As an artist, 37-year-old Dan Nelson has attained moderate success. He participates in four or five group shows each year and usually has one or two solo exhibits as well. On average he sells about four or five pieces a show, which is enviable, especially during an economic recession. (In fact, Nelson admitted, it's good to sell anything at a show.) His biggest coup thus far was the book All Known Metal Bands, a giant alphabetical list of all the metal bands known to exist. Published by McSweeney's, it runs to 300 pages in hardcover. Copies sell for $20 a pop. "I definitely made more money selling that book than all of my visual pieces combined," Nelson said. Since the publication of All Known Metal Bands last year, he's been thinking more like a capitalist. He'd like to keep his artistic vocation but figure out how to get rich. Specifically, he'd like to make a million dollars.
Such was the impetus for Nelson's latest project, "Why Not Make an Artist a Millionaire?" Nelson put the question on a framed placard and underneath it wrote: "Make your $1 donation by PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org." He debuted it at 21 Grand's 9th-annual benefit sale along with a small donation box. A few people bit. Between the show and the PayPal account, Nelson's accrued roughly $60 in thus far. As he continues gathering dollar bills he'll put them in the installation. "It's gonna be a pallet of bundles of $1 bills — a million dollars, physically, of cash," Nelson explained. He vows to document everything he did to achieve the objective (from making posters to sending PR announcements) and include that as part of the piece. "It can become a rich, complex piece if I want it to," he said.
"Make an Artist a Millionaire" isn't Nelson's only way of integrating mercantile impulses into his artwork. Last year, he came up with an idea for a unique, self-boosting performance piece. It would require him to get hired as an artist-in-residence of sorts, for a big company with a big office building and, presumably, a big lobby. (Google might be a candidate, he thought, or Apple, or Toyota.) The way Nelson explains it, it sounds a bit like old-school patronage: For an annual salary of, say, $50,000, Nelson would set up his studio in the lobby and spend the day pursuing his own creative work. At the end of the year he would present the company with a nice piece of lobby art.
The idea is to avoid any traditional exchange, said Nelson. Still, he thinks it's ultimately a fair trade. "Normally they'd go out and pay fifty or a hundred grand for a huge painting that's in the lobby," he said. With this alternative, company execs get all the pleasure of having an artist in their midst. "They are patrons of the artist for a year. They get a performance where my studio is in their lobby. ... I like to think I can semantically arrange it so that they're really paying me for my time."
If anyone could persuade some corner-office executive to turn art-making into a job, it would be Nelson. The Massachusetts-born liberal-arts major-turned-graphic-designer has a great elevator pitch for everything he does. Right now he's working on a series of red and gray sculptures that represent French philosopher Blaise Pascal's 32 "Pensées," notes toward his unfinished defense of Christianity. He's given it a Hollywood blockbuster title, "The Origin and Future of the Blood." It's part of a heady sequence of monochromatic works that also included black paper cutouts inspired by Franz Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, and silver illustrations of letters from various alphabets, many of them shaped into animals, tools, or pieces of architecture. Nelson got hip to both Schubert and Pascal while attending St. John's College in Maryland and found a way to incorporate both into his career. As an artist, he's rigorously imaginative. More importantly, he's enterprising — to a point that verges on being mercenary. In fact, Nelson's ambition got him in trouble long before he started asking people to add a million dollars to his personal coffers.
It began with All Known Metal Bands, which, it turns out, was partly based on the web site Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives. The first person to dispute its worth was blogger Cosmo Lee of InvisibleOranges.com, who called the book a "copy-and-paste job." Nelson maintains that he found Encyclopaedia Metallum about six months after launching the project, and that he did use it as source material along with several other web sites (including MySpace.com) and the bargain bins of various record stores. Unfortunately, Nelson didn't include an acknowledgements page in All Known Metal Bands. "Of course, I thank Encyclopaedia Metallum on my web site," he said. "At the same time, I have no response to the copyright infringement question. No one can copyright a list of anything as far as I know. My list is different from their list."
Still, it raises the question of whether Nelson's most successful work of art is, in fact, legitimate. And if not, then does he really deserve to be compensated full-time for his craft? Nelson seems to think so. He's currently developing a curriculum vitae based partly on the dossier he's created over the years and partly on the amount of hours he's put in. (In order to "quantify" his skill level, Nelson had to go back over twenty years and try to calculate all the time spent researching, conceptualizing, and making pieces.) He's also researching the art-buying habits of various large companies. He's using benchmarks like the metal band book to confer some sort of stature. "There's a bit of an element of the ridiculous in this project because you can't qualify the skill level of an artist in numbers terms," Nelson explained. He is, after all, applying for a position that's nonexistent.
There's a lot of moral ambiguity to Nelson's current projects. He is asking people to take it as an article of faith that his art is worth bankrolling, and that artists shouldn't have to work a separate day job to support themselves. Nelson isn't without his detractors, but he's got a lot of buy-in, as well. One admiring fan mailed him a dollar bill with a Post-it note attached: "Dear Mr. Nelson: I was looking for a different artist 'Dan Nelson' when I stumbled on your site. If you weren't an artist, I wouldn't be doing this. Hope it happens 4 you!" Nelson said that a lot of people have been equally supportive, and not really questioned his intentions. (He points out that the tagline "Make an Artist a Millionaire," doesn't necessarily mean that he's the artist who gets to be the millionaire.) "It's really kind of an innocent idea," he said. "The response has either been, 'Oh, this is cool,' and they give me money. Or, 'Oh, I don't get it.'"
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