Songs for the Struggling Artist

Our actual strengths as artists
April 26, 2011, 1:24 am
Filed under: art, business, dreams, theatre | Tags: , ,

In 2001, I started my theatre company with two dear friends. We didn’t really mean to start a company; we just had this this show we wanted to put on and being a company seemed the best way to do it. We named ourselves, wrote a fundraising letter to our friends and families and dove in. We didn’t know the depth of the water or the temperature of the pool; we just knew we wanted to swim.

That show was a magical experience and we thought we’d keep going and use all that stuff we learned from that first dip in the pool. As we got familiar with the water, we discovered all the things we were expected to master in order to stay afloat. We joined ART/NY, took courses in marketing, grantwriting, board development and business skills. We got our 501c3 status and our first grants and we were jammin’! But there was so much to learn. We all recognized that we’d have a lot more success if one of us went to business school. We each nominated the others for the MBA but none of us was willing to do it.

Let me just step back for a second to point this out. Once we understood what was required to make our work in the New York theatre community, we felt the need for an MBA. I still think it would be the most useful thing I could do to have a “successful” theatre company in New York. Not make better art, not learn more craft, not evolve my technique nor deepen my practice – no, none of these would make the slightest difference in the “success” (read: visibility, financial stability, self-sustaining etc) of my company. Nope, to get on the map, I’d need to improve my business skills.

In the first years of our company, we did this dutifully. We were on fire and willing to do whatever it took to make the work we wanted to make, to be noticed and thrive. In recent years, we have let a lot of these things go. In the ups and downs of life, we didn’t have the strength or will to do the things we really didn’t care about. Working tirelessly without any real progress or reward but more work was not working any more. We took a kind of hiatus, only working when we felt absolutely called to, only raising money when we absolutely had to. Almost everyone I know who started a company around this time has fallen into a similar state of hiatus or dissolution or oblivion. This is why many funding bodies won’t fund a company until they’re over five years old –  because they know that most people can’t sustain the extraordinary amount of work required for more than five years.

At a meeting of Devoted and Disgruntled NYC, someone applauded this dissolution of companies, pointing out that there are more companies in this city than can possibly be seen in any given year. The sentiment, echoed and agreed to by many was: “If people can’t hack it and get out of the game, that’s good. That’s a sort of natural selection.”
And this is where I got my back up. This is where I got mad, really. This is where I’m still mad, however many months later.

Because good art is not necessarily good business. Good artists aren’t necessarily good administrators. Because the current model means that making one’s own theatre in this town is a young person’s game. Most of the people I know who have backed away from the labor of making theatre here have done it transitional moments in their lives. They leave when they get married or have kids or finally have to take regular job because their lives in the theatre are unsustainable.

When the field loses these people, we lose their wisdom.  I’m not comfortable with the attrition of brilliant artists with years of practice and ideas and craft.  Maybe they’re not the best networkers or the best fundraisers or the best marketers but their work may be extraordinary. And we will never get to see it. We get more more well marketed shit everyday but rarely get to see the transcendent or the redemptive.

There seem to be two paths open to the New York theatre artist.  1) Join in the established institutionalized model. Audition for Broadway. Assist famous people. Get an agent. Pray for work.  The fact that there are millions of other people attempting the same shouldn’t be too discouraging. 2) Make your own work. Start a company. Learn business skills. Become an administrator. (All the arts assistance  organizations are there to help you learn these skills. That’s what they’re there for, to help you get better at business. Fractured Atlas, The Field, ART/NY, NOMAA, etc will all be happy to teach you how to be a better fundraiser. )

If you don’t want to follow either of these paths, then you must not really want to be an artist. Which is bullshit, of course. All all of us want to do is just make our freakin art. When I make a plea for this possibility , I’m often shouted down for my ridiculous idealism.

The Strengths Movement in the business world  (see, I think about business, too) talks about how key it is that people do what they’re actually good  at, that it makes no sense to train someone whose strength is generating ideas to be a better accountant and vice versa. Instead, we should train the one who excels with numbers to become even better at numbers.

As a culture, by saying that artists must be trained in things like accounting, fundraising, marketing, etc, we are pulling most of them away from their strengths. We’re saying that the artist’s strengths are not enough. We’re saying that art is not enough. We’re saying it’s of no value.

Scott recently showed me a 1998 study by the Heinz foundation about the impact of the arts on audiences. The study found four thematic metaphors in how people spoke about the arts. Art as Transporter. Art as Redeemer. Art as Appropriator (i.e. – stripping away socialization and getting to the “pure” state within.) Art as Intermediary (i.e.  – helping to see themselves and the world around them differently)

These are powerful things and these are our strengths as artists. This is what we can do when we have the opportunity to improve our actual strengths, rather than all the things that would make us better business people. When we can become better at transporting an audience or better at redeeming them, why in the world should we spend our time becoming better administrators?


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Hi Emily, Just read all your posts. Keep it up – your light is shining.

Comment by Julia

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