Act now or the future will be artless


Laura Merage


I don’t remember art hanging on the walls of my childhood home in Iran. I learned later in life that many members of my family were creative, but at the time it felt like art was not readily accessible to me. In many ways, my artistic pursuits were limited by a societal expectation not to show too much emotion, to be stoic. At 15, my life finally intersected with art. I sought out my American dream and seized the opportunity to move overseas, diving fully into art education, learning from established artists and teachers, and experiencing museums and art institutions in the U.S. From then on, I devoted myself to the craft, using it as an outlet for self-expression. Like an author’s autobiography, my art reflects my life.

But like many emerging artists, I faced challenges when pursuing art as a profession. I experienced the vicious cycle of fighting for representation within the closed gallery circuit, battling rejections from people who did not look like me, stretching funds, and feeling stagnant in my creativity. It is no surprise that only one in three students attending art school graduate on time, and not even half graduate within six years. Why would prospective artists feel confident in their chosen career path when the industry feeds off of exclusion?

As an artist living in Denver, I noticed that other artists around me were being forced out of an increasingly unaffordable city. Affected by this mass exodus, I founded RedLine Contemporary Art Center, a nonprofit aimed at supporting artists and providing creative opportunities for local residents. To get a footing in the art industry, artists need space to focus on their work, assistance programs and access to community networks – all of which requires investment.

There was a time when art was considered a highly regarded aspect of our society and culture. Hundreds of years ago, art was a renowned profession infused with everyday life and beliefs, with artists celebrated, funded and valued. Our ancestors understood the benefits of art. It explained scientific discoveries, documented history and invigorated public spaces. Today, art is an unstable profession with extreme power imbalances.

Why is it that we no longer consider art a core function of our society? Recent research reports that the arts and culture industry contributes more than $877 billion to the U.S. GDP – five times greater than that of the agricultural sector. However, the government invested only $1.39 billion to support the arts in 2019, which – after adjusting to inflation – is 18 per cent less than we spent 20 years prior. Where is the disconnect?

As economies and communities rebuild after a devastating pandemic, the U.S. government and the philanthropic sector should invest in art like the art industry is investing in this country. Art is a solution at the intersection of many of today’s concerns, including housing, the economy, education, healthcare and more. Studies show that communities with vibrant arts and culture scenes attract more residents, cultivate a diverse and educated workforce and have greater economic stability. Art is proven to ease stress by lowering cortisol levels, and students have lower dropout rates when exposed to art education. However, art is not woven into the fabric of our society, as it should be, but instead kept behind closed doors and between four walls, only for those with access to it – primarily white male artists and funders.

How do we support artists and encourage art in communities when so many people have never walked through a museum or gallery? As the founder of Black Cube, a nomadic art museum that supports artistic concepts beyond gallery walls, I believe we must break down barriers that block access to art and public art works. The past year of shutdowns showed us that, regardless of the situation, there will always be space for art. This is true public art – giving artists creative freedom and embedding approachable culture and art into the everyday lives of diverse communities, something any city can implement and any funder can support.

It is critical that we cultivate communities where art is accessible, appreciated and invested in. Otherwise, our society risks missing an enormous economic opportunity and experiencing a cultural crisis from losing generations of artists and audiences, simply because artistic work cannot be sustained.

Laura Merage is an artist, and the founder of Black Cube, RedLine Art Contemporary Art Center and co-founder of the David & Laura Merage Foundation.

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