Our current moment of reflection has yet to find a boundary as we continue our fine-toothed examination of the institutions previously thought to be unassailable. Virgile Goyet argues that it is time to focus attention on design’s future generations - making sure that their toolboxes, going forward, include the types of wide-eyed examinations of finance and worth usually reserved for business students. Engaging in deal-making will not transform designers into agents of capitalism, he argues. On the contrary, creators do require support and allies to make their voices heard.
Money, like a family secret, is both everywhere and unmentionable in the design world. It is a field dominated by the influencing effects of global wealth and corporate cash and yet, design programs—responsible for readying design’s future—still promote the development of proficiency and craft over career-making. And while design’s elite espouse change, the young still wander the biennales with their notebooks looking for inspiration as the adults around them strike €100,000 deals.
This is not sustainable. While there is little debate regarding the conflict between money and art, shielding students from the harsh reality of the market only makes them vulnerable. Design and art are deal-making industries. Like their creative counterparts—architects, playwrights, or singers—designers are in a constant negotiation. Getting a gig, accessing key networks, collaborating with the right people aren’t merely unavoidable, they are the heart and soul of the game.
Established designers know this. Curators, investors, and collectors know this. Yet, among my students at La Cambre, only a handful had any idea the game was even in progress. My classes focus on the negotiations and business models of the art world economy. It’s not a popular subject. Committed to their practical artistic vision, many students oppose the very idea of engaging in deal-making at all.
Yet, every industry requires a system of standards for measuring worth. And if not cold, hard cash, what criteria should creatives use when presenting their work, assessing power structures, and securing the resources they need to create?
The new generations are particularly suspicious of all things economic. Since the 1980s and the rise of the hedge fund collectors, finance millionaires have replaced industrialists as our society’s ruling class. And while some markets are literally drowning in ill-begotten cash, most creatives are left fighting for scraps. Facing this dilemma, the young often choose to eschew deals. But as they quickly discover, even the most humane and qualitative approaches to their craft require some kind of capital.
Take fame, a classic currency for artistic institutions. As an indicator based on achievements, not commercial success, it is a qualitative criterion that really only reflects the past. And a dependence on reputation can be problematic. Just as money can provoke greed, focusing on prestige rather than creation diverts the focus away from one’s artistic vision. There is a name for this: vanity. The recognitions are bolstering, to be sure, but they don’t add value to the actual practice. They are qualifiers, communicating a status that is sheathed in extraneous ornament. “I’m teaching a [free] workshop,” for example. Or, “I’ve been selected to exhibit [and pay for my stand at] the art fair.” These markers are deceptive and time-consuming, especially for young designers pursuing access. They’re also tragic in that they contribute to a focus on the wrong criteria, ultimately wasting students’ energy, confidence, and passion before their careers even have a chance to start.
“I resented the gallery system at first, the whole circuit,” writes Côme Di Meglio, a French artist and graduate from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. “I felt such an urge for personal research. The traditional players didn’t seem trustworthy enough.” I contacted Di Meglio knowing he had recently found his way back to art making after years of research and building a platform on his own terms. “Today I understand what each of them can give me—and what they can’t. I try looking for allies.”
There are those who insist that artists shouldn’t worry about such things, that art isn’t a negotiation, and that true talent will naturally rise to the top. This, however, looks very much like an updated version of the lone creator myth, as well as a privileged gatekeeping device. There is a reason why so many successful designers are white: they arrive connected, already knowing the rules.
But engaging in deal-making will not transform designers into agents of capitalism. On the contrary, creators do require support and allies to make their voices heard. Young designers will need to learn how to navigate some seriously pernicious traps in order to achieve independence. The glass ceilings, the double-talk—those rules can be both learnt and bent. Yet any objective requires capital, be it money, fame, or access. And, as we’ve seen, each of those carries its own set of dangers.
It comes down to strategy. Designers don’t need to conquer the world and, indeed, most of them just want to be at peace. But in this business, even peace is a battleground. The key is to adapt the tools of business strategy to the fields of design and art. The playbook already exists in a thousand downloadable forms: institutions, activists, and social scientists have been rewriting it since the 1990s. This is much simpler than actually training talent—a task schools already brilliantly perform—and it requires being frank with students. Especially if we, their teachers, have struggled to play the game ourselves. In other words, we need to have an open and honest conversation about the insidious fears of not making it, not being good enough, or of missing one’s calling. This is the elephant in the room and it’s time to talk about it.
Words by Virgil Goyet