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WORKING OUTSIDE THE INSTITUTION

The following is the final report from the Brooklyn Commune Project’s “Working Outside The Institution” research group, prepared by group coordinator Andy Horwitz.

INTRODUCTION

The challenges facing artists in today’s economic climate are greater than ever before. While it is true that artists have been financially challenged throughout history, the changes in the American arts funding landscape over the past thirty years have been so drastic that artists are not merely financially challenged, they are largely disenfranchised from the structures that were created initially to support them.  In just the last ten years the landscape has continued to change at an ever more rapid pace, while institutional and funding structures lag woefully behind.

In order to comply with federal regulations and insure fiscal accountability, funders have directed their resources almost exclusively to presenting organizations. Artists can be funded only by partnering with presenting organizations or by applying through fiscal sponsors that can charge up to 7% of the grant amount in processing fees.

Due to presenting institutions’ lack of access to general operating funds, and an ever-shifting, largely disaggregated and highly competitive funding climate, arts organizations are increasingly redirecting project funds – raised, theoretically, on behalf of the artist – to support general operating costs and hiring more fundraisers. Presenting institutions’ escalating overhead costs lead them to continuously reduce the resources allocated to artists, while simultaneously demanding ever more sophisticated and expensive-to-create productions.

The chief consequence of the near-disappearance of direct-to-artist funding has been a crisis where artists are entirely dependent on presenting institutions for funding not only project creation, but presentation and distribution as well. Yet institutional support for project development continues to decrease and the costs of cultural production revert back to the artist. In the era of Kickstarter, artist-led project funding initiatives have become an expectation, not an exception, so even as not-for-profit arts presenters hire artists to create content, they pass the majority of the development costs back to the creator, with no possibility of earned income on the back end.

To complicate matters further, even open application grant programs – as opposed to nomination-only grant programs – convene panels that are often comprised of the self-same presenters. With no artists or other stakeholders present to mitigate the tendency of presenters to fund artists and projects out of self-interest, a closed system is created that critically compromises the vitality and dynamism of the sector, inhibits entrepreneurship and hampers innovation.

In the face of this, and in a moment where the country at large is moving towards an independent contractor economy, it seems prudent to examine the existing structures and propose viable alternatives. What are the key leverage points and points for intervention?

While the challenges around panel processes, composition and transparency will be addressed elsewhere, it has become increasingly evident that there is a gap in both skill and capacity when it comes to project development. Even under the best of circumstances and with the best of intentions, artists cannot be expected to develop a comprehensive, parallel skill set to singlehandedly support the business side of their creative process. At the same time, institutions have proven incapable of providing essential financial or logistical support.

What is needed is a dedicated producer who is the artist’s advocate, who sees their work as creative unto itself while ultimately supporting the artist’s vision. As institutions demand, and artists create, increasingly complex performance works that cross disciplines, there is a need for a creative producer who functions not only as a project manager but as a universal translator, an agile and resilient facilitator and problem solver, a trusted broker between all stakeholders.

While this role has long been necessary, it has rarely been recognized, perhaps due to the fact that only the shoddiest producers will promote themselves over their artists, and when the work is done well, the producer’s hand is invisible. As a result of this invisibility, the producer is nearly always underpaid and frequently overlooked by funders and presenters alike.

In order to get a better sense of what the role is now, what it might become and how it might be implemented, we distributed an Independent Creative Producers’ survey online and conducted in-person interviews. Online respondents included Ariana Smart Truman, Gavin Kroeber and Anna Drozdowski. Brooklyn Commune Project researcher Shelley Carter interviewed Anne Hamburger, Barbara Bryan, Thomas Kriegsmann and Linda Brumbach – all acknowledged leaders in the field.

A synthesis of our research follows.

WHAT IS AN INDEPENDENT CREATIVE PRODUCER?

If the role is often under-recognized, the title itself is equally problematic. One of our interviewees said:

“… the name ‘creative producer’ is such bullshit. I really feel that it needs to be completely disposed of. One, it implies you’re an artist, and I think it’s very, very wrong. A producer is not an artist. A producer supports an artist. I think there’s immense creativity in being a producer. I use an immense amount of creativity everyday, trying to figure out how to work with an artist, and when things go wrong, how to get out of it, and when things go right, how to embrace it, and figure out the best way to do that. But I just think that you’re either a producer or you’re not. I don’t know what the fuck a creative producer is.”

Another interviewee said:

“I straddle the visual arts, performing arts and urban field – working in their performative/event/social/site-specific edges. Producer is a term foreign to visual art or urban practices, it seems to come from theater and film …”

One offered:

“What I love is starting pieces, either from the ground up or early in development, where I can take them and make them, fashion them into a whole. That’s what excites me, and that’s what I do. I develop pieces from the ground up. The first thing about producing is you put people, projects and ideas together. That’s how I define what I do.”

And yet another said:

“My role in a very deep sense is firstly about asking questions, to bring the expectations of the many artists collaborating together into alignment through a socratic method, and secondly to actually spend the time negotiating and documenting the negotiations.”

Other interviewees proposed that the creative producer “is someone who helps shepherd artists through processes that may feel external to their natural impulses – all of the logistics necessary to create their work. And “…someone who brings the work that they’re excited about to a place where they can share it with a community that they’re excited to talk about it with.”

A commercial theatrical producer performs a different function than a film producer, with each having various subcategories from associate to executive; there are probably as many definitions of the title as there are producers. Yet the title of creative producer has become a familiar one in contemporary performance and the emerging field of digital storytelling, places where artistic projects cross disciplines and platforms, exist in multiple forms over multiple iterations. The polymathic demands of producing this kind of work require a certain creativity that is aligned with the artistic process.

Thus we propose the title Independent Creative Producer because:

  1. It clearly identifies the role as existing independently of an institution
  2. It frames producing as a distinct and parallel creative practice to that of the generative artist
  3. It implies a distinct and parallel set of skills related to producing, but independent of any single discipline or medium.

Across the board all interviewees said they were driven by a passion for the work, by a desire to help artists bring ideas to fruition that institutions deemed impossible, impractical or unmarketable. They see it as a calling and a passion, and, for better or worse, an all-consuming way of life.  According to one interviewee:

“Your whole life is either in it or not. You’re in it, you’re ready to roll, you’re laying the tracks for it, or you’re not. If you’re not, get the fuck out, of course, get the fuck out. Go work somewhere else. It’s no fun. It’s too difficult. And the rewards are too few, if you can’t do that. So, why do it? You know, I mean, that was just always the thing – from Mark Russell to Harvey Lichtenstein to Ellen Stewart to Jed Wheeler and Linda Brumbach – watching their dedication to these things…. And it’s a really, really good life…. Because just to figure out the sheer diversity of a day, and the challenges, and making things happen, and the failures of it, it’s all very beautiful and I’m always really surprised that more people don’t want to do it.”

ROLE & SKILLS

The Independent Creative Producer, as defined above, necessitates the development of a wide range of skills in order to successfully shepherd projects from idea to execution; the role of the independent creative producer may change from project to project. One interviewee offered, “We have to tailor the work to every company. That’s the kind of mystery of working, I think, as a major tool of a managerial producing organization.”

Another said, “I see my role as an agitator and caretaker, alternately.  It is critical to be able to work long-term and also fast, to be nimble and responsive while also being able to play chess strategically.”

Interestingly, another interviewee suggested a similar perspective, “I would say we should reconsider what dramaturgy might be. Design is great – collaborative work, building complementarities around an idea – but it needs to be coupled with an appreciation for antagonism, for philosophical sparring. Challenging the artist is often the greatest thing you can do.”

A successful independent creative producer will possess practical and affective skills in equal measure:

“…the first thing about producing is you have to make sure that it’s a good idea. There’s a lot of people that run off chasing things that are bad ideas to begin with. Secondly, once you’ve got the good idea, you really have to make sure you have the  right people around the table. Because, if you have a great idea and you have the wrong artistic team, it’s not going to work. And then, you have to have the right kind of business support mechanism in place and the right partners in that regard too, which can be very tricky.… And, once you have all these elements in place, then it’s only the beginning of learning and understanding how to navigate the creative team, and how to put together a creative team where you’re really taking into account what people’s strengths and weaknesses are.

Finally, once you’ve gotten the right team, and you’ve gotten a good idea, then, you have to navigate the waters of getting it developed on a timely basis, finding the right resources for it, understanding how to position it, market it, advertise it, and putting it out into the world – it’s all part of what it takes to produce and to learn and have the sophistication to understand how to do these things.”

Almost all of the interviewees and respondents noted that, among other things, it was the opportunity to employ a wide variety of different skills and develop meaningful relationships that attracted them to the work.

“You know, it’s interesting. One thing that’s been nice for me is that I do have a real head for numbers and I do enjoy budgeting, I do enjoy the accounting aspect of stuff. And I enjoy writing.… And I enjoy the producing! So, it’s nice to be able to not have to pigeonhole myself into any one of those things and sort of work all those angles.

Well, I think it was definitely different with each artist, but in some cases, I was pretty much like a sounding board that they would use to talk through everything from who they’re collaborating with, what their costumes look like. Some of them, I attended more rehearsals than others …. But they didn’t feel like I was working for them. It felt like I was working with them in a really deep way. And so, that kind of mutual respect and way of working towards a mutual goal, I think, was really interesting. But it also, it did set up a situation where I think we did talk very candidly about a lot of these issues and concerns.”

And being a successful independent creative producer demands certain personality traits:

“Learn all the necessary skills you were being taught by your professors and mentors. Employ these skills in the pursuit of your vision until, drumroll, it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, what do you need to do? Whatever it takes to get it done.

I think that in order to be a producer you have to be stubborn and resilient as hell and courageous and you have to really know how to work with people; you have to be a great salesperson … you have to be half out of your mind, you know?!”

The research conducted so far suggests a few top-line practical and affective skills that define creative producing:

Practical skills

  • team building
  • project management
  • budgeting & estimating
  • Scheduling/Timeline management
  • scout and secure sites
  • Source materials
  • legal and administrative management
  • coordinate between multiple parties
  • develop community engagement plans
  • writing, researching and producing texts for catalogs and project-related publications.
  • develop, oversee and implement work plans

Affective Skills

  • good listener
  • creative problem solving
  • seek out, create and cultivate new ideas
  • critique and develop projects
  • bring together unlikely bedfellows
  • get the right people around the table
  • ability to realign other people’s expectations

RESPONSIBILITIES & BEST PRACTICES

Given the dynamic role of the independent creative producer, the diverse skill set required and the unusually intimate working relationship with the artist, it seems useful to suggest some responsibilities and best practices.

One interviewee offered some very specific insights:

“Best Practices more than anything means making plans – primarily in regard to budget – and then tracking actual real time development against those plans, and then sharing end results with your team and evaluating them in comparison to the plans. I find that transparency in terms of actual resources and needs, when in conversation or negotiation with colleagues and partners, yields the happiest and most generous and flexible relationships.”

Another shared:

“I find it incredibly important to say thank you in a large way…. I think that being accountable, timely and responsible in your communications–transparent, honest and working with integrity–these are all things that I strive for in building partnerships and community.”

And yet another offered a more poetic but equally compelling answer:

“Question yourself, your field, the vision you work in service of.
Write. You think you don’t need to. You think you’ll get to it later. Write.
Read. You think you don’t need to. You think you’ll get to it later. Read.
Be selective.
Start with a calendar and a staffing plan. Then a budget.
Don’t be a dick.
Analyze the agendas of your partners.
Try to complicate politics.”

Almost all respondents affirmed that accountability was the number one priority, and the single distinguishing characteristic of successful producers. Following accountability in close order were transparency, honesty, integrity and generosity.

THE WORLD AS IT IS AND AS IT MIGHT BE

All of the respondents and interviewees discussed the rewards of this kind of work, and  also its challenges, many of which are financial:

“The largest obstacle, which eclipses all else, is general operating funding.   Without this, the work I do in the category of creative producer is always second to my ‘day job’ that pays my rent and is limited by a truncated capacity to compensate artists for their work — thereby keeping our projects at a certain scale that (while ambitious) is not the size that I’m most interested in working on.”

Or related to time:

“Time. Money is always an issue but time is bigger. People rush shit, handicap themselves.”

Obviously the relationship between time and money is symbiotic. Since the role of the independent creative producer is so all-encompassing, and the revenue streams are so disparate and unreliable, creating a viable, sustainable, business model is extremely difficult:

“I split my time between being a booking agent, being a producer, and being a manager. And this is why it still discourages the so-called creative producers who cannot figure out why they’re not making any money or can’t sustain a living. As soon as I say, “Well, because you’re not booking the tour, and that’s where the money is,” they say, “I don’t want to be a fucking booking agent. That’s a gross job.” And I guess it is a gross job, but disseminating great work is not gross. And the way to create and disseminate great work is to book it. And I think that that’s a big fault these days.”

But playing all those roles can be a herculean task:

“… I was really working. In order for it to work economically for me, there was not a single moment when there wasn’t work to be done. … I was working 70 – 75 hours a week. And you would go on tour. So you would leave on tour on a Saturday, you’d have that Sunday off, which meant I was working as soon as we got there. The presenter calls you, you have to get the company together, and you have to set up the internet to make sure you can communicate. And then, you’re fully in the theatre. Maybe check on it that Saturday night, fly back on Sunday, and I would be in the office on Monday. And there was always a deadline. So, a lot of times, I was working on the plane, working in the hotel room, working in the theatre when I would have little breaks, working either on grants for the artists I was with or grants for other artists or preparing presenters for other tours. So, you don’t have that bubble of producing, like, “here’s the show, and we’re going to do this”. You’re always having to negotiate the next thing.”

The crisis of the disproportionate relationship of time to money results in unsustainable careers and suboptimal conditions for the creation of new work:

“[Sometimes I find] myself saying yes to projects that are structurally flawed and cannot be realized as they deserve to be. A good producer is selective, and honors the time and attention important work takes. Quality over quantity. It is easy to say, but a hard thing to really do.”

To compound the situation, since the role of the independent creative producer is so little understood and so rarely visible, they too are excluded from the decision making process of resource allocation:

“… one thing that hasn’t changed that I would like to see change, is that they’re so rarely invited to the table, the conversation. Funding conversations. Presenter conversations. You know, there are presenters that want to work directly with artists, which is great. But then, they don’t want anyone but the artist on their own. And I think that there’s a sense of, “We’re protecting the artist, we’re one on one with the artist” – certainly, this happens with presenters. But when an artist and a producer create a longer term bond after working together, there is this trust and understanding that is essential to making the work…”

And as we’ve noted earlier, the existing funding structures place the presenter in a position that is never to the artist’s advantage:

“The presenter needs to function in an entirely different way. Presenters don’t program in a healthy way, because their concern is not the public imagination as much, or the contribution of their venue and programming to the vitality of American culture as a whole thing … their focus is their board and the tickets they need to move and how to stay liquid and to keep their … paychecks flowing.”

It is interesting to note that in a funding climate increasingly focused on entrepreneurialism, almost no changes have been implemented to encourage those who actually want to be entrepreneurs:

“…what I’m most interested in, actually, is where market-driven work and art intersect and how the intersection of those two things can actually fuel creativity and invention rather than taking away from it.”

Instead, as we mentioned before, we exist in a closed system that critically compromises the vitality and dynamism of the sector, inhibits entrepreneurship and hampers creativity and innovation.

Recognition of the role of the independent creative producer, and direct funding support, would benefit the system as a whole by rewarding entrepreneurialism and creating leaner, more agile structures of long term support for individual artists:

“I think young producers have to really define what they see as their system, and what they see as their role in it, have an idea for what the system should be, then get in there and be that , then let ‘the system’ shape itself around you. And it takes a lot of time, and it’s very, very frustrating, but the rewards are very good. Because it will eventually happen, because the institutions and the entire scenario of that, the larger system of how things work and play will, in fact, need you. They need you. They need that mechanism all the time, they need someone that’s pushing for change all the time. For instance, the essential problem right now in America for directors is how to get directors to work on scale. How do American directors get trained to work on scale? Why is Bob Wilson working on such a large scale and Jay Scheib is not yet? Is he being given the tools, as an American director, to direct on the main stage at BAM? In fact, he does, right? So, he does have a large scale opera work, but why? And why was he not given that opportunity much earlier? And Andrew Ondrejcak is in a beautiful position to be given that opportunity right now, and the Rude Mechs are in the position to be given that beautiful opportunity right now, and some companies are, like Elevator Repair Service, are being given those larger stages to play, larger venues, and larger runs, and others aren’t.”

So what would sustainability look like for an independent creative producer? Once again, there are probably as many answers to that question as there are producers. But  the baseline seems to be the ability to make a modest living working with a reasonable number of artists or projects and achieve some kind of work/life balance. Here are some thoughts from our research:

“The fewer projects the better. The slower the work the better. Three projects a year? Plus some smaller things, public programs and writing?  My life is in flux and it is hard to say what the dollar amount is. Much more than it used to be.”

“I’ve done this work while earning between $1K and $25K a year — always on a part time basis and always juggling other projects (fundraising, production management, strategic planning, etc.) amidst my personal puzzle that includes producing/curating.  Work/Life balance to me means more time off between projects and fewer on the plate altogether.   Other quality of life factors for me include professional development and access to these kinds of conversations –to see how it is done elsewhere and what the assumptions that we may or may not be making might be.”

“I would ideally earn $90,000, work no more than an average of 40 hours a week, and have enough time in my daily work responsibilities to participate in the creative development process, as well as be in all the meetings, write the budgets, proofread the writing, etc. ‘Projects’ is a hard word to define, but I can satisfactorily simultaneously manage (for example) the planning of 4 tours, the development of two new large scale theatrical works, and the production of two small events. I currently earn about $60,000 and it is not sustainable as a single parent…”

CREATING THE INDEPENDENT CREATIVE PRODUCER

Most of the current Independent Creative Producers learned by doing, developing their practice  idiosyncratically as they navigated the fickle and ever-changing arts landscape. Most are skeptical, at best, of the need for advanced degrees to be an effective and impactful creative producer:

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s necessary to go to school to learn how to be a producer. I really don’t. I mean, I think you have to go to school to learn to be a lawyer or a doctor. But I think to learn how to be a producer, you should work with somebody who’s producing. I really think you can learn everything you need to learn that way, there may be some gaps in your knowledge, but then you can go take one course and learn that aspect of it…”

With the rise of entrepreneurialism in the arts and the declining availability of jobs in large, legacy arts institutions, current graduate school arts management training is mostly inapplicable to the actual landscape of cultural production:

“I’m finding I’ve met people coming out of NYU, Columbia, they learn an incredible set of skills … but it’s a sort of theoretical world of not-for-profit management and arts management. The scale that they’re learning it on, doesn’t, for the most part, translate.

I have to say a lot of these schools, they’re very old fashioned. They’re teaching people how to be managers in the not-for-profit theatre. I mean, why should anyone spend $50K or $150K to learn how to be a manager for a not-for-profit theatre? It makes no sense.”

The effect of “professionalization” has been to limit access to the sector and to impose artificial restraints on creativity and entrepreneurialism. Access to decision making in policy, programming and funding is limited to those who are associated with large institutions, and often predicated on relationships that can only be developed through graduate schools followed by extensive unpaid internships leading to underpaying entry level jobs.

In an increasingly multidisciplinary and transmedia cultural landscape where the creative expression of artists regularly crosses boundaries and breaks down known categories, the independent creative producer is the bricoleur, the project driver, the improvisational implementer, the guy or gal who gets things done. Being a creative producer is as much about possessing a wide range of interests, ideas and experiences as it is about a discrete skill set related to budgeting, timelines and project management. It is part dramaturgy, part dreaming, part logistics and altogether entrepreneurial.

If the arts sector is to regain its vitality and dynamism, if it is to attain the entrepreneurial culture so avidly promoted by funders, then the structures need to be in place to promote those stakeholders who actually want to be entrepreneurs.

Preliminary recommendations include:

  • The role of the independent creative producer must be recognized as essential to artist sustainability and lean, agile, responsive and efficient content development.
  • To insure accountability and protect the interest of artist and funder alike, independent creative producers must develop and be held to a series of industry standards and best practices.
  • An association of Independent Creative Producers should be formed to develop industry standards and best practices, to provide certification and enforce accountability, and to provide opportunities for knowledge sharing and networking, independent of presenting institutions.
  • De-link institutional funding from artist project funding and create alternate  pathways for resource allocation. The Independent Creative Producer, or an alliance of Independent Creative Producers, using a shared back office and administrative infrastructure, could serve this function.

Discussion

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