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
- 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.
- 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]
- Artists – and their collaborators — should be paid a living wage by arts organizations.
- 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
- “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]
- 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
- 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?
- 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.