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According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate (and go out of business). “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stories. . . . (But) what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”

The Guardian, June 19, 2014

I’m not planning to write about shopping malls, but I like the quote from Howard Davidowitz; and I am planning to write about the ways that books and art are affected by the fact that the middle class no longer has “the fucking money.”

Another article in The Guardian, “From Bestseller to Bust,” published on March 1, 2014, describes how British authors have seen their careers hit the wall. Award-winning, pretty-darn-successful writers, people who have made a living at writing, now are wondering how they are going to pay the rent. Most of the article focuses on technological changes: the Internet, social media, the difficulty of protecting copyrights in this new digital age. But the article identifies a turning point: the financial collapse of 2008. I wonder if there’s another issue, which goes beyond the current problems of publishing.

My tax accountant runs an art gallery in the waiting room of his office. It’s good art by local artists and very affordable. I have bought a couple of small pieces. According to him, sales have never recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. This makes sense to me. The people who bought this art were middle class, people who could afford  a $500 or $1,000 work, but not a million dollar painting being auctioned at Sotheby’s. (Given recent art prices, a million dollars begins to look cheap.)

The rich still have money to buy hideously over-priced art in the New York market, much of it not especially good. (Hedge fund managers are not known for their taste in art.) But the middle class can no longer afford modest works by good local artists.

Before 2008, the middle class was in debt, but still spending, due in good part to the rise in real estate prices. The main asset middle-class people have, at least in the US, is their house. As long as houses were appreciating, they could feel comfortable taking on debt—which they did by running up credit card charges or by taking out a second mortgage on the house.

House prices began to decline in 2006 and dropped sharply in 2008. Many people were left with houses worth less than the mortgage. They had no equity.

At the same time, the banking crisis led to a recession or depression, pick the term you like best. It was the deepest economic collapse since the Great Depression. The US and Great Britain and mainland Europe still haven’t recovered. What this meant in the US was, many people lost their jobs and have not found equally good ones. I lost my day job as an accountant in 2009 and looked for a new one for 18 months, then said “what the heck” and retired.

This meant the middle class, such of it as still remains, became much more careful about spending money. Art—like recreational shopping at malls—is discretionary spending. You do it with the money you have left after you take care of basics.

One of my Facebook friends, a fine English author, says the people she knows have to choose between buying food or petrol to get to work. I am certain her friends would buy books if they could. But they flat out can’t.

There are longer-term problems as well: the collapse of America’s Great Lakes industrial belt and the loss of good union industrial jobs. That was happening long before 2008. What the 2008 crisis did was spread the loss farther and faster. It isn’t just the blue-collar jobs that went after 2008. It was lots of white-collar jobs held by people who thought they were solidly middle class and safe.

We are now going to turn to art patronage. This is something I know about, since I used to work as an accountant for small nonprofits. I know where they got their money. Some of it was grants from the government, foundations, or individuals. Some of it—in my experience at least a third—was from middle-class patrons: the people who bought memberships and admission tickets and might make a modest contribution at year-end.

Books are different. They aren’t usually funded by grants. Publishers don’t usually have members or solicit donations. Instead, they are supported by a fairly large group of book customers, most of them middle or working class.

When you create the kind of economy we have today, which consists of a tiny number of immensely rich people, a larger—but not large—group of upper middle-class people, and an ever-growing class of working poor, you have attacked funding for the arts. The rich and the upper middle class may still buy books and tickets to concerts, the opera, and art museums, but they can’t replace the middle-class customers. There aren’t enough of them.

In 2012, the administrations of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra locked out their musicians. The administrators said they could no longer afford to pay union wages. The musicians would have to take deep pay cuts. Both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra were advised by the same law firm, which had a rep for breaking unions.

I didn’t follow the SPCO lockout closely. The musicians settled after 191 days, accepting as 19% pay cut. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians stayed out longer and kept trying to negotiate with an obdurate administration. (Remember that this was a lockout, not a strike.) They built considerable support in the community, by—among other things—organizing concerts for the orchestra-in-exile. Some of these were free, and others were fundraisers for the union. The fundraisers quickly sold out. A lot of ordinary concert-goers were backing the union musicians.

In the end, the musicians got a better deal than originally offered, and the executive director responsible for the lockout agreed to leave, which is a fancy way of saying he was fired. 

Why do I tell this tale? Because the administrations of both orchestras said they could no longer afford to pay the musicians at their former rates. There was no longer the market for classical music there had once been. It’s possible they were liars. The Minnesota Orchestra Association was doing a huge renovation of Orchestra Hall at the same time that they said they couldn’t afford the musicians. The Ordway Music Theater, home base for the Saint Paul Orchestra, is also being renovated. In this case, a smaller auditorium is being added for the SPCO. This suggests that they can’t fill the original hall.

It’s possible that the contraction of the middle class is reducing ticket sales. It’s something to think about. Though I think there are better ways to deal with a changing market than locking out workers and doing huge renovations to your buildings.

I’m now going to talk about European art history, which is something else I know about, since I grew up in art museums and have a degree in art history.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, art patronage was largely provided by kings, nobles, and the church. Kings such as Louis XIV had court musicians, court painters, court architects, and gardeners. In addition, Louis gave pensions to writers with the understanding that they would write nice things about him. Nobles imitated monarchs as far as they were able. Europe is full of churches, art, and music funded by religious organizations. 

(In addition, there was folk art. But I don’t know that folk art ever paid well.)

Gradually, as the middle class increased in size and affluence, middle-class patrons became more important. They bought tickets for plays and concerts, books, small works of art. Franz Josef Haydn spent 30 years working for Prince Esterhazy, a great noble in the Holy Roman Empire. He conducted the prince’s private orchestra and wrote music for the prince. Finally, after 30 years, he received permission to leave from the prince’s heir. He went to London, where he gave subscription concerts and was wildly successful. There, in one man’s life, we can see the shift from noble patronage to middle-class patronage.

A literate middle class with enough money to buy books led to freelance authors, who made a living from sales rather than getting a pension from a prince. And this led to the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After World War II, there was a huge expansion of art patronage in the US, funded by the government, rich patrons, and many ordinary people. This seems to be coming to an end. Art is discretionary, as I mentioned earlier. If people are poor, they will buy less art.

What comes next? I don’t know. But I don’t think a handful of rich people are going to replace all the book buyers and play and concert goers who used to support the arts. Whatever art the rich buy will be aristocratic, since they are the new aristocracy; and looking at the New York art market, much of the art is likely to be over-priced and bad.

You don’t get the novels of Dickens from a court poet, nor the work of Austen, the Brontes, Twain, and Melville.

Maybe what comes next is a new kind of folk art, most likely on the Internet. It will be a different kind of art. Most likely, it won’t pay well. 

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
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