Thursday, March 17, 2011

Follow-up Letter to the Field: Small Steps and Current Issues

In August of 2009, we posted a letter to the field outlining what we thought was working and not working in the arena of contemporary performance.  Since then we have tried to take the suggestions we made to heart and change the way we each do business in our own institutions, within the field and in our own artistic practices.  We thought we’d share the baby steps we have been able to take, recognizing that each step is critical to adaptive change, but also acknowledging that changing the sector will take commitments from more than this small collective. All points of the sector must recognize a need for change and take steps that are currently in their capacity to take in an effort to influence transformation. We also acknowledge that change at this scale will take many years and many steps and interim/bridge maneuvers.

We hope this keeps the conversations going and that others will share with us and other readers their comments, advice, and confessions here.

Sincerely,

Collective Arts Think Tank

 
  





Jennifer Wright Cook, The Field
Vallejo Gantner, Performance Space 122
Aaron Landsman, Thinaar
Sheila Lewandowski, The Chocolate Factory
Carla Peterson, Dance Theater Workshop
Brian Rogers, The Chocolate Factory
Morgan von Prelle Pecelli PhD, The Lost Notebook 

 _________

Section #1:  Small steps we’ve taken since August 2009

The Field

  • More direct conversations with artists about real cost budgeting of their work.
  • Actively encouraged artists to discuss money, fees and budgets openly and honestly
  • Offered new services on bookkeeping and planning for artists (and thus shifted Field staff priorities/human resources toward supporting artists’ budgeting/ planning)
  • Actively pursuing programming with more long-term consultations and mentorship of artists
  • Increased staff salaries 3-5%
  • Actively working to recognize different production models within the Fiscal Sponsorship program
  • Field staff clock out, keep track of all the hours worked and get comp time

 

Aaron Landsman
  • On my new project, City Council Meeting, I decided to pay my collaborators an hourly fee instead of a flat stipend, which helped me value their time more, and took money into account when planning my development process.
  • I began negotiating more assertively and calmly with presenters - this lead to a 50% increase from one.
  • I created a walk away point for each of my negotiations - I haven’t walked away from anything yet, but it has helped to understand my limits from the get go.
  • I took time off from performing (even though by external measures I have been “successful”) because it was not financially sustainable, and to focus on my own work. I felt if I were going to subsidize the field, I ought to be doing it for the sake of my own authorship.

 

Chocolate Factory
  • Increased artists commission fees (typical range is $1500-$3000, higher when additional funding comes through) for 100% of shows
  • Increased artists’ performance fees by 50%
  • Increased residency time with staff support
  • Moved tech support from consultancies (1099) to hourly employees (W2)
  • Made Low Cost Major Medical available to all staff (no policies before 2010)
  • Brought full and part-time staff salaries up closer to $20 an hour from $10-15
  • Started asking to be compensated when participating on outside panels or when leading workshops
  • Applied for and was turned down for a grant to pay all artists curated and working at The Chocolate Factory during its 2012-2014 season’s as employees instead of contractors.

 

Performance Space 122
  • Increased commission fees from $3000 to $5000
  • Added a residency week with PS122 production staff for commissioned artists,
  • Changed fee structure from flat fee to a per person based fee
  • Residency week = $450 per person in the room (when all the artists are ideally working 40 hours of the week),
  • Performing week = $250 per person in the room (without distinction between technical artists, performers, or “generative artists”),
  • Additional company fee of generally between $1000 and $2500,
  • Note on this: the foreign companies that we present won’t work for a fee based on only $250 per person per week, they demand a higher fee.
  • Reduced the number of shows commissioned and presented by 15%.
  • Began actively talking with each of our grantors about living artist wages
  • Began working with artists on a three-to-five year time-line and thinking about their careers and work from commission to global circulation.
  • In July 2011 we will hire 2+ Creative Producers to dramatically increase our infrastructural support for art, artists and audiences.



DTW
At the time of this posting, DTW had been in the midst of great transition for several years, and has now merged with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Co., so quantifying or qualifying change has been difficult. However, the following changes were implemented to improve services to the artists:

  • Increased the # of Studio Series artists from 8 – 12, and to include 4 mid-career artists
  • Increased Studio Series artist fees ($1,000 to $1,250 – 25% increase).
  • Enhanced the Fresh Tracks year long residency
  • Tech Residency for every commissioned artist (shared and full evening presentations)
  • Expanded The Suitcase Fund program to include selected countries in the continent of Africa and Middle East regions


Section #2:   Issues on our mind right now.

  1. Artists need to embrace the fact that they control the product and supply side of the contemporary performance economy.
  2. They have been doing themselves no favors by giving their labor and products away for free without any strategy or long-term plan beyond making “this show”.
  3. By undervaluing the artists and their product, we are all - artists, presenters, and funders - tacitly creating an ecosystem that has as its foundation labor paid for by unrecognized sources from outside of the “Arts Sector”.
  4. How do we encourage recognizing the real costs of making art while finding ways to continue to sustain the ecosystem on diminishing finances without devolving to a “just let the excess die” strategies.

The following is a document originally intended to be the “sequel” to CATT’s first letter to the field. As a group, we spent more than a year discussing (at great length) the detailed therein.  Recently, we were forced to recognize that, being individual practitioners within (or without) organizations of differing cultures and differing priorities – it would never be possible for us to create a clean, coherent, synthesized document to adequately contain our various passions, thoughts, concerns, etc.  Nor should it – the performing arts field is various and diverse.

So: we decided to share this document in its pre-synthesized, messy form; and to invite response from our colleagues and critics inside CATT, and in the world at large.

Here it is:

Assuming that contemporary performing arts are an ecosystem within a greater arts ecosystem, this is one in which many parties selectively “look the other way” (from the economic realities in place). Artists are stuck at the bottom of this food chain. For example:

THE FUNDER awards a grant to THE PRESENTER to support (commission) the creation and presentation of new work. Even if the grant is minimal in size, THE FUNDER expects or assumes that everyone benefitting from the grant will be paid. THE FUNDER also expects or assumes that there are OTHER FUNDERS who will step in to bridge the gap, since very, very few grants are ever large enough to fully commission or present a work. THE FUNDER often strives to support as many artists and projects as possible, but this often leads to smaller grants for a larger constituency.

THE PRESENTER awards a share of this grant to THE ARTIST to work toward a particular public performance or series of performances with the same expectations or assumptions around payment to and by those on the job. THE PRESENTER opens the doors to the venue on time and “on budget.” On budget in this case usually means employing a mix of volunteers and part-time staff, in-kind supplies and equipment to keep the doors open.

THE ARTIST delivers the work on time, and “on budget.” On budget in this case inevitably means that, because available resources are so sparse THE ARTIST is employing various strategies to make ends meet. Most commonly this includes EXPLOITATION OF HER or HIS LABOR FORCE (themselves included - who, it must be said, are all too willing to be exploited in this way). It also means within whatever the dollar number THE PRESENTER is prepared to give them – irrespective of actual cost.

Once THE FUNDER and THE PRESENTER have respectively disbursed the cash, they erect a sort of firewall around themselves and report on the monies spent and distributed directly from them - meaning they cannot or will not face the truth of where the money goes and what it does and does not pay for. This reluctance to fully partner with THE ARTIST at the upper tiers of this ecosystem transfers the responsibility to fulfill those expectations and assumptions to THE ARTIST. It’s THE ARTIST’s problem to solve. Which is ironic because, as detailed above, THE ARTIST is the plankton of the performing arts ecosystem.

THE ARTIST is fully complicit in this. They are desperate to get the gig, because there are so few gigs to be had. They convince themselves that they should be grateful for the opportunity, grateful to be paid anything at all and that “everyone is in the same boat.” They defend the notion that doing this is good for their career. They want to be “professional artists” and everyone knows you’re not a “professional artist” if you don’t get a gig in an established venue of repute. Worst of all, they feel guilty for selling themselves so cheap, and exploiting the good people who work for them; all of which makes it difficult to see that in fact, they are holding at least some of the cards (or at least all of the aces.)

Yes, ARTISTS have the power: to decide for themselves whether the existing model (or any model) works for them; to participate (or not) in a system which does not value their contribution monetarily or otherwise; and to play into the (false?) notion that “professionalism” is a measure of success.  If “professional” wasn’t such a loaded word - if it was no longer a code word for success - it follows that much of the exploitation which occurs under the mantle of professionalism would disappear. And the power to do this rests entirely in THE ARTISTS’ hands.

To be clear, the lack of compensation we are talking about here, happens at every level of success and accomplishment, from the most embryonic of the emerging artist, through the most recognized of the successful. And it happens across cultural lines as well.

A (partial) way out of this mess is as simple and obvious as it is (seemingly) insurmountable: stop giving it away for free. THE ARTISTS need to recognize their own power, and use it. Control the supply; create demand; stop investing time, energy and money in pursuing empty opportunities.

Art is a profession; and artists who do not get paid are not professionals. Period.

We say this not to impugn the unpaid contributions made by artists in our lifetimes. We are simply trying to hold up a mirror to our own practices, and to challenge any conscious or unconscious justification on the part of arts organizations, funders, audience members and artists who place the moniker of professionalism (from which they extract tangible value) onto work for which the creators are not paid.

If, like most of us writing this, you have made work that is, by this measure, “amateur” work, we hope you’ll use this opportunity to ask yourself why you consider yourself professional. Is it because you are reviewed by critics, or curated by curators? Is it because you have done extensive training in your art-making? Is it because you subscribe to the common myth that you make art for the love of it and that your integrity would be compromised by seeking more or any compensation? Is it that you just haven’t run the numbers of your own investment?

For us, raising the bar on compensation is part of a larger mission: to make the work more viable, more relevant and less marginal. It is about including ourselves in the public sector – a sector woefully underfunded across the board, and integral to the functioning of a society – and saying that public sector in all its intricacies and varieties ought to be supported.



What does it mean to be professional?

Because arts workers are part of a shadow labor market in which compensation levels are not openly discussed, starvation wages are acceptable, and collective bargaining rarely occurs,

1. Poverty is good for art.
2. Professionalism or financial gain and integrity are incompatible.
3. Works are only valuable if they have been housed in particular institutions or reviewed in a major press outlet.
4. The real cost of making a work of art is: 
a. Only THE ARTIST’s direct cash outlay - not the in-kind donations of time, space and equipment made by artists at every level of achievement (and the opportunity cost of their unpaid time)
b. Only THE PRESENTER’s direct cash outlay - not the in-kind donations of time (THE ARTISTS) or the indirect expenses including the management/development/other staff of THE PRESENTER.
c. Only THE FUNDER’s direct cash outlay – not the accumulation of all of the above.
5. The price of a ticket is the value of the art or at least covers the costs of making it.
These misconceptions are propagated and affirmed at every level, from the presenter, to the artist, to the university training program, to the foundations that fund the work, to the audience. Why? Perhaps because of the fear that if we all stopped believing the myth of the starving artist, nothing would get done or that many of us would be outed as “not real artists”. Perhaps because there is simply not enough money in the pipeline of traditional funding sources to support all the worthy work being made. And perhaps because we’ve all bought into the very contemporary American notion that “if I want it, or want to do it, I should have it, no matter what the cost (financial or otherwise.)”

This is not about “professional” vs “amateur”; rather, it’s about an incorrect notion of professionalism (and everything that goes into that) as a veil for exploitation.

We thought it would be good to imagine a field in which “professional” means “paid” and paid at least half-decently. For the purpose of this posting, we are starting with an hourly rate of $20 (incidentally, 
the typical hourly wage of a regional airline pilot[1]). While the viability of this rate depends on where you live, whether you have a family, enjoy good health, or have other obligations you need to attend to, our perspective is that of living in New York City, where $20 per hour is just above substandard when accounting for the cost of living and real estate.
What would happen if everyone working on a show in our community was paid at this level for every hour worked? Here are a few thoughts:

(1)    It would take more time to raise enough money to pay everyone at this scale.
(2)    We might end up with less work being made.
(3)    Everyone in the entire ecosystem - from receptionist at a foundation to development director at an institution to dancer on a stage - might get paid equitably and not have to subsidize their process with as much income from outside the arts sector.
(4)    There might be more demand for the work in the long run.

 

SO HOW DO WE DO THAT?

ARTISTS:

  • Stop making so much work. Sustain your practice in whatever way works for you, but don’t develop/put on big shows for “the public” unless/until you have the funds to pay for it. Supplying less of what an audience (the public) wants can make them want it more (independent musicians have understood this for a long time).
  • Accept the fact that you’re an entrepreneur, the proprietor of your own small business, a participant in the capitalist system, and make business plans and real cost budgets and all the things that business owners have to do. This is the world that we live in and it’s not going to change. And why should it?
  • Get rid of the idea that validation from an outside source (venue, curator, funder, critic) is a means to an end. There is no end. Look to other art forms and other business models and then make your own business model. For some artists that’s touring, for others it’s real estate, for others it’s public speaking or starting a non-profit or even waiting tables.
  • Pay your performers on the books (dancers/actors/performers are not independent contractors, and paying them as such is illegal – as is it to have employees and no Workers Comp or Disability Insurance in New York State.)

PRESENTERS:
If you run a “professional” organization and want to present “professional” work – well then, deal with that. Commit to changing the way you program. Think about moving away from the “fee for service” compensation model and pay everyone directly, on the books. Yes, the consequences of this action would be huge and most likely could not happen instantly or even in a short period of time. Or, stop using terms like commissioning or supporting. It would not be a pretty transition period, but it would be more honest and in the long run it would benefit the field.

FUNDERS:
Recognize the value of paying more for less work, as that work will be better wrought and better received. Emphasize quality over quantity. Support artists, not projects. Encourage presenters and artists to take risks and fail. Expect that all art serves many purposes - there is no simple distinction between “art for arts sake” and “community engaged work”. Most artists work in a gray area that includes some of both. The less justification you require based on an explicit corollary purpose (education, community engagement, bridging the class divide), the more likely the ARTIST will seek the right audiences and platforms.

EVERYONE:
Open up the books. Show the world - who is getting paid what and why. Dispel the fallacy that well paid administrators are sucking the well dry. Embrace the fact that the majority of performing arts workers - Executive Directors, Interns, Choreographers, Master Electricians - are probably working for less than minimum wage, as well.

What kind of field do we want the performing arts to be? As workers in the performing arts field, we have to make a choice: (a) change the way we work; or (b) admit that by not changing, we are giving an implicit stamp of approval to the system as it exists today, whether it works for us or not.
 


A SNAPSHOT OF OUR BOOKS

The Field

  • Operating Budget =  $2,733,800
  • Full-time salary range =  $43,790 - $66,560  (exempt overtime)
  • Part-time salary range = $18 – 20 per hour (non-exempt)
  • Health Insurance =  Employees 25-39 hours get health insurance at a 90% coverage (employee contributes 10%; $427 a month); Employees at 40 hours (Executive Director) get 100% coverage (no employee contribution).  Employees 20-25 hours can participate at 100% employee contribution.  Insurance has $1,000 deductible and is in-network only.
  • Other Benefits = 8 paid sick, 10 legal holidays, and 10-15 day vacations
  • $$ of Operating Budget that goes to Artist Fees / Regrants / Pass-through =  $2,100,000 in grants/contributions to artists/companies
 
Aaron Landsman - working artist
  • Income derived directly from art practice (performing/making) - $10,000 – 20,000
  • Income derived from related practices (teaching, guest lecturing, admin and consulting work) 35,000-45,000
  • Self-employed couple with small child - gross receipts, no insurance or other benefits included: $80,000-90,000 (what we take in before any expenses or taxes are figured in).
  • Family of three, adjusted gross income: $40,000-50,000

The Chocolate Factory Theater
  • Operating Budget =  $400,000
  • Full-time salary range =  $23,090 - $45,000  (exempt from overtime)
  • Part-time salary range = $18 – 20 per hour (non-exempt)
  • Health Insurance: 3 Full-Time Employees get 100% coverage (no employee contribution). Part-Time Year-round Employees can participate at 100% employee contribution government subsidized at approximately $280 per month.
  • Other Benefits = 8 paid, 10 legal holidays, and 10-15 day vacations sick (Full-Time & regular Part-Time pro-rated from 40hours per week)
  • $$ of Operating Budget that goes to Artistic Salaries/Fees/Commissions = approximately $135,000

Performance Space 122 
  • Operating = $1,404,000 
  • Full-time salary range = $30,000 = $62,000  (excluding benefits, no overtime).  
  • Hourly salary range = $15-20 per hour  (overtime = time and a half) 
  • Health Insurance =  Full time employees get 100% coverage. Part time employees do not currently receive coverage.  
  • Other Benefits = Full time employees receive 10 – 20 days vacation time, sick days, most legal holidays.
  • $$ of Operating Budget that goes to Artist Fees / Box Office Splits / Pass-through = $326, 325, Other external show expenses (travel, per diem, visas, etc) = $84,504.



[1]“I am proud of my profession. Flying has been my life-long passion. I count myself fortunate to have spent my life in the profession I love, with colleagues whom I respect and admire. But…while I love my profession, I do not like what has happened to it.” – Captain Chesley Sullenberger (aka The Hero of the Hudson) testifying before Congress in February 2009.

“The only reason people stay flying is because they love it. And managements take advantage of that.” – an un-named pilot speaking to Michael Moore in Capitalism: a Love Story

 

Thursday, August 27, 2009

First Letter to the Field: What's working, what's not working, recommendations

Dear Contemporary Performance Stakeholder,

What is written below comes out of two meetings that have included presenters, a critic, artists, service organizations and grant-makers.  Individually and sometimes together, we have served on panels and town meetings.  We came together this year out of a shared set of concerns about what we see as systemic problems facing the field of contemporary live performance.  We plan to keep meeting regularly.  We hope our observations and recommendations will be useful to you as you determine the best ways to serve the rapidly changing ecosystem for live art.

This letter is split into three parts: The state of the field; possible actions for artists; and possible actions for grant-makers.  We do not expect anyone to be able to absorb or implement all these ideas – we are trying to take stock of the situation on a broad level so that all parties are working with the same information toward shared goals. This letter does not endeavor to be the end of a conversation but rather the beginning of a dynamic and strategic dialogue that speaks to our mutual passion and commitment to a thriving community of artists, audience and advocates. 

Thank you for the diligent art-making / hard work / attendance / support you have shown us all here in New York.  We welcome any feedback or comments from you about any of what follows and hope that it inspires debate, doubt, contemplation and a reconfiguration of how we function as a sector in such a way that all of our efforts might be more enriching in the future.

Sincerely,

Collective Arts Think Tank


 
  






Jennifer Wright Cook, The Field
Vallejo Gantner, Performance Space 122
Aaron Landsman, Thinaar and Elevator Repair Service
Sheila Lewandowski, The Chocolate Factory
Carla Peterson, Dance Theater Workshop
Brian Rogers, The Chocolate Factory
Morgan von Prelle Pecelli, The Lost Notebook and Performance Space 122

___________________________________________________________________________________


I. THE STATE OF THE FIELD

Most artists and arts professionals do what we do because we love the work. That is, we did not enter the field of contemporary dance, theater and performance art because it offered a stable career, high wages or broad acclaim, although all three would be welcome. We entered it because we felt compelled, driven, liberated, saved, or any combination of the above. That deep sense of calling has also engendered, in some cases, innovative, organic solutions to longstanding shortages and roadblocks, and in other cases counterproductive and damaging habits, practices and mindsets within the field. Following are examples of a few strategies that do work, and a few prevalent notions that we feel are outmoded and unhelpful.



What is working now or has worked in the past

Artists who make work on the work’s schedule, 
rather than by an imposed idea of the appropriate time-line for the creation of new work.
While in the past it may have been viable, and even preferable, for dance companies and theater ensembles to put together a show every year, the ensembles that have scaled back their rate of production seem to be thriving now.  They build anticipation and demand for the work by showing pieces in-progress as they develop (often at reduced prices), they avoid over-saturating the market, and they are able to raise enough money so that the work is rigorously executed.  One caveat is that this extended work schedule is in part a necessary byproduct of the fact that companies and artists cannot afford to pay appropriate living wages, and therefore are forced to make the work on a part-time schedule, rather than being able to concentrate full-time year round.  Although allowing the work the time it needs to reach fruition is vital, this part-time system has become so entrenched that even companies who have successfully parlayed an extended production schedule into larger funding and touring partnerships are faced with performers and other collaborators who cannot afford to give up their ‘day-jobs’ to go on the road for 3 months of the year.

Tailor-made management strategies that address the scale
and the strengths and weaknesses of particular projects or artists.
One of the most unruly aspects of contemporary performance is that there are few, if any, models for management and administration that work for everyone.  The groups that have tailored their management to their own strengths seem to be faring the best.  For some, because of lack of business education or a strategic choice about expenditure of time, this means hiring an outside booking or press agent or administrative management and keeping the business of art making separate from the art of art making.  For others, doing all the tour management, fundraising and outreach in-house means that professional materials reflect a deep investment in the work itself, and that ensemble members are able to derive more of their income from the company, which in turn breeds more long-term loyalty and commitment.  Both models can operate well, but both also demand that time and money be allocated to the management and long-term operations of the artist as a year-round operation, rather than simply as a producer of a series of one-off projects.

Knowing the real cost.
Artists who understand the actual cost of making the work are more likely to meet that cost, more likely to ask for enough money from presenting and tour partners, and more likely to factor in the right amount of time, money and space necessary to get the work done properly.  Strategies that work include: figuring in a contingency expense line item to every budget; calculating real-world wages for time spent making work that cover real-life living expenses; and accurately forecasting travel and other expenses when on the road.

Generosity among colleagues.
Artists and companies share critical resources to bridge the gap in under-resourced areas.  For instance, they share information about opportunities that are available; they share space, materials, personnel and other resources and they share ideas about the work itself. Meaningful critical discourse often evolves out of simple proximity among ensembles, and out of the fact that many of the same performers work with multiple groups.  Despite many hurdles, artists in New York make the time to see each other’s work, to share resources and to offer advice and critical feedback.  Similarly, several national "incubator programs" (the sharing of administrative space, front office and personnel sharing), and "cultural corridors" are thriving examples of artistic generosity.  In addition, when artists are compensated properly for their work, they have to spend less time working multiple other jobs, and if the presenting venues provide more space for open dialogue at all hours of the day, there can be more critical discourse and resource sharing.  By having the time to really challenge and support each other, artists can create work that is more rigorous, more inspiring, and more open to audience engagement.

Multi-year funding and presenting.
A commitment of more than a year toward a project, artist or ensemble, from a funder or presenter, means artists and institutions can more easily risk something bold, fully support an ongoing process, and thereby develop their practice.  Many presenting spaces are beginning to make these commitments explicitly offering either a multi-year commitment to a single project, or a multi-show commitment to an artist’s career whatever their time-line may be.

Subsidized rentals.
NYSCA has, for years, had a program by which small spaces could subsidize the cost of space rental to artists.  Mostly this was for rehearsal but occasionally a space would subsidize a performance space rental as well.  This is a great way for early-career artists to gain access to better spaces than they could on the open market, while still allowing them the freedom and responsibility of self-producing.



What’s not working


Failing to Recognize the Real Cost
There are some prevailing attitudes in the field that have hurt, more than helped, the progress of the art form, the community and artists.  These include the notion that doing more with less is preferable to waiting until the proper resources are amassed for a given project; the idea that artists aren’t good with money; and the notion that the financial side of the work is un-important or perhaps unknowable.  These preconceptions have been augmented by a serious lack of sophisticated public school arts education, a lack of practical basic business education at the university level, and an overemphasis by arts advocates, local governments and business on only the economic value of the arts, without also including its cultural value.

It has become convenient for artists, venues and funders alike to neglect knowing what the work really costs to make.  Some artists feel that if they knew, they’d never make work again.  They know their work will not break even, so they ignore the whole endeavor of making a real budget, assuming they will always be subsidizing the work out of their day jobs, spouses, trust funds or credit cards.

The result has been a downward spiral of the quality of work being produced, even as there are ever growing numbers of performances to see and venues in which to see them.  Under-resourced artists let the standards of their art-making decline, or get out of the game before their work has a chance to mature.  Audiences are asked to pay increasingly high ticket prices for work that fails to measure up to their expectations and their appetite for the work goes down.  

Terminology Barriers: “Commissioning”, “Presenting”, “Producing”
Currently, a “Commission” is usually an amount large enough to really only be considered seed money for a project.  To call a fee of $4000, for a project that in real-terms costs $60,000 to $80,000 to produce is an act of Sartrean bad faith.   A “commission” should pay the entire costs to develop a work of art.  However, it remains true that if commissioning venues were to re-align their budgets to this reality, they would likely go from staging between 16 and 30 shows per year, to staging 2.

Currently, a “Presenter” is understood as a venue that premieres or exhibits completed works and a “Producer” is understood as a venue that develops, finances, and premieres new work or sometimes re-visited works.  (Note this is not an independent producer, but a producing facility.)

If the development of “new work” were simply understood, as it often is, as finding a playwright and then hiring a director, to direct on-staff actors, hiring a handful of designers and then giving them a rehearsal hall, a scene shop and telling them they have 3 weeks to put the show together, then the distinction above might make sense.  However, in much of contemporary performance, works are devised by a team of multi-disciplinary artists who often have some history of collaborating together, if not understanding themselves as a corporate entity that “produces” their own works.  The only “producing” their new works require from outsiders is the material and financial resources and perhaps some advice.  
For this reason, it’s important to recognize “Presenters” as major stakeholders in contemporary performance, as they are often offering some of the only seed money available for this kind of work. If the organizations that actively seek out artists and companies, and that seed and premiere contemporary performance work, were given adequate resources to fully commission pieces, as well as the financial support to cover overhead of their own staff and facilities investment then they and their artists might be able to compete on an even playing field with “Producers” who are given the financing to hire a playwright and stage his play.

Venue’s Catch 22:  Under-resourced stopgaps
Venues (Commissioning, Presenting and even Producing), often working overtime to fill the gaps that independent producers and managers used to fill, are doing their best to help artists support their work.  However, as the venues become the largest single financial supporter of many of the works that cross their stages, the sad truth remains that the cash they can pass on to the artists only makes up a tiny portion of a full budget that accounts for in-kind labor and resources for any project.  Furthermore, as the venues themselves have their budgets eviscerated and struggle to find anyone who will give them operating support just to keep the electricity on, artists are finding it more and more difficult to cobble together the resources to ensure a project is fully supported before the house lights go down.  With smaller and smaller staff, venues can no longer offer as much dramaturgical advice, professional development tools, promotional assistance, external advocacy, technical help, or the assistance with personal matters, housing, and health services they are so often relied upon by artists to provide.  

These services have historically been understood as serving the needs of the “younger” or “emerging” artist, but increasingly they are becoming the needs of artists at all stages of their careers. These services have also historically been the human resources that were filling large gaps in the production budgets for many artists.  Venue material and equipment budgets are likewise being pulled back, and more and more of the burden of the small but vital things like gaffers tape, lamp replacements, and program costs, as well as some of the large items like video projectors, are being renegotiated.  These cuts are due in only minor part to the recent recession; things have been trending this way for many organizations for years due in large part to a lack of basic operating support or multi-year programming grants of realistic amounts from the various granting bodies.  Increased access to “General Operating Support” (GOS) and increased indirect expense allowances in project-based grants will go a long way to help venues respond to the every-changing needs of the arts community.

Failing to Support Artists for the Long Haul.

Sometimes it takes even the most talented artists many, many efforts to find and deepen their voices and reach levels of expertise in their own craft.  The current landscape does not succeed in nurturing that kind of growth. First, there are too many artists who have received reviews, commissions, small grants, tour bookings and recognition from audiences, scholars and peers, who find themselves ineligible for many grants precisely because of their artistic success.  The focus on “emerging” artists, while beneficial for fostering new talent, has ironically created a vacuum in the financial and venue support of mid-career and master artists.  The criteria for support should really be whether or not the art being made is contemporary, relevant, rigorous, challenging, and innovative.  Too many artists these days who are hitting their 'mid-career' point are still struggling financially despite their best efforts to build audiences, co-producing consortiums, and funding track records.  Second, this financial struggle makes it difficult for those artists who merit it to spend quality time devoted to furthering their craft, whether through making their own work over long durations or through observing and studying the work of their peers, contemporary masters or past masters, or through periods of exploration during which they can test themselves and experiment without fear of failure, because there is no ‘public performance’ or end goal they are trying to reach.  In the current system, too many of them find themselves in a cycle of high-volume end-product manufacturing to be able to step back and fulfill their potential as it grows and shifts over the full span of both a particular show and their particular career.

One Size Does Not In Fact Fit All
There is no sustainable path for artists to reach and maintain their most appropriate size over the long term. The only conceivable artistic growth models also involve growing operating and administrative burdens, such as hiring development and managerial staff to do more fundraising, leasing or purchasing space to rehearse and build shows, or generating other supplemental educational programs to fill in income gaps once artists are on the road too often to keep those day-jobs.  In other words, sustainability is defined by quantitative growth, by scaling up. What we should be creating are: flexible paths along which artists can develop their work in ways that they can sustain themselves without growing beyond their means or capabilities; models that value quality of art and adapt to the artwork’s needs, rather than to the availability of income; and support categories that do not penalize artists for becoming artistically successful.

Mythologies around ideas of community

Venues and other presenters are increasingly asked by funders to justify projects based on funders’ notions of ‘sustainability’ or community / social benefit, and conversations about aesthetic quality get left aside in favor of more easily measurable and politically correct outcomes.  While the effort to level the playing field for traditionally disenfranchised communities is laudable and valid, the way this trend has manifest has been to suggest that art itself – as made by artists and seen by audiences - must engage overtly with a social issue, “underserved populations” or youth groups in order to be successfully funded.  We argue that cultural output and creative expression are critical, underlying parts of any healthy society and all communities within that society.  Both arts professionals and others often forget that they are members of several intersecting communities and that their work by its very nature galvanizes and engages those communities.  If we shift the measuring stick away from audience demographics or trite definitions of “innovation” and towards questions of excellence, rigor and relevant engagement with content, form and audiences, it inherently forces artists and arts organizations to unflinchingly examine their own output and sustainability.

The shortcomings of economic impact arguments
Recently, thanks in part to arguments put forward by economists like Richard Florida about the creative economy, the only thing that seems to get real support for the arts is making the case for economic impact.  Arts advocates have, by necessity, relied on data that draws on the economic impact of the arts as a primary leveraging tool for support from cities.  While these data are important, they again lead to prioritizing quantity over quality – the more art that takes place, the quicker property values go up.  Although the economics of the arts is critical to determining its value to a city or a country, it is equally valuable to understand the cultural effects of the arts, its impact on how we operate as a society, on how we interact with each other as humans, on the levels of discourse we achieve, and on the world we leave for the next generation.  If we focus simply on the economic part of the argument we miss a few significant factors: creativity is a core human value, experimentation, risk and rigor are vital to any functioning society’s infrastructure, and if the arts are to survive they must be integrated into rather than separated from the fabric of the larger culture.

What all this means is that the entire field is under-resourced, over-saturated, exploited for others’ profit, but no one is painting an accurate picture of the financial realities of making contemporary performance.



Why take action?

So why should we care?  If there is art being made, some of it great, who’s to say that the model described above is not working?  Artists continue to come to New York because there is a lot of work to see, make and talk about.  Real estate developers use artists to gentrify neighborhoods; property values go up; the artists move on to the next future hotbed.  Those that burn out or move away are replaced by a new crop of freshly minted MFA program graduates, who are eager to test their voices in the professional sphere; the venues have a new crop of art projects to pick from, some of them great, and the funding bodies can report to their boards that New York City is still the nation’s premiere cultural hotbed, in part thanks to their dollars.

We feel it’s important to address the way the system works now because it will lead to better art, better compensation for artists and non-profit arts administrators, and more engaged audiences, funders and critics.  If the issues are not addressed we worry the demand will continue to go down while the supply goes up, it will be harder and harder to find the excellent work, and artists will continue to leave the field before they can make their best work.


II.  RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ARTISTS & ARTS ORGANIZATIONS

1. Do real budgets
Being aware of money does not mean being ruled by it.  Like any endeavor that hopes to function in America, artists must learn to make budgets for their work that reflect the work’s actual cost.  This means calculating the cost of the hours spent by the artist on a given project, setting a price for that time that is based on that artist living a sustainable life in New York City (or wherever they live) in 2010, then applying that price to the time spent.  This cost should include things artists normally neglect, such as health care, and emergency savings at the very least.  This method of budgeting is more accurate than any catch-all system currently used because it is based on each artist’s goals and needs.  It is more accurate than pay scales offered by The National Performance Network or Actor’s Equity, which are two common benchmarks in the field.

Once an accurate budget has been made, an artist can assess what it will take to raise the necessary funds – it could be through a day job, co-commissions, a life partner, a trust fund, a credit card or by documenting the artist’s own in-kind contributions; the important thing is that the numbers are real and that they are shared within the field.  This is an important step for both generative and interpretive artists, since many ensembles making devised work often ask performers to be as engaged time-wise as a director or writer.

We don’t necessarily feel artists need to make decisions about whether or not to go forward with a project based on budget alone, but we do feel that all information is good information and that making the numbers transparent will help all parties set realistic goals, create work on an appropriate scale and timeframe.

2. Do less with more
There is a common refrain among artists and arts administrators: “we have to learn to do more with less.”  Meaning, when resources get tight, we still need to produce at least the same amount of work as when there was more money available, if not more.  

We advocate the opposite philosophy: do less with more.  Meaning, make work that is fully realized, fully-resourced, and created in an appropriate amount of time.

This also speaks to a problem of supply and demand.  If there are hundreds of small theaters and ensembles in New York, and all of them are half-full, then we are overproducing, substituting quantity for quality.  Doing less with more may also mean that venues produce fewer shows, artists produce fewer works, and audiences remain hungry longer.  We think that’s a good thing.

Less supply allows artists to invest more time engaging in the community, seeing art, discussing art, getting to know their aesthetic and geographic neighbors, being mentored by more established artists, advocating for the arts and for their neighbors, learning about aesthetics, technology and other worldly things, as well as unstructured work in studios and with materials, experimenting with no end goal or necessary outcome.  Less supply lets artists organize low impact social events for their audiences like a performance club where they can invite audience members to join them for someone else’s show that they are excited about seeing and then go out afterwards to discuss the show.  Less supply means producing a really good show, with high production values, fully rehearsed and developed content that can go much further towards building a following than a constant barrage of half-baked work.  Taking the time to build thick ties to audiences, press, and presenters, by engaging in what interests them, and not always demanding they see a company’s 3rd show in 18 months, will have positive long-term benefits for the artists.

3. Share information
Artists, venues, companies, funders, policy makers and critics all need to be in on the same conversation.  No one should be able to claim ignorance about the process for making, presenting/funding the work, or about the cost of it.  Artists tend to hoard information out of a fear that we are all competing for a shrinking piece of an increasingly small pie.  By the time that pie is reduced to the size of a single-serving convenience store snack, all anyone will get is crumbs, so perhaps a better effort would be to grow the pie itself.



III.  RECOMMENDATIONS TO GRANT-MAKERS

1. Streamline the Application Process
We understand that institutions have varying missions and purposes that they are trying to achieve with their grants to the arts.  However, streamlining the application process to a majority universal application and reporting process would help relieve much of the administrative and fundraising burden on small companies, individual artists, and presenting organizations.  For example, start to accept, if not require, Cultural Data Project (CDP) financial data online, even if the CDP has not come to your state yet.  Also encourage CDP to start taking 3-year budget projection information, and not only audited financials.  Or as some CDP grantors are considering, forego projected budgets altogether, with an understanding that only actuals, which include a full accounting of in-kind resources, provide a comprehensive and realistic picture of an organization’s financial situation.  In addition, discuss with peer institutions how you might be able to streamline your applications and accept a common form online, with consistent character counts for basic items like mission, history, recent accomplishments, project descriptions, and artist biographies.  Work with local and partner state agencies and city cultural affairs departments on this effort as well.


2. Stop under-qualified applications in their tracks
Discourage artists from wasting time cold-applying to institutions for funding.  The ‘best-practice’ advice to artists has traditionally been – “apply now, and keep applying, but do not expect the foundation to even notice you for at least three years.”  But this practice is a huge waste of time for artists, for fiscal sponsors, and for grant administrators who have to sift through and file all those non-starter applications.  Instead be very transparent about the institution's mission, values, application process, criteria and quantitative odds of receiving a grant.  Have a very clear one-to-one tie between the mission, criteria and application process.  The material you require from artists should address the institution's mission and values directly.  The evaluation process should be clear with advice from reviewers about what has made for strong applications and why.  The due diligence process should be a rigorous and thorough investigation of the potential grantee, not just their ability to write an application.  Encourage artists to send you invitations to see their work well in advance of applying.  Be more open about who artists should be inviting to see the work, and if the staff is not local or too small to carry the burden of seeing so much work, convene volunteer panels of a diverse mix of regional and artistic experts in the field who can do site visits and report back on whether the group is ready to be considered for application by the granting officers.

Other practices that work:
* Site visits and audits.
* Peer and/or Arts Leaders panel reviews - in which the panels replenish their membership every 3 years so that a variety of views and expertise can weigh in about which artists best serve the grant-maker’s mission.
* Applications by invitation only.
* LOIs or 1-page pre-application to filter artists before undergoing the full application process.
* When the application demands considerable investment of time by the artists, consider granting the applicants a small stipend for their time filling out the application.
* Provide constructive feedback on all applications, including those who were awarded funding.

3. Practice Responsible Philanthropy:  Engage more meaningfully in your investments 
A number of institutions make long-term two or three year commitments to individual artists, companies and arts organizations.  But often at the end of the commitment, the artist finds themselves back at square one, with higher demand for his or her work, but without the complementary financial resources to help them meet that demand.  It might help the artists to have clear operational benchmarks set by the investor as well as expert advice and some assistance in achieving those goals.  This may mean partnering with a local service organization that already provides such advice and assistance, but of which the artist alone does not have the financial resources to take advantage.  Simply having successfully received a grant does not mean that the artist knows how to build an appropriate business model, research and apply for other grants, grow their producing/presenting network, grow their donor base, increase their audience outreach, or negotiate with current supporters for more investments.  Finally, real engagement could take the form of more explicit advocacy on behalf of artists, to elected officials, press and other parties.

4. Support realistic and productive, creative producing

Globally, the rise of a professional class of arts managers / administrators must be interrogated.   We must continuously question how each dollar spent on a new position or person at the back end contributes to the ‘front’.  

In part due to the decreases in operational support, many institutions are diverting more funding to larger development, administrative and marketing departments just to keep the doors open.  This pulls funding away from in-house programming and dramaturgical departments, as well as from independent producers and managers who directly enhance the artistic process.  Creative producers – those who really enable and develop artists rather than simply book shows - are essential.  They continue to initiate many of the ambitious projects that become reference points for the field as a whole.  The good ones will leverage and multiply the support received, and share the values of enabling better-made, extraordinary work.  We urge foundations to both recognize that artists and arts organizations have operating costs that must be covered, but also to consider grants that sustain programming departments or independent producers, and further the curatorial and artistic dialogues within and among venues.