One true thing is that most people are really uncomfortable talking about money. For various and complicated reasons it is considered really tacky and gross to talk about. When I first sat down with the guy that now does my taxes, Rus Garofalo at Brass Taxes, we had a long talk about how hard it is even just to talk about money. It’s like, people are more likely to divulge their nastiest sex & drug stories and reveal that they are victims of childhood sexual abuse before they’ll tell you how much they make for a living. And we are all like that and we all think other people are better at dealing with money than we are so we don’t want to admit that we think we’re fucking it up. And we don’t want to admit that we *care* about it – but we do, we have to, because we *need* it.
At the first Brooklyn Commune meeting Cynthia Hopkins got up and talked with Danielle Hlatky, another awesome accountant for artists, about her budgeting woes. Here’s the video:
I was really glad Cynthia shared her budget because I think it opened up a lot of people’s minds and perspective about how even a “successful” artist isn’t really making a sustainable living. What she didn’t get into – understandably – was her personal finances. She talked a bit about debt – something we all need to talk more about and more openly about – but not really about how she pays the bills every month. And that is something we all really really need to talk about, because it is the one thing most of us have in common with the other 99%, artist or not – it is freakin’ hard to pay your bills.
Now, one thing that has come up repeatedly in our Brooklyn Commune coordinating committee meetings and in side discussions is the issue of knowledge & transparency. Artists are in a really bad position when it comes to negotiating the value of their work. Presenting institutions know how much they have to spend, they know what other presenting institutions are paying and they have a basic sense of how much things cost. They are able to make informed decisions about what they are willing to invest in presenting or producing any given artist. Artists, on the other hand, have no idea what each other are getting paid or what their resources are. So if Presenting Institution X is paying Artist A $2500 and Artist B $6000 these artists don’t know it and can’t negotiate. There’s no sense of what is a fair wage or a fair commission because nobody is transparent about how much they’re getting paid or what it really costs to make shows.
Part of this is that the mindset behind the system prefers that artists be territorial and competitive and enforce a cultural of scarcity. Artist A thinks, “Well, if I tell other people how much I’m getting either people will hate me or I’ll hate myself or I’ll risk getting less next time b/c Artist B will want more”.
At the same time artists don’t really know how to tangibly identify their worth. Presenters try to stick to “art for art’s sake” but they definitely prefer artists and projects that have possibility for either large attendance or large media visibility. Because curating and presenting is as much a prestige game as a numbers game, and it is about who did the craziest thing, who made the biggest splash, who is the guy (and it is almost always a guy) who found the coolest artist before anybody else did and so forth. So an artist is almost required to think about all the ways that they create value either through money or buzz or prestige or whatever if they want to be a part of that world.
Some transparency would go a long way. We’ve been trying to figure out how to work on this in our community. The visual arts community has a grassroots organization called W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) that did an amazing survey to determine which institutions really paid and which didn’t. We’d like to start figuring out how to do that better in our ecosystem and also get people to share their own budgets so we could put some real numbers to all of these issues around labor, value, economics and cultural production.
The other thing we don’t talk about is class, in fact it was Jeremy Barker’s Culturebot post about class, coupled with my Facebook rant, that initiated the Brooklyn Commune project to begin with. The fact of the matter is we don’t talk openly about class in American and even less so in the arts. Maybe it is because the arts and the non-profit sector generally has historically been a place where wealthy people who wanted to do good things found work. And the relationships between funders and grantees – at least to some extent – were people of relatively close social and economic status swapping money. Wealthy people can afford to take an arts job for $30K/year in NYC on top of $80K of grad school debt because they don’t have to actually live off of what they make. It was many years of working in the arts before I realized that.
And especially in NYC you are more likely to run into the type of wealthy person that you just don’t run into elsewhere. Like, really super duper crazy rich.
I don’t think that it’s actually a problem that there are so many people of independent or inherited means who are in the arts necessarily, I just think it creates a culture where talking about money is considered ill-mannered so it warps the discussion away from economic realities and income parity. It warps perceptions of the non-profit economic sector as a whole. Artists cut their fees because when funders come from worlds where money is not earned that way, they think it is appropriate. Of course you cut your fee, you can just get other money elsewhere, like from your parents or trust fund. And we can’t have a real discussion about wages for arts administrators because so many people don’t actually need that money to live on. Same situation. So artists who have resources can make work and get credentialed into the institutions while artists without can’t.
And this ties into race and diversity too. Over the years each immigrant or ethnic population has been considered uncouth because they openly discussed money, because when they “made it” they were nouveau riche and tacky. Jews, Blacks, Italians, Irish, Greek, Hispanic, Southeast Asians, etc. all start out as loud, brash, tacky arrivistes until they move up the ladder and learn to behave. A neighborhood arts organization in Bed-Stuy is probably not going to run in the same circles as a funder and probably not develop the social graces and linguistic habits of the wealthy. So it is difficult for them to get funding or even get to the table to have a real conversation. (I wrote about this a little bit in December 2011).
But the thing is that over the years I’ve developed friendships with some people who are really from another economic universe and it is both enlightening and challenging. One issue is that if you grow up around money, you learn about it more than other people do. If you grow up with a trust fund, or expected to take over your family foundation, or with parents in the financial services sector, etc. you have access to a kind of specialized knowledge about business plans, investing, p/l statements, revenue streams, etc. that other people don’t. And you have access to capital that will allow you to try things and fail. The stakes are different. If you are middle class or even upper middle class and fail, you could end up homeless. It changes the way we approach risk and the way we behave with money.
But also, believe it or not, it is difficult for these people, these next-gen philanthropists or people in the arts who come from independent means. Because once people know about it, they are treated differently. And I think it breeds a kind of sense that they didn’t earn it. And things that they take for granted as part of their lifestyle are alien to everyone else, so they can become self-conscious. I know a few really wonderful people who happen to have a LOT of resources and often it seems like they have to do a balancing act between being “normal” and acknowledging that they’re not. And also when people know you have money, let’s face it, you never know anymore why people are befriending you. Even in my own little way, when I worked at the Foundation for Jewish Culture and in other situations, people will come up to you and you kind of feel like you are waiting for the shoe to drop – when are they going to hit me up for money? And that has to suck.
I’m not sure I have an answer to this but we’re trying to figure this out. How can we have an open conversation about money in our community in a collaborative, transparent, supportive way? How can we acknowledge our economic, class and cultural differences and find ways to support the ecology as a whole by supporting individuals adequately? How do we correct for the economic distortion, artificial wage depression and cultural biases that result from what seems to be disproportionate representation of resource independent individuals in the arts – both as makers and administrators?