Songs for the Struggling Artist


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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The Perilous Economic Intersection of Arts and Education

The week before the teaching gig was due to start, I was told that I was going to be paid $200 less than I did last year for doing exactly the same job. This program, I was told, was too expensive – so they had to reduce everyone’s fees. In the end, I negotiated my payment back to where it was meant to be but it took a great deal of effort just to get paid what I was meant to be paid in the first place. Being underpaid is one thing, being paid less than underpaid is quite another.

This is par for the course in two arenas: the Arts and Education. The fact that I work on the intersection of both of them puts me in a double whammy of reduced status. The people making decisions about fee reductions have very real limitations. They work in a field that doesn’t make money. (So do I!) They have to figure out a way to keep the programs going without enough income. (also a problem I’m familiar with.) I’m sure they look at the budgets and the only thing they can see to cut is the rate of the artists, educators and scholars.

But I can’t help but notice that the people who make these decisions also have salaries (something I don’t have) and those salaries are never on the cutting block in these situations. I’ve never seen someone in this scenario looking at an underfunded program and saying, “Oh, I’ll just make $200 less that week to make up for it.” And of course, they shouldn’t. That’s absurd. But so is cutting the one really meaningful resource in a teaching program, which is the teachers. I’m worried about what this trend portends.

Reading Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier has made me think a lot about all of the jobs that are vanishing as we shift our world into the digital age. Lanier warns us that the artists are the canaries in the coal mines of our current moment. It might be something like: “First the digital economy came for the artists and we didn’t worry because we weren’t artists. Then it came for the journalists but we didn’t worry because we weren’t journalists. Then it came for the educators and what did we care? We weren’t educators.”

And so it goes through all sorts of surprising middle class jobs. Law. Medicine. There are very few things in the future that are safe from the changing landscape. Bit by bit, the current economic climate chips away at the arts and education – and I’m standing here at the intersection watching it fall apart.

I am deeply worried that so many of the things I love most are losing their value. That is, people still like those things, they still think art and education are great, they’re just not willing to pay for them anymore. And that means while I managed to keep my $200 payment this time, who knows how much less it will be next time. If there is a next time.

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How Patronage Feels
July 15, 2014, 10:17 pm
Filed under: art, writing | Tags: , , ,

I recently published one of the first blogs I’ve posted since I joined Patreon. This means that for the first time, I will actually be paid for writing this stuff. It’s not a lot. At my current numbers, I’ll make $20. But it feels tremendously different than making no dollars for my writing.

I’ve only been paid as a writer a couple of times before (for productions of my plays at theatres and schools.) This is the first time, though, that I’ve been in a position to know that I would get paid for something I put out in the world. That is, I make something with the knowledge that there will be a financial return. It feels good, it feels direct and I start to understand what it must feel like to regularly be paid for things you value.

It feels so good to have a squad of people who like my work (or me) enough to want to support it or me. It makes me want to be better, do better, just for them.

In addition to feeling really good, this new patronage has started to shift the work itself. It’s not changing the writing so much yet. With the exception of this one, most of the current wave of blogs were written many months ago. But patronage has made a big impact on how I edit these things. It means that I take more time to look things over, to re-write. I take 4 passes at it, instead of 2. It means that I take the time to find the perfect links within a post. I take time to find the right images and I take more care with the way the text makes the switch from my word document to the wordpress platform. In general, the $20 my patrons are donating are paying me for those extra hours of care. Partly this is because I know people are paying for it but also because I know people are interested enough to support it and/or read it.

The pledges I’ll receive each time I post a blog are still nowhere close to paying me minimum wage for the hours I put into blogging, but they are a vote for this work rising up my priority list.

As a freelancer, I spend the majority of my time doing things that may or may not yield direct results. I go to networking events with the hope of meeting future clients. I update my websites with the hope that someone might end up there and hire me. I make posters and hang them in the appropriate locations. I fundraise for a project, which hopefully will be enough to pay me too. Very few things I do are a direct exchange and much of my time is spent trying to work out which thing will rise to the top of my to do list.

So this – I-write-something-and-get-paid-thing feels pretty revolutionary to me.

So, while this is, yes, a big thank you to my Patreon supporters (Thank you!) It’s also a plea for arts funding in the bigger picture. When you fund things you can make them better. Sure, that artist might make her dance without $20 . . .but $20 might buy her an extra hour of rehearsal space and that extra hour of rehearsal space allows the dancers to really drop into the piece, moving it out of adequate and into excellence.

The more directly you fund art, the more difference you will make in the work itself. That is, when you fund artists directly, rather than institutions, you can you’re your donations have immediate impact on what they are able to create. Take it from an artist who will be paid directly for her work, for the very first time.

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American Arts Funding
October 5, 2011, 12:05 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , ,

From earlier this year:

This week in the Puppet Lab, we discussed funding. One of our members is a recent arrival in the U.S. and he’d asked about who to apply for for funding for his show. The short answer? No one.  There is no funding. The long answer? Well, there’s this grant and its deadline has passed or this one, for which you’d have to apply after the fact and here are all the Sort-Of-Resources you might be able to draw on.

In that discussion, one of the members brought up something called the 80/20 rule. He said that someone told him that you have to spend 80% of your time looking for funding and 20% of your time on the Art. This rule of thumb (while likely the reality of the current system) made me want to throw up. The idea that this is the recommended way of making theatre in this country is horrifying. It means that the work of an artist is really to find money and that the Art is a hobby.

All signs point to a hobbyist sense of theatre making. We do it in our spare time, not with the bulk of it. We have to fund it ourselves. (Most of the participants in the Lab are buying their materials and rehearsal space with their own money. We might as well be building model train sets. It would probably be cheaper.)

Now this program is one of the few supports for puppetry in the city. It’s at a prestigious theatre and comes with a little basket of status. However, there’s no money for it. Every single hobbyist puppeteer has to find his/her own way to fund the project – to fund this 20% – to fund the model train convention, to speak metaphorically. Watching a room full of people explain to a new arrival to the country that this is how it is, made “how it is” seem all the stupider to me. I was embarrassed for us – embarrassed for a culture that turns artists into hobbyists – that believes in this 80/20 rule  and that instructs the artists arriving to our shores to expect less than they were used to in less privileged cultures.

Most career/self-help books will instruct us that whatever we do the most is really our career. If we spend 80% of our lives looking for a way to pay for the other 20%, we’re not doing anything more than funding our expensive and heartbreaking hobby. Those numbers NEED to be reversed. We need a system where artists can spend at least 80% of the time making art, making it better, mastering it. Malcom Gladwell says in his book about genius that people become geniuses by doing something for 10,000 hours. How is anyone ever able to do this with only 20%? It’s time for new rules.




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