Favianna Rodriguez talks sexual liberation, immigration, racial justice and art

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You were talking about financially supporting artists. How do you make this economy work for you and the artists you advocate for?

The economy works because I look for resources. Whether that's pitching the projects to social justice groups or doing fundraising, I'm always looking at ways to resource artists, because I don't ask artists to work for free. I think that artists' work is tremendously valuable, and I want to make sure that artists are getting the support they need to do their work. That's not just in getting direct funding but also in getting guidance to do their work.

Maybe they need to be introduced to somebody who can open the door for them, whether that's showing at a gallery or writing a grant. I'm an entrepreneur. I have a really good sense of how to run a business and have tried many things in my own business practice when I was running the web firm. In my own practice, as a business, I try to think of ways where I don't have to rely on one thing to make money. I can rely on many things, and I've experimented, and many times I've failed, but that has allowed me to determine what the systems are for an artist to survive. There's teaching; there's selling your work to customers; there's showing your work in galleries; there is writing grants; there is speaking at universities.

As artists, we have a really weird relationship to money. Artists have this very erroneous idea that even though we create the work, somebody's going to come discover us and put us in a gallery or in a performance venue or someone will like our singing so much that they'll make a record, and we're going to be stars, and that's a lie. The truth is that income inequality affects artists the hardest. It's very hard to be an artist because the way that the market is set up, artists front all the costs for their creativity. The artists have to rent a studio to make their paintings. They have to rent the sound equipment to be able to create a song. Then the gallery or record label determines the value of that product. It's tricky because we've been taught to feel that art is this magical place where money doesn't matter, and that's not true. Unless you stand up for your rights and unless you really think through how you're going to survive as an artist, then you're going to be facing the same issue that many people in this country face, which is this issue of poverty.

As artists we face poverty so much more because there is not infrastructure to support what we're doing. We're getting wiped out. The first thing the government does is slash public art programs. The opportunities for artists that existed during the WPA era are no longer there. Artists need to understand that our economic viability is something that we very much need to advocate for and organize around. Just like low-wage workers are organizing, we also need to make sure that our work is respected.

I see this happen a lot in the movement. Artists get asked to do things for free all the time, and often, they're asked by people who are getting a wage to organize. That's not okay. I challenge many social justice groups on this notion that art should be free. Art should be a part of the public good. The thing is, there is not a public infrastructure that supports artists. As a result, we have to be able to ask for fair compensation.

What are your thoughts on mentorship, and how does that fit into your practice?

I didn't finish college. I dropped out of school because I was pregnant when I was nineteen, and I decided I wanted to have an abortion. In that year, I realized that I wanted to be an artist and to take a risk and pursue that. When I was growing up, my parents didn't encourage me to be an artist. They were supportive, but they didn't tell me that it could be my career. They wanted me to be a doctor. My parents immigrated here. For them, the idea that I would do art really freaked them out. I was a math/science honor student. I would have to go to math camp and science camp after school and on Saturdays and in the summer. I was a very obedient kid. Even though I was a little rebellious, I followed everything my parents said when it came to my education.

The problem is that by the time I got to high school, I didn't have a portfolio. You can't apply to art school if you don't have a portfolio. Although I was a very creative kid and my teachers would tell my parents that I had a gift and needed to be in creative programs, it was not possible for me to do that because I didn't get the kind of education I needed to go to art school.

I went to UC Berkeley for three years in the ethnic studies department. During that time, I met a few mentors. I took art classes on the side and was on campus, which meant I was free from the stronghold of my parents, and I was doing more and more art. It was coming more naturally for me. I met a woman. Her name was Elaina Cervantes. She looked at my work and said, "You really have a gift, and you have to pursue it. I'm going to introduce you to other artists in L.A." So I met folks and got a lot of advice and a lot of support. A lot of artists took me under their wings, and I decided then, after I got pregnant, that I didn't want to be a part of the education system anymore. I wasn't feeling fulfilled. It was tremendously expensive, and I felt that it was time for me to invest in myself.

I decided to learn on my own and find professional artists who would be willing to guide me and spend time with me. I reached out to many artists, including folks like Emory Douglas and Malaquias Montoya. I was taking it upon myself to be an autodidactic, which means somebody who learns on their own. Were it not for people mentoring me and taking time to show me the ropes and techniques, to show me how to write a bio and show me how to build a website, I wouldn't have been able to do any of that. Luckily, many people spent time with me, and they opened many doors.

I strongly believe in supporting younger artists and artists of color, especially. I understand the vast inequality we face in the art world. I'll give you a few numbers. Only 10 percent of arts funding goes to curators of color; 93.5 percent of curators in museums are white. Nine out of ten critics are white. Facing this reality, I want to mentor younger artists and teach them how to advocate for themselves, teach them how to charge and encourage them to try new things and push them outside of their comfort zone and support them in the way that I was supported. Unfortunately, the colleges are not going to do that for them.

Continue on for more from Favianna Rodriguez.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris