The End of a (Really Long) Era

ringling_bros_and_barnum_and_bailey_circus_gunther_gebel-williams_1977Like many people, I was stunned by yesterday’s news that the Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus will be closing up shop at the end of its current season. I have long credited Ringling Bros for kindling my interest in theatre and stage design. When I was quite young — 5, 6, 7 years old — Ringling Bros would play at Madison Square Garden each April and my mother took me to the circus as a birthday gift. My most vivid memories of the show are of Gunther Gebel-Williams and his big cats and also, most magically, of the moment when the lights went down and all the kids were asked to take out the miniature flashlights we were given (or bought) and swing them around on their lanyards so the entire arena was filled with twirling stars of light. On the way out, my mother bought me a circus poster as a memento; several of these built up over the years as the prevailing decorative motif of my otherwise bland bedroom.

My mother became very ill shortly after my 7th birthday and I don’t think she ever took me to the circus again. However, her mother, my grandmother, subsequently took me to see the famous New York City Ballet rendering of The Nutcracker and once to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockettes. I am very privileged to have been exposed to these very different kinds of performances at a young age; without this exposure, I may never have become a lighting designer. In retrospect, though, I wonder if it was the performances or that fact that I was taken to them by a beloved caregiver that was most important. I may have witnessed the pinnacle of production values by being in New York, but a child raised, like mine, in Madison WI or Phoenix AZ, can have equally impactful experiences. It’s not really about it being the biggest and best circus that was important to me; it was sitting in the dark with my mother, creating a shared memory, that caused it to stick. That can happen anywhere.

It is worth remembering that Ringling Bros. is just one of several spectacle performances owned by Feld Entertainment. The company has not, for example, been forced into bankruptcy by animal rights activists (a narrative some on the political right would have us believe). Feld has just decided to end the circus. That they chose to retire their elephants is just one of the reasons to end the run; in his announcement, Kenneth Feld mentions declining ticket sales that predate the elephant retirement, although the decline sped up immediately following.

Circus – as a form of art and entertainment – punctuated my life in another way in addition to childhood birthdays. In 1988, a few weeks before I moved out of New York City for Madison WI, I went to Battery Park and sat under a blue and yellow big top to watch a new kind of circus, one that relied on acrobats, clowns, spectacle, and storytelling. The company came from Montreal and was called Cirque du Soleil. I remember thinking while watching it that it was so totally different from the circus I saw as a child, but even more magical for the lack of animals. Competition from what has become the Cirque entertainment behemoth likely played a role in Ringling Bros. declining ticket sales.

screen-shot-2017-01-15-at-2-55-04-pmI did return, in a way, to Ringling Bros as an adult as a parent. When my own children were very young, 4, 5, 6 years old (so young they say they don’t remember it now) I took them once a year to the Circus World Museum, which was only an hour away from Madison in Baraboo WI. Circus World is a living museum of the Ringling Brothers, including its own big top show.

I regret that I won’t have a Ringling Bros show to take some future grandchild to, but circus lives on not only in worldwide extravaganzas like Cirque du Soleil, but also in the kind of one-ring family show that was at the root of the Feld Entertainment extravaganza that closed. Shows like the Zoppe Family Circus, which has as long a history, or Bindlestiff, which has been around for just two decades are just two examples.

Circus lives! Take your children.

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LA LA Land of Broken Dreams

mv5bmzuzndm2nzm2mv5bml5banbnxkftztgwntm3ntg4ote-_v1_sy1000_sx675_al_La La Land has gotten a lot of very good press and tonight may be awarded the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture comedy or musical. I, on the other hand, left the theatre saying “meh, but the costume design was really fun.” My 19 year-old companion nailed it for me when he said, “perhaps they should have re-evaluated their professional goals in order to achieve a happy relationship instead of re-evaluating their relationship in order to achieve their professional goals.” After a couple of days I realized that what really bothered me about La La Land is that it amplifies – in cinemascope and beautifully designed Technicolor – every myth about what it means to be an artist in the US that I work every day to debunk.

First, it is not necessary to move to LA or New York to have a successful life as an artist. It is necessary to do so to have a Hollywood career as a movie star, but Mia could have stayed in her small Nevada town after her LA stint and created, for example, an after school theatre program in the library across the street and positively impacted her community.

Second, having a successful career as an artist doesn’t mean doing just one thing, like touring in a jazz fusion band when you don’t want to. Sebastian could have bundled his night gig in the jazz club into a portfolio career that included, perhaps, a part time administrative job with the Jazz Society of LA.

Third, having a successful life does not necessarily mean putting your professional goals first. It instead means viewing your professional and personal lives in symbiosis with one another. That my 19 year-old companion recognized this immediately, gives me hope for his future happiness, which is very important to me (full disclosure: I’m his mom).

There are more myths to debunk, but I’ll stop here. And, I don’t want to imply that the movie wasn’t any good – it is beautiful to look at with two engaging stars who themselves are beautiful to look it, but remember that Hollywood endings, even alternate ones like in the movie, are Hollywood endings; real life is richer, more complicated, and has infinitely more possibilities for artists.


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Universal Basic Income

glasgow_finnieston_areaNews that Scotland is considering implementing a universal basic income (UBI) scheme came just as I was finishing reading Ryan Avent’s excellent The Wealth of Humans . as background for my sabbatical project. Avent is a proponent of UBI, while also recognizing some of its faults. I am too, because UBI can not only reduce poverty, but can also support both early stage entrepreneurs and artists. Avent notes that UBI could free people to “support a socially valuable (if frequently unprofitable) life producing art or music, or craft goods or services.” UBI could likewise support early stage entrepreneurs who would not otherwise enter the market with an innovative new product because of both the opportunity cost and risk to basic subsistence. UBI can fill in the gaps created by automation (think about the supplemental income that will disappear when Uber buys a fleet of self-driving autonomous cars). Finland begins its UBI experiment this month. The world is watching; the arts sector, especially, should be.

(Photo by innoxiuss – Somewhere under the rainbow, Finnieston area of Glasgow, CC 2.0)

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For 2017, Lower Barriers

As I write my year-end post in celebration of the anniversary of this blog, I find myself still reeling from the results of the election eight weeks ago, my mind overwhelmed at times by the “what-could-have-been”s that gave me hope before and the “what-will-be”s that give me insomnia now. Nevertheless, I am heartened by the blog’s statistics that tell me that the most popular post of the year by far, even beating out donut post that went viral, “Just Say NO!” was an item from 2013 on defining arts incubators, a post written in the midst of a two-year project researching the value created by arts incubators and the ways they assess that value. Ultimately, my research found that arts incubators create value by lowering barriers.

jubilee_fields_car_park_mildenhall_-_geograph-org-uk_-_641326I would like to close out 2016 on this theme of lowering barriers. What are the barriers to artists and the arts that are looming for 2017 and how can they be lowered? What barriers exist to personal wellbeing – yours, mine, and the collective ours – and how can they be lowered? Perhaps most importantly, what are the barriers to success that you and I build for ourselves and others and how can we halt their construction before they are erected? In preparation for my next big project, I’m reading Ryan Avent’s excellent book on labor economics, The Wealth of Humans. A phrase jumped out at me like a neon sign:

Legacy structures are a direct hindrance to innovation (p. 112)

What are the structures (institutional, organizational, personal) that are already in place that create barriers to innovation and other positive outcomes? How can they be lowered?

Some answers already exist. Here’s a short list:

  • EDUCATION. Keep an eye on that one in 2017, especially vis a vis public education and what is euphemistically called “school choice” (or what I call “willful economic segregation”).
  • SECURITY. If we think of security as secure assets and safe housing for artists, keep an eye on that one in 2017, especially in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland and the regulatory backlash that seems to be occurring.
  • OPEN COMMUNICATION and INFORMATION FLOW. Keep an eye on that one in 2017, especially given the incoming administration’s relationship with and attitude toward a free press.
  • INFRASTRUCTURE EQUITY. Keep an eye on that one in 2017, especially as it relates to net neutrality and potential threats against it.
  • HEALTHCARE. Keep an eye on that one, especially as the move to repeal the ACA gathers steam, leaving 20 million uninsured in its wake.

Education, security, information flow, equitable access to infrastructure, and adequate healthcare lower barriers for artists – and everyone else – to do their best work. As we look to 2017, let’s keep an eye on barriers that already exist as well as new ones that might develop and, where necessary, #resist their construction.


(photo of Jubilee Fields car park by Bob Jones, CC 2.0)

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Entrepreneurship Beyond “Market?”

Matthew Clinton Sekellik deserves a more considered response to his recent Howlround post, “Against Entrepreneurship,” than I provided in a brief (and admittedly slapdash) comment on it. Because I get it, I really do. “Entrepreneurship” seems in many contexts to be – and in some cases is – an ideological tool to excuse the lack of public funding for the arts and to justify a kind of social Darwinism in which only the “entrepreneurial” survive.

Sekellik’s post is predicated on the idea that the capital markets are unfair, and I agree. How can we make the market more fair? One way is through public subsidy; that is what public subsidy is designed at least in part to do: to correct the inherent market failure in a given sector.


Free beer at Art Basel Miami. Photo by Jakob Fenger, CC 2.0.

Sekellik uses Uber drivers as an example of people trying to make it in a gig economy from which only the corporation, Uber, profits; the drivers themselves are exploited. But Uber drivers are not entrepreneurs; they are contract workers. Unlike artists who create a unique product and send it into the world, Uber drivers pick people up and drop them off.

What if we separate entrepreneurship from “the market” all together? To be an entrepreneur means to:

  • create something new, something of value: aesthetic value, cultural value, social value, or, maybe, financial value
  • recognize or create opportunity to create that something new
  • make use of both internal resources (knowledge, skills, ability) and external resources (social connections, money, facilities, partnership) to create that something new
  • create a structure or process for connecting that something new its audience
  • start all over again if things go wrong – or if things go right – to keep making

These behaviors exist in non-capitalist economies and capitalist economies. In our own late capitalist economy, such behaviors can generate income that can be reinvested in the making of more art.

But is it enough income? Sekellik writes:

What we must demand is our fair share: wages, jobs, pensions, health care. We must demand dignity and respect so that the capitalists and entrepreneurs who think our work worthless must recognize our contributions to civic society. And we must ensure our demands our heard.

I couldn’t agree more. Our work as artists, playwrights, lighting designers, musicians… should be valued and compensated. But working as a freelancer, as Seth Godin recently pointed out, is not the same as being an entrepreneur and although I quibble with Godin’s focus on the financial goal of a profitable “harvest,” his distinction between the two is important. As freelancers, we must demand equitable pay for freelance work. As artists putting new work into the world, we have to be willing to take risks and may need to bundle our entrepreneurial and freelance work together; that’s not neoliberalism, it’s pragmatism.

Ultimately, it’s really hard to make a living as an artist. It’s also really hard to make a living as a public elementary school teacher (many of whom work second jobs as Uber drivers). Both artists and teachers are critical to the functioning of society and both are grossly undervalued by the market. We can’t ignore the market, but we can think beyond it.

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The Venn Diagram of Art and Entertainment

In her insightful response to the recent Hamilton/Pence/Trump kerfuffle, Margy Waller wrote on Medium, “The current debate about whether artists should speak to policy or politics from the stage is framed to reinforce the default thinking about the arts as entertainment.” Margy and others have researched public perceptions of the arts and how dichotomous thinking (art/entertaintment; public/private; elite/community-based, and so on) can – and often does – shape cultural policy. But, as in most arenas, dichotomous thinking is counterproductive – especially when it comes to effective public policy. There is great art that is entertainment (Hamilton being just one example) and there is great entertainment that is not art, although it may be artful. The shared space between the two is enormous:


But this Venn diagram is insufficient to describe all the many ways that art attracts and affects the human psyche. The best “list” of such effects or incentives that I’ve come across is Ann Bogart’s, from and then, you act. In a chapter titled “Magnetism,” Bogart describes seven dimensions along which art (in this case theatre art, but I believe it applies to all forms) magnetizes: empathy, entertainment, ritual, participation, spectacle, education, and alchemy. Hamilton succeeds because it is magnetic along all seven dimensions.

Near the end of her Medium post, Waller reminds us of the dark possibility of government-controlled art. Artists, we are reminded by Albert Camus, must create — dangerously — on the razor’s edge between frivolity and propaganda. Especially now.

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What Can We Do? Part 4

This is the fourth in a four part (for now) series that I am writing in response to last Tuesday’s election results because for me, writing is way of thinking, knowing, and understanding. In the first post, I tried to take a positive tone, considering what cultural leaders can productively do. In the second post, I shared my personal feeling of disorientation and a tool that helped me get past it. In the third post, I share my anger over what this election means for mothers and daughters. Today, I address the kind of leader I want and that I believe our country needs.

The Servant Leader

If his own autobiography and other reports are accurate, our president-elect has not spent a single day of his adult life working in service to others. Instead, it seems he has worked doggedly to line his own pockets and those of his children. The country chose him over a woman who has worked in public service on and off throughout her long career. Let me correct myself.  It is the states, via the electoral college, that chose him, the popular vote having favored Hillary Rodham Clinton by over 630,000 votes or about one percent.screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-1-11-02-pm The president-elect would be wise to pay attention to that fact – that he lost the popular vote – as he moves from unabashed self-interest to governing in the public interest. I’m not convinced someone can make such a fundamental shift in perspective in the few short weeks between election and inauguration.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-1-45-54-pmRobert Greenleaf developed a theory of servant leadership in the 1970s to describe the kind of leader needed to head organizations in which people are building a better tomorrow through ethics and virtue. Bolman and Deal call it “leading with soul.” I just call it “putting people first.” In a servant leader model, the leader leads by serving, by helping followers reach their full potential ethically. In servant leadership, the leader is servant first. According the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

I want a leader who focuses on the growth and well being of people and communities. I want a leader who shares power, not one who would ever say, “I alone can fix it.” I want a leader who puts the needs of others first, whether they be immigrant, Muslim, Jew, trans, gay, brown, white or purple. And, I want a leader who helps develop people to perform as highly as possible.

The country – indeed the world – is stuck with Donald J. Trump for four years (unless he is impeached for malfeasance of some kind) but we don’t have to stop seeking servant leaders at every level of government and that’s what we can do. From the town council to the state legislature, from the corporation commission to the House of Representatives, let’s seek out leaders who put people first. Not people who put some abstract religious concept first, not people who put financial gain first, and certainly not a person who has not spent a single day in service to others.

There are 435 seats in the US House up for grabs in 2018. Lets work hard to find some servant leaders to fill them.

(image from the Bantam Books paperback edition of Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East)

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