generation has taken such pleasure from their aura and their teaching, but at the same time has demanded little for itself. To the point of having to confront the inevitable difficulties of the present.

Research on this theme

The report compiled by AWI – Art Workers Italia with ACTA – The Freelancers’ Association, provides an overview through 440 interviews, with a sample made up of workers born over the 1980s and 1990s. They reside in northern, central and southern Italy; 60.5% of them are women, 31.5% men, and 8% did not respond or do not recognise themselves in binary divisions. The picture that emerges is that of a highly educated generation, though, we are told “in most cases, it has unstable contracts and therefore little or no protection, as well as incomes that are not proportionate to the skills required and often totally inadequate to guarantee subsistence. For this reason, the vast majority (81%) are forced to do more than one job, both in contemporary art and in other fields”.. This picture of artists is not too different from the data just published by Mirco Di Sandro and Antonio Sanguinetti from their survey on workers in show business, promoted by CLAP – Camere del lavoro autonomo e precario, with RISP – Rete intersindacale professionist* dello spettacolo and ASR – Autorganizzat* dello spettacolo di Roma, focusing on a sample that mainly concerns workers between 36 and 45 years old (33.4%) and the generation immediately below it, between 26 and 35 years old, and referring to 2021.

Io sono cultura, The Symbola and Unioncamere report published in 2021, but concerning 2020 and encompassing the entire system of cultural production, recounts the effects of the pandemic hitting the entire supply chain, “with an 8.1% reduction in wealth production and a 3.5% reduction in employment. A generalized crisis affected activities valorising historical and artistic heritage and show business: the former recorded a contraction of 19.0% in terms of wealth produced and -11.2% in terms of employment; things were even worse for the performing arts, which were down by -26.3% and -11.9% respectively”, as Giulia Ronchi wrote in her reportpublished by Artribune.

The situation is thus a complex one, aggravated by the effects of the pandemic. It also has cascading repercussions on all the gears of the system, with the greatest impact on those who make the whole mechanism turn and yet are at the same time, incredibly, its weakest part: artists.

The future after the pandemic

Much has been done, and much remains to be done. The market – weakened by the effects of the pandemic, by the decrease in dedicated occasions, by the prudence of those looking cautiously toward the coming years, by the tightening of borders, and by the changes already taking place in the international context before COVID – cannot itself offer immediate answers. . Institutions have to play an even more important role at the side of artists and in supporting them. Obviously, there is no lack of opportunities (Movin’ Up, for example, or certain projects promoted by the Culture Ministry, from the Italian Council call to the Grand Tour d’Italie). But the hope is that these opportunities will intensify with the more concrete articulation of a system of relationships between public and private, and the construction of grants, scholarships, and welfare systems, as already happens elsewhere in the world. In addition, there should be platforms launched that promote Italian artists more in the world, and simpler calls for proposals that give the possibility to produce or buy new works, while guaranteeing recognition of the conceptual work, the craft and the professionalism of those who have worked on them. Artists already have very clear ideas. They just need to be listened to.

This article offers a preview of Come vivono gli artisti?, to be published this summer by Castelvecchi Editore, as part of the Fuoriuscita series edited by Christian Caliandro. The book was written after a survey conducted by interviewing more than thirty Italian artists from several generations, but with a greater focus on those born between the 1970s and 1980s.

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