Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why Artists seem to be Bad with Money
May 27, 2014, 12:47 am
Filed under: art, business, Creative Process, education, theatre | Tags: , , , , , ,


If you’ve spent any time around people who work with artists, you are likely to have seen some head shaking around how we handle money. (My favorite, from my old education job: “Oh, these artists. They won’t come to anything unless you pay them.”) We have a rather unfortunate reputation for being irresponsible with dollar bills. And I’m not saying we’re not bad at managing our dollar bills, some of us are – but it might be worth examining how such a reputation got laid at our feet.

The vast majority of artists (and by artists, I mean musicians, theatre folk, visual artists, dancers, choreographers, writers, filmmakers, etc) are operating with scarcity. There are a handful of artists who experience abundance but even the most lucky or privileged artist probably has periods of feast and famine. What this means is that we all have a tax on our bandwidth.

Authors, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in their book, Scarcity, use bandwidth as a metaphor for the cognitive processing power we have at our disposal. Their book demonstrates how scarcity of any kind (financial, temporal or caloric) puts a strain on our bandwidth. When we are concerned with the lack of something in our lives, part of our brains become preoccupied with that problem and this leaves us with less bandwidth to do other things. In other words, when you’re struggling to pay the rent, it is in fact, harder to solve quadratic equations (or whatever it is you’re trying to do.)

One of the effects of scarcity is that it makes the likelihood of mistakes higher and it also makes the recovery from mistakes more challenging. For example, let’s say an artist is waiting on a payment from a theatre for work he did there last month. Rent is due and while he will eventually get paid, he has not gotten paid yet. To get around this difficulty he may put his rent on his credit card, meanwhile his student loan payment is also due, so he moves the little money he has from one place to another, carefully shifting the balance of one debt to the weight of another. He has to juggle. Let’s say, while he’s busy juggling, he discovers his website is up for domain renewal. He doesn’t need to pay it immediately, so he puts the form aside until the payment he’s expecting arrives.

When the payment from the theatre finally arrives, it has been spoken for in several places. Also, through the process of shifting the money from one place to the next, the deadline for the domain renewal, that was once so far in the future, passes and he’s missed it. Now, in order to get back his domain, he has an additional fee and has to pay to recover the data of his website. He’s paying for his mistake. This was a mistake born from scarcity and juggling, not from any particular carelessness on this artist’s part. From outside this artist’s life, someone judging it might say, “Oh well, he was irresponsible, he missed a deadline.” But missing a deadline becomes easier and easier to do when one’s bandwidth is taxed. The more you have to juggle things from one scarce resource to the next, the more likely you are to slip. And there is evidence that this is as true for Time jugglers as it is for Money jugglers.

As artists, we’re usually juggling not only our finances, but our day jobs (I tend to have anywhere between 3 to 6 jobs at a time) and our artistic projects. For many artists, time is as scarce as money, so they are double bandwidth taxed – we lack slack. That is, we have very little room for error. Once one slip up happens, it can set off a chain of delicately balanced dominos. You forgot the deadline for your domain and your carefully planned budget to cover it all collapses as the money you need to invest in the longer term marketing materials is now going to pay for the problem inadvertently set off by the late payment from the theatre.

It’s not that we’re bad with money. It’s just that we don’t tend to have much. And anyone, rich or poor, when resources and scarce, will run into difficulties. The more scarce the resource, the more difficult it can be to roll with the surprise punches.
As Mullainathan and Shafir point out, the poor are actually better with money than the rich in a funny way. They ran an experiment in Boston where they asked the rich and the poor how much a taxi ride to the airport was. Despite not taking taxis generally, the poor were many times more accurate in their numbers. Outside grocery stores, when asked how much they just spent, the poor will tend to be accurate, almost to the penny, while those for whom money is not scarce will be less accurate.

Artists are quite remarkably able to juggle things from many corners, both time and money wise, despite scarce resources. One of the ways we handle this juggling is by prioritizing tasks. We tunnel. We focus on something with almost exclusive focus. For many of us, our art is first on the tunneling list. Money or time are probably tied for second place. All of those things are urgent and demanding. And while we understand why responding to your email about scheduling a meeting is important, it may fall to the bottom of the list. Especially if we’re still juggling our schedules for that week and just don’t know yet which day we’re free. I understand how incredibly frustrating that can be. I have to send those emails to artists too.

At one arts institution I used to work for, the VP of Education, concerned about all the new paperwork that wasn’t getting submitted from artists, announced a “three strikes you’re out” policy around it. That is, fail to submit your paperwork properly three times and you’ll be fired. I don’t know if this policy was effective at getting paperwork in (I doubt it) but I do know that it was effective at making me feel unwelcome at the institution and contributed to my need to leave it.

Sometimes we make mistakes and yes, we expect to be paid for our time working at our day jobs (when we’re not getting paid at one job, we’re missing an opportunity to get paid at another) but given how largely we are usually taxed, we have an extraordinary amount of bandwidth left to make art. If you’re trying to work with us and find that sometimes some details slip through the cracks, I recommend trying to find a way to reduce the bandwidth that that task requires.

When looking for solutions with us, you might do well to see if there’s a way to streamline the task. Are there things you can make automatic? Or is there a way to reduce our bandwidth in general? So you can’t pay us more, okay. Can you add us to your healthcare plan or 401k? Can you smooth the path to the thing you want done?

If you’re interested, read the book, watch the talk, there are many ideas about how to help. You will probably find that if you can help increase our bandwidth, we will have a lot more to offer you and we might even do better work and make better art because of it.


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