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Get A (Full) Job

02.24.11 | 24 Comments


CATEGORIES advocacy, arts administrators, funding and support, ideas, producers, rabble rousing, supply / demand, theatrical ecosystem

I’m really happy for Gwydion here. He’s found a situation that works for him as an artist, and I wouldn’t wish him anything differently. But as he points out so well, not every artist has the luxury of a cool company, doing work that so well complements their art.

And in the end, my own art (which, disparaging remarks about all us evil administrators aside, I can assure you is still in a state of more art than science), that of fundraising, comes down to ensuring that artists get paid a living wage or better (a concept I usually abbreviate as a living+ wage). After all, art will be created whether or not organizations exist. The bohemian lifestyle of living poor for the purity of artistic and philosophical pursuit has been immortalized by Puccini, Larson, and many others. And artists themselves make these choices for any number of reasons. Some artists don’t feel a need to pursue a professional career in the arts, rather doing it in that dreaded professional-amateur (aka “pro-am”) designation. Some folks even feel that getting paid for art cheapens it. While I find these various folks a little on the eccentric side, I respect their right to their philosophies and preferences.

But boy, does it ever make getting artists paid living+ wages difficult.

More importantly, while Gwydion certainly has found a balance that he appreciates, I am a full believer in the idea that, for most of us, a mind divided on multiple jobs cannot release the full creativity and innovation needed to make true strides in either pursuit. I know I’m a better writer on the state of arts management when I have a few hours to read, write, and edit, rather than when I’m bustling along trying to keep all my other balls in the air. My posts are better, more thought out, more entertaining, have better links and research, make more concise arguments, and might even push boundaries just a little more.

If you are a fundraiser for the arts, you must make it your job to see artists receive a living+ wage. The ones that don’t want that won’t flock to you and your organization anyways. But it becomes incumbent on the fundraisers to light the way on this important strategic goal. We must recognize, first and foremost, that our greatest asset in the arts are our people and the ideas and creativity that they bring with them.

If you and your organization aren’t committed to this ideal, then you owe it to your funders, to your audience, to your advocates to let them know that. I think the best way we can start to better get people and resources where they need to go is better transparency and better communications. There will be people that want to fund community theater or orchestra as an important neighbohood resource and part of the cultural landscape that encourages participation in the arts without making it a vocation. But as it stands, I’ve seen far too many audiences and funders that were absolutely ignorant of the situation we face in seeing our artists paid for their value. They assume we all get paid very well for their entertainment. Too often, they assume wrong.

I don’t accuse my fellow arts managers of being duplicitous by any means. But I think it does speak to the fact that we aren’t as good at communicating and taking risks off-stage as we are on-stage. It’s as if all that risk we take in art-making sucks all the risk from the rest of the organization, and so we resolve ourselves to not being able to do anything about chronically underfunded organizations, chronically un- or underpaid artists, and chronically deteriorating arts organizations that focus on the wrong investments and can’t figure out why they’re in trouble.

David Zoltan

I got my Masters of Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon in 2001 and then didn't use it one bit for 6 years.I did everything from selling cars to being an entrepreneur, the highs and the lows.I came back to the arts when I sold my business and moved to Chicago.Since then I've been doing fundraising, consulting, and, recently, lots of blog writing at http://artsappeal.org/.Come and discuss how dumb my ideas are since its the only way we'll all grow and learn 🙂

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  • The romantic bohemian myth of the “starving artist” is one I’d like to see put to bed for good. It is a condescending ideal put forth by an outsiders point of view. I’d wager that anyone who ever claimed that it is enlivening to be a “starving artist” doesn’t know the real, experiential meaning of either of those words. Here’s the real truth: no artist – not one, anywhere in the world – wants to have to choose between making their art and paying the bills that allow them to stay healthy and above water.

    So yes, we as artists and arts workers need to be better at saying to the world “we think we deserve to make a living (or living +) wage as much as anyone, that art is a calling that required education, skills, and years of practice, and the product that artists create is a necessary brick in the foundation of our society.” We’re not very good at saying that, and even worse at saying it like we believe it.

    That said, what are administrators not doing to build the resources they need to pay their artists? I would wager that, if asked, every non-hobbyist arts organization would claim that living wages for artists ARE at the top of their priorities. But the resources don’t always match that ambition.

  • “I am a full believer in the idea that, for most of us, a mind divided on multiple jobs cannot release the full creativity and innovation needed to make true strides in either pursuit.”

    This strikes me as the sentiment we need to be fighting against, David. While I appreciate, for certain, that some (or even most) artists would rather work full-time on their art, I think this keeps us too segmented from the world of people for whom we do what we do. To be sure, if I were independently wealthy, I wouldn’t hold down the half-time job I’m lucky to have… but I would almost certainly devote a great deal of the day every day to some pursuit that would NOT be the writing of plays. I do not at all believe there’s a limit to my “full creativity and innovation.” To the contrary, I’m certain that my current situation is what generates (rather than constrains) my full creativity and innovation… and I suspect the same would be true for other artists as well if they had similar opportunities.

    It’s at least worth trying.

    • While there may be that danger, Gwydion, that an artist could become disconnected from the world they live in, I think what you’re doing is a form of subsidized research that most artists would say they’re engaging in anyways but without the demands of another boss. I don’t say that to discredit the notion that what you’re doing is valuable, because I certainly see your point of view on it. But I don’t think that the opportunities are there nor am I as optimistic as you that they’ll be created. In the end, I’d rather be able to pay my artists full time to pursue research and experiences in any way that has meaning for them instead of having to have them rely on special work situations such as the one you’re in.

      • See, what I find interesting (and I sort of knew this would happen) is that even creative people like us, who should be able to imagine alternate ways of being in the world, would struggle with my proposal. We are so locked into the mindset that part of being human means doing one thing, and one thing only, with all of our work energy. This is patently ridiculous. You call what I have a “special work situation,” but I’m suggesting that maybe it’s merely the first of its kind. You’re trying to work within the system — a system, I hasten to add, that’s thoroughly failing artists — and I’m advocating for us to change that system.

        I do not believe that our current implementation of capitalism is the end of history. Far from it. I think it’s our job, in fact — precisely our job as artists — to imagine the future into existence and help people manage historical changes. That’s all I’m trying to do.

        But I expect resistance on both sides: from artists and from strict corporate types. Nobody’s comfortable with change, or with considering different models, or with re-thinking their decisions. And deciding to live like I’ve lived — I’ve had my current situation, in one form or another, for most of the past decade and a half — isn’t easy, I know… but it is possible. I know because I’ve done it, and I’ve seen others do it, too.

        • I have no problem with your proposal as an option. I simply have a philosophical disagreement with your premise that most people can function as you can. I’ve seen too many people divided in their energy and seen the fall-off in work output to believe that it works for most people.

          I fully believe that you can work differently. We humans are a persistently differentiated lot. And I’m sure that having that as an option will help some artists. But in the end, I don’t think it’s right for most people, and that’s why you’re encountering resistance. Not that it’s a bad thing, but that most people aren’t like you.

          • David, how would you be in a position to determine what is right for most artists?

            Your position seems to me rather similar to the position of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians. “Pay us to be musicians first, and don’t make other tasks part of our regular job, or the DSO will no longer attract the best musical artists in the future.” Well… maybe. That model may not be a thing of the past, yet, and may never disappear entirely. But that sort of arrangement is already a privileged position, not the default position. University music programs are already adding in administrative classes, entrepreneurship classes, accounting, and the like, because they know there are too many musicians without these skills in the marketplace. And even when we ask artists to come to receptions and meet with donors, we’re asking them to do more than just focus on their art. It sounds like you’re saying this won’t work for most artists, but it’s happening every day.

            What bothers me about your model is that it assumes most artists are hothouse flowers that must be protected from the economic climate by either generous patrons or super-rainmaker administrators. I think (and have seen, again and again) that artists are hardier and more resourceful than that.

          • I think you’re actually making my point here in a way, so I might have misstated myself slightly somewhere along the way. EVERY job is fraught with things that must be done. Dividing attention between multiple jobs multiplies those little things that get in the way. Being an artist requires you to do donor events, do outreach, etc. as that’s how the industry and the business are grown. But if you aren’t being paid a living+ wage to focus not only on those demands, but on the demands of being an artist as well, creativity gets sapped away in the scramble to make a living instead of being focused on those artistic activities.

            I don’t for a second think that artists are “precious flowers”, but I do fully believe that there is only so much bandwidth any of us can take. The more that is focused on artistic activities, in the most robust sense of the words, the better off the artist, the organization, and the industry.

          • I share Aaron’s concerns below.

            I also think that when you’ve seen people divided in their energy, they have probably typically been divided either between multiple part-time jobs, none of which offers significant stability and some of which are probably temporary/contract gigs — which is NOT the situation I proposed — or between a full-time/40-hour job and the callings of an artist. I’m talking about a model that’s really not been seen very often before.

  • The romantic bohemian myth of the “starving artist” is one I’d like to see put to bed for good. It is a condescending ideal put forth by an outsiders point of view. I’d wager that anyone who ever claimed that it is enlivening to be a “starving artist” doesn’t know the real, experiential meaning of either of those words. Here’s the real truth: no artist – not one, anywhere in the world – wants to have to choose between making their art and paying the bills that allow them to stay healthy and above water.

    So yes, we as artists and arts workers need to be better at saying to the world “we think we deserve to make a living (or living +) wage as much as anyone, that art is a calling that required education, skills, and years of practice, and the product that artists create is a necessary brick in the foundation of our society.” We’re not very good at saying that, and even worse at saying it like we believe it.

    That said, what are administrators not doing to build the resources they need to pay their artists? I would wager that, if asked, every non-hobbyist arts organization would claim that living wages for artists ARE at the top of their priorities. But the resources don’t always match that ambition.

    • I totally agree with you: the myth of the starving artist has to die. We all know by now — all of us — that stability is what creates the conditions for creativity, not chaos, not deprivation. That’s part of why my situation has been so good for me creatively, and why I think it would be good for others as well.

      I want to hasten to add that I’m definitely not paid well enough for the half of my week I devote to my art: not even close. But that doesn’t make me special among my fellow playwrights. We’re all underpaid; all but a few artists are. And I think we need to do a great many things to address that condition. But because of my current situation, getting paid properly for my time as a playwright would simply mean I could eat out at better restaurants and put more money away for my son’s college education.

      And if we did solve that problem — this is the key point — I still wouldn’t give up my half-time job, because it offers too many other non-financial benefits I wouldn’t want to lose.

      • Gwydion, I like your model better then the artist-as-nothing-more-than-an-artist model. However, I believe, strongly, that creativity emerges from all conditions that we humans find ourselves in, whether chaotic or stable. Look at the Middle East!

        Further, I believe the deficit is the mother of invention. That said, I’m not suggesting that it is OK to put our artists under financial stress.

        • You are right to note that creativity is irrepressible… because, well, it just is.

          • I have to disagree with the idea that creativity is some sort of unstoppable force. The idealist in me loves this idea, but the realist . . . not so much. Creativity can be easily repressed, even snuffed completely by a multitude of factors, both external and internal including deep fatigue, overwork, financial duress, illness, self-doubt . . . one of my favorite quotes about writing is the one that says “the hardest thing about being a writer is the act of actually sitting down to write.” (paraphrased) But I agree that artists are a resilient, hard working bunch, in so small part, because we have to be. Hence David’s original post.

            But even if the artist-as-nothing-more-than-an-artist model is a bit idealistic, it sure would be nice for artists to be able to not have to cram every bit of “creative time” between the million part time/temp jobs that so many of us have to have in order to stay afloat.

          • I suppose you’re right, in a sense; our capitalist system (if you’ll permit a bit of socialism) seems to do a good job of dampening creativity… but somehow the root finds a way to take hold in a crack in the cement (if you’ll permit a little poetry, too). People go on making art.

            Perhaps it’s a glass half-full way of seeing things. I don’t know.

            I agree, in any event, that “the million part time/temp jobs” isn’t a model that lends itself to creativity. That’s why I’ve proposed the notion of what I might as well call the second part-time career…

          • And the way David started this post called out Gwydion, so either David was using Gwydion’s “model” as a strawman, because he thinks it so rare, or the multiple part-time jobs model is a strawman in terms of the discussion, because there seems to be consensus that this is far, far less than ideal.

          • Matt, this sort of repression of creativity must be considered in social context. I, myself, gave up on acting because I couldn’t continue to stick it out AND live a life where I could pay off my student loans and afford to go out on dates with my girlfriend (now wife). So financial duress did, truthfully, lead me to get out of acting. But in the context of what, e.g., the Belarus Free Theater is up against, the pressures that “repressed” my creativity are laughable. And, frankly, the world is not worse off because I stopped acting.

            Let’s acknowledge that these pressures are contextual, and dependent on our expectations to a very large extent.

    • Aaron Andersen

      Why is it all on the backs of the administrators?

      • It isn’t, not at all, and I didn’t claim it was.

        I was simply referring to David’s specific point about arts managers making the living + wage a high priority. In the final two paragraphs, it seemed as if he was implying two things: that some non-hobbyist orgs do not place this as a priority, or that there was something else that these folks were not doing in order to make those priorities come to fruition. I’m curious to hear more about both points.

        I do think that underpaying artists is frequent in no small part because the cost of running an arts organization is huge, and most managers know that of everyone on the payroll, the artists will be more willing to accept lower wages due to the intangible rewards that “practicing their art” provides. This is due partly to the lingering fantasy that artists are willing to suffer (and should be expected to suffer) for their “art,” and partly because it is true. An actor, offered a dream role with an exciting company is not likely, at all, to turn down that role because the pay falls far, far below even the minimum wage.

        This part of the reason (despite an imperfect system) why the Actors Union is so important. Because it provides a buffer against the persistence of this mindset and protects actors against for-profit entertainment orgs that could very well get away with paying actors nada and still end up with a quality product to make a big profit from.

        • Matt, I’m with you. I agree with what you’ve outlined, and didn’t misread your comment. I guess I was trying to be a little provocative. My bias is evident in my other comment somewhere on this post. If we assume artists can’t thrive without administrators and donors acting as rainmakers, showering them with largesse, we’re perpetuating a feudal model.

        • I would make that very contention, though it’s not something that’s unique to the arts by any stretch of the imagination. However, as an industry that is wholly dependent on the creativity and ingenuity of our people, that ensuring that our people are free to explore that creativity without fear of living without basic amenities isn’t a clear and immediate concern for arts organizations as a source of strategic advantage is simply amplified that much more.

          What to do about it is always the difficult question. I think, for one, recognition that our artists are our greatest strategic resource and therefore must be a key form of investment in the company must permeate the industry as a top value.

          I think, perhaps, more than that, we must also recognize that there is a tremendous amount to be done to better train our leadership as well. I look at the strange friction between artists and administrators and understand that much of that animosity is from decades of poor management, likely not out of malice, but out of a lack of investment in these key personnel to learn best practices and to continue the evolution of thought in the sector. Poorly equipped admins make poor value judgments in how to run the business.

          And again, I call for transparency so that funders, be they corporations, foundations, governments, or individuals, can understand what the priorities of the organization are and either give where values match or direct funding for an organization to build better capabilities.

      • Oh, and you may have misread my original comment. I asked “What are administrators NOT doing to build the resources to pay.” Not “What are administrators doing . . . “

  • RVCBard

    What I’m interested in finding out is HOW to make these things work.

    As I hinted at over on Youngblog, the recurring problems we’re facing now are the same problems facing low-income and impoverished communities around the globe, yet many mange to survive long enough to thrive. What can we learn from them? What can we do?

    I talked about something similar with another member of the theatre collective I’m affiliated with. We’re both Southern Black women, and a value we both share is accountability to community. When we talked about some of the real problems some other members had – like facing homelessness – we both expressed our discomfort with the idea that anyone we knew personally should have to go hungry or not have a roof over their heads. The other collective members respect this sentiment, but they don’t necessarily actively pursue it.

    Then I read this piece by the NY Times, and I saw exactly what I was looking for. These are not MBAs here. They are brand new immigrants who have created a strategy for connecting people to the resources they need. We need something similar for artistic communities – a net that WORKS.

    An idea I’ve been toying with is collective entrepreneurship. Basically, we get people with compatible skill sets together, create a micro-business (for lack of a better term), and put them in a place where they can get paid to do what they’re good at. If one person’s good at web design, another at web copy, and yet another at programming. BAM! We can make websites. If we want to keep it on our artistic skills, let’s say that some of us want to work on our improv skills and get paid. What’s keeping us from approaching schools to put on improv skits for some of the things they’re learning in class? I’m sure that there are a lot of people doing just that right now, but we need more of it.

    If people want to take me up on this, I’d be glad to see what we can do. Because from where I’m sitting, waiting on someone else to decide we fit in their neat prepackaged positions is not working.

    • Keith Beck

      People are either lead or driven – The person who has the role to lead or drive is the catalyst, how you find that person to trust with your vision, dream, idea etc. is the hardest part.

    • This is what I’m talking about!


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