Katie and Steve speak with Jay Sanders, Executive Director and Chief Curator of Artists Space, a vanguard artist-centered arts nonprofit, founded in 1972 and located in New York City, about the devastating impact of the pandemic shutdown on small arts nonprofits, as well as the inspiration and community being cultivated in this moment of hardship.
Steve Schindler: Hi, I’m Steve Schindler.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.
Steve Schindler: Welcome to the Art Law Podcast, a monthly podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: The Art Law Podcast is sponsored by the law firm of
Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP, a premier litigation and art law boutique in New York City.
Steve Schindler: Hi, Katie.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Hi, Steve. So we’re back again. COVID episode number two.
Steve Schindler: What are we doing today?
Katie Wilson-Milne: Today, we’re going to talk about smaller arts nonprofits. So we talked about museums with Max Anderson on our last episode, and we’re going to talk about similar issues today but affecting other types of arts nonprofits, non-museums and the really great impact that this pandemic and its related shutdowns have had on many smaller institutions and artists that they interact with.
So just as some background, Americans for the Arts, which is a well-known advocacy organization for the art sector, they have reported that financial losses to nonprofits arts organizations are estimated to be almost $5 billion. These organizations have also lost 208 million admissions due to cancelled events resulting in $6.6 billion lost. And the economic impact of these losses is $1.9 billion dollars in lost government revenue and 328,000 jobs that are no longer bring supported. Now, out of 11,000 survey responders, 95 percent reported cancelled events, 66 percent expect this crisis to have a severe impact on their organization, 29 percent reduced their artistic workforce, 24 percent reduced staff with 42 percent likely to reduce staff, and 10 percent are not confident that they can survive the pandemic. Just for some additional insight into what artist and creatives themselves are going through in this time, they are some of the most severely affected workers. 62 percent have become fully unemployed, and the average financial loss per artist or creative worker is about $24,000. Nationally, they expect to lose $50.6 billion in income in 2020. And out of almost 16,000 survey responses, 95 percent of these artists and creatives reported lost income. So this is appearing to have a very serious effect on the art world, not just the for-profit art world. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about today, Steve, and we have a very great guest.
Steve Schindler: Wow. Yes, we do. Those are staggering numbers by the way, and I think one of the things — it caught my eye when I saw it, was just how rapidly the numbers are jumping up so you can see an uptick of over a billion dollars within two or three weeks. It keeps going up, and I don’t know where the end is. But I can’t think of a better person actually to talk to us about this today than our guest, Jay Sanders, who is the executive director and chief curator of Artists Space. Many of our listeners are no doubt aware of Jay’s many accomplishments but to list a few, before joining Artists Space in 2017, Jay was a curator of performance at the Whitney Museum, and before that, a director of Greene Naftali gallery in New York City. He’s been a curator of projects at White Columns along with key roles at several other New York-based arts nonprofits. And among his curatorial achievements, he co-curated with Elizabeth Sussman, the acclaimed Whitney Biennial in 2012. So welcome to the podcast, Jay. It’s great to see you remotely, at least.
Jay Sanders: Thank you so much, Steve and Katie. It’s great to be here.
Steve Schindler: So Jay, for our listeners, many of whom are familiar with you and with Artists Space, but for those who aren’t, just tell us a little bit about the history of Artists Space and its mission today.
Jay Sanders: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, as some listeners may know, Artists Space was founded in 1972 in downtown New York City. And I think it really represents one of the most fundamental bedrock alternative arts nonprofits in the city. And it was— so it was in this generation with The Kitchen and with 112 Greene Street, which became White Columns, PS1. These were the almost community-organized, artist-driven arts institutions that kind of captured the zeitgeist of the 1970’s in New York. And I think, fundamentally, they were formed because the more, say, established parts of the art world, the museum context or the commercial galleries, were not equipped to keep pace with experimental art practice. And so, you know, in our early days, critical discourse, installation art, new media, expanded cinema, punk music, like these things were really centered around Artists Space and these other organizations I mentioned.
And so from its genesis, its function was as a community organization to support emerging artists that would not have platforms otherwise. And I think then, era by era, generation by generation, that mission stays true, but it complexifies itself in myriad ways as the art world becomes increasingly more complex, I guess I’d say. So that’s maybe just a quick way to kind of account for the early beginnings and, sort of, the mission.
Steve Schindler: Sure. And it’s somewhat ironic, I guess, that we’re sitting here talking today in our remote locations only several months after Artists Space re-opened its beautiful new space in Tribeca. And I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that space and what it means and —
Jay Sanders: Definitely, yeah. Artists Space has always been in the SoHo/Tribeca area and has moved around. This is the sixth location in nearly 50 years. But, Steve, as you say, this is kind of, in a way, the most substantive, beautiful, voluminous space we’ve ever had. We undertook a very ambitious building campaign over the last two and half years, renovated this fantastic two-floor ground floor cellar space in Cortlandt Alley between Walker and White Street and basically in December, kind of momentously opened our biggest, most prominent space ever.
So after a year of being closed, and then this kind of tremendous fundraising effort that really called on everyone in our community, artist, patrons, foundations. We had a three and half months of inaugural programming, and then we’ve had to stop now for the time being.
Steve Schindler: Yeah. No and, I guess looking back on it, it’s of course very lucky that we were able to do that the time that we did, but now, a little sad that it’s sitting vacant. Well let’s talk a little bit about Artists Space as a kind of typical smaller nonprofits organization. And we want to, sort of, move toward the strategies that it’s employing at this very moment to deal with the pandemic. But how so you raise money? Where does it come from? How does the organization support itself in normal times?
Jay Sanders: Right. So it’s a healthy mix, our funding sources. So we get some money from government, we get some significant money from private foundations, a very strong individual giving pool of our close friends and donors and supporters and board. And then, some work with artists directly, so primarily the sale of editions, where artists that have a history with Artists Space or who we invite or compel to be a part of a project will make an artwork edition and then we’ll sell that and benefit the organization. So it’s primarily these four avenues.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And, Jay, for the private donations, who are those people typically, other than board members? Are they collectors? What is their engagement and involvement in the art world?
Jay Sanders: Artists Space is so unique because in a way, it’s a young artist coming to New York as often like a point of first entry, so you’re immediately in a community around critical dialogues, public events, performances, exhibitions. So I would say the patrons often care a lot about emerging artists, and there’s an interest just in a kind of ecology of the field. But a lot would-be collectors, gallerists, artists that have a history and legacy with Artists Space. It’s broad, and our board is sort of half artists, which has been since the founding of Artists Space, kind of an informal mandate that there be a strong presence of artists and creatives on the board as a kind of moral compass and guide for the organization and then also patrons. And those with sort of special skills that aid the organization.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yeah, like Steve.
Jay Sanders: Yes, yeah, exactly. Very special skills.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Yes. For our listeners who many not remember, Steve is the President of the board at Artists Space, so he’s obviously a great asset.
Steve Schindler: And I get to work with Jay. So, now that we’ve complimented each other, actually, Jay, you were quoted in a recent article in ARTnews as saying with respect to Artists Space’s audience. You say, “Our audience tends to the people with a real investment in art, so there’s a kind of committedness and tenacity.” And I love that sort of phrase, the sort of committedness and tenacity, and I suspect that in these times that that’s really what will make a difference.
Jay Sanders: Yeah, I feel that too, and we’re in touch with — our patrons are our friends, and so there’s a lot of dialogue right now. Everyone’s staying close to our organization, which is very meaningful right now. And I think if you’re drawn to support a place like Artists Space, you care a lot about the interior machinations of the art world and how the — and these organizations that are built fundamentally to support and give artists platforms, so I do feel like we have a great circle of supporters.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Jay, so in normal times, when you’re spending the money you take in, what does your budget look like? What are you spending money on? Tell us a little bit about how many staff members you have, just sort of what does the organization look like in terms of its operations?
Jay Sanders: I can stay staff first, so staff for the past few years has been around eight core members, mostly full time and a couple part-time, and that stayed about the same. So I think we’re actually a little on the small side for our scale of operation. Operating budget, it’s been such a kind of exemplary few years because of this big building campaign, but we were looking at just over $2 million budget for next fiscal year. This year was like 1.9, but it only represented seven months of programming because of what would have been the period of the opening in December instead of at the start of the fiscal year. So we’re roughly a $2 million organization.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And your programming is art exhibitions and talks and events, public engaging?
Jay Sanders: Yeah, and I wonder if other nonprofits would feel this way? I feel like in the last two months, I never had to go back to the basics of how nonprofits operate as much as I have had to right now. Even when we talk to the foundations that are interested and want to support us or board members or collectors, you know, to kind of really be extremely transparent and tactile about how we are operate. It feels like more than ever, you need to kind of express this. So yeah, for us, it’s like we have a fantastic situation with our new building, but we pay rent each month, which is significant. We have a core staff that’s totally dedicated and we made a commitment not to furlough or lay anybody off, which I’m so glad that an organization of our size can make that commitment because I know others have not been able to. And then incidental costs, but then the lion’s share of our budget goes to artistic production, I would say. Artists Space, in the last decade has sort of been at the frontend of really paying artist equitably for their work, whether that’s for performances or talks or exhibitions. We’re certified by W.A.G.E., which is this organization, Working Artists for a Greater Economy, and that actually came out of early workshop work that took place at Artists Space. And so if you have an art show in Artists Space, you get a fee regardless of any sales or transaction with the work. Same with if you give a talk or — so artistic fees are a big part of what we do. So I looked in our — from December to March, we’ve paid $36,000 in artist fees in three and half months, and that’s sort of indicative of that. And then, we pay production, so shipping, manifestation of people’s work. If we do public events and performances, we really take on the lion’s share of the production role so that’s hiring in sound engineers and tech and infrastructure. And so we tend then to produce at a high value and then make our events as accessible as possible, so we tend to not charge mission either. You know, we’re not like a performing arts organization that has a revenue model based on tickets sales as much, so it really is this kind of friends, supporters, these other forms that then create an operating pool that then allow us to do all these exhibitions and programs all year long.
Steve Schindler: Right. I mean, it’s interesting that we don’t have retail sales. We don’t have admissions. We don’t sell things. And I know with museums, that is a component of their revenue and what they’ve lost, although we were talking to Max Anderson on the last episode, and as he indicated that’s not a major part of museum revenue but it is still significant. Maybe you could just also talk a little bit about that little known, or less known, work that Artists Space does in the education space, because I think that’s also important and will be impacted now as well.
Jay Sanders: Yeah. I’m so glad you bring that up. And this has been a long-standing aspect of Artists Space now coming on 20 years, which is that we have three partner schools in New York City, and we have teaching artists working there and are basically providing arts education in schools that wouldn’t otherwise have it. So a lot of that is middle school portfolio preparation, helping students getting into arts high schools, there’s photography, there’s poetry, there’s a kind of sound class with really fantastic artists that are going and teaching in these often challenging conditions. And of course, it’s something we care very much about, but you made a good point, Steve, it has less of a public face than a lot of what you see at 11 Courtland Alley, in our new building. But that’s been very, very effected. And in some of the schools, we deal with — even there has been issues of getting computers to students. It wasn’t a given that the homes would have laptops. Every year, we do a beautiful book, this kind of publication of all their collected work, and that’s taking place right now actually. So we’re looking at maybe a physical book but also a kind of e-book this year to make its distribution a lot easier.
Katie Wilson-Milne: You’re kind of identifying two important streams of purpose that Artists Space has, which I think is fairly common among many smaller arts nonprofits that have survived as long as Artists Space. One is you pay for your own operations and staff and the building, but you’re also providing public services. And those are both streams that are frustrated and endangered, I think, for many organizations right now: the ability to pay staff, pay rent, stay alive, but also provide those critical services to others. So there’s these two streams of loss that are occurring, and I think this is a good time to start talking about what the arts nonprofits landscape, at least in New York City, looks like right now, given this shut down that we’re living under and for a while longer or recurrent. So, I don’t know, what are you seeing right now in terms of the peer organizations and the landscape in New York? And then we can talk about a little bit more about Artists Space.
Jay Sanders: Maybe I’ll say something positive first, actually. And the silver lining around peer organizations is I’ve never felt more togetherness and communication and, kind of, affinity and sharing of means and information. So I’m on like many different cohort kind of Zooms per week. One is this kind of culture at 3:00. It’s like big civic organizations and parks and performing arts organizations, and this is like every day at 3:00pm. And they’re figuring out how to do the PPP and many issues about reopening and civic advocacy, and that’s a kind of very broad network of nonprofits that meets and discusses these things every single day. And it’s really comforting to tune in to that and have questions answered. There’s a shared Google Drive with a lot of information. Then, I’m in discussions with organizations our size in New York once a week, then another call with larger museums and all. And everyone is really open and expressing a lot of goodwill and collaboration, and so I think — if anything, this has been one of the most positive things. It’s sort of — we’re thinking differently, and there’s been a collective fundraising efforts, so smaller organizations getting together and making asks to foundations who maybe haven’t funded at the scale but could fund a cohort altogether, more like they would fund a museum or something. And so the togetherness among executive directors and leadership of these institutions has been really heartening. That’s been great. The big thing is New York is such a social dynamic city of togetherness and gatherings. The galas and fundraising dinners and these kinds of social events that we rely on so much, that was wiped out completely. So for Artists Space, we have a May friends of Artists Space dinner, which also is a kind of yearly, sort of, informal trigger of our friends renewal and support renewal. That of course won’t happen. And I know organizations that have one or two galas a year are really struggling, because it’s such a strong mechanism of gaining yearly support. So on the fiscal side, it’s that, and I think foundations are really stepping up and I think especially in the early days, for the New York Community Trust or foundations that we work with. Like there was immediate response from some — VIA is a great foundation that has given us an incubator grant, and they called me very soon after this all hit and kind of asked me and other organizations, like, “What would you need right now?” And they had made some emergency funding and things like that. So I think there is a kind of beautiful, very poignant, like, reaction with foundations. But we all anticipate that this will be harder next year. That as those organization are replenishing their resources, a year, two years, may be harder even than right at this moment. And then at the patron level, I feel like with those that are closest to you, I think they stay close and do what they can do and even do more and become more involved and more kind of protective of your well-being as an organization. But as we all look to grow and diversify and expand our support, I think it’s going to be harder to attract new support right now, clearly. Like, I think those that are in a position to are staying closest to the organizations they are most involved and intimate with. I see that in a lot of my peer discussions, whether that’s with museums or other nonprofits, they’re kind of immediate conditions of fundraising right now.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So because new funders may be a little more worried about expanding their output in a way that they wouldn’t have been before?
Jay Sanders: Yeah. And the need is so great for the organizations they already care about. I was on a call yesterday with a friend, who’s a museum curator, and she was remembering like our Jana Euler opening a couple of months ago, and she’s like, “I’ve never been to a more crowded opening.” And it’s hard to imagine, like, when will that happen again? You know, things along those lines. And for us, so much of our fundraising and our audience work is like this magnetism of our space and togetherness and sharing of artistic experience and ideas and for fundraising, too. It’s driven a lot by the events we do, whether that’s public programs, exhibitions, but also special events we do for our supporters and things. So much of our yearly work including fundraising is driven programmatically and for that to be so halted right now is really challenging.
Steve Schindler: Right. And you know one of the things you said which just sort of struck me, the remark about the opening being the most crowded that your friend has ever seen, and now that’s so problematic, right? I mean, that’s what these arts organizations, certainly exhibition spaces, have to navigate in the days going forward is that the idea of a crowded opening is not in the cards for the immediate future. So how is Artists Space retooling itself a little bit to continue to stay present and relevant to the people depending on it without having crowded openings?
Jay Sanders: As you’re saying it, I cannot have two thoughts about that. I mean, in the immediate, we have two really fantastic exhibitions up: Jana Euler, which I mentioned, and then this milestone, historical exhibition around the playwright, Adrienne Kennedy that Hilton Als organized for us, and this has been two years in the making. When those shows closed, we had to delay a dozen public programs, a lot of kind of energy around them. So the first thing we did is try to find ways that those shows could exist online and there’d be some kind of experience of them in the moment that even though you can’t come to Artists Space. So in Jana’s case, we called her and asked her what she wanted to do, and she had this idea for actually — if someone wants to go our website, artistspace.org and look up Jana Euler’s show, you find these very eerie videos that she had us shoot of these giant slug sculptures, which are the kind of main protagonists of her exhibition, and they’re on bungee and kind of moving because they’re made to be kinetic. And so you see them almost as if they were filming their own selfies, living in this kind of empty evacuated space. So she chose to take her own work and make a short video that acknowledged the change in condition and the change in viewpoint in a kind of simple but affecting way. And then with Hilton, he had given a short walkthrough of this really dense Adrienne Kennedy exhibition that we did as a public program, and we took the audio to that and worked pretty extensively and made about a ten-minute documentary of the whole exhibition. So kind of through the archival material, the photographs, the ephemera in the cases, and then Hilton’s voice, we were able to put out a short film that gives you a virtual experience of the show. So those were at least to make those shows somewhat visible. And then it seemed important to us to look to initiatives that were already existing in the city, I guess. Our first thought was not to rush to create novel online content but to try to support things that we cared a lot about that already exist. So we’ve been in discussion with this great poetry organization called Segue, which has, not unlike Artists Space, been doing readings for almost 40 years, first at the Ear Inn and then Double Happiness, Zinc Bar. It’s been a kind of experimental reading, poetry performance, fiction, artistic writing series for four decades and so that stopped. They couldn’t do their work at Zinc Bar every Saturday at five so we’d been talking to them about a future collaboration, but we realized we should just accelerate that. So we agreed to host that ourselves now, so every Saturday at 5:00 on Zoom, Artists Space is hosting the Segue series. It’s sort of like we made an immediate partnership with a smaller organization to present poetry, and that actually translates very well by Zoom. We’ve had great attendance and the poets and the curators get paid. There’s support for artists in that. So that was a quick one. We do a series of dialogues, which is a long-standing program where a thinker invites three artists or intellectuals and does a series of talks. We’re probably going to launch that in July after the Segue series. So we’re trying to kind of virtualize and find ways to do things we’re already doing as opposed to king of inventing specifically online content. And I think this is going to carry forward to the reopening, because it’s clear as we’re seeing galleries in Germany or in other parts of Europe reopening, it’s not a joyous return to form, like, people can be together. Like to your point, Steve, like, no big openings. It’s this more tepid, individualized, isolated experience with art, which is still totally valuable, but it’s going to be more individual than social. So we will reopen our shows and make those exhibitions available as soon as we possibly can. But I think public programs are going to have to kind of deal with this hybridity that I think is being created by our online platforms now. So I can imagine, if we ever do public programs in the fall they’ll have a strong broadcast component, where like if you’re able to come and if we’re able to safely produce an event for a smaller audience publicly, it would have a strong element where it could also be viewed from home. And I just think for the near future, that’s going to be the future of public artistic events. I don’t see — unless they’re really limited in audience number, it’s going to — so many people will be foreclosed from attending the events in the fall, so I see things we’re doing now are going to carry to the future for sure.
Katie Wilson-Milne: How are you seeing the response to that transition in terms of audience? I mean, are you seeing your audience being nimble enough to adapt and consume the content you’re now putting online or generating online? Or is there, you know, what I can kind of see and feel myself: it’s different to make time to go somewhere and show up, you know, first of all put on real clothes and get on the subway and go somewhere, and you have it in your calendar, and then you’re going out to dinner afterwards or whatever and getting an email saying, “Log in at seven o’clock from your apartment.” It has a very different feeling. So what is your observation either with your own programming or generally about how audiences for this kind of programming are transitioning?
Jay Sanders: I mean, so far, I think it’s a kind of stand-in, and it’s — I’ve been to a few interesting, like, music events, or one artist talk and then the work we’re doing with poetry and Segue, but it’s not been a good — I don’t feel like it’s been a replacement for the experience of being at these events. And everything you say is so right. And I think it’s such a traumatic, like, rupturous moment, like, not everybody is in the mood to, like, tune in and have an artistic experience right now. It’s like really hard to even maybe, let yourself do that. And everyone’s dealing with different conditions in their lives so there is an audience coming and it’s fairly sizeable, but I wouldn’t think it’s comprehensively replacing or standing-in totally effectively for the experience of just what you described of like — and, you know, it’s why we all live in New York. It’s like this is not the easiest city by any means to live in, and culture is a huge, huge aspect of what makes this city attractive at all. And in real life, that’s like the dynamism of our days and evenings and all the planned and unplanned things that happen around our, like, experience with art and culture. So yeah, I mean it’s there and it’s providing content and I’m pleased that we’re paying artists some things and I’m proud that we’re doing some of this. But I agree. It’s like, there’s a sadness that we’re doing it another way for sure.
Steve Schindler: Right.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Also it strikes me that one thing you said, sort of articulated something that’s been percolating for me, which is maybe we, as people who live in New York, are less special now, right? Because of course, I mean, we were never that special, but we think we are.
Jay Sanders: Yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So any program you used to do, you had to be kind of near to go right? And Steve and I can take the subway there, so we can get there. And that’s the special thing about choosing to live in New York. But now, like, so many things that are wonderful about New York going out to eat, going to the theatre, any cultural consumption is now online and you could live anywhere in the world and share that experience just the same way we are but perhaps in a larger home with a yard, like me.
Jay Sanders: Right.
Katie Wilson-Milne: So it’s a fundamental shift in terms of that — of what it means to consume culture in New York.
Jay Sanders: Yeah. But I think there’s clear limitations. It’s like the artists that really work deeply in their form, in choreography or in painting or in installations — like artists are masters of the conditions of their own work, and you can’t approximate so much of that in a virtual space. So I think like many artists just aren’t working right now. I guess I’d say they’re just not able to actually do the thing that they do and some will morph and kind of may choose to transpose aspects of that into kind of like a virtual experience. But I feel like a lot of artists that I talk to just aren’t because without context, there aren’t the conditions to, like, generate what makes their work so amazing. It’s like we’re — only so much can happen in this other way. So certain things are happening and certain things aren’t.
Steve Schindler: Can we sort of explore that a little bit, Jay? Because I really do want to talk a little bit about how this global shutdown is affecting artists and is the inability to create new work, is it tied to their sort of physical limitations? Is it tied to anxiety? Is it tied to the lack of exhibition space for the work? How are they being affected?
Jay Sanders: Yeah. I think like all of the above. I mean, I’ve talked to quite a few artists who’ve had half a year wiped out. So if you were invited to be in a biennial, or a group exhibition or do a project or go do a site visit or like all the things — artists are so precarious and even artists with a lot of invitations and opportunities and gallery support, you know, it’s a gig economy fundamentally. And so to have a season or two or three of that displaced is really, kind of, ravaging. And so I think yeah, without venues without the guarantee and the kind of conditions to create an audience situation, without things like biennials or focused exhibitions that would contextualize work. All these things that’s just — you can make work for Instagram, you can make work for your gallery’s website, or like there’s ways to put things out and that’s been good and kept people active. But I feel like so many artists do rely on context. And it’s like what Artists Space is or what anything is is like this really conditional space of a room and the people that come, and so many of these things only happen in real life. And so yeah, I guess I do feel like it’s a sort of an unprecedented moment where like a year of artistic work is wiped out to some degree, you know, like, isn’t happening. And certain things are able to transpose online but it’s commissions for performing arts works, especially that kind of work, live work. I feel like I’ve been on discussions where it’s like clear that theaters probably won’t open in 2020. Between actor equity and the conditions to even have a group in a theatre room or a cinema space or something. So that’s like almost a year of non-production for that entire industry, and visual art, to a different degree, but like, to be able to walk in and look at a painting. I know like MoMa made some announcement plans today about what their reopening would look like, and it’s like they’re going to not have wall labels because you can’t actually have people congregate around a text on the wall, be near each other. So you have to reconfigure the way people go look at a picture or like direct themselves to the same thing; like all that’s going to have to be managed in such a different way. And so much of the enjoyment of visual art experience is like being self-directed and all that, too. So I’m glad that you brought that up, too, at the beginning, Katie, because I do think, like, it’s very meaningful to talk about institutions, and we’re scrambling to keep our institutions afloat, but we’re really concerned about the toll it’s taking on working artists. And I’m seeing similar numbers like the unemployment, like the total lack of income and then total lack of platforms for articulating your vision right now. So it’s really — it’s decimating on all levels.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I think that’s a really important point. I mean, Steve and I know, just as you do, Jay, that many arts nonprofits if not — I mean certainly most in New York City operate on very thin margins, right? And they — every year, they’ve got to raise money from people and foundations that are competing with many, many other similar organizations. Like, I worry very much about the ecosystem of the arts nonprofit, that 501(c)(3) needs to raise money instead of a foundation that just has it. And yet artists don’t get to do that, right? Artists don’t have fund donors. I mean, they have patrons if they are successful, but most artists don’t have anything like patrons. And they don’t have donors. They don’t have foundations giving them money. You know, they’re workers like the rest of us, just in a much more precarious job market. So they don’t have those relationships that you, Jay, have said —
Jay Sanders: Right.
Katie Wilson-Milne: — that are sticking with Artists Space. They don’t have the board; they don’t have the foundation relationship. So there’s much less cushion for artists in this kind of situation, just as there are for many, many workers in the economy.
Jay Sanders: Yeah. And we’ve been thinking, I would say one of the great things about Artists Space is that it is small enough and, kind of, it reconfigures itself often in terms of, like, what it’s supposed to be like what are the true frontiers and sort of frontline issues of any era and any moment, and it can find that. And it’s like that’s sort of its mission. And so what I’m trying to say is that we really — we’re not planned that far out. Meaning like we have an exhibition that was supposed to open in May that will probably open in the fall; but then looking beyond that, I feel I guess somewhat heartened that we can kind of reconfigure quickly to take considerations to some of the things you’re saying. So I’m hoping that means more projects with more artists, even if they’re done in a different way that they aren’t as big of a production that we can put sort of more resources and more artists’ hands, work with more artists that we can pivot to kind of create more opportunities just in terms of sheer numbers. So I don’t know, it’s funny, I was thinking about, like, a place like Artists Space is built on decades of sort of difficult moments and conflict points and catalytic shifts, and so I do think like our nimbleness in all these makes us very essential and sort of invaluable to a reopening plan because we can quickly configure how we work with artists in a way that hopefully does support them in a sort of adept, fast considered way. But of course, I mean, even if we’re working with many artists, it’s minuscule in terms of the kind of overall loss in our sector. But we’re doing our best, because I think bigger museums are going to be in a situation where they’re going to be doing more collection shows and working with things that they have and sort of pushing exhibitions to like longer time frames. So probably it means less special opportunities, less kind of gig economy work and sort of ancillary work and less commissions, and I hope that we can find — we’re trying to find a model where we can, like, amplify those things, but while we’re cutting costs. So that’s maybe in my mind right now is how we’re like as dexterously supporting artists in real time as we can be. Because that’s more what we can do, I mean that’s more kind of in our history.
Steve Schindler: And there are organizations and foundations that are making grants to artists. I don’t know whether you think that’s having an impact or, it’s certainly not sufficient, but whether or not it’s getting money into the hands of artists.
Jay Sanders: I mean, I think it is. I mean clearly like the great example is this kind of combined effort that Foundation for Contemporary Art is overseeing with Warhol and Rauschenberg and many organizations participating in it. But we were following that really closely. I mean, they were inundated with tens of thousands of applications immediately. So it’s clear to your point, like, the number of artists in need is so high. And it’s such a precarious field. And even the artist we know that are showing at galleries and things represent like the smallest portion of that. But I do think honestly, it’s really helpful. And I think like especially these grants that are of more significant amounts of money where it could cover a months’ rent or some lost revenue is essential right now. It’s sort of a depressing moment.
Katie Wilson-Milne: It is. I mean, let’s continue on the depressing train for a minute, and then we’ll try to lift up —
Steve Schindler: Oh, God. Alright.
Katie Wilson-Milne: I mean, you’ve identified, I think, a lot of the casualties of this moment in terms of precarious fundraising, lack of audience engagement or the ability to engage the audience. I had not heard it put this way, but sort of a lost year of artistic production, which is poignant. But I think one thing that in many sectors we’re all wondering about is what will be here on the other end? Is it the case that we’ll just have battered down institutions that need a little time to get back on their feet and everything will eventually get back to normal? Or will there be some part of this sector of arts nonprofit system in cities like New York and L.A. or Chicago that are gone?
Jay Sanders: Yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: What is the survival risk that you’re seeing right now? Not just — not for Artists Space specifically, but just among your cohort of similar organizations, what are the risks and fears in that regard?
Jay Sanders: Yeah, that is such a good question. And I feel like some of that is not visible to us, because we’re in discussions with some organizations but others not. So it’s like, I could tell you about the 30 that I’m talking to every week or something, but I guess I do think the worst of this will be like the next 12 to 24 months, honestly. Like, there is so much kind of reactive work right now, PPP, New York Community Trust — not everybody got those, of course and they were highly competitive and limited resources. And we know the complexities that even just those two initial efforts brought, and this great work that FCA and others are doing to support artists. But I think like, what it looks like in a year from now, two years from now, at least on an organizational level is more stressful to us. How can foundations keep up a kind of higher level of giving over a longer period of time, like, we’re more nervous about that kind of a year out, two years out, and it’s — there’s more —
Katie Wilson-Milne: And what’s the test period? I mean, or what’s the period you think realistically, organizations of your size can hang on? I think —
Jay Sanders: Yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: — again, not specifically Artists Space, because I think you have a unique kind of support, but is it two years, is it a year? Is it six months? What is the period where these organizations can maintain this kind of in between probably like —
Jay Sanders: Yeah, I mean, probably all those increments. I could imagine a really precarious organization like not getting — if you didn’t get this boost of the immediate sort of disaster relief that some of us got, you’d already — you’d be in a very terrible situation right now. But if you have gotten that, you’re sort of like, have a little bit of a cushion. But then I think next year is worse and the year after. It’s such a good question. I wish I had a sort of more concrete answer to what I’m seeing. And it’s more like a feeling. I can’t sort of bring too many concrete examples of things I know that are like, on the brink right now, but I definitely have a lot of fear about that.
Katie Wilson-Milne: And I think like the health consequences, like everything about this, is so unknown. One big thing that’s unknown is what’s going to happen to the economy and the markets over the next year plus. And I can totally see that having an effect that you’re — just as you said, there’s this initial burst of pandemic support, both in terms of those loan programs, but also in terms of individual giving, right? We’re all in this together. It’s terrifying. How do we connect? But people get tired. And they also then get worried about their own portfolios. And how is that going to play out over the next 12 years in terms of philanthropy —
Steve Schindler: 12 months.
Katie Wilson-Milne: 12 months, sorry. Not 12 years.
Jay Sanders: Let’s hope not. Yeah, and I think that that kind of fatigue, too, of like, if it’s going to be a difficult situation, everyone’s going to be experiencing a lot of lost revenue for a year. The fatigue of that for everyone that’s trying to help these organizations is real. It’s like that incessant need — and people are going to be stretched thinner with their support for sure. Yeah, and I do think organizations that rely on gathering, performing arts organizations — I mean, we’re a hybrid because we do sort of half exhibitions, and half public programs and live events, and the live events are a big part of our identity and kind of ontology. And so it’ll just inevitably be more kind of pivoting probably toward more exhibition opportunities and trying to do events in a different way. But if you’re an organization that relies wholly on events and things, it’s going to be really hard.
Steve Schindler: Right. One of the wonderful things about events at Artists Space, and particularly in its new space, is the sort of crowdedness of it. As you said, even going to those amazing performance events in the basement floor of the space with everybody sort of packed in and sitting on the floor and leaning up against walls and — it creates kind of a mood and an excitement that is hard to recreate.
Katie Wilson-Milne: You can’t get that on your couch.
Jay Sanders: Yeah. And I feel like, to me like that’s like — when I think about artistic experiences, they’re always in like dark, weird rooms. And whether it was a music event or a literary event or like some strange performance that’s I guess, I feel like — and that’s such a good point, Steve. Like with this new Artists Space, we actually really wanted to foreground that like this kind of —
Steve Schindler: Right.
Jay Sanders: It’s not a kind of sanitary, like, university-looking room or a museum. It’s like this thing that feels a little bit more like a subcultural kind of authentically, like, industrial space. And so that sort of haunting of it is a lot about what we were feeling in terms of like the mood. And so that’s going to be difficult, you know, more difficult.
Steve Schindler: Do you think that there’s any opportunity, to Katie’s earlier point, that maybe being here in New York is not as special or doesn’t feel as special, because you can experience some of these things from anywhere? Is there any opportunity to expand the audience of an organization like Artists Space or any of these other smaller, more edgy nonprofits outside of the traditional sort of downtown historical audience?
Jay Sanders: Yeah. I mean, that is where like broadcast comes in. Because we’ve seen that with the events we’ve done is like space collapses, so there’s someone in Australia and there’s someone in Berlin and they’re attending an event together. So, I think that creates a different kind of community. And of course with Zoom, you can sort of see all their names, you kind of know who’s in the room or some people keep their screen on or something. So there’s like some sort of pseudo-social thing happening. I mean we work with a lot of international artists, but it’s true. They’re always brought here, make a show, and then that project is for a new York audience. So yeah, I think one advantage of remote of course is like of course the ability to sort of like transcend space. So when we’re thinking about future programmings, we can invite people from very different places to put them in discourse in a way that would be very easy, so definitely. But I feel like the great thing about New York is because it’s such an artistic magnet, like many, many people from all over the world do come every year and so you have an incredibly international audience. But in terms of outputting, most definitely, yeah.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Do you think, Jay — I mean you’re anticipating. Is there either an opportunity or just a reality of a more permanent mission shift for many organizations? I mean, will there be a reframing of purpose going forward that isn’t just temporary, that’s accommodating a new reality or —
Jay Sanders: Yeah, or maybe, more that mission shift, it would be like — it would have to be these kind of programmatic configuration shifts about how to make things visible and accessible. I think, you know, there’s been so much great work with accessibility and thinking about audience much more inclusively, and that does mean like alternate ways of experiencing things. So some of that good work is going into some of this, kind of, virtual space, but I’ve felt more like clinging to our mission. It’s a mission that sort of, like, tells you a lot about how to work in difficult moments, and it is like such a fundamental mission of supporting artists like at beginning points of their career, at points when they’re overlooked or like at cultural moments where like a person’s work would have would have particular relevance to contemporary concerns and things, and I think all of that is very heightened right now. But I think for other kinds of organizations, yes. Maybe some mission shifting might be necessary, of course, because like we just can’t do things the way we have been.
Steve Schindler: And that’s it for today’s podcast. Please subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts and send us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you like what you hear, give us a five star rating. We’re also featuring the original music of Chris Thompson. And finally, we want we thank our fabulous producer, Jackie Santos, for making us sound so good.
Katie Wilson-Milne: Until next time, I’m Katie Wilson-Milne.
Steve Schindler: And I’m Steve Schindler bringing you the Art Law Podcast, a podcast exploring the places where art intersects with and interferes with the law.
Katie Wilson-Milne: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be a source of legal advice. You should not consider the information provided to be an invitation for an attorney-client relationship, should not rely on the information as legal advice for any purpose, and should always seek the legal advice of competent counsel in the relevant jurisdiction.
Music by Chris Thompson. Produced by Jackie Santos.