Why You Should Never Feel Selfish for "Just Making Art"
Is making art enough in this political climate?
Beth Pickens says yes, and she explains why in her new book Your Art Will Save Your Life.
Beth is a consultant for artists, and as a badass businessperson with a counseling and arts administration background, she helps her clients — women, queer artists, and artists of color — build successful and meaningful careers.
You'll love this interview if you're looking for feminist tips on:
1 - Overcoming your fear of charging money
2 - Building a career doing what you love, without sacrificing your feminist values
3 - Resisting the Trump administration while nurturing your artistic practice
Stephanie: Your job as a consultant for artists sounds like one of the coolest jobs of all time. What led you to start your consulting practice?
Beth: My early professional life out of college, in my early 20s, was working at a university women's center. It was professional feminism, essentially. I loved it. The women's center I worked in had a really strong counseling program that was connected to the PhD and master's degree at the university, and my co-workers were all these incredible feminist therapists. My undergrad had been in English, and I thought, “I really need a degree that comes with a job.” So while I was working there, I got my master's degree in counseling psychology, focused on feminist therapy. I thought that maybe I'd become a therapist, but during that time, I was also doing a lot of feminist and queer programming through the university. It was in a small college town in the middle of Missouri, so if I wanted any kind of queer content, I had to import it. Unbeknownst to me, I was honing a lot of arts producing and fundraising skills, although I wouldn't have called it that at the time.
After I finished grad school, I moved to San Francisco. I wanted to be in a queer city around all these queer artists and writers and cultural production. So I moved there and started working full time as the managing director of a couple of queer arts organizations, doing fundraising and management, strategic planning and administration.
Along the way, my spouse and I, together with our best friend, launched a retreat for LGBTQ artists and writers that took place in the Yucatán. I was the administrator of the retreat, while everyone else was an artist. That meant I was the person who did the spreadsheets, grocery shopping, cooking, shuttling — all of the corralling of artists. As a result of starting and running that retreat, I got intimate insider knowledge of writers’ and artists’ fears, confusions, and anxieties. I knew what prevented them externally and internally from pursuing what they wanted. And it occurred to me that I had this counseling background that I could leverage with these artists.
So I decided then, back in 2009, to launch this consulting practice as a side hustle. I started working one-on-one with artists back in 2010, doing fundraising, career consultations, and strategic planning for one’s art career, which brought together my counseling background and organizational arts knowledge. For the first few years in San Francisco, I had a number of other jobs full-time. I was working in a contemporary art museum in 2013 when I decided to leave and pursue my consulting practice full-time.
How did you take all your knowledge from your consulting and arts administration experience, and then parlay it into a book?
After the election in November 2016, all of the artists in my life — including my clients — were having existential and political meltdowns. I kept hearing the same things: “Making art isn't enough; I need to do something else,” or, “Me being an artist isn’t meaningful. I should run for office.” There was this ubiquitous feeling that art didn't feel like enough anymore.
Very quickly after the election, I wrote up a pamphlet called “Making Art During Fascism.” It was a short guide for artists to help them consider, “What do I do now? How do I maintain my practice, which is crucial for my well-being?” People liked the pamphlet, so I distributed it for free to any artist who wanted it. My best friend who'd run that retreat with me, the writer Michelle Tea, had an imprint with Feminist Press. She asked me, “Would you want to do a short, 20,000-word book around survival theory in this political climate?” And I said I would absolutely love to. That's how the book Your Art Will Save Your Life came to pass.
I love this quote from your book: “Your career, like social change, is a marathon, not a sprint.” In Your Art Will Save Your Life, you show this beautiful overlap between one’s career as an artist and social justice work. How are the two related?
I specialize in working with artists who are women, queer, and artists of color; the organizations that present and support them; and those audiences. In all artist circles I've ever been a part of, everyone is critically engaged and politically aware. They have some part of their life — maybe their artistic practice, maybe not — that's committed to building the community they want to live in. And whether they want to be or not, they're all politicized because they’re political bodies in the world. Even if they don't think of their art as political work, the fact that they're women, queer and artists of color making art becomes politicized. Their living context is politicized, and with a heightened political climate that focuses on the “other,” they’re under even more of a spotlight.
One reason the election affected artists in my world was that they felt so frightened for themselves and for other people more vulnerable than them. Suddenly, their art seemed less important in the grand scheme of things. When I started hearing artists say, “I should do something else instead of making art,” or, “I should run for public office,” or “I should become a lawyer,” I wanted to go back to the foundational belief that if you're an artist, you're going to need to do this for the rest of your life.
The entire theoretical underpinning of my consulting practice is that artists are people who need to make art to be on the planet. That's what makes them different from me and from other people who enjoy being creative and benefit from it. I’m not compelled the way an artist is compelled to make things, as a way to understand themselves and the world they're living in. I believe artists have to make art to take care of themselves, to orient themselves, and to stay critically engaged in their communities. So I tell artists: Run for public office, do all these other things you want to do in life. But no matter what, accept that making art is a lifelong practice and is not going to be a choice.
That seems related to the idea letting yourself be an artist, if you are one, leads to the emotional and financial sustainability you need to be politically active in your free time.
Absolutely. Activist burnout is real. The more we take care of ourselves, the more resources and energy we have to give. When we deplete ourselves, we burn out and check out, which shortchanges us and the people we could be working with. If artists take care of themselves creatively and spiritually, then they'll have more to give for a longer period of time. Artists’ creative practice will help sustain them for all the other things they want to do.
How would you say the financial piece fits into all this? Why is feeling financially sustainable so important, too?
Like my clients, I have a critical feminist lens of capitalism. But we are living in capitalism, even while we're working to change economic disparity. Both are happening at the same time. There's a system over which we’re powerless, but there are choices in our individual lives and in our micro-communities over which we have some power. We want to change things both internally and externally, while seeing clearly the system we're operating within.
Just last night, I wrapped up my my two-part workshop called “Getting Real With Money,” where we talk all about people's relationship with money, especially artists' and creatives'. Most of my clients have a damaged relationship to money, for many reasons that are family-related, cultural, professional. I'm interested in working with them to repair their relationship to money. I help my clients rethink their economic strategy in their own life and in their activism. We work to change their lens of money as a tool. Money isn’t inherently bad. It's a resource, and it can help create choices. When a person takes care of themselves financially and builds economic knowledge and sustainability in their own lives, they enable themselves to give more.
Can you walk us through what one of your money workshops might look like?
Because money is so emotional, I spend the first day of the workshop addressing the emotional component of money and the socialization around it. The first day we’re excavating the workshop attendees’ family lineage through the lens of class and the messaging they received. I talk a lot about having a critical feminist lens in system steeped in economic disparity and inequity. I ask people how money was controlled, talked about, or not talked about in their families. What were the early experiences they had where they remember learning about money?
Then I teach them cognitive behavioral therapeutic techniques to become aware of their thoughts and connect them to their feelings, because those feelings then produce or inhibit behaviors. In my view, personal finance is all about behavioral changes, but to make behavioral changes, first we have to look at what's happening in your mind.
How are you feeling? Are you a person who’s on the verge of panic when you think about money? Do you start to cry and feel ashamed? Well, then those feelings naturally lead to behaviors, like bill avoidance, numbing yourself by shopping, or watching TV because you’re too overwhelmed to take care of yourself financially. We need to pinpoint what happens for each person when money comes up.
That sounds so, so valuable. What happens on the second day of the workshop?
The second day is all practical things. We talk about actual tools and tactics for changing spending, increasing income, identifying a near-term goal and getting to it. Again, we use a feminist economic lens. Demographically, the people who come to my workshops are typically earning less money than their male peers and their white peers. They've typically learned little to nothing about negotiation, and they're afraid to ask for things. They feel like they're being pushy if they ask for something. All this stuff we know and have probably read about, but I experience it firsthand with my clients all the time. I know this is true for people who come to my workshops. There’s a terror around what someone will think of them if they ask for something.
So we create a 6- to 12-month plan for each person's near-term goal. And then we consider what behavior modifications they need to make in order to get there. We focus on observing their thoughts and feelings along the way, so they can see the connection between what’s happening inside of them and their financial behaviors.
How do you see people transform throughout that process?
A lot of us internalize the belief that we have to perfect something before we can make it public or ask for outside support. But perfection is an illusion. So as long as that’s the barometer, nobody ever gets there. So many artists who come to my workshops are after some illusion. They don’t think they can show their work to people yet or apply for things. I try to break that spell and teach that at every point in the development of their ideas and work, they can invite the outside in. Finding community and asking for help will yield real change in their lives.
For example, a woman came to my money workshop last night who had previously come to a grant writing workshop. She said that the grant-writing event changed her life, because it had never occurred to her someone like her could apply for grants. She came to my workshop, where I told everyone, “Oh, yeah, all of you can apply for grants. In fact, if you don't, some asshole’s going to get that money, and you're going to be really mad about it.” You have to put your hat in the ring. Statistically, the more you ask for, the more you’ll get. She told me she's gotten lots of grant income as a result.
The transformation is that people becoming willing to ask for things. This is what creates so much change. Some of the stuff they ask for, they then get, which blows their mind and transforms their lives and their projects. When they don't get anything, they learn that rejection won't kill them. In fact, they can withstand it, which builds up a solid core inside of them on which they can depend. No matter what happens on the outside, they're going to be okay.
As you mentioned earlier, you encourage artists to maintain their critical feminist lens of capitalism while also operating within our current economic reality. How do we simultaneously navigate our economic system and rally to change it?
Through civic engagement, like voting and supporting organizations and people in leadership who want economic change, and through your micro-communities. I'm a believer in looking to your specific community — your town or city — and seeing what kind of economic change you can support through whatever resources you have, whether that’s money, time, labor, or something else.
In Los Angeles, where I live, we have an outrageous crisis of people without homes. The number of homeless people is just incredible for a place filled with so much wealth. It's a real mind-fuck, because Los Angeles is also a place that puts value in displaying wealth. We have the entertainment industry here, which is extravagant. Then we have an enormous number of people, families, and children living in the streets, in underpasses, in fields, on the river bank, and in canyons. People can feel overwhelmed and powerless.
How does this get solved incrementally and permanently? Well, artists have a hand in publicly demanding economic change. They have the power to constantly be reminding and pushing at the edges of what we can do better as communities. How can we be more inclusive? How can we take better care?
You see this power in public places like markets or when you go to any kind of public demonstration. What's the most interesting thing? Usually the performances and visual aesthetics. Artists can capture the imagination of entire public spheres.
Do you think that entrepreneurs and small business owners can enact that same power? Or in other words, do you believe that building business can be a creative act that also leads to social change?
Absolutely. Everyday we make choices with our money, how we run our lives and spend our dollars. Businesses are committed to the values that reflect their owners. The choices they make reflecting their values have huge economic consequences and train consumers to think about those things, too.
A store in Los Angeles that I love, called Otherwild, which became really famous nationally when they reproduced "The Future Is Female" t-shirt. I adore the woman who started Otherwild, Rachel Berks. She created this incredible cyclical plan. She got a grant that enabled her to get permission to use that slogan from the 70s, design it on a shirt, and then produce those shirts in large quantities. Otherwild sells these shirts in its store and online, and a portion of all the money they make goes to Planned Parenthood. The shirts became really, really popular, so now she’s become a major donor to Planned Parenthood, opened another store, and given jobs to more artists and young people. She created actual economic change and philanthropy through this designed object that people want, that also has political messaging on it. I think she's such a great example of that.
She's done other projects since then that have political messaging imbued in them or printed on them. They're wildly popular, which then creates jobs. A portion of the money benefits something that's aligned with her value system. It’s a brilliant way to connect being a business owner with her feminist politics and economic change.
There’s so much junk out there that people are selling. To have a product that has a political message and gets people spending money in a way that benefits Planned Parenthood gets me really excited. That’s awesome.
I love when I can spend my money in a way that aligns with my values, that supports the economy of my local place, and that’s created with some sort of ethical guidance in mind. All those things are really important to me. And I think when that’s overt in the messaging, it helps other people become electrified by that possibility, too.
Otherwild shows us that one way to do that is by donating a portion of your revenue to a cause. What are some other ways to integrate social justice into your work if you’re a business owner?
I think it's useful to think about the resources you have available. Money is one, and practicing philanthropy is crucial for all people, especially once they get out of debt. That's what I teach my particular clients. But what other resources do you have? Do you have a large platform, a lot of shoppers, a lot of people watching you on social media, or writing about your business? Do you have a prominent storefront? Equipment or physical space? There are so many different things a business owner could have available besides money.
After the 2016 election, stores in LA and other big cities put posters in the window, saying, “You are welcome here. Queer people, immigrants, undocumented people, you are all welcome and safe here.” I think it's a big deal when business owners align with progressive politics, using their storefronts to say, “This is the community we are, and as a business owner, these are my values."
When do you think businesses cross the line into what people call "corporate feminism?" What's the difference between a feminist business versus a company co-opting feminism as a branding tool to make more money?
I would say, what's happening with the money? Is this just a marketing scheme? Or is there public philanthropy? Is there any kind of reinvestment of funds into specific communities? For me, that’s what makes the difference between Otherwild and, “Oh my god, this bullshit t-shirt company is just selling t-shirts with a feminist slogan.”
There's always a story in the direction of the money, right? And while so many groups remain underserved by businesses, I still get told frequently that it's not possible to build a successful business when you're serving an audience that doesn't have money to spend. I'm curious to know how you deal with this in your own business?
I'm very lucky in that I get to myth-bust the world of money, because I actually know how much money people do and don't have. One thing I tell all my clients, many of whom are selling objects and artwork, is to let the other person say no. They often don’t believe that people have any money to pay them. I tell my clients, don't say no for your buyers. Don't assume people don't have the money or don't value what you're doing enough to spend money on your thing. What we project onto other people financially usually isn’t true.
One good solution for getting around that fear is asking for as much money as you can say with a straight face. Negotiation means you will come down from where you're starting. This also allows you to do pro bono work for a specific group of people. You’ll be able to reinvest your time and resources and skills into your community, while also drawing clear boundaries around who pays and who doesn't.
For me and my business, I have a very specific demographic of artists I offer pro bono services to. That's a recommitment of my time and an investment in these artists. Everyone else pays. There's a clear boundary and distinction for me.
What advice do you have for women business owners who feel guilty charging for their services, or who have been attacked by others who think a "real" feminist business would give those services away for free? It's a really tough line to straddle.
I think that what's under that assumption, for a lot of people, is the fear of charging money. They worry that if they charge money, somehow that's not feminist. Or if they charge a wage they're really happy with, then that's not okay. They feel like they have to be struggling. I promise you, this is sexism at work — economic sexism — that makes you think it's not okay to be paid, or that there’s something inherently bad in charging money.
I disagree that a person shouldn't be compensated for their labor. Of course you should get paid. If your job is teaching workshops, you have to earn a living. That doesn't mean you can't offer your services for free when you want to. But you have to detach from other people's opinions of what you should be doing. It's perfectly reasonable to charge money for a service you're providing. People who want that thing for free can find it for free elsewhere. They're just not going to get it for free from you. And you don't owe them that thing for free. You can refer those people to free books and webinars on that topic, but tell them that if they want to enroll in your particular workshop, it costs money.
I've had people get upset that I charge money to talk about personal finance, but that's my job. I have to earn a living, and I want that person to do the same. Again, I know exactly where my free, pro bono time goes. Everyone else pays. If somebody ever wanted to ask me one-on-one for pro bono consulting on personal finance, I would consider it. I would consider that a lot more than somebody trolling me online and saying, “How dare you?” If a person wrote to me and said, “I really want to learn this, but I can't pay for a workshop ticket,” then I’d tell them, “Oh, just come for free. I'll let you in.”
We want everyone to earn money, reinvest money into their communities, and give money away. Telling each other that we're not supposed to earn a living doesn't make an economically sustainable community.
Support Beth Pickens
You can support Beth Pickens by purchasing her book Your Art Will Save Your Life.