Bonnie Jones
Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

[Ed. Note: In the spirit of conversation and story sharing, we reached out to music makers and asked them to let us know what was on their minds when it came to cash and creativity and what lessons from their own careers they might share. Some answered questions we posed directly, others were inspired to take the topic somewhere else. Each provided something illuminating, and we hope you’ll jump in and share your own experiences in the comments.–MS]

Bonnie Jones

Bonnie Jones

A few months back, my friend and fellow Baltimore composer Alex Gardner invited me to sit on a panel she was moderating, “Artists Outside Academia,” which was part of the 2016 New Music Gathering at the Peabody Institute. The artists included were those of us in Baltimore who did not primarily make their living as fulltime professors and were therefore outside of the typical presentation opportunities, support networks, and technical resources that university faculty often enjoy—not to mention the full time salaries.

The discussion centered on the various activities, priorities, and lives of the local artists on the panel and how we each, in our own ways, have gone off script in creating personal lives that sustain our creative work. Certainly for me, choosing to live and work in Baltimore was already a conscious choice made for my art practice—relying on the freedom afforded by relatively lower housing costs compared to cities like Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, etc. Other negotiations of time, space, and finances that came up included taking on the role of primary childcare provider, taking on additional training and classes for skills used to piece together side jobs, working seasonally, or making sacrifices in healthcare or housing to balance paying bills with insecure incomes.

For those of us working for our art practice without significant financial support other than what our own bodies and minds can generate, all these negotiations are probably familiar. We always have to consider FOOD/SHELTER against how ambitious a project we can undertake, how quickly we’ll be able to complete that project, and how much energy and self we can pour into that project. All these things change the rhythm of our creative minds and shape what our ART (not the work per se, but the practice), situated inside of our very real LIVES, will have.

My own path for making a living while making art was something that during the panel I referred to as the Bonnie Jones Grant. This “grant” was all the various web-related freelance and fulltime jobs I’ve held during my 17 years in Baltimore, which directly funded my volunteer non-profit, curatorial work, and art practice. In other words, I had a lot of regular jobs, but I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice. I came to music later than most, having in my twenties focused on poetry and performance. Once my focus turned to music, the stuff I was interested in making was often challenging and abstract, produced with cracked and circuit bent electronic instruments. While the international community of noise and improvisation is incredibly stimulating intellectually and aesthetically, the financial sustainability is tenuous at best. So I realized early on that the music and writing I was drawn to might never be able to generate enough income to support my FOOD/SHELTER needs. So I got a job, a job job as artists sometimes call it, or job jobs in my case.

So the other day while working on this blog post, I took a break and watched a documentary called The Wrecking Crew about a prolific group of studio musicians who were responsible for thousands of Top 10 recorded hits from the 1960s and 1970s. You may have never heard their names, but you’ve certainly heard their music. This crew recorded The Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations,” the Mamas and Papas’s “California Dreamin,’” the Righteous Brothers’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The discography is mind-blowing.

Money was on my mind, so it was refreshing to hear these musicians talk about their art WORK. They spoke honestly about their modest or sometimes impoverished childhoods, the hustle of their early years when they were making their names, the sacrifices in parenting they made to support their families (studio gigs would sometimes keep musicians out for 20-hour days), their struggles with addiction and mental health issues as a result of the demands of their jobs and the insecurity of their incomes. They had no pretensions about how their art and their jobs were, by necessity, collaborative and entwined.

Percussionist Earl Palmer (who played on recordings of Richie Valens’s “La Bamba” and Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”) freely admitted that he didn’t care much for rock and roll, his heart was in jazz, but that to make a living off of rock and roll, he needed to play it like it was his favorite music. There was a general acknowledgement from the musicians that ALL the work you did was the REAL work of being an artist. Palmer’s judicious comment about playing music he wasn’t all that into: “It’s not beneath you if it’s supporting you.”

So why then, does it still seem novel when artists talk transparently about the money they make from art or other jobs? I wonder if talking about the very unsexy ways we make a living threatens some myth of the serious artist? The serious artist doesn’t sell out. The serious artist only cares about the art and everything else is false. The serious artist never compromises their authenticity for money. The serious artist never considers themselves part of the nasty capitalist game where many fight for what few resources are available. The serious artist’s success is based on a meritocracy. Who can actually live like this? Where did this myth come from? Did capitalism create the myth and ultimately make fools of us all?

Cash Week - sm

Read more new music and money coverage all this week on NewMusicBox.

These days funding and jobs for working musicians are fewer and further between—the recording industry is collapsing, arts funding is choked off so orchestras are folding and commissions are disappearing. Even within the world of artists making objects, painters and sculptors are constantly working for free—their work appearing in major cultural institutions with no compensation unless they become one of the few who enter into the art economy as commodity. I think most of us agree that solely making money off your art is becoming a very rare condition.

The WORK part of a working artist’s career has expanded into a variety of industries and jobs that don’t utilize our artistic skills directly. The education industry has probably become the leading source of jobs for artists, while of course generating significant income off of those same folks in the form of MFA, DMA, and Ph.D. programs. This in theory sounds great, until the jobs are all taken and the universities keep creating masters and doctors of art who have student debt but no job prospects. So most artists are still spending lots of time stringing together a lot of different sources of income. Though I think it’s important to note, a lot of them really aren’t at all. A lot of highly visible and successful artists are such because they have financial support from family, partners, or other places not directly related to their art practice and in many cases they’ve always had that. And I think it’s fair to say that that does make an enormous difference in the shape of an artist’s life.

Which brings me to my current fear about the future of art in America. What happens if young artists starting out, with little or no financial support outside themselves, just stop making art and trying to put it out there because they need to take care of FOOD/SHELTER. What if only rich folks can make a successful living off of making art? What if we’re deprived of the benefits of having access to art made from a huge range of human experiences and backgrounds? Or maybe this kind of fear is completely out of touch with how art will be made and distributed in the future? Maybe we’re just witnessing a transition phase?

A side note about my own privileges. I was adopted from Korea and raised in a modest but middle class Caucasian farm family. I had all my basics covered as a child and, with family support, attended a great (cheap) public university that led to some solid job prospects, which led to a secure income working for an internet company, which I was able to parlay into a subcontracting position, which allowed me to go to and pay for my MFA, and which today allows me to work and make money on projects and then take off for months at a time to work on art and touring. Some years I make well above the poverty line and others not as much, but the work is fairly reliable and if the worst were to happen—cancer, psychiatric crisis, car accident, house fire, etc.—I have a stable relationship with my family that I know I could rely on. All of these things I recognize as enormous privileges. 

OK, so for those of us who decide to keep producing anyways, because we just can’t stop, because it’s an essential part of who we are, because we’d lose our minds if we didn’t: Sometimes I wonder, is it all on us to just get our shit together and make it work? Does the working artist these days just need to become a better administrative assistant, giving themselves over to the business of art? Or is there a collective issue here that we can examine?

Raise your hand: who has been asked by an institution (typically a large one—university, museum, etc.) to present your work for little or no money for the “prestige”? For “the love of the work”? To build your resume? Who has agreed to $250 honorariums for two days of studio visits and presentations? Who has decided not to apply for a grant because the application or requirements are labyrinthine and exhausting and you just can’t fit the work into your schedule? Who has noticed that funding is often reliant on having gotten funding in the past, on proving yourself in a certain way—often outside of art itself—which means that grants often go to folks who already are receiving the large majority of available grants?

In 1973, avant-garde filmmaker, photographer, writer/theoretician Hollis Frampton wrote this letter to the Museum of Modern Art on the invitation to present a retrospective of his work. MoMA was hoping to circumvent the rental fees from the distribution company by having Frampton bring his prints and appear for free. The question this letter so succinctly articulates is: why do museums and major institutions prioritize their incomes for everything but the art and artists? This question becomes even more pressing for time-based artists (filmmakers, poets, musicians, performers) who don’t produce objects or straightforward commodities. The NYC-based organization W.A.G.E., which hosts the copy of this letter that I linked to above, takes up that issue by placing the responsibility on institutions to sustain artists and their work by—well, paying them.

On that note, I’ll leave off with a mini manifesto, because writing this post made me realize that I have a lot on my mind these days about art and money and privilege and power…and I could probably keep on writing, but this after all is a blog post likely being read on a phone, so I’m going to leave it at this:

We must question the value system of capital “A” art and how it designates what is important to the market and therefore to artists and institutions.

For sure we must place institutions that profit from artists at the center of the critique and put our minds towards creating more institutions that don’t profit from artists but still believe in what art accomplishes socially and culturally and who are willing to take some risks in supporting work that might question capital “A” art values.

Without a doubt, we must be honest with young artists and students about what the life of the working artist (bills, jobs, tenuous housing, lack of healthcare, lack of access to materials) looks like, vs. the life of the artist who has more financial freedom from the start (plenty of access to materials, ability to present and create work for free, stable housing and quicker financial recovery from health problems).

I consider myself an artist. I’ve been working to make art for the majority of my 38 years. To be sure I’ve had many successes and recognitions of my work over the years, but few of those have paid the bills. And I’m OK with this, for now. But to a certain extent, I have no idea what the next 38 years will look like, and whether the sacrifices one makes for a life of making art might actually have to be the art itself.

***

Bonnie Jones is a Korean-American writer, improvising musician, and performer working primarily with electronic music and text. Born in 1977 in South Korea, she was raised on a dairy farm in New Jersey and currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland. Bonnie creates improvised and composed text-sound performances that explore the fluidity and function of electronic noise (field recordings, circuit bending) and text (poetry, found, spoken, visual). She is interested in how people perceive, “read,” and interact with these sounds and texts given our current technological moment. Jones has received commissions from the London ICA and has presented her work in the US, Europe, and Asia and collaborates frequently with writers and musicians. She received her MFA at the Milton Avery School of the Arts at Bard College.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

12 thoughts on “Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant

  1. Mark Winges

    Very hard to excerpt from your post, since it is *all* so clearly and thoughtfully stated. But “I thought of them as very much a part of my creative practice because they sustained that practice” really stood out for me. You’ve elucidated something really important. Thank you for writing this.

    Reply
  2. Gahlord Dewald

    The panel on which you spoke had a profound impact on the way I think. This article furthers it. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on all of this. It definitely helps.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Roundtable: The Bonnie Jones Grant | NewMusicBox – bibliobiographyblog

  4. Gino Robair

    Happy to read Bonnie’s personal perspective, which many, many artists I know (including myself) can relate to. Thanks for posting this on NewMusicBox.

    Reply
  5. Alton Thompson

    The admonition against ‘selling out’ was the brainchild not of ‘capitalism’ but of artists determined to resist its pressures. It’s a signature of the bohemian movement—that potent cultural force that continues to shape our ideas about art and artists after a century and a half.

    The ideal of the bohemian is to stay true to one’s vision, even if doing so forces poverty (or at least some unconventional financing) on the artist. The unthinkable alternative: to compromise one’s creative vision the way a tailor in a shop adjusts a suit of clothes to a customer. That approach is the mark of the bourgeois—the person wedded to convention who values material rewards and comforts over originality and vision. It stands utterly against the creative life, says the bohemian. Creativity requires authenticity. One must be as one is, do as one does, mean what one expresses. The only crime is pretending to be something you’re not.

    Few will deny the contributions of the movement, in all its forms, to the world of art and to the world. Still, no philosophy is beyond a second guess when the landlord knocks. If we now want to apprehend the perpetrators of ‘the myth’ that treats our need to pay the rent with indifference, we have but to enter the familiar surroundings of Café Bohème, where the usual suspects still sit around the corner table.

    If we are starting to suspect that the tailor may have had something to offer this discussion all along—if we can imagine that maybe there’s no hell below us for artists whose paintings do match the sofa—it makes sense to explore our suspicions. But it doesn’t do to blame the inconvenient ideals of the bohemians on the bourgeois. When those ideals were born the bourgeois was just standing there, minding the shop.

    Reply
  6. Evan Ware

    Fantastic post! I really appreciate your candor. One thing I’ve noticed is that there are tradeoffs for every decision we make about our careers. I met a lot of Really Important Composers in my time at graduate school and one thing that struck me fairly consistently was that people who had “made it” (and by that I mean had institutional backing like stable jobs teaching, lots of commissions, lots of recordings, lots of Really Big Prizes, etc.) were not always as thrilled about it as I might have expected. Often, the trade-off for them seemed to be autonomy in their own work. Caught up in a system that perpetuates itself—as you aptly pointed out, those who get tend to keep on getting—they often seemed to slip out of control of their own workload and even the work itself. I remember asking one composer directly how she felt about the trade-offs and she responded with great honesty that she often felt ambivalent, that she really missed some of what she was giving up (family was one of the main things she mentioned) and that this colored her enjoyment of her material success. I’ve met a composer who hadn’t written music for ensembles other than orchestras in over a quarter century because he was too worried about what would happen if he turned down a commission (I like writing for orchestra too, but seriously? We all have more to say that requires different media). I’ve met others who focused on making very recognizable musical brands, but then saw those brands overpower them. While they grew and changed, the brand did not and the result was (and is) that they are constantly asked to write pieces in the style of a person whom they no longer are.

    I’m also a working composer (that is, I work so that I can compose). I’m lucky that my job is as a managing editor for a publication on Black composers. It’s extremely meaningful work and I enjoy it greatly. I love that you think of this kind of non-compositional work as composition. That really helps me to frame it too. Everything is part of the practice. The trade-off in my case, however, is time. I compose in late afternoons and on weekends when I have the energy, which isn’t every day. I sometimes go for long periods without writing a thing. I do, however, have almost complete autonomy over my work. It is a great richness to be free to run wild with your imagination, to take risks, to dare, and to dream. It does not pay FOOD/SHELTER, but it does sustain SPIRIT. Having said that, however, it would seem that the economic model as it exists now does not serve anybody particularly well (save those who have the luxury of time and money, think the late Elliott Carter). How do we change it? How do we distribute resources more in a “from each according to their capacity to each according to their needs” kind of way so that we achieve some kind of balance that is positive for the people involved? How do we maybe move our thinking away from art as a zero sum game, where we all compete for limited resources, to a positive sum game, where we all gain from each other in the course of doing our art? Thanks for the thought-provoking post. It made my morning.

    Reply
  7. Rick Robinson (Mr. CutTime)

    Very well articulated. In shaping a career I was always inspired by the image of a well-rounded tree. Such a tree is a community for many creatures that enjoy it’s shade, size, symmetry (or not), fruits/leaves, birds and insects: almost an ecosystem unto itself. Such an artist branches out in many directions and maintains a practice that honors all sides of the coin: artistic and entertaining. We create works both so public that anyone can immediately feel emotions, works that are more subtle, and works that only other composers might appreciate. We create music jobs, even if only for short periods. Contemporary life seems to be about having the freedom to try it all, if we’re both lucky and work hard enough.
    Best of luck to you!

    Reply
  8. vos

    Coming at this from a different angel maybe. I see a lot old money in new art whether by birth or patronage. I wonder if we look critically ,has it not always been so? The time it takes roughly a decade give or take, to start producing quality work is wasted working a “real” job to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. Outside of academia and “blowing up” as it were it seems one should make art as a hobby or go ahead and live in poverty and be okay with that.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Art & Pancakes, May 15th, 2016 | Bay Area Art Grind

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