In 2012, the Edvard Munch painting The Scream sold for $120 million at auction, prompting journalist Adam Davidson to write in the New York Times, “The art market . . . is a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves.” Davidson continued, “investors who believe that incomes and wealth will return to a more equitable state should ignore art and put their money into investments that grow alongside the overall economy, like telecoms and steel. For those who believe that the very, very rich will continue to grow at a pace that outstrips the rest of us, it seems like there’s no better investment than art.” It should go without saying that incomes and wealth have not, over the past ten years, returned to a more equitable state, and many of those who invested in art did well indeed. In 2017, a painting attributed (by some) to Leonardo da Vinci sold for almost half a billion dollars. The pandemic was but a blip; far from putting a damper on things, Covid lockdowns seem to have created pent-up demand: paintings by emerging artists are regularly jumping from five figures to six at auction; a Magritte sold for $80 million in March.
For art critics like myself, and for many artists, too, proximity to this kind of wealth is a source of immense anguish. Making matters worse, many millions of these dollars have hazy, if not downright dirty, origins, and the past few years have felt like a game of pick your poison, as protests abounded concerning patronage from Israeli arms dealers, Jeffrey Epstein cronies, and tear gas profiteers. At the end of the day, as artist Agnieszka Kurant told me on the phone, in a neoliberal society “the idea of sponsoring culture comes from surplus, and surplus is made possible by exploitation.” We on the progressive side of things are forced to dance awkwardly around a paradox: the very same art that serves as a vehicle for radically imagining better worlds is also often used as a tool for investment or tax evasion.
It would seem to be an intractable problem, though some artists try to avoid it by tempering the degree of dubiousness, seeking funding from miscellaneous grants and universities, where layers of bureaucracy keep them at arm’s length from the sources of wealth. A number of artists these days, however, have decided to work within the system, using an art market that relies on and supports income inequality to attempt to redress that very problem. Their methods for doing so break down—very broadly speaking—into four categories: giving a percentage of profits from the sale of art to people in need, funneling funds from art’s sale into one’s own nonprofit in order to support a specific community, using the proceeds from the sale of one’s own art to hedge the unequal global distribution of arts funding, and—the outlier here—creating work with complex contracts that evade traditional forms of ownership and propose plans for reparations. Which poses the question: Is there a right way?
Kurant, a Polish artist who lives in New York and makes work about collective intelligence, conceives of her practice as “an apparatus for redistribution.” She often works with entities—life-forms, political groups, technologies—that depend on interconnectedness and collectivity, such as the termite colonies that built the mounds in her sculpture series “A.A.I.” (2014–ongoing). Consulting with her gallery to determine prices, the artist factors in a certain percentage—it varies—that will go to groups or individuals in need. Of course, she has to cover production costs, and make a living too. Like many of her colleagues, Kurant is neither a starving artist nor a “blue-chip” phenom. Over time, as her career has built, she’s been able to increase the percentage she donates, slowly but surely.
Usually, Kurant’s chosen beneficiaries are, in some way or other, co-producers of her work. She has given hefty bonuses to Amazon Mechanical Turks—freelance digital laborers, most of whom live in the Global South—who perform tasks assigned anonymously via Amazon. Their median wage is a mere two dollars per hour, but the website includes a tipping feature. For her series “Conversions” (2020), Kurant worked with programmers and fabricators to create liquid-crystal wall pieces whose abstract imagery is algorithmically sourced from the public social media accounts of undisclosed protest groups, then made illegible. The liquid crystals are backed by heating elements that create patterns from the algorithmic data they are fed, and the patterns change as the heat fluctuates and moves to different areas of the panel. This gesture doesn’t advocate, or tell the story of, a specific political movement, but instead illustrates, as Kurant put it in an essay for frieze, “conversions of energy into information into capital.” It does so literally: Kurant turns information about activists’ energy into both actual energy (heat) and luxury goods (art). Then she distributes a percentage of the profit back to the groups depicted obliquely in her images.
For Kurant, making work about income inequality is simply “not enough”—a phrase I heard again and again from artists involved in redistributing wealth. At the same time, she calls herself “an enemy of art as activism,” referring to the genre of social practice that had its heyday in the aughts, when advocates tried to position art itself as capable of enabling material change. Art, however, is rarely the best tool for enacting demonstrable change. Art is about playing the long game—changing minds, changing the culture. This important work is the precursor to tangible progress.
THIS TENSION—between ideal futures and present realities—is more or less the cause for Los Angeles–based artist Lauren Halsey’s compelling interest in what she calls “Afro-future now,” as distinct from Afrofuturism. Her installations typically comprise a cacophony of signs, hand-painted with neon colors, that borrow from the Black vernacular of her neighborhood, South Central Los Angeles. The works archive a visual landscape now under threat of gentrification, but they also celebrate the community’s creativity and vibrancy. They even “funkify” South Central, to borrow a Halsey-ism, recording the landscape not with dry objectivity, but in a maximalist mode. Her art is inspired by her neighborhood, but she also wants to inspire her community to dream. Her 2020 exhibition at David Kordansky gallery included a hand-painted, no-frills sign that advertised reparations—simply call 310-632-0577. And for that show, Halsey reserved certain sculptures, asking they be sold only to people of color. Then, as is her usual practice, she used money from her sales to help fund Summaeverythang, a local community center she founded.
In interviews, Halsey often cites a remark made by Toni Morrison in a 1975 lecture: “for Black people to be dependent on media and government is hopeless, ridiculous, childish, and it’s an affront.” Halsey, who says she has listened to that speech “like 200 times,” isn’t waiting for someone else to come take care of her community. Since the spring of 2020, she’s been raising and donating money while also developing a team and infrastructure—from storage and packing facilities to refrigerated trucks—for distributing fresh produce and hot meals in South Central, a food desert. The cost runs tens of thousands of dollars each month.
Halsey has said she joined a gallery—David Kordansky—for the express purpose of funding community work. She sees the art market as a tool. The gallery helps “commercialize my work for me,” she told the Creative Independent. “There would be no other way for me to do it at the scale that I want to.” She says explicitly that, “outside of form, my sculpture practice is about trying to create as many funding opportunities for the community center as possible.” This sort of mutual aid was a big part of her upbringing, but her connection to the art market helped her up the ante. She was raised in church and motivated by the FUBU (for us by us) philanthropy she witnessed in her community. Her father, a role model, was an accountant who also tutored students to help keep them out of gangs. And though Halsey regularly expresses admiration for the work of nurses and teachers in her community, she sees that there are limitations to the monetary resources one can access in these positions.
Instead of waiting for the ideal, structural solution, the artist taught herself how to organize for food justice on the fly when the pandemic hit, watching YouTube videos and talking to people in her network like Vinny Dotolo, an LA restaurant owner and collector of Halsey’s work, who introduced her to his produce buyer. When she opened Summaeverythang, she put out a post on Instagram that said “My lane isn’t food advocacy, so if mission-aligned folk out there want to collaborate or lend some advice, hit me up.” She sees the work as a temporary solution to a systemic problem, and doesn’t claim to be an expert in how to solve the larger food issue. But it’s better to do something than nothing, and while art can encourage us to imagine an ideal future—like a colorful, funky, utopic South Central—we still have to ask ourselves, as Halsey does, what we do in the meantime.
NONE OF THESE ARTISTS takes a nihilistic view that reduces art to market-bait alone, simply seeking to maximize profit. Instead, they see long-term dreaming and addressing immediate material needs as part of the same project. For instance, Halsey’s Summaeverythang isn’t dedicated exclusively to the hunger crisis—the organization also has plans for an art studio and recording spaces. She’s doing all she can both to preserve and further enrich the funk of South Central. In a similar vein, Ibrahim Mahama’s redistribution prioritizes sustaining arts institutions in Ghana, where he is based. These days there are many calls for the repatriation of African artworks looted during the colonial era, but Mahama points out that, thanks to global neoliberalism, most contemporary African art that gets sold ends up in Western institutions and private collections, “because that’s where capital has accumulated.” Represented by the blue-chip London powerhouse gallery White Cube, Mahama used proceeds from his art practice to found the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Ghana, in 2019, a purpose-built exhibition space that also hosts artists’ residencies. Mahama is creating ways to keep contemporary African art on the continent. He opened another space in 2020 called Red Clay that has a playground, gardens, artist studios, and suites for recording audio and editing film.
As is the case with Kurant and Halsey, Mahama’s works are key to understanding his philanthropy, a means by which he thinks through issues and potential solutions. In his practice, Mahama often returns to failed utopian architecture projects of the 1960s. Cocoa silos that were abandoned mid construction are frequent motifs. At the time, activists in newly independent Ghana endeavored to build infrastructure to ensure their economic autonomy. They hoped that building their own spaces and systems would enable them to take better control of their destiny. But these projects were famously made difficult by restrictive loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Mahama is fascinated by the dialectic between hope and failure that’s encapsulated in these unfinished utopian projects—the half-built silos are still around, teeming with potential. He dwells in that space between the ideal and the practical.
Mahama’s best-known works involve draping entire buildings with a patchwork of reused jute sacks. Examples from this series appeared in the 2015 Venice Biennale and the 2017 Documenta. In 2019 he replaced the world flags that line the concourse leading up to the iconic Rockefeller Center in New York with his signature sacks, deromanticizing the idea of global unity and pointing instead to international inequality. Mahama repurposes cocoa sacks that he finds in local markets in Ghana. Made in Bangladesh and used to transport goods around the world, they are a metonym for global markets and all those markets’ inherent inequalities. Mahama returns the bulk of the proceeds from his art to his community, where he got the bags in the first place. He says his practice revolves around the idea of “resurrection,” routinely finding new lives for discarded things. The prefix “re-”—in resurrection, reparations, and redistribution—echoes all these artists’ belief that resources should be returned to their rightful place.
Red Clay and the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art are committed to employing locals and teaching children. Mahama is adamant about the importance of funding the arts as a way to encourage critical thinking in Ghana. And though he agrees that art alone is “not enough,” neither, he says, is addressing material needs exclusively. “Artists are basically thinkers,” he told Ghanaian TV channel CitiTube. “They are people who think outside the norm, and people who . . . use processes that ordinarily, you wouldn’t use.” He sees art as a way for people to explore new kinds of freedom, and believes the freedom he’s been given comes with a responsibility.
Many artists engage in philanthropy privately, even if they don’t see it as an explicit goal of their practice. But those like Mahama, Kurant, and Halsey—as well as others: Guadalupe Maravilla, Constantina Zavitsanos, Jesse Krimes, Theaster Gates, Jesse Darling, and Rami George—are asking existential questions about the purpose of art in the face of its hyper-commodification. Mahama, Kurant, and Halsey make the point that we cannot wait for ideal conditions or the systemic solutions we need. Cameron Rowland’s work, meanwhile, makes an alternative proposal. The New York–based conceptual artist is interested specifically in reparations rather than redistribution, and they do not sell their work; instead, they offer long-term leases. Rowland used the budget for their 2016 show at Artists Space to purchase nearly $10,000 worth of shares in Aetna, a company that now insures health, but at one point insured slaves. Rowland’s Reparations Purpose Trust still holds the shares, and if the federal government pays reparations, the shares will be liquidated and donated to the cause. It’s a coy nod to the corporate gesture of matching donations, one that, in the meantime, shows both the government and the corporation that people are watching and waiting. “If the regime of property was integral to slavery and colonization,” Rowland asked in a 2020 Zoom lecture hosted by Brown University, “then how might reparations be something other than the redistribution of property?”
To varying degrees, the models put forth by Mahama, Kurant, and Halsey involve working with, rather than abolishing, the system. Rowland, by contrast, makes sure not to let anyone off the hook, demanding reparations from the corporate and political powers that be. Crucially, Rowland’s proposal asks us not to accept the world as it is; instead, it shows that a better way is possible. Still, I find myself equally inspired by artists putting their money where their mouth is, and moved by how they address immediate needs while carving space for long-term dreaming at the same time, balancing the practical and the ideal rather than choosing between the two. Each of these artists exemplifies a compelling degree of integrity; each refuses to plead powerlessness or sweep the contradictions under the rug. Can the institutions they work with keep up?
This article appears in the May 2022 issue, pp. 36–39.