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 work must be really good, mustn’t it? Since so many people are doing it for love?”
January 12, 2015, 1:22 am
Filed under: art, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

My friend was over from the UK doing a show here in New York City. In a chat over coffee, I mentioned to him that the bulk of the theatre work here in NYC was unpaid, that most of us were just laboring for love. He wondered if this made the work exceptionally good.

I believe it’s the opposite. Love doesn’t make good theatre. It can help, sure. But making theatre without resources doesn’t make it good. In fact, resources can shine up all kinds of things to look like good art – even when it isn’t. Resources can be art-making magic. If you have resources, you can take the time you need to make something good. You can rehearse in a space that contributes to the atmosphere you’re attempting to create. You can store your stuff somewhere. With resources, you can spend your time working on the piece and then work on another one. Art gets better the more opportunities you have to do it.

When you’re making work on the fumes of love, much of your focus is on finding ways around the lack of resources. So many underfunded theatres spend more effort on their crowdfunding campaigns than they do on their shows. And while crowdfunding was supposed to be the panacea for small indie theatres  it rarely functions that way.

I took a brief tour of the IndieGoGo Theatre section while doing some research for a crowdfunding campaign. The website was littered with tiny companies asking for between $2000 to $5000 and almost none of them were anywhere close to funded. ($5000 is nowhere near enough to money to produce a show in New York City, by the way, which makes it even more heartbreaking.) Meanwhile, I saw that a highly funded Regional Non-Profit Theatre had successfully raised over a hundred grand on IndieGoGo for its production.

Will that $100,000 show be better than those shows only asking for $3000? The odds are good, actually, that it will be. Not because those working at the $100K theatre are better artists but because they have 100 grand to make it. (By the way, I’m well aware that $100K was probably nowhere near what that Regional company needed to make their show either. Probably $100K for them is like $3k for me.)

When you’re making your work with nothing but love, everyone involved comes to the table overbooked and underpaid. Almost everything you do is a compromise. And while this happens in funded theatres, the size of the compromise is different. A funded theatre may compromise the size of the set, the unfunded may compromise in having one at all.

Think of it like cooking. If you’re skilled, you can make a delicious meal out of ketchup and ramen noodles – but most cooks will make a better meal with better ingredients. In fact, I think the more opportunities you have to cook with good ingredients, the more your cooking will improve, and perhaps only then can you really work a miracle with ketchup and ramen.

But more than the material things, I think underfunded work suffers the most from time and space scarcities. Doing it for love means doing it around the things that will make everyone a living and very often the work suffers from that diffusion of attention.

Is everything made for no money terrible? Of course not. Occasionally, an artist can overcome the obstacles and make something tremendous, against the odds. (All my theatremaking friends, I’m looking at you.) But it is very difficult. The mainstream media loves the story of an artist who had nothing and rose to an exalted position but if you scratch the surface of these stories – the artist is NOT someone who had nothing. He (and it is almost always a “he”) usually had a privileged upbringing, is the child of a successful parent in the field or married into financial security. Most of the time “the struggle” was really just a couple of years after college when the artist had a roommate and ate some ramen noodles. The story is usually how the love of his art form kept him going until he arrived at the point where we read about him in the New York Times. So I can see how people start to get the idea that love makes good work. That’s what the media reinforces.

And personally, even though I definitely don’t do this for the money (there isn’t any,) I also can’t say I’m doing it for love. At least not in the way most people mean it. I am devoted to the theatre. I throw my whole heart and self into it. But I hate that my work is not as good as it might be if I had money for artists, space and development. I hate working in the theatre as much, if not more than, I love it. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Love is a powerful, wonderful thing. It helps with EVERYTHING, I’m sure. But it needs resources to turn it into really excellent theatre.


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