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.
Collective Arts Think Tank
Jennifer Wright Cook, The Field
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,
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
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.
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.
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.