Please Don’t Blame (only) the Artists

Got Brain? by aigarius (Creative Commons)

A tweet from 20Under40 called my attention to an open letter from the “Creative Arts Think Tank,” a “loose collection of [New York-based] contemporary performance stakeholders” about improving the business ecosystem for the contemporary performing arts.  There’s a lot to agree with in their manifesto (they don’t call it that, but that’s what it is), but there are a few things to argue about and some language to quibble over.

It was particularly interesting to read their piece a day or two after Lee Liebeskind’s energetic first blog about risk and reward in which he asks us to put aside the supply/demand issue for a little while to talk about risk and reward or, put another way, why we put ourselves out on a limb.  The CATT piece is all about the supply side of the supply/demand equation however; not the supply of arts organizations as was the blogosphere’s focus in February of this year, but rather the quantity of output by artists.  They give a lot of credit to — or lay a lot of blame on, depending on your perspective — artists themselves for oversupplying art and therefore undervaluing their own creative capital.

What I agree with

  1. There is too little attention paid to actual costs at every level of the “food chain.”  Funders, presenters, generative artists, collaborators and audience members need to acknowledge the real cost of making art.
  2. The people in the production stream “at the bottom of the food chain,” in this case the artists, have a lot of latent power.  [but see below: control of production is only one source of power]
  3. Artists – and their collaborators — should be paid a living wage by arts organizations.
  4. Artists should view themselves as entrepreneurs, and develop a business plan accordingly.  A plan that considers all revenue sources, all budget expenditures, and realistically addresses the potentialities for the future is a necessity, even for artists who are full time employees of arts organizations.  By thinking of it s a business plan rather than a personal budget, the artist professionalizes their activities.  Which brings me to what I question…

What I question

  1. “artists who do not get paid are not professionals. Period.” CATT’s criterion seems arbitrary.  Why measure one’s status as a professional by money, especially when money is so hard to come by.  Let’s say, for example, that you are a painter. Eight hours a day are spent in the studio painting, eights hours a week spent on visiting galleries.  Your professional business plan calls for diversified income streams that include a freelance graphic design business and the ubiquitous food service industry job on weekends. Your income stream is not generated from painting, but you enter the studio every single day and create art.  You consider yourself a professional artist.  Why should CATT say you aren’t?  Was Van Gogh a professional artist? Even though he didn’t sell a painting in his lifetime? [I do agree, however, that there are instances in which incorrect notions of professionalism have been used as a veil for the exploitation of artists]
  2. Although artists have latent power in the production stream, control of the means of production is one of only several bases of power over supply.  Others include control of information and control of resources.  The artist controls neither of these.

Two other thoughts

  1. We can’t really talk about the oversupply of artists, arts organizations, or artistic product without talking about the oversupply of training programs.  Why are there so many MFA programs training theatre artists, dancers, and even arts administrators, if there is not viable employment for them?  What are we [i.e. the academic arts community] teaching our students to do when they get out of graduate school?
  2. A performing arts ecosystem is a local ecosystem.  It involves artists creating in a specific location for live audience in a specific location, often with locally or regionally generated funding.  The CATT members write from a specific New York-centric perspective. (Since I once had that perspective myself, I readily recognize its presence.) There are people making interesting work in urban — and rural — enclaves throughout the country, but in each region or city, the arts “food chain” is unique.  Artists who choose to live in a city like Phoenix, for example, must create a portfolio career to sustain their work, even when they are fortunate and talented enough to have part of their income derived from that work (CATT’s definition of a professional artist).

Don’t get me wrong, I WANT ARTISTS TO BE PAID FOR THE TIME THEY SPEND MAKING WORK.  While artists need to take ownership of this issue, that ownership must be shared by arts organizations, funders, educators, and audience members, who need to better educated on the real cost of art. In Lee Liebeskind’s blog, he talks about educating audiences about mission. Often, too little attention is paid to the audience and encouraging them to participate rather than merely spectate.

We have to recognize the complexity of the problem and its dual local and national implications.

I applaud CATT for its openness, forthrightness, and commitment – and for engaging with this national conversation about local work.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig directs ASU's arts entrepreneurship program, Pave: http://theatrefilm.asu.edu/initiatives/pave/ The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of ASU. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix and "like" the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship at http://www.facebook.com/pages/pave-program-in-arts-entrepreneurship/386328970101 Find Pave's journal, Artivate, at http://artivate.org
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4 Responses to Please Don’t Blame (only) the Artists

  1. Paul Botts says:

    I’m afraid this analysis, like most of those now flying around the web on this subject, has missed an essential fact on the ground. What completes the picture, the datum which allows us to successfully predict the reality as it exists in today’s real world and how that reality has changed in recent decades, is that artists are themselves expressing a strong demand curve: demand for a life as an artist. Our society has in recent generations finished freeing that demand, the barriers to entry that long artificially repressed it have been largely torn down (no segment of Western society still considers being an actress to be one step better than being a prostitute, etc.). Indeed mainstream European and American society now actively encourages that particular demand: middle-class parents of virtually all religious traditions are now willing or eager to help their artistically-talented children try to become artists. Even evangelicals are sending their kids to musical-theater camp now. Pursuit of the dream of being a working artist has been completely normalized in pop culture (“American Idol”, “So You Think You Can Dance”, and on and on). Etc.

    What happens when expressed demand for something broadly and strongly increases? The cost of it is driven up, in this case meaning the amount of time (or performance, or an economist would say “product”) that each artist must provide in order to realize a given dollar. Hence:

    “The people in the production stream “at the bottom of the food chain,” in this case the artists, have a lot of latent power.” Actually, no — those expressing a rising demand (in this case people seeking a working life as an artist) naturally and inherently have less power as more and more people seek the same thing. Same reason that until recently the cost of law school had been rising in real dollars for decades, etc.

    “Artists should view themselves as entrepreneurs.” Artists in the real world are actually behaving exactly like entrepreneurs: in a situation of demand rising well ahead of supply for the desired good (life as a working artist) it is entirely rational to increase the price one is willing to pay (in unpaid hours worked) in exchange for that good.

    “Why are there so many MFA programs training theatre artists, dancers, and even arts administrators, if there is not viable employment for them?” Because the MFA programs (and theater schools and music conservatories and so forth, all booming) are responding to the increased demand (for a life in the arts) just described. Same reason MBA programs boomed in the 80s and 90s.

    “Why measure one’s status as a professional by money, especially when money is so hard to come by.” Well put, and most artists operating in today’s real world evidently agree. They appear to be simply ignoring the endless stream of wailing by academics, bloggers and other would-be thought leaders to the effect that they “should” be charging more which means refusing to spend more in pursuit of their goal. They are choosing instead to spend more (in unpaid time) in pursuit of a goal which means more to them than money. They appear to be collectively uninterested in the actual path to increasing artist income levels in today’s reality, which would be to go back to artificially repressing the expressed demand for a life as an artist. (We could either reinstate broad social barriers to pursuit of that goal, or perhaps in some way impose legal limits on it a la medieval guilds.)

    “I WANT ARTISTS TO BE PAID FOR THE TIME THEY SPEND MAKING WORK. While artists need to take ownership of this issue….” They have taken ownership of this issue — they have simply made a different choice than those who presume to speak for them presume to be the correct one. The working artists I know, in several disciplines, understand this perfectly particularly those young than 40. What one thinks of that collective choice depends on one’s worldview I suppose, but in any case it is the facts on the ground.

    • lindaessig says:

      Paul: Thank you for your thought-provoking comment. I agree that one can flip the supply/demand equation around and view the artists as creating demand for the supply of opportunity. However, the situation is different for the opportunity-seeking artists than for, say, the Toyota-seeking car buyer because the artist can create their own opportunities; the car buyer cannot manufacture the car. Coincidentally, as you were writing this comment, Mission Paradox published a post that makes this point quite eloquently: http://www.missionparadox.com/the_mission_paradox_blog/2011/03/leverage-picking-yourself.html

      • Paul Botts says:

        “the artist can create their own opportunities; the car buyer cannot manufacture the car.”

        This comparison seems to rest on some misunderstanding of what each party in the example is actually seeking. The car buyer is seeking a means of personal transportation, and certainly can “manufacture” that good in any of several obvious ways; acquiring a car is just one potential answer to the person’s actual goal/need.

        Meanwhile regarding the would-be artist, two points:
        (a) she is seeking is not simply “opportunity” but rather a life as an artist, meaning making a living at it in all the senses of that phrase. She can unilaterally manufacture the former, yes, but not the latter. If simple “opportunity” was all that mattered then there would be no reason to even worry about whether or how much artists get paid.
        (b) only some artists can even manufacture opportunity unilaterally. If by that we mean simply offering some art to the marketplace then sure a sculptor or playwright can do that unilaterally, can manufacture it. An actor or musician or dancer however cannot: s/he can “manufacture” only _auditions for_ an opportunity to actually offer his/her art to the world.

  2. BG says:

    “We can’t really talk about the oversupply of artists, arts organizations, or artistic product without talking about the oversupply of training programs. Why are there so many MFA programs training theatre artists, dancers, and even arts administrators, if there is not viable employment for them?”

    I’ve been hammering on this for years. There is a massive oversupply of arts training programs, and I wouldn’t limit the observation to the MFA level. All the way down to the bachelor’s level you can find degree options at nearly every college and university. I work in theater, and it kills me to see all of these programs churning out graduates (particularly performance majors) when there are so few opportunities to make a full-time living, even in the best economic times. Compounding the problem are faculty members who aren’t honest with these kids about their chances, and don’t give them the tools they need to supplement their performance training. The oversupply of training programs is THE 800-pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

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