Investing in People Who Create

By Anna Burns, Contributor


Art isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter what our discipline is, if we want to create, it won’t be a simple task. It takes time, skill, and persistence. There are no shortcuts during this process. Frustration and self-doubt will visit like old friends, and it can take years before we’re satisfied with our own work. But don’t worry. The best things take time. Every sleepless night, every anxious moment, every Post-It - it’ll all be worth it. I promise. When we see others connect with our work, when we see ourselves in something truly incredible, something that we made - there’ll be no mistake that we’re on the right path.

However, it can take a long time to finish a piece, and it can take a lot out of us. It’s important that we take care of ourselves by investing in our well-being. We shouldn’t worry about whether we’re working “hard enough” or “fast enough.” We aren’t machines or assembly lines - we’re humans. Our value doesn’t depend on our capacity to generate.

It’s difficult to remember this sometimes. When we introduce ourselves to new people, we often discuss what we do for a paycheck. We don’t talk about the things that inspire, frighten, or motivate us. But remember: We’ve been taught this is how it should be. We live in a society that prioritizes speed and quantity and efficiency - it’s all very mechanical. Those who don’t adhere to set standards are left at the wayside, and unfortunately, creative people often fall through the cracks. The annual median pay for artists, as reported by The Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $48,960, with those in the lowest ten percent making $22,020 or less. It seems that, as a group, artists struggle to receive financial support that is proportional to their efforts. Why does this happen? Due to advertising and consumer culture, we’ve developed a tendency to purchase art from corporations rather than individuals in our community.

Accordingly, we have a very troubling expectation of art: We want it to feed us. That is, we try to consume it as if it’s any other commodity as if it’s something simple we can purchase in a convenience store or a drive-thru. Of course, this isn’t the case. Creatives invest massive amounts of time, energy, and money into their work. My sister Victoria is a multimedia artist. Certain pieces in her oeuvre required over 100 hours to create, and in terms of finance, they’re not cheap to produce. To estimate conservatively, a single canvas costs about $20, and paint might be $15 per color. This isn’t limited to the visual realm. From writers to musicians to actors, financial circumstances affect artists of every discipline. Therefore, if we want to “consume” works that aren’t constructed in factories, we should respect the processes that created them. We must invest in our neighbors as we would ourselves.

Luckily, Lynchburg makes this easy for us to do. Riverviews Artspace, among other organizations, focuses on benefitting local creatives. For example, Riverviews’ Emerging Artist Series offers a platform for up-and-coming visual artists, many of which are native to the Lynchburg area. This program allows these individuals to showcase their work in a professional setting while expanding their CV. It also gives them a chance to receive financial support, for they keep seventy percent of the profit for any works sold. When we attend exhibitions like these and purchase art from Riverviews, we become an instrumental force in supporting our friends in the visual arts. Yet Lynchburg provides opportunities to support performing artists as well; Speakertree, the Glass House, and Fifth and Federal often host local musicians. And with respect to the literary arts, the Listening, Inc. and Riverviews’ BeatBurg Program create outlets for poets in the Lynchburg community. Essentially, our city is filled with hardworking, artistic people, and there are numerous ways for us to invest in each other.

“Well, what is it?”: Defining Contemporary Art and Understanding Its Importance

By Anna Burns, Contributor


The world is an ecosystem. Political tensions and alliances, imports and exports, the Internet and mass media - our lives are increasingly intertwined. With each passing day, we become more aware of each other and our stories. These expanding worldviews create a series of contradictions: Certain experiences are universal, but our perspectives are unique. Some of us are privileged while others are marginalized. We’re independent, but we need each other to live and thrive. These are the types of ideas that influence contemporary art, for it reflects the issues and experiences that characterize our environment. When we understand these works, we understand our world.


Contemporary art is hard to define—it offers no clear starting point. Roughly speaking, contemporary art began in the second half of the 20th century, and for this reason, it’s often confused with Modernism and Postmodernism. While art historians struggle to reach a consensus on the matter, the politically and socially-charged events of the 1970s and 1980s provide us with a safe point of origin. Primarily, contemporary art concerns “the now,” meaning current events and those of the recent past. It is art produced in our lifetimes, shaped by the same moments that have shaped all of us.


In addition to modern relevance, a defining feature of contemporary art is eclecticism. In her book Making Contemporary Art: How Today’s Artists Think and Work, the American writer and curator Linda Weintraub describes contemporary art as a discipline in which, “No topic, no medium, no process, no intention, no professional protocols, and no aesthetic principles are exempt.” As a result, there are no definite styles or concepts that it must reflect. And in terms of medium, contemporary art ranges from photography to painting to performance. In other words, it’s as diverse as the people who create it.


Yet contemporary art is also eclectic in terms of theme. It does not limit itself to one issue or concern. Today’s artists are responsible for documenting every aspect of the contemporary experience, meaning works can have social, political, economic, or even ideological implications. For instance, the African-American artist Renee Cox employs photography to examine a multitude of social issues, often using her own body as the subject. Her 2008 series The Discreet Charm of the Bougie follows the journey of a modern, upper-class woman. By examining these images, viewers witness the personal transformation that takes place in Cox’s alter-ego Missy. The series begins as a case study of alienation and depression, but by its resolution, Missy has found self-actualization and enlightenment. The Discreet Charm of the Bougie also combats racist imagery. By placing Missy in a position of wealth, Cox emphasizes how African-American women are capable of achieving financial success, contradicting the stereotypes perpetuated by American media that would suggest otherwise.


With respect to political issues, contemporary art offers no shortage of examples. A particularly charged work is Workers who cannot be paid, remunerated to remain inside cardboard boxes, created by the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra in 2000. This piece reflects the hardships endured by migrant workers in Germany, who cannot be paid due to their status as refugees or asylum-seekers. In an attempt to highlight the ways that Germany demeans immigrants, participants are paid to sit in ragged, homemade cardboard, concealing the upper halves of their bodies. This performative sculpture pushes the limits of what is socially acceptable by exploring how globalization and politics dehumanize migrant workers.


Contemporary art allows us to engage with our world and makes us more cognizant of those around us. By offering relevance, eclecticism, and social analysis, it emphasizes diversity and creativity while examining the current state of our societies. Because of this, contemporary art is a means of fostering human compassion. It helps us understand each other by expanding our social awareness, yielding both sympathy and solidarity. So, if the world is an ecosystem, then contemporary art is a means of comprehending and protecting it.