022 — Another GNO. Selling access to the excluded. The white woman arts nonprofit look-alike industrial complex.
A CLUB IS A CLUB IS A CLUB
Last week, we saw an Instagram post advertising NYC Crit Club’s Plum Line Residency that left us uneasy enough to conduct a guaranteed non-opportunity assessment. Per our recent post about the Penland School of Craft, we’re suspicious of most residency applications that ask submitters for cash, even and especially if the hosting organization is young. We’re also suspicious of any private art businesses, for-profit or nonprofit, that adhere regional markers like “NYC” or “LA” to their name. (re:la, the clothing collection started by Katherine Ross, wife of LACMA executive director Michael Govan, is the most dismal, egregious case we’ve encountered.) In addition to granting these organizations preemptive legitimacy, they’re often projects helmed by white people who claim to speak for a city, place, or region where they’re at best a newcomer. As a form of name gentrification, legitimacy branding is tactically white and meant to assert control over a domain where no single person or organization could represent the views, needs, and wants of an entire population. Legitimacy branding is even more gauche when businesses use these naming conventions to differentiate themselves from other orgs with similar names and matching operations.
Taken together, the application fee and the legitimacy grab usually indicate that an art business makes its money by selling access to those who are farthest from the institutional sphere. Access dealers are like miniature DeVry Universities with the same mask of goodwill but none of the startup capital. “Support our project to make the arts more equitable,” they say. But when you do some light investigating you realize they’ve never had trouble with access, resources, or funding themselves using the fringes of their network. How else do you think they got the inspiration to develop their nonstarter business idea into an institution?
Either way, we question if the cost of applying to this residency, $20 to $25, is worth the reward. Only one resident gets picked per season and they receive access to the NYC Crit Club studio for five weeks and a $50 gift card — yes, you read that correctly — a gesture which we’re apparently supposed to receive as sincere as opposed to cynical.
WHAT IS A CRIT CLUB?
When a club calls itself a club, you should listen to them. Whether it’s the NYC Crit Club or Club Carla, the donor club attached to Contemporary Art Reviews Los Angeles, or any similar cultural organization, the selling point is usually the same: we support our community, we support artists, we support dialogue, we support BIPOC, etc. It is worth emphasizing that these boilerplate statements are nearly unavoidable in the nonprofit space, with even the most white-washed institutions holding them out as preemptive justifications. (Though it pains us to admit, the Los Angeles Review of Books models our preferred club behavior, minimal moralizing with results in plain view.)
Because most of these art clubs fly under the radar and have no immediate impact beyond their insular circles — Club Carla lists 97 donors on its collection platform compared to the 6,000 or so magazines it prints each quarter — these clubs routinely face no scrutiny. The lack of critical dialogue makes sense. Clubs are not hubs of intellectual activity, they’re about status, access, networking, and exclusivity. And that’s precisely why it’s so annoying when they vogue as something critical, necessary, or widely beneficial.
For all the language about impact these arts-based clubs regurgitate, the reality is they’re mostly cash-strapped, driven by volunteer labor, and taking advantage of the fact that most other businesses or projects could never survive these conditions. Only certain kinds of people can afford to consistently work for cheap or free, and they’re particularly incentivized to conduct themselves as community fixtures when it can lead to more attention flowing their way. But they also have to play the part. The charade doesn’t work if they don’t look busy, which is why they produce so much lip service. For them, proselytizing is the work.
With the creative industries having a long and demonstrable relationship to social capital as a form of payment — instead of receiving cash, workers are paid in “exposure” — being able to differentiate an attention trap from an actual opportunity is a skill that goes beyond saving yourself time and money. More than helping yourself, by divesting from activities that obscure how money and power circulate in the art world, you’re making it difficult for advantaged participants to unquestionably profit from the disadvantages of their peers. It should also help you recognize when a cultural organization is exploiting the labor, likeness, and marginalization of their alleged constituents to keep themselves centered in dialogues about equity. The reality is people who behave this way are careless, tactless, and phony.
WE CALL BULLSHIT
In the case of NYC Crit Club, we’re emphatically calling bullshit for a number of reasons. The first major red flag is that the club isn’t a nonprofit, but it solicits donations. Asking for financial gifts wouldn’t be a problem if there was language on their site that explicitly clarified that those donations are not charitable, cannot be written off as tax deductions, and that the Crit Club is a for-profit business. Meanwhile, on their FAQs page, answering the canned question “Is NYC Crit Club a replacement for an MFA?” the club emphasizes that they “are not an accredited institute and don’t strive to be” one, so clearly they’re capable of making such distinctions as well as identifying the imposter syndrome afflicting their target audience.
(For comparison, Club Carla has umbrella status through another nonprofit, Celebration Productions Corporation, which operates under the legal alias Celebration Theatre. Sure, that’s a few overlapping institutional veils, but all legally compliant at this distance. How Club Carla contributes to Celebration Theatre’s mission to “celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community” is another story.)
Combine the donation grift with the fact that NYC Crit Club’s staff are exclusively white women and the tagline on the donate page — “All donations are used for BIPOC Scholarships and Financial Aid for all artists in need of assistance” — reads a bit more insidiously. Alas, using people of color as the bait in a financial transaction that ultimately requires no transparency or oversight is all too common. But going as far as to offer hand-drawn graphs to justify the bait, that one is even new to us.
Why does all of this nitpicking matter? With legitimate nonprofit businesses — including accredited academic institutions — donors have the ability to earmark funds and ask for receipts that demonstrate their charitable gift was used in the manner they requested. But a monetary gift to a for-profit business is simply a gift. It cannot be controlled, returned, or have its subsequent spending records revealed unless the business chooses to satisfy these requests. Even then, they don’t have to be honest and there would be limited means to verify their statements.
For-profit organizations that solicit donations rely on similarly canned emotional appeals — statements that have little to no basis in reality and which inevitably have their greatest impact on people who let themselves be swayed by feelings, not facts. It does not benefit anyone to support businesses like these. They don’t do anything except take advantage of how much the world sucks. Because the art world sucks plenty without their help, they have much to work with already.
A $50 GIFT CARD FOR YOUR WOES
Now to the napkin math.
Once two applications are submitted, the club regains the cost of its $50 gift card. Given that a solo studio in Brooklyn will probably run you over $1,000, a “550 sq. ft studio for 5 weeks with 24/7 access” is probably an alluring offer. But it’s not as “free” as it’s advertised, beginning with the fact that the winners and all the other applicants helped pay for it.
Moreover, what about your travel expenses? How will you lug equipment into the studio and move it out all a month later? The residency is probably most suitable for people already living in the Brooklyn area who need more space. If you look at the images of past recipients working in the studio, you’ll see wide open floors and walls spotted with paintings and drawings. Cool, at least if you’re one of the handful people per year that NYC Crib Club accepts for a residency.
Everyone who doesn’t get accepted eats the costs of hosting a single artist and then the club pockets the rest. If 250 people apply at the $20 level, the club will gain $5,000 minus their expenses, as well as the contact information of all applicants, which they can use in subsequent marketing and promotion efforts. $5,000 in application fee revenue would mark a relatively successful splash, but it’s not much of a cash grab. However, it is enough to have the residency pay for itself and create signal around the club, which we think is the real move here.
Sadly, because for-profit residencies like this are low stakes, many artists — especially if the club’s 14,000 Instagram followers are authentic — will apply, assuming that their chances will be improved by choosing a less competitive opportunity. Those artists will likely assume the veneer of a juror somehow makes the selection process more fair when, as we stressed above, there is no means to guarantee that the winners haven’t been picked in advance or have an existing relationship to the club.
THE WHITE WOMAN ARTS NONPROFIT LOOK-ALIKE COMPLEX
The third rail of our critique is a bit more nuanced and requires an institutional view of the NYC Crit Club and this season’s “juror,” Paddy Johnson. The club is a for-profit business that provides alternative arts education out of the academic sphere — something that we also do and feel is a necessary paradigm shift. That said, our focus is market research, critique, art economies, and anything else that fits within our post-institutional purview. Moreover, we do not solicit or accept donations, and there is a specific reason for that. NOR Research Studio will never purport itself in any way that resembles a traditional nonprofit institution — a boundary that NYC Crit Club clearly has no issue ignoring.
Our rationale is simple. We’re not going to ask a bunch of random people to give us $25 and fill out an application to support our project. We would certainly refrain from running a contest without the nonprofit status that would otherwise regulate such contests. Having experience working at and with nonprofits, we think contests are lame and exploitative. But at least the nonprofits who run contests must disclose their financial gains from the contest and produce evidence that the contest was fairly judged — otherwise they could be accused or found guilty of inurement, racketeering, or misappropriation.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike hundreds of other consultants who work with artists, we’re not white women promoting their goodwill project. Among NYC Crit Club’s founders, the divine yoni energy is off the charts. From founder Hilary Doyle’s artist statement: “My research over the last two years includes, [sic] daily stroller walks in parks surrounded by geese, reading about ancient goddess religions and mining artwork for silenced women to paint.” From an interview in BOMB that features founder Catherine Haggarty: “I teach a Non-European Art Histories class at the School of Visual Arts, and we spend four weeks on Indigenous art and ledger drawing.” Given that indigeneity refers to any native culture across the world, we wonder if Haggarty ever goes farther than announcing “Indigenous glyphs are specific and used for identification in pictographs.” As for BOMB publishing that drivel, we’re not surprised. The NYC-based outlet published a Frieze editorial assistant’s review of his colleagues book back in 2017. (And lest anyone accuse us of picking on women, please remember what happened to Miss Wyatt’s dearly departed pussy.)
The lack of an editorial firewall at BOMB is perhaps the best clue about how to approach the white women arts nonprofit industrial look-alike complex that is NYC Crit Club, which is more likely a strategic project than an act of collective goodwill. Artists get a lot of credit for building community. It’s an attractive way to create a social capital battery around your practice, which is a neutral act. That said, charging money for those applications tilts the scale in the other direction, especially when you remember that nonprofits have been running similar, contest-driven fundraisers since their inception. But again, those contests are regulated, a result of their storied history as financially abusive get-rich-quick schemes.
FRINGE BENEFITS OF WHITE WOMANHOOD
Perceptive readers may have noted the gendered economic signaling implicit in Doyle’s statement about daily stroller walks in the park among geese, ancient goddess religions, and books. Being a cis, child-bearing woman presents several economic perks that are worth dissecting and divesting from — with many of them being on full display in nonprofits. Misogyny has a large role in these gender-influenced patterns, but it’s not always the misogyny of men.
People start nonprofits for all kinds of unsultry reasons, but within the monied enclaves of the art world, they’re used to accrue massive tax breaks. Someone has to operate those nonprofits, and preferably not the person who stands to benefit from the breaks. Instead, they recruit friends and close confidants — usually women who are married or partnered — to run the nonprofit, giving them enough shielding to say their goodwill activity is legitimate. Among art organizations, nonprofits of this ilk tend to have an executive director who makes significantly less money than what would be necessary for them to survive on alone. For example, in Los Angeles, where it’s already difficult to get by on a $70,000 salary, a cluster of worshipped arts nonprofits have directors whose salaries fluctuate between $13,000 and $30,000, but never rise higher. Sure, they might be part-time in the books, but running an exhibition space or publication is time-consuming and expensive. Pair that with fundraising and you’ve got someone who is clearly working more than 30 hours a week to keep the lights on. To sustain this activity, they usually have a partner who produces most of their household income and who can still donate to the nonprofit and receive a tax-deduction. Many also sell art on the side, typically in cash.
The NYC Crit Club is not a nonprofit, so we won’t know if they make a profit, if the founders draw a salary, or what that salary is. They claim on their website that they pay their guest instructors fairly, but that information is presented with yet another handmade graphic that offers estimated figures with no actual links, citations, or other references that would allow anyone to fact check them. To us, this is another feature of the white women arts nonprofit industrial look-alike complex. Instead of presenting facts, the assumption is that the organization can and should be believed because they are “woman-run,” displaying “a radical alternative,” and offering “fair pay and employment opportunities to esteemed critics and faculty.” (And this is why you should donate to Haggarty’s scholarship fund?) Sure, we’ll believe it when we see the receipts. But even then, there is nothing radical about this project nor does being woman-run save or excuse them for any aspect of the critiques we outline above.
A JUROR, A DISCLOSURE
To close, let’s return to our contest juror, Johnson. The founder of VVrkshop, a company that “helps mid-career artists get the shows, residencies, and grants of their dreams.” Reading this, we cannot help but giggle. The double-v thing is crazy and then the “of their dreams” bit pretty much tells you all you need to know. On her website, Johnson claims to be first the “first recipient” of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Arts Writers Grant for blogging in 2008, but artists Anjali Srinivasan and Yuka Otani received it the same year. The erasure here seems palpably racial.
But the Warhol grant was 15 years ago. Where are her recent and meaningful contributions to the discourse? As a consultant, is her participation in the contest a means to attract clients and signal legitimacy? She is clearly after the dreamers.
And are we really supposed to galvanize behind low-hanging fruit like “The art industry is fucked up. Let’s beat the system together”? Who is the implicit we in this statement? What evidence suggests that the asymmetrical power dynamics at play in the art world affect all of its participants in ways which are uniform or comparable, let alone collectively solvable? Most importantly, white women are not the marginalized class of the art world, so why do they place themselves at the helm of any effort to make the arts more equitable?
Saying all of this doesn’t make us feel good. We want to believe that people have enough wits and compassion to produce a better art world, which NYC Crit Club and juror Johnson say they want as well.
Feeling somewhat guilty and complicit about the critiques above, we messaged a trusted confidant who has experience teaching and running intimate project spaces, asking if they were the one who had recommended that we check out NYC Crit Club in the first place. “No, not me,” they said. “I hate things like that. I like little orgs who are breaking and intervening in the system. This stuff amplifies false hope.”
Hearing their words, we are reminded that bullshit is the norm these days. Their comment also made us realize that much of our grievance with NYC Crit Club and similar orgs stems from their performative behavior. We wish more people would clock that behavior for what it is: gaslighting.
Still, in all aspects of life, there will always be people conducting some little game to keep their foot in the door. In that sense, we respect the hustle and its desperation. But there is something extremely off-putting about insincere politicizing and its uglier cousin, seeing oneself as an advocate for the excluded while monetizing the ideology that guarantees them further harm.
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— FIN —
WYATT CODAY is intersex and autistic. She lives between Los Angeles and Chicago, where she is a practicing financial dominatrix. She is the director of NOR RESEARCH STUDIO.
GRIEVANCE is a column that features short-first person essays about labor disputes and broader economic inequity in the arts.
NOR RESEARCH STUDIO is a design research studio that develops didactic media, exhibitions, publications, and other forms of intellectual property for artists, nonprofits, and creative businesses.