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Why Are Artists Poor? The Exceptional Economy of the Arts

By Hans Abbing | Go to book overview

259 Chapter 11
Informal Barriers Structure the Arts How Free or Monopolized Are the Arts?

Being Selected by the Government

Shortly after graduating from art school Alex applied for a government
grant for visual artists. Everybody does. It would have been unprofessional
not to. He applied because of the money. There are three different types of
grants.1 Each of them offers the artist an amount of money, which is equal
to a year's income in a comparable profession. For an artist, however, a
grant of this sort represents an income for many years to come, given the
low average incomes in the visual arts. No wonder these grants are attrac
tive.

When Alex applied he knew his chances were small. All promising gradu
ates applied; there were four times as many applications as there were
grants. So, he wasn't counting on getting one. In this respect, he was not
too disappointed when he was rejected. In another and unexpected way,
the rejection hit him hard. It hit him in a way no statistical calculus could mit
igate. He felt rejected as an artist. Secretly he had hoped for recognition.
He had hoped that the most significant organization in the Dutch art world,
the government, would say: `All right Alex, we know that nobody is lining up
to buy your drawings, but we can tell that you're a real artist. We want you
to stay in the field.'

So the grants are not only attractive because of the money. In fact, Alex dis
covered that the symbolic attractiveness of the grants exceeded their
immediate financial attractiveness. Since he did not get the grant, he con
tinued to doubt his right to be an artist. Was he a fraud? He thought (and
still thinks) that many unsuccessful artists make bad art. Little would be lost
if they just left the arts. Was he one of them? The rejection lowered his self-
esteem. He could not hide the doubts he harbored about his own art and
that made it all the more difficult for him to find a good gallery. Had he gotten
the grant it would have given him wings. The grant is also important in an
objective way; for instance, if he could add that to his curriculum vitae it
would certainly help convince Dutch gallery owners and collectors of his
worth.

After that first attempt, Alex tried two more times, both unsuccessfully.

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