We’ve been discovering a lot of interesting things as we move through this public research process as part of The Brooklyn Commune Project and we just wanted to share them with you. Most are anecdotal observations but some are almost kind of like facts.
Before we start kicking the knowledge, I want to note that it has been expressed that some folks may be a bit nervous that the Brooklyn Commune is just a really long version of one of those boring “Artist As Entrepreneur” type top-down lectures where The Man tries to tell artists how to be better business people in 2 hour workshops on marketing & PR & social media with “professional experts” or “consultants”. THIS IS NOT THAT!!
This is about accessing the knowledge and experience that we collectively possess to inform and empower each other. This is about bringing artists and their sympathizers together to build community in a non-transactional environment. We aren’t charging money and you don’t have to watch a show. You can just come, hang out, talk to other people and learn. The Brooklyn Commune Project is simply about bringing people together to expand our individual awareness, to expose ourselves to new ideas and new ways of thinking & to help each other do what we want to do better. When we expand our social networks and actively seek to engage with others we expand our imagination and sense of what is possible. So get involved: bring a friend, make a new one.
On a related note – it seems that a lot of artists spend a lot of time being unhappy because there’s a gap between their perceptions of the world as it is vs. their imagination of the world as they believe it ought to be. Notice I say “perceptions” because the world as it is is frequently neither what we think it is NOR as we believe it ought to be. Often there is a comparable gap in expectations of what we think is out there, what we think other people have attained/achieved, what we think we might attain/achieve and how things will be different when that happens. Sometimes addressing and adjusting these internal frames can help make people more happy. This article says:
The secret to manipulating the 40 percent of happiness that is within your control lies in other, nonmaterial areas. There are several frequently cited and easy ways to tip the happiness scales in your favor: One, repeat behaviors that have made you happy in the past…. Two, immerse yourself in whatever you’re doing. (This is a state psychologists refer to as flow—you get caught up in something that feels bigger than yourself while staying present in the moment.) And, three, do something that serves a larger purpose, whether it’s a job you find meaningful or volunteer work in the community. “Doing good can make you feel good,” says Schwartz.
The Brooklyn Commune Project is about trying to interrogate our assumptions and reveal the world as it is – at least this little world of the performing arts – and then imagine what it might be and how we could get there. It is kind of like a huge art project. (More on that later)
So here are some interesting anecdotal & fact-based observations from our research thus far to ponder on:
THIS IS ABOUT LEARNING ABOUT MONEY (AND ITS EFFECTS)
Grant money comes from the financial services sector. All foundations have investment portfolios that yield returns (profits). They are legally obligated to disburse at least 5% of those profits every year. So if a foundation gives away $5 million a year, that means they made a $100 million return on their investments. So the investment portfolio is much bigger even than that. If you don’t want to participate in the larger American financial system, then don’t apply for grants. Fund your work another way and mark your expectations accordingly. There are many, many successful creative people who work outside the nonprofit sector. BUT If you want to apply for grants then take some time to learn how the system works. And don’t fetishize Europe. Philanthropy in America (see the book of the same name by Olivier Zunz) has a complicated and fascinating history. It is kind of amazing, actually, and engages with some of the core issues around the role of government in democracy, the role of capital and markets and definitions of value; how political and social power is accumulated and wielded.
In some ways the best thing artists could do is actually learn about how this system operates and, rather than yearning for European-style government funding, start to imagine a distinctly American model. This is a super-complicated issue that we’re trying to tease out at Culturebot – it has a lot to do with aesthetics, multiculturalism, globalism, curatorial biases, the rise of the BRIC nations and much, much more. Artists who are interested in how their work sits in a global conversation – and how we negotiate local/global priorities and values – will find rich territory here.
THIS IS ABOUT RESPONSIBILITY
Foundations WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY DO. One of the most frequent things we’ve heard in our research is that funders find it challenging because artists seem to have so little knowledge or awareness of what foundations do and how they do it and what the stakes are. Arts funders, especially, are in the same philanthropic environment as diseases, hunger, poverty – really big, universal problems. So if the basis of your conversation is “give me money to make my art” – that’s a tough sell to them & to their colleagues, even if in an ideal world that’s what they would like to do. I’ve talked about this with countless artists and administrators and here’s the thing – even if the value of the arts is self-evident to you, that doesn’t mean it is evident to other people. And you may not like it, but if you want to get money to make art – and have people pay money to see your art- you’re going to have to learn how to make this value evident to others.
My hunch is that “art for art’s sake” is a hard argument to make until you build up a more practical argument. Just like in science, it is hard to justify research for research sake without a specific desired outcome. But when people understand what applied science does they can translate that to understand the value of theoretical research unattached to outcome. Same in the arts, same in the humanities – there is a larger argument to be made possibly predicated on “the unexamined life is not worth living” – but my hunch is there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done to get to that conversation. Take responsibility for being an activist and advocating for yourself and your peers and your field.
THIS IS ABOUT RESPECT
I personally want to say that from my own lived experience (having been an artist, an administrator & a funder) I believe many of the perceived divisions that exist between “artists” and “funders” and “administrators” are largely imaginary and ultimately counterproductive. All of these pursuits require creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, intelligence, industriousness and often ambition. An artist developing a project, an administrator developing and producing an artistically successful season on time and on budget and a funder designing & implementing a grant program are all in engaged in similar, parallel processes. It starts with a question or problem or idea to be teased out, a desired outcome to be achieved and an implementation path to be mapped, designed & implemented within certain known (and unknown) parameters.
Great artists need great administrators and visionary funders. And in the end, it is always all about relationships. Nobody becomes an arts administrator – or funder – because they hate or disrespect or distrust artists, quite the opposite. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat with other administrators or on grant panels where our hearts just sink because, once again, an artist has submitted an unrealistic budget (in both too big & too small directions) or haven’t really thought through the scope of what they want to do and how they’re going to get from idea to execution. Everyone genuinely wants others to succeed & grow and make a difference. But it is really hard and a little respect and compassion – in all directions – goes a long way.
We work with people we like, respect, admire and trust. Smart, ambitious people with high expectations seek others with the same values – like seeks like – if you want to be treated a certain way, it helps to treat others that way.
We’re all in this together and we all play different roles at different times. We are, to some extent, constantly negotiating conditional hierarchies. These are complicated relationships and require stakeholders to “stay in process” as therapists like to say. When we hit snags, sometimes someone has to be the first to get over his or her pride and take the first step. When artists, administrators and funders can see how they are more alike than different and get over the need to feel “special”, get over the hurt feelings and sense of exclusion, inadequacy or being taken for granted or misunderstood, then we can get to a much more authentic and mutually beneficial place and initiate a real conversation.
THIS IS ABOUT JOBS
In EVERY artistic discipline there are more people graduating from bachelors and masters programs than there are jobs. Whether you’re an actor, director or playwright looking to work in your field, a dancer/choreographer hoping to make dances or a flute player hoping to be a full-time musician, there just aren’t enough jobs. And most of the jobs that do exist don’t pay enough to live on. This is a stone-cold fact.
So when you have a master’s degree in the arts and you’re a professional-quality artist but you’re working in something else to support yourself, are you an amateur? How does that make you feel and what would make you feel or behave differently? Who gets to determine quality & value? How does that relate to who are, who we imagine we are and how we treat others? Are you only a professional when you can quit your day job? By that measure many great artists throughout history were never professionals.
Even if artists could make a living from their art full time –what would that look like? No one has really imagined it specifically. What is a living wage? How much work do you have to do? What does that mean, really, to be a working artist?
The existing structures in the performing arts do not promote job growth for artists or administrators. The country at large is moving towards an “independent contractor” economy. For years people have held out this idea of one job with pension & benefits for life as the model for success – and even though that model has been destroyed by the past forty years of economic policy it has not been replaced by viable alternatives. This is even more pronounced in the arts where people get their jobs in an institution and never leave. So curators, executive directors, artistic directors and the like stay in their jobs forever (often by necessity since these jobs open up so rarely) even as year after year more people get masters degrees in arts administration. There’s a bottleneck where jobs institutions are getting scarcer and survival outside the institution is largely untenable. Institutions require enormous overhead and still are running beyond capacity – their workforce often overtaxed and overburdened, trying to do too many things all at once and rarely getting support or professional development opportunities.
In this environment overall wages in the industry – outside of Executive leadership – are low and remain low. Access to Executive leadership roles – when they do open up – tend to go to people whose prior experience includes advanced degrees and the ability to leverage relationships of privilege cultivated in elite institutions. People with life experience might be shut out of processes that favor people with advanced degrees in arts management but less real skill. In some countries if you build a small theater and do something amazing, some big institution will snap you up eventually. Not so likely here.
Even though we live in an age of specialization and professionalization do the structures designed for professions like medicine or engineering really apply here? What would alternatives look like? What if universities were more porous and allowed practitioners to move in and out of academic environments, balancing research with application iteratively over time? What if we revisited apprenticeships for artists to work with master artists rather than spending 4 years in grad school just to take an internship?
The landscape and relationships between small organizations and large institutions isn’t clearly mapped so movement from one to the other is not transparent or open. We are constantly losing knowledge, experience and capability – not to mention audience, artists and support – by an ecosystem that is so fantastically wasteful in terms of human resources.
No matter what role you currently inhabit or hope to inhabit – this is about imagining how to create more jobs with better wages in a sustainable way for maximal sector-wide benefit.
THIS IS ABOUT EXPECTATIONS
There’s no there there. Many artists of all stripes start making work – often spending their hard-earned money to self-produce – on the premise that there will be some kind of big payoff in the future. What is that payoff, what does it mean to you and how will it change (or not change) your life? Have you really thought about this?
If it costs you (conservatively!) $10K per show and you have to self-produce 3 shows to get a gig at PS122 or The Kitchen or Danspace or wherever, you have invested at least $30K to get that gig, over three or more years. When you do get that gig, you will probably get between $5K-$10K support total so you will still have to spend more money to produce that “big” show. Even with an unprecedented rave review from the NY Times and sold out houses, that won’t change a thing for you financially.
The more you raise your profile, the more your costs rise but the income will remain largely the same. If you’re a playwright or director with commercial applications for your skills – Young Jean Lee, Thomas Bradshaw, Alex Timbers, etc. – your raised profile might get you work in television or film, or a book deal. But it is unlikely that your art will subsidize itself.
And if you’re in dance, you can pretty much totally forget about it. Ralph Lemon, Sarah Michelson, Miguel Gutierrez, Eiko & Koma– they are among the most admired and successful choreographers & dance makers around and still live in a state of perpetual precarity. A sizable late career grant can do a lot to stave off financial challenges, but those grants are only going to go to a very small number of people and even then, if you get $250K all at once after 25 or 30 years of being broke or in debt or struggling, it is hard to make up for those years of lost income & opportunities.
Everyone assumes that there is some kind of beautiful Shangri-La down the road and if they just work hard enough and have what it takes eventually they will attain this blissful state of artistic nirvana. Guess what? There isn’t! Don’t want to get all Debbie Downer on you, but this is actually really really important. The magical EU Funding Wizards will not save you (and they’re disappearing too!) This is the brutal truth – at most 5% of artists will be able to make a living solely off of their art. And of that 5% maybe 1% will be able to do so in a way that isn’t totally precarious. Now, we can bank on being that rarity of rarities, or we can think about different models, structures, values systems and scenarios about what it means to be an artist, what the financial realities are and how things would need to change to be more resilient, sustainable, just and equitable.
THIS IS ABOUT THINKING BIGGER
In the introduction to his book Debt: The First 5000 years, David Graeber writes, “For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly it’s looking like we have no other choice.” Later, in his conclusion, he writes, “To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events.”
And who is more readily poised to take on this task than artists? We are entrusted with a great responsibility, the creation of worlds and temporary autonomous zones that point to the possibilities what human society might become. In order to do so, we have to engage with the biggest issues and ideas of our time, apply our creative imaginations to the world around us, bridge the space between our personal experiences and concerns and those of the world around us. If the world is our sphere of concern, then the arts is our sphere of influence. And if we can’t imagine a better arts ecosystem, then how can we begin to imagine a better world?
And a better world, in my mind, is one where art for art’s sake is a given, where creativity and imagination are the birthright of all, the material through which we enrich our inherently social lives, our propensity to gather with others to cultivate wonder, delight, depth and dreams.
Gather together, artists, and lead the way!