Songs for the Struggling Artist


“A True Artist – the Perfect Candidate”

Last year, I received an award that was given to another person as well. We were both selected by the committee to receive the residency in question. I’m a white woman in my 40s from NYC and he’s a black man in his 20s from the mid-west. The residency was for emerging artists (see also my post on Can We Find Another Word for Emerging?) and I was surprised and delighted to receive it, even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t what most people meant when they signed up to support this award.

Throughout our time in residence, I could feel comparison happening between us – sometimes in my favor but mostly not. I thought perhaps I was imagining this sort of outside judgment. And then I saw a post on a Facebook page about my fellow award winner and someone in the organization commented on it, saying, he was “the perfect candidate” and “a true {*Name of the award} artist.”

It probably goes without saying that I did not receive a similar comment. And it probably also goes without saying that by saying someone is the perfect candidate and the true artist, they are also saying that someone else is NOT the perfect candidate or the true artist. In addition to making it plain that he had a clear preference for my colleague, the commenter (who is a leader in the award-giving organization,) wouldn’t even look at me whenever we were all in the same space.

I found myself furious – and frustrated. Like, if you didn’t think I was appropriate for the award, a) you didn’t have to give it to me and b) don’t take your opinion about my worthiness out on me.

And for a moment I was jealous of my co-award winner. But then I realized that this is an incredibly old pattern in the history of our country. Take two marginalized groups of people and pit them against each other. Especially white women and black men. I mean – the fight for suffrage got really reprehensible once white ladies, fighting for their rights, started throwing black folks under the bus. It is a giant stain on the early suffragists – many of whom got their start in abolitionism.

So…in the face of realizing that I was about to do the same, starting to somehow feel competitive with my colleague – well, I reached out to him and asked him to let me know how I could support him. Not because he needs it (he’s doing very well) but because I needed to. I needed to make sure that the prevailing winds of dividing and separating didn’t win, even in my own psyche.

The whole experience has been an excellent exhibit of how complex things become when resources are scarce. I am not at all competitive generally. But I know when I’ve been placed a competitive environment. And I found myself stuck in a strange race I didn’t sign up for. I remember thinking “I would have chosen him, too!”

But…that’s not fair, really. There were two places and we were both chosen. We were selected together. There’s enough of whatever there is there to go around. I feel like this is important to remember in this moment, when we are all fighting for the rights we thought were ours to keep. There’s a way where we could splinter easily into my rights, your rights. I could only fight for the NEA or reproductive rights because those have an impact on me. But we will make a bigger difference by fighting for it all, by fighting for Black Lives, for immigrants, for Muslims, for the poor, for the environment, for everyone under attack.

It will always be easy to make us compete, if we are under attack, if our resources are few and we feel we don’t have enough. But I hope the resistance continues to make the more unifying choice of reaching out to those we are being set up against. My commitment to myself is to reach out as soon I notice a sense of competition this way. I’m telling you now so I don’t forget.

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Art is Vital
April 10, 2017, 8:56 pm
Filed under: art, business | Tags: , , , , , ,

I keep thinking about selling out. I don’t mean I’m considering selling out myself. I’m considering the cultural shift that has changed the meaning of selling out.

I learned on a podcast (You Are Not So Smart) that the generations after mine don’t know what selling out is. They think it’s a good thing. Like, when your show sells out. For my generation and the ones before, selling out was a danger, a bad thing – selling out meant losing your credibility. It meant trading in your artistic credibility for commercial success. Today, there is no sense of lost credibility in achieving commercial success. On one hand, this is a positive move – a world that is perhaps more unified – artistic values, perhaps permeating the dominant culture.

On the other hand, it has created an intertwining of art and commerce in a way that creates a world of problems, including the current political landscape.

When there is no difference between art and commerce, art’s value becomes its commercial potential. A painting becomes only as valuable as its price tag or its marketing reach. The painting loses its intrinsic value as a work of art.

And perhaps the loss of one painting or one piece of piece of music as being of intrinsic value isn’t the end of the world. But I think losing the entire CONCEPT of the intrinsic value of art IS.

I can draw a direct line from the devaluing of artistic values to the election results of 2016. We decided that the only good art was successful art, was popular art, was art that sells and this then leads to a value system that privileges power, popularity and money. By continually lionizing the billionaires, the moneymakers, the hit TV shows, the popular art, we chose a culture that values money above all else. Lil’ Donnie T is the direct result of over-valuing commercial interests.

When we stopped seeing art as valuable in and of itself, when we started trying to defend it as a viable economic growth builder, when we began to pitch it as an agent of social change rather than as a thing that is good for our souls – we lost. We lost a long time ago.

I’ve watched this happen in Arts Education. When I first started working in schools, it was enough to just do art with kids. Then we expected the arts to teach them something else – more academic subjects or team-work or conflict resolution. Then we needed the art to solve the problems in the classroom or the school system and when it couldn’t do that impossible thing, it was pushed aside for things that could. I’m not saying it’s not super cool to teach math through theatre or conflict resolution or life skills. It is! But what’s happened is a trend toward teaching these things instead of theatre itself. I remember being in a meeting of artists, educators and principals years ago and a principal stood up and declared his support for “Art for Art’s Sake.” He asserted that he was dedicated to Art, itself, no qualifiers. I cried and applauded – because I could feel how much of a stand he felt he needed to take to say that. That is, the world around him was so insistent on dismissing “Art for Art’s Sake” that he had to push hard to make room for that idea. In some education circles, “Art for Art’s Sake” has become kind of a joke – as in, not enough, as in, naïve, as in old fashioned. And so art ends up in service of other more commercial or socially relevant things.

We let this happen.

On an individual level, I have seen incredible artists devalue their own work due to its lack of commercial success. They think that their painting, art or music or show or sculpture or poem isn’t worth anything because they couldn’t sell it. It’s not worth anything because it isn’t “worth” anything.

But some of our greatest artists were never commercially successful. Van Gogh sold a handful of paintings in his lifetime. But later, most of us understand that his work was incredibly valuable artistically. And then his work became valuable commercially as well. The commercial perspective will say that he became successful after his death because he became popular and his paintings sell for tons of money. But even if they never sold and very few people knew his work, the art itself is intrinsically of value. We all got mixed up on this point at some point.

This relates to a trope that I keep seeing pop up – that artists should stay out of politics. I find it fascinating that anyone could think that would be possible but it speaks to a perception of art. It suggests art is seen as decoration instead of meaningful discourse. This movement to cut the arts is sometimes an impulse to “trim the fat” and get rid of the inessentials: – to cut the frills. Art is the frills for some people. It’s seen as a luxury item that conservative folk don’t want to pay for. I get it. I’ve played into it myself. At a grant interview, I was seated next to an applicant who wanted to increase access to drinking water in Zimbabwe. I felt like – how can I make a pitch for artistic exploration when there are people without drinking water? There is also a line of thinking that suggests that cutting the arts are a targeted way to control discourse, that the authoritarians know that stifling the arts is a way to control freedom. I’m not sure our authoritarians are all that smart yet. But whatever the reason for cutting the arts, my response comes down to that idea attributed to Winston Churchill who is said to have said, “Then what are we fighting for?”

In my own life it is fucking ESSENTIAL to have music and theatre and dance and art right now. It was nice before but it is essential now. It occurs to me that a sign of our previous freedom was the freedom to think of art as a frill, to think it might not be necessary. We could think that because we could afford to. We can’t afford to anymore. For now. Art is vital right now. For me. For everyone I know.

My mother, for example, is at a protest or public meeting or advocacy event, nearly every single day and at night, she is uplifted and energized by concerts, by movies, by art, by books. Personally, I have been more moved than I have ever been when sitting in theatres, listening to music, singing, watching, listening. We’re learning something that people in oppressed conditions have always known – that art is a need. That art is what we’re fighting for. And perhaps for the people who are not terrified right now, for the people who celebrate the oppression of immigrants and Muslims and women and give no shits about Black Lives – maybe for them art isn’t essential. Maybe they’re so happy, celebrating their victories, shooting deer or rabbits or ducks or whatever, that they feel like they can do without all that art stuff. I doubt it though.

I think, if more folks had had more access to art in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. If there was music to go see in the coal towns of West Virginia, if the ballet came through the Alabama rural landscape, if former steel towns, rusted out due to their employers moving the company abroad, could get some relief at the rust belt art museum, I don’t know, maybe I’m naïve but if they could see that stuff , I’d hope it might make a difference. Art won’t feed a hungry child or solve endemic problems. I know that. I’m pretty clear art can’t save us by itself. But it can help. It can make a difference. It can give hope.

We let art slip into a commercial way of thinking and if there’s any upside to the current political nightmare, it’s that other kinds of values are rising up, making themselves obvious. I’m not saying commercial art isn’t art. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad. But popularity doesn’t make it good either. Prince sold a lot of albums. But he’d be just as good if only a handful of friends saw him in a basement. His artistry is not his commercial success. Commercial success isn’t the only way to succeed. There is value in singing to yourself. In the dark times, there will always be singing. And it doesn’t have to be for sale.

 

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The Danger of Relying on Opinions

My theatre company’s crowdfunding campaign for Research and Development of our show got me thinking about arts funding and the way art gets supported. Generally, arts crowdfunding campaigns live or die based on the response to an idea, that is, the opinions of the people funding it. If a project’s friends and family LIKE the idea of the project, they fund it. If they’re not keen on it, like they think, “I wouldn’t want to go see that,” – they won’t. This is actually, at the gut level, often how grants get passed out as well. “Is this show, art-work, dance – something I’d want to see?” If yes – Stamp of Approval. If no – Rejection.

This basically means that whether or not something gets made is connected to the opinions of the consumer. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I decide whether to support something or not based on whether or not I think it’s a good idea. But I think this is problematic and symptomatic of an overly commercial sensibility when funding the arts. If you’d pitched me some of my favorite shows just as ideas, I’d definitely not have funded or chosen them. A stage version of the film, Brief Encounter? A one man show about tribes in the rainforest performed by a white dude? If you’d asked me to fund a show about a horse who goes to war, I’d have said that was an idea that was doomed to fail. And I would have been very wrong about that.

The fact is, whether or not I LIKE an artist shouldn’t preclude that artist’s ability to make the art. I don’t like all kinds of things every day. But I shouldn’t get to be the arbiter of what gets made.

We live in a world where Spiderman The Musical got made because Marvel had money to burn on it. We had Legally Blonde, The Musical because it was paid for. And I have to bet that not many people were truly passionate about making Legally Blonde the Musical. It was not born from a group of artists getting together to create something where there was nothing. A group of producers hired a group of writers to do a job and make some money using an existing property. It has all the hallmarks of a show put together by agents to showcase people at their agency.

Do we truly want a world where agents and movies studios decide what theatre gets made and artists like us – and like so many of our peers – have to send our ideas to the Idea Cemetery simply because our friends and/or granting organization didn’t like the idea? From Broadway all the way down to the smallest company, we’re letting the market determine who gets to make art.

This is why government funding for the arts makes sense. While no Arts Council is perfect, they at least aspire to a more equitable distribution of resources. They can keep their eye on inclusion and diversity. They can fund things that people won’t necessarily LIKE but really should get made and seen anyway. I’d rather have all kinds of work I don’t like funded, knowing that there are other metrics under consideration than whether the panel or audience thinks it’s a good idea.  I mean no disrespect to grant panels or audiences – but they don’t always recognize the good ideas from the outset. They tend to respond to things that are like something they’ve seen before. And this is not a great way to innovate in the Arts.

For the arts to thrive, we need to be able to explore a wide variety of ideas. We need to chase down the “bad” ones as well as the “good” ones. Good ideas sometimes make bad art. And vice versa. We need an arts funding culture that isn’t predicated on whether or not someone likes the idea. If we could, instead, fund the artists, fund the companies and fund the places that say to artists, “Whatever you want to explore, here are some resources.” That’s the way toward a vibrant, thriving arts landscape.

And, I think, that is why my company’s current campaign is going better than any crowdfunding we’ve done before. We’re not trying to sell the idea this time. We’re sharing a process. We’re looking to fund an exploration instead of a product. No one has to have an opinion about where we’re headed or what we create. And it is liberating for both artists and funders. We’ll save the opinions for the critics.

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What I Wish American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits #12 – R and D

My English theatre making friends apply for (and receive) funding for R & D. R & D is short for Research and Development and is commonly thought of in this country as a scientific or corporate exploration of ideas. We innovate in business in this country but not in the arts. You can not get a grant for R & D in theatre here. If you have an idea, you have to be sure it is a good one. You do not get funding to TRY something out. Everything you do should be a winner. This is madness, of course, especially in a creative field. Every idea is not a winner. And without opportunities to try things out, we can not innovate artistically.

You know that super successful, multimillion dollar show touring all over the world, War Horse? It began its life as a small R & D exploration in the National Theatre Studios. Granted it was R & D within the National Theatre and in collaboration with one of the most well respected puppet companies in the world. The odds were good that it was going to work out. But even so – when they began, they didn’t set out to make what we know now as War Horse – they set out to EXPLORE the possibilities of a show that might become War Horse and they took almost a year of solid work to do it. I think that’s why it was so successful. But that sort of thing doesn’t just happen at the National Theatre level. On the Fringe, small theatre companies explore ideas with their own R & D funding. I think this is why British Theatre is dominating the American landscape.

The culture of R & D encourages innovation. It allows for the possibility of failure but also of new ideas. Big businesses know this. Google knows it. 3M knows it. There is all kinds of evidence that innovation comes from having the time and the space to play. We need funding models that allow us to do R & D – to play, to discover, to try things out, to allow us to discover what the show really IS before we have to do the marketing.

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What I Wish the American Theatre Would Learn from the Brits # 11: Groom, Support and Recruit Producers

# 11- Groom, Support and Recruit Producers
My experience, a few years ago, of working at the Battersea Arts Centre impressed me in many ways – from its egalitarian employment models, to its wide-ranging programming, to its community focus and café, to its support of artists, but I was particularly impressed and surprised by its emphasis on developing Arts Producers. They had a whole team of In-House Producers. These producers took on projects within the season or brought in work for the Scratch nights or for other stages of development. These were (mostly) young people who were paid to help make shows happen. They were people who wanted to be producers. I met people who wanted to be producers all over London – not just at the BAC.

When I met with the folks at the Arcola Theatre about how I might put up a show there, they let me know that they didn’t bring anything in that didn’t have an independent producer attached. That is, I couldn’t be my own producer. And this was not an unreasonable request. One could find a producer because there are many people around interested in the work.

Here in New York City, where I’ve lived much longer than I lived in London and where I know tons of theatre folk, I have never met someone who wanted to be a theatre producer. I’ve met some theatre producers, sure. But I’ve never met an aspiring theatre producer. (Believe me, if I had, I’d have snapped them right up.) I think this is because the only place to make even a marginal living in producing is on Broadway. And you don’t need any other producing experience to produce a show on Broadway. You just need a lot of money.

If we want to improve the quality of American Art, we don’t need to improve our ideas, we have an abundance of those. We need to improve the job prospects of independent producers. We need to make the idea of producing a tiny indie show in a basement theatre on the Lower East Side actually sexy to someone – instead of a whole lot of work with no reward.

I self produce. Not because I want to – but because I cannot find anyone else interested in the job. And when I’m self producing, I’m necessarily less IN the experience of making whatever show I’m making. The art suffers – not as much as it would if it weren’t happening at all – but still, it suffers. I’d like to see fewer meaningless artist residencies (i.e. “Here’s a modicum of space or $500 or just a cute title) and more producing schemes. I’d like to see Arts Institutions churning out Indie Theatre Producers and Dance Producers and Performance Art Producers – not an endless stream of lip service and a tiny bit of support to one lucky company a year. (I swear, I was just told about a “residency” where the artists had to pay 4k-6k a week to be in residence.) Invest in Producers and producers would invest in us.


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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



Doing ONE thing is a Privilege
May 24, 2016, 12:56 am
Filed under: art, business | Tags: , , , , ,

While listening to the Note to Self podcast the other day, I heard the guest promote an idea that I have heard promoted many times before. The expert on the show suggested that the way to achieve success is to choose one goal and only focus on that. His thesis was that multi-focus was impossible and only one goal would do.

This is a popular theme in business literature or self-help guides – pick one thing and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. And it makes me a little bit crazy. I like to follow good advice. I see the value in having a uni-focus. And yet I have tried it and it is not possible for me. I don’t think it is possible for the vast majority of American artists.

You ask me to pick one thing – I pick Art. Every time. But if I pick art to the detriment of everything else, I end up broke and in debt. Every time. I do not have the privilege of being able to devote everything to my art. I must split my focus. I have to devote PART of my attention to making a living. And I also happen to have to split that day job focus in three because neither of the three ways I make a living pays enough to actually add up to a living.

I am not multi-focused because I’m flighty and scattered. I am multi-focused because I have to be.

Sometimes people assume that because I do so many different things that I must not take them all seriously. That if I have many identities, they must all be at half-mast. (i.e. I’m not a REAL theatre artist, not a REAL Shakespeare consultant, not a REAL Feldenkrais practitioner, not a REAL writer.) And I suppose the preponderance of this belief in the ONE GOAL Philosophy is why I sometimes fear they’re right. But – my recent discovery of the multi—potentialite movement gives me some assurance that it is indeed possible to be good at many things. And that it needn’t be only out of necessity. The man who is a child psychologist and a luthier, for example, is likely not in a position wherein he NEEDS that second specialization. He can be an amazing psychologist AND an amazing luthier. I can see how those two professions might compliment one another, in fact.

Would the ONE GOAL-ers suggest that he quit one to focus on the other? Probably – but I’m not sure that would be the right thing to do.

In my case, I don’t have the privilege of quitting. The one thing it would be possible to quit without major consequence is the one thing I will never quit – never not ever. And I find ways to integrate one thing into another. It all gets into my artistic work, no matter what it is, or how.

Focusing on One Thing is a privilege that I hope that I get to experience one day. I know my work would benefit from being able to give it my full attention, all the time…but in the meantime, I find it more helpful to look to the multi-potentialite community to help me make my crazy multi-focused life work. Their strategies are the ones that will actually apply to my life as it is now rather than the one goal life I can only imagine.

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What to wear to a meeting

Before I even sat down, I could feel a peculiar sense of being dismissed. For the people there, I did not register as someone of any interest, and certainly not as the expert I happen to be in this field. I walked away from the meeting wondering if it was time to get a style makeover. And then I got mad. Because while a style make-over would be fun (and expensive,) the need or thought of a need for one is a particularly female problem.

In Caitlin Moran’s book, How to Be a Woman, she talks about how what women wear signals so much to the people around us. When women get dressed, with each outfit we try on, we are essentially asking, “Is this the identity I want to be projecting today?”

If I want to look “professional,” Ann Pierce points out what an impossible challenge is before me as a woman. Her article on the pitfalls of dressing professionally shows how the vast majority of women’s photos are seen as unprofessional . That is, it’s POSSIBLE to hit upon some outfit that looks appropriately professional, but the odds are very small that it will look professional to everyone. (This is especially true for the busty among us, as she points out in the article.) See also, Grayson Perry’s discussion of the suit in his Default Man article.

And, working in the arts, there’s a kind of non-professional professionalism required. You can’t turn up at a theatre education event in a lady suit without looking a little bit like a tool.

Meanwhile, back at my meeting, one of the highest status dudes at this majority dude meeting was in shorts and a t-shirt. You can bet he wasn’t worried about what to wear to a meeting to be sure he’d be seen as a valuable contributor to it.

This all reminds me of the metric that Caitlin Moran uses for determining if something is sexist or not. It is: Are the boys worrying about this? Do the boys have to do this, too? And I think the answer is no. No, no, they are not. I can almost guarantee you that not one of the men at that meeting walked away from it wondering if maybe a new hairstyle would get him some more respect.

I’d forgotten what this sort of meeting could be like. Most of the education meetings I attend are gender imbalanced the other way, that is, mostly women with an occasional man. I don’t worry about whether my sweater was the wrong choice after those meetings because I am (usually) heard and recognized and given equal weight and status as the other educators. So it occurred to me, after my thought experiment in which I showed up with a different hairstyle and different clothes, the right sweater probably wouldn’t have made a stitch of difference. Probably, simply by showing up female, I would have had the same experience, no matter what I was wearing.

PS – If you haven’t seen this yet. . it definitely feels like a meeting. Famous Quotes, the Way a Woman Would Have to Say Them During a Meeting

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