Art For the People, By The People
Happy Monday, my loves! I thought I might talk for a moment with you all about art and community.
On the side of my house is this mural honoring the late, great Toni Morrison. I didn’t paint it. I found out unexpectedly one day that our local mural project wasn’t just for publicly owned buildings and spaces, but also for private houses. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a big house on a very public corner. “Why not use it to support public art and amplify the work of a young artist of color?”, I thought.
The artist, Maryam Adib, and I collaborated on the design idea. I bought a few gallons of paint and borrowed a scaffold, and then she made this amazing piece of art, which gets viewed thousands of times a week as people walk and drive past my house. Often people stop to take pictures of it, and if I’m outside in the yard we have conversations— about Maryam and her work, about Ms. Morrison’s work, and about the importance of public art.
The whole project was a cooperative effort between Maryam, Ithaca Murals, my friend who loaned the scaffold, and me, but it affects the vitality of the entire community.
The notion of cooperatives— economic ventures where many individuals pool their limited resources in order to offer something necessary to their community, equitably sharing both the risks and the rewards— has been at the center of my life for twenty years now. I worked at our local food co-op for the first 11 of those years, and continue to be an owner. We also have a cooperative, community-owned bookstore here, which I ran for four years. I own a small piece of that store as well.
I support retail, agricultural, and owner cooperatives whenever I can because I believe that community-owned and operated businesses are absolutely essential to vital local economies. I also think they’re a testament to what we can accomplish when we band together to manifest the world we want to live in. Being intentional and strategic about how I “vote with my dollars” to build the world I yearn for is part of how I practice integrity.
The world I yearn for is also full of art and artists. Not just the art that gets supported by corporate third parties— publishing houses, record labels, movie and tv studios— or the art that gets purchased in art galleries for more money than my mortgage so that it can hang on some rich person’s private wall. All of that art is great, for sure, but I also yearn for a world full of public art, and working artists who are my neighbors, family members, and friends.
The advent of platforms like Patreon, Substack, and others, where artists can connect directly with the people that love their work, and those people can cooperatively pool their limited resources to potentially allow that artist to focus entirely on making art, is the best thing to happen to art and community in my whole life. It means that more kinds of people can afford to produce art— working people, parents, women, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, and on and on and on. The community isn’t limited to only experiencing what is considered “art” by people with power and privilege. Artists aren’t limited to creating what will fit in that relatively tiny box, starving in order to prioritize their creativity, or trying to fit that creativity into the minuscule margins of their working lives so the bills can get paid.
This is a huge deal. It is art, democracy, and community all wrapped up together in one gorgeous, vibrant package.
I’m a data and numbers geek, so the concrete mechanics of this kind of cooperative patronage are actually fascinating to me. For instance, by the end of the summer, I will be transitioning to paid subscriptions. Subscribers will pay $7 per month to access all of the content that I offer here. That’s, what, a single latte and a pastry? Not much money for one person, necessarily, but 1000 people throw that small amount in the hat and, all of a sudden, I can support my family of three with no other job. Five hundred people and I can supplement with freelance work. Bills still all paid, single mom available to her kids and elderly mother and community, while making her creativity the center of her life. There are more than a thousand students in my younger kid’s high school. A thousand people just isn’t very many people at all, really.
Would I be rich with a thousand subscribers? Nope, but that’s never been a goal for me. Like most artists, I just want to make art. Writing full-time, covering my bills, and having a small savings for emergencies is plenty for me, especially while being surrounded by other working creatives. I would write myself to the grave, happy as a clam.
Maybe you have the financial space to support one artist directly every month. Maybe you have the space to support a handful. Imagine if everyone on your block, in your neighborhood, throughout your city, offered money directly to up to a dozen artists every month. Not much, mind you— just $3 here, $5 there, $10 to someone you really, really love.
Your community could support hundreds, maybe even thousands, of working artists. Your kids could reasonably contemplate building their adult lives around their creativity as opposed to slaving for someone else. The diversity of stories, perspectives, and aesthetics circulating could change the world by vastly increasing our empathy and understanding. That’s what art does.
We have the power and capacity to live in that richness right now. We don’t have to wait around for corporations, the government, or anyone other than ourselves. We can just decide that the integrity of our communities and our world is dependent on art and pool our resources to make it happen.
Find creatives that you love. Throw them a little bit of money every month. Amplify their work to your family and friends. Ask your people what artists and creatives they support. Talk to your kids about the way your family spends money and where you might divert a little every month to support artists they love. Make supporting art a regular part of your budget and conversations. Cooperatively we can change art and life in our communities.
Currently, I support Nadia Bolz-Weber, Cheryl Strayed, Joni Rae Latham, Amanda Palmer, and Storm Large. Do you support any artists directly? Drop links in the comments and let us all know how to find their work!
We have reached nearly 300 subscribers, y’all! Less than 20 to go! Welcome to all of you new folks, and thank you to everyone for supporting Let Your Life Speak.
I’d love to get to 300 subscribers before the end of June. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do that in the box below. Also, can you share this post, or one of your previous favorites, with someone in your networks and encourage them to subscribe? Or post a link on one of your social media channels with an endorsement? This is a grassroots, crowd-disbursed art and love effort over here and I am grateful for your help. XO, Asha