Songs for the Struggling Artist


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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Is grant writing worth it?
January 26, 2011, 6:45 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Seriously. Is it?

I spent most of September scrambling to finish a series of grants that were all due simultaneously. I hadn’t bothered to apply for a grant in a while – my will had been broken a bit and I just hadn’t been able to muster the energy. But in September, I went all out. Grant, grant, grant. Working on them, writing them, attending the info sessions, editing them, wrestling with the video editing/copying software for the required work samples, enlisting help from at least 3 people, printing the grants, copying the grants, delivering the grants. It took a lot of time and resources but I figured, “Hey, if we could pull in a few grand for these theatre projects, it would make an enormous difference.” Also, this is just the way it’s done.

Four months later, I receive rejection letter after rejection letter, each recounting how competitive the process had been and how many worthy applications they’d received and how hard the decision had been. (Rejection letters are written primarily to make the rejectORS feel better. I know because I’ve written a few of them myself.) All told, if we add up the hours I and my colleauges spent and value those hours at $10 an hour (a cut rate, for sure, but it rounds up easy) as well as the money we had to spend on copying and paper and ink and DVDs, etc – we spent about $4000 to apply for these things. This is four times the value of one of the grants and roughly equivalent to the other two. In pure economic terms, this was an enormous waste of time. Even if I’d GOTTEN the grants.

Scott’s been listening to a lot of economics lectures and podcasts lately and he told me about this one that discusses something called All Pay Auctions (a form of something called Rent Seeking.) Grants are essentially an All Pay Auction. The economist on the show illustrates this concept with his students by holding up a $20 bill and saying he’ll sell it to whomever makes the highest bid in cash in a sealed envelope. If I put $10 in the envelope and I’m the highest bidder, I get his $20. If I’m NOT the highest bidder, I lose my $10. Everyone in the class (save the highest bidder) loses their bids. The teacher meanwhile has collected quite a lot and made a tidy profit on his $20 (or else he gets rid of the bids and all the money’s lost.) Munger points out that Grant Seeking is essentially the same proposition. Writing an arts grant means an artist puts $4000 of resources into an envelope which then gets shredded and pulped. We’re hoping we’re going to get $4000 back – but the chances are slim.
Now, what’s in the envelope in this case is not money (directly) but answers to questions, resumes, work samples, etc. Those making grants would likely say that they are choosing the best work – that the bids in this auction are about quality, not quantity. However, if we look at who receives grants, it’s clear that not ONLY good work rises to the top of this auction pile. Is everything we see that has received fat grants good? I think not. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Are the shows of mine that received grants BETTER than the those that didn’t? Not by a long shot. Very often the criteria for who receives a grant is based on some perception of public good or the possibility that the project will benefit the granting organization in some way or even the amount of resources that a company or individual had to complete the application. We can therefore say, in effect, to the society as a whole (and maybe even to those giving the money) it doesn’t really matter who gets the money. And as Roberts and Munger point out, a competition wherein it doesn’t really matter who wins has not only become meaningless but is an enormous waste of resources.
Munger and Roberts point to some situations when this sort of competition (Rent Seeking) can work. For example, when there’s an attempt to create a new technology or other things where advancement will benefit society as a whole. They mention the NBA, wherein all the competition (resources are lost by those that don’t get there) improves the quality of the game as a whole. In the realm of the arts, however, there is no societal benefit to grant writing. Artists writing grants don’t improve Art; they improve grant writing. Every hour I spend writing a grant only makes me a little better at grant writing, which has nothing to do with my art. In fact, it makes my art worse, because I’ve lost all those resources (time, time, time, especially time) that I could have spent making my art. Also, in an attempt to get this grant, I might change my art to make it more attractive to grant makers. I might try to be more what grant makers are interested in – which, in my experience, is not the same as better art. It also makes my art worse in that delicate balance of confidence that is a crucial part of making the work. Getting a grant can seem like a vote of confidence from the world – a “yes – you-are-worthy” sort of thing. This gives me a boost, sure, for a minute – but more likely, it just gives me a little check which is only a drop in the bucket in terms of the money I need to make my work. (Almost no grant makers are willing to be the sole funder for something.) Not getting the grant can feel like a slap in the face, like the world saying “Why do you bother?” In the wrong moment, that might be enough to stop me from moving forward.
All this makes me wonder about what I’m going to do the next time I hear about a grant I’m eligible for. Will I spend $4000 in resources to get $1000? I’d rather not. I’m just not sure what my other options might be. Let’s bust this system OPEN artists! Ideas? We’re creative people, right?




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