Give Money to the Arts? An Exchange with Queer Artist Tim Jones-Yelvington

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The other day I received an email from Tim Jones-Yelvington soliciting funds for an art project. I questioned some of the “perks” for donors, which included an “XXXMas CD,” or having Tim kiss a victim of my choice for $100, etc. I emailed Tim, and a spirited exchange ensued about the merits of grassroots fundraising. We decided to take our conversation public, as this discussion carries importance within a broader community.

Tim Jones-Yelvington:

Hello friends! A very special thank you to those of you who have already contributed to my 30th birthday indiegogo campaign LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE album – independent literature/publishing’s first pop record. Part of my broader LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE performance text, which also includes a performance piece and set of written texts, the LIT DIVA EXTRAORDINAIRE album, is literary theory performed through DIY dance pop. Thanks to you, I am more than a quarter of the way to reaching my goal. If you have not yet given, there is still time — my 30th birthday is next Thursday!! I hope that you will join my celebration by helping me create some innovative art.

Funding from my indiegogo birthday appeal will support mastering and distribution expenses for the album. Small donations add up — if everyone who receives this email gives just $5, I will be $9,000 beyond my goal. Visit my indiegogo page to donate, watch a video from the project, and learn more!

Thank you for your support and friendship!

XOXO,

Tim Jones-Yelvington

Caleb Powell:

Hey Bro,

I like some of your writing, and I’m down with promotion and fund raising, but when I wanted money I worked my ass off and after a year I banked over $10,000. The idea that a dude solicits money, when people are fucking starving and dealing with leukemia and other shit, kind of eats my craw. I support the whole GLBT movement, and here in Seattle I’m working with a trans artist on a media project, but c’mon. Good luck with your campaign and maybe your art helps save the world, I don’t know, but I’d try a different method.

Caleb

Tim Jones-Yelvington:
Hi Caleb,

Thank you for saying something. If folks are uncomfortable, I would rather they bring it up with me than keep it to themselves. I come out of a grassroots fundraising background and practice in social justice organizing where if you believe in the work you are doing, then you believe in sharing that story with others in your community and asking for help. I hear what you’re saying about money for “saving the world” (and when I fundraise for my art as opposed to organizations that I work with, I feel anxiety about what seems selfish vs. a more collective good), but I think we need to be careful about approaching this with a scarcity mentality, or there will be no philanthropic or public support for the arts at all. Comparing the arts to direct social services, or to the systems-change oriented grassroots activism I’m personally more likely to directly support, is always going to be problematic. Art is without use value, which is why it is very difficult to make it at all viable in an open market. For me, this is not different than donating to a major cultural institution like the opera. If anything, I am more likely to give to the projects of grassroots artists because I know they likely do not have the support of endowments, grants or major donors. I saw you “liked” Creative Capital on Facebook, so clearly you are not against philanthropic support for the arts and individual artists on principle.

I think if we are going to sustain marginal and outsider arts communities we have to be willing to support one another’s work and build a collective ethic. I donate to friends’ kickstarters and the like, and purchase their publications as much as I am able. I do think donor/buyer fatigue is a real problem in the lit community, which is why I try to never run a fundraising campaign more than once a year, and only for a special project with clearly delineated expenses. Everything I’m doing is supplemented with my own income. Also – I have some level of relationship with the majority of my contacts I solicit.

Thanks,

TJY

Caleb Powell:

Hi Tim,

I appreciate your response, humility, self-consciousness, and consideration. There should be protocols and etiquette. An artist yearns for recognition, yet there’s a self-defeating mechanism at work in the “You Buy My Art and I Buy Yours” mentality, even though I participate in this chain of mutually feeding egos. Applying and receiving for a grant or fellowship, on the other hand, differs. Let’s take a look at Creative Capital.

Creative Capital is a nonprofit dedicated to the arts. Benefactors such as The Andy Warhol Foundation fund these projects. Those who profit from art give back. What about the artist who sacrifices time and money? What should they give? How should they respond to the endless stream of arts organizations that ask them for money? Should they solicit friends, acquaintances, and strangers to help them pursue their dream?

Myself, I’ll buy a CD, buy back copies of literary magazines with acquaintances’ bylines, but the more I give correlates to my success as a writer. I’m not sure how to respond when a literary magazine sends a rejection “eat shit” letter and asks for money. Should I just reciprocate with a “fuck you”? No, but I’d like to see more artists/organizations taking responsibility for funding themselves. Editors and writers should make money by producing something people will buy without a guilt-trip. To quote Bukowsky, “We must bring our own light into the darkness / no one is going to do it for us.”

Anyway, if you’re ever in Seattle, or if I cruise over to the Chicago area, I’d definitely try to check out one of your performances and pay cover, and who knows, I’ve got some hot friends and I might even let you kiss their Hedwigs or Angry Inches, but you’ll have to pay dearly.

Best,

Caleb

Tim Jones-Yelvington:

Hi Caleb,

Most folks who ask for financial support are pouring their funds and resources into their projects. Micropresses and independent journals front most of their production costs. I’ve spent more than $3,000 since January on art-related expenses (higher than most writers because of multimedia and performance work). You inferred folks should work harder to put their own resources into creative projects, but I think most grassroots artists who can afford to do this already are. If and when we fundraise, we’re looking for supplemental income to help accelerate special projects.

Grants can be a great source of support, but let’s clarify the nature of private foundations. Successful artists, as in your Warhol example, offer support, but the majority of them were created by the rich to maintain wealth free from taxation. This is not to say these foundations cannot be well-intentioned, but structurally, philanthropy is not designed to support innovative art or social change. I back state support for the arts, but there are limitations there as well, as we saw in the NEA battles of the early 90s. Fundraising from our communities allow us to develop greater independence and a richer ecosystem for independent art.

Maybe guilt is part of what motivates people to give, but I certainly hope that it’s not the only reason people will support and/or purchase my work – I think if it is, then I have failed in making my case. I like to believe that people’s decision-making is driven not just by guilt and self interest, but also by commitments to art, aesthetics, social justice, etc.

Thanks!

~ Tim

In the spirit of “putting our money where our mouths are,” Tim and I recently made a small donation to The Rumpus.


Caleb Powell enjoys travel, art, culture, food, drink, conversation, friends and family, and he's usually up for a beer. More from this author →