03/29/2011 06:00 pm ET Updated May 29, 2011

Funding Art Without Compromising the Creative Process

Creative expression does not come cheap. But in spite of surges in public appreciation for art, tangible economic support for creativity -- particularly the most innovative forms -- is still on the back burner.

Since the late eighties and the disembowelment of the National Endowment for the Arts, support for individual visual artists has been primarily a trickle-down exercise. Instead of direct grants, almost all sources taken the NEA's lead and moved the control of granted funds to organizations that support or present the work of artists, with a particular emphasis on artists whose work involves defined educational or community service activities. And being that government and foundation funding for arts and culture is decreasing -- in large part due to many serious social crises that require attention -- this trickled-down pool for artists is in danger of evaporating.

Luckily, businesses and local governments have realized the importance of arts and culture as an essential component in economic development, demonstrating an increased appreciation for artists and their contributions. Artists are no longer mere romantics and eccentrics creating non-essential embellishments to society, but are living, breathing economic stimuli! The municipal incentive is to attract businesses, institutions, and a workforce that will benefit from this innovative artistic population, and especially the visible creative environment it engenders. (Gary P. Steuer's recent Huffington Post article has an interesting analysis of the effect of art on the city of Philadelphia's growth.) Serious attention is thus being paid to the cultivation of artists, now that they are such a valuable commodity.

But any discussion of the economic status of artists and, most importantly, actions taken to improve this status must take into account an important factor: the evolution and current nature of artistic expression in the visual realm.

Most people from outside the immediate art world think of visual art as something that is presented in static form within the confines of a gallery or museum, or outdoors in a fixed space; for this population, evidence of increased numbers of galleries might be interpreted as success in achieving economic well-being for the artistic community. The assumption is that an artist survives by selling work, thus spaces where this enterprise can be conducted -- i.e., where pieces of art that can be presented for transfer of ownership -- is emphasized.

But the reality is different. Fewer and fewer artists are creating work that is manifested as a tangible, commercially viable object, but are instead expressing themselves through conceptual works in new media that are experiential, mutable, or dispersed in the public environment -- which includes not only shared physical spaces but the collective commons engendered by the web and mobile technology.

In many ways this type of work, that which is accessible within the public realm, fits completely with the notion of a creative environment, and carries great value in that role. Visitors to an urban center would certainly perceive a vital culture of creativity by having multiple encounters with art experiences that are interspersed throughout the city in surprising ways -- maybe more so than if they simply see a confined "district" with a concentration of art galleries.

The problem is that artwork created without the factor of physical ownership or tradability, but which instead contributes to the overall public environment, almost never brings direct financial payback to the artist, unless perhaps it is part of a organizationally-driven, fully funded program or special project -- and even then, the number of artists working in such forms far exceeds the number of programs.

A solution that enables the artist working in the non-object realm is to receive compensation (and avoid starvation) without compromising his or her vision might be to change the transactional focus from the creation (artwork) to creator (artist) and, most critically, to set up a system or program of direct financial support to individual artists from the very businesses that benefit so much from the "creative economy" environment. This would not be a program of commissioned work. Rather, it would be way to sponsor the artistic process and its value to the community at large. Of course, there are now some fabulous initiatives that provide assistance to artists with essential practical issues like affordable workspaces and insurance discounts -- but these do not provide straight financial support. The artist still must have a way to afford the affordable space.

Though a simple micro-economic gesture, private businesses could fill this gap and ensure that the "creative economy" they so rely upon remains truly creative.