Does the pressure of your debts distract you from your daily work?
Has the pressure of your debts ever caused you to consider getting drunk?
Do you justify your debts by telling yourself that you are superior to the “other” people, and when you get your “break” you’ll be out of debt overnight?
– Debtors Anonymous, from the 15 Questions
Here’s the idea: an art “fair” open to anybody, where there are no dealers, no formal or aesthetic considerations, no value placed on the ideas behind the artworks or the reputation of the artists involved. The only thing that matters is the amount of each artist’s debt, and where they owe money. Works are hung in groupings by creditor, i.e. all the artists in a particular group are indebted to the same bank or university. Works are sold in “bundles,” like financial derivatives, and priced according to the artists’ monthly debt payments.
Sounds swell, right?
Debtfair, a New York-based organization that is a project of Occupy Museums (which grew out of Occupy Wall Street), is currently inviting artists to come clean about their personal balance sheet for an upcoming exhibition at the Art League Houston. Somewhat in the same spirit as W.A.G.E. (the movement for fair payments to artists that the Art League initially sponsored in Houston), Debtfair is an opportunity for artists to commiserate about their financial, if not existential, struggles. For most older artists, this means decades of underpaid work. For younger artists, this means the crushing burden of school loans. A quick look at the Debtfair website reveals young artists with over $100,000 debt, mostly due to student loans (as Debtfair points out, 7 of the 10 most expensive colleges, adjusted for financial aid, are art schools).
My primary debt is student loan debt, which I pay a very low monthly payment on a monthly basis. Because I am on the Income Based Repayment plan, my payment fluxuates according to my yearly income. Therefore, I try to make sure I make as little money as possible. – Lucas Berd, debtfair.org
In an open letter to Houston artists, the organizers of Debtfair acknowledge that their concept may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For one thing, the exhibition sounds like coddling—your debt is not your fault, honey, so let’s all share a big group hug about it. For another thing, debt is highly personal. It’s unseemly in our society to discuss it, but it’s this very secrecy that Debtfair seems designed to address. Indeed, the primary goal of Debtfair seems to be to reduce the shame associated with debt by asking artists to come clean about the topic, much like the “searching and fearless inventory” that Debtors Anonymous asks of its members as part of its 12 Steps.
The sense of shame often associated with debt has been a roadblock in creating the solidarity necessary to challenge the institutions that profit from ever higher loans. Debtfair proposes to engage these challenges directly and explicitly. – Debtfair
Clearly, an exhibition at Art League Houston is not going to affect usurious tuitions and lending practices by universities, banks, and indeed the US government. There is also a reasonable argument to be made that Americans struggling with debt need to stop acting helpless about it: you got yourself into this mess, you can get yourself out. I’ll be interested to see whether Debtfair gives participating artists any tools to address their debt load, or if it’s just a hodgepodge exhibition that fosters a chorus of complaining about the big, bad, vague forces of indebtedness that are simply forcing us to live beyond our means.
[To younger artists who are facing the decision to go to graduate school: my advice is that you should not go into serious debt (and by serious I mean more than $10K) for a graduate degree. You’ll never pay it back if you’re working as an artist—even the most established, successful artists experience financial struggle after they’ve seemingly “made it,” sometimes for extended periods of time. You should go to a cheaper school and/or wait for a free ride. A $75,000 MFA isn’t worth it, from any school, period. Don’t mortgage your future. Don’t count on being an art-market darling. Don’t think you’ll get a teaching job (which half the time will suck your soul dry and make you a worse artist anyway). Don’t listen to people who say you’ll never amount to anything as an artist without a fancy MFA. If you’re talented and resourceful and committed, it’s likely that you will—and anyway, plenty of artists with fancy MFAs don’t amount to squat. Again: wait for the free ride, or go somewhere cheap and make the most of it. Knowing your art history inside and out is half the battle, and you don’t need a degree for that.]
And if you already have a crushing load of school or other unsecured debt, well, you can take part in Debtfair and lock arms with your fellow indebted artists in solidarity. The deadline for their call for entries is October 30.
You can even participate anonymously. Remember: the first step is admitting you have a problem.