Money and the Arts

8 Steps To Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

A few years after I first started working in theater I ADed under a director who used this phrase that I love. When he was trying to uncover something about a moment, get at what the character was doing, he would say something like, “So what’s actually actually happening is…”

I love this turn of phrase, actually actually, because I think it speaks to the layers of honesty with which we communicate. There’s a way in which we might say we’re doing something but actually actually we’re kind of doing something else. Like when I say that I’m working all day on a grant but actually actually I’m equal parts answering grant questions and distracting myself with games on my phone or reading emails that I don’t really need to look at. It’s not malicious, this uncovering of my real activities but it does show the ways in which we label our actions in ways that aren’t always inclusive of all the forces working on us. I’m not on the internet because I don’t want to write the grant, I do, I just also am tired and really enjoying unlocking the secrets of Dwarf Complete.

Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense of themselves. It strips them of their highfalutin’ intentions and gets down to the nitty gritty of their real intents and their actual (actual) effects. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.

Sometimes I wish I could ask arts funders to tell me what they actually actually want.

In my anecdotal experience, when people give away large amounts of money there’s what they say they want in their beautifully crafted guidelines and then there are the means by which these funds are dispersed. And a lot of the time, the stated want isn’t actually actually best engendered by the means in which things are executed.

I don’t, truly, honestly, think this is malice. I know as artists there are times it can actually feel that way. But I really don’t think it is. That said, I think it’s useful for us to remind ourselves of the difference between what is said and what we feel like we actually actually see. It keeps you sane. It keeps things in perspective. It allows you not to get caught up in rage when you feel like you are held to a standard or desire that’s not always what is shown on the surface.

This isn’t true across all my experience, and it certainly exists at a lot of levels of divergence from that first actually to the second. The one that most gets me though, the one I find the most often frustrating, is the call for “innovative” art. Innovation is a tricky work. It is grounded deeply in risk. It requires, by definition, newness and the encountering of the unknown. It is something encountered for the first time. All of which is very hard to explain in a clear and delineated narrative six months, a year, two years before the innovative thing is going to take place, before its component pieces are thoroughly explore and identified, before its map has been charted, before experiments have been conducted to test hypotheses. By the time these kinds of things are known, the actual innovation is already over.

You can court the unknown, or you can have a steadfast plan carried out without alteration. You can scientifically journey into unfamiliar experimentation or you can seek the rigorous and practiced craftsman to execute his skill. These are both interesting and potentially worthy things. But in actual actuality they are a non-overlapping Venn diagram.

I understand the desire to know things, I do. But you can’t have it both way my darlings. Or rather, you can, in a way, if you pretend it’s possible and leave it to those actually executing the thing to try their damnedest to pull those two circles toward a tiny space of intersection. It’s a lot of work, that pulling, work that I’d say is better served elsewhere, like actually actually implementing some innovation.

My guess is things won’t change soon. But if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there:

 ADRIENNE’S LIST OF FUNDING PROCESSES FOR ACTUAL ACTUAL INNOVATION IN THE ARTS

1.   WHAT: Give $5,000 to the first 25 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked.

WHY: First off, in the grand scheme of things, this is nothing. This is one not that large Pew grant. For reference, my very first show, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 25 upstart artists could do with 5K. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set.

2.    WHAT: Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours worth of time to anyone that asks for it.

WHY: Space is one of the first thing that starts costing you money fast and it’s especially hard when you are at that stage where you’re in total blank canvas mode. It feels decadent and wasteful to sit in a room you paid for without a plan so often this time, which is actually the most important, happens in the cracks and spaces between “real” rehearsal.

3.    WHAT: You want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the Philly arts community.

WHY: The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples. You won’t have to keep telling artists we’re not spending enough on videographers. You won’t have us waste our time developing the skill set of videography and editing when we could be making stuff.

4.    WHAT: Democratize the grant writing process. Hire a staff that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost have them work on a commission basis commensurate with budget size.

WHY: It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge non-profit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability. This is campaign finance reform 101. If everyone has the same writer, then the projects will actually be presented in a fair and equal way.

5.   WHAT: Fund an entirely “research” based phase with no require showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.

WHY: This is the thing that the academic weight of science has over the arts. People believe that research for research sake is valuable WHETHER OR NOT IT BECOMES A VIABLE PRODUCT. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. I think artists know this but they get so beaten down about it that they forget. What if we got to go and sit in on rehearsals for each other or read papers about the questions other companies are asking and the methods they use to do so? What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does? I bet we’d all be a lot artistically richer for it.

6.   WHAT: No project grants. For 5 years. Only operating support.

WHY: Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.

And while I’m at it:

7.     WHAT: Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.

WHY: Do you know about these folks: https://www.givedirectly.org/operating-model.html? Their aim was to benefit the extremely poor across the globe. There are lots of charities that decide how exactly poor people across the globe ought to make their lives better and allow people to give them a cow or build a school, or whatever. In most cases the funder is telling the person who could use the funds what method would be best for the person to improve the person’s life. Sound familiar? These folks thought to themselves, “Hey. Who knows better than the actual person how they could best make their life better.” In other words, they assumed that person was as intelligent and capable as they were, just in need of the funding. I think we need to start imagining a world where artists just get to use money for their art in the way that they see most efficient towards making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?

And lastly:

8.    WHAT: One year, forget about trying to define “excellence” and just give all the money out by random lottery.

WHY: It was a real lesson in what a little but of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. Comparing the way people talked about the project with my collaborators and I before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective. If we could just try democratizing this for a year, we might end up with people that would never ever seem like they would deserve that money, but absolutely blow us away with what they are capable of.

I’d even propose that if we took one major funder’s pool and did this instead of what they currently do, we wouldn’t even need more money. But I bet we’d have a whole lot more actual innovation

That’s all for now…

A

A post in which we examine fairness and give Samia some cash

You know what I hate?

I really really hate it when I see an email from someone that I haven’t talked to in a while, someone who maybe I might not be super close with, and I start reading an email that feels like a trick.

It always starts super personal – Hey Adrienne – and starts telling me stuff they’ve been up to. At first I think, “Hey, I didn’t realize so-and-so was doing all this stuff. Well done so-and-so!” Around a paragraph in I think, “Gee. It’s interesting that they are going into such detail about the project.” And then about halfway in I say, “Oh, I get it. This is a kickstarter campaign letter.”

All that earnestness, I believe it’s heartfelt, but without a warning it can sometimes feel just a tiny bit like a bait and switch. So, here’s fair warning so that you don’t feel like I do when I read those emails: I think there’s some interesting and heartfelt stuff explored within the following thousand or so words. There’s also a gentle ask at the end of the post as well.

So. That’s out of the way. Now on to talking a little bit about fairness.

Here is a truth of the universe: success in the arts not always fairly won.

Perhaps that seems obvious. I know we all joke often about “those” creators with all the connections or resource coming into the game. We joke and dream about a life without the necessity of a day job. We talk about the work we’d get done if we didn’t have non-artistic work as a requirement to survive.

It seems silly, almost, to say it. A statement so duh-inducing it’s almost banal.

But even if we know, sometimes we forget to really internalize the truth of it. Even if our brains remember, our hearts don’t always realize. When I’m not careful I catch myself feeling “less than” because recognition is slower to come than I’d like. You might be frustrated that the grants are not rolling in. It may feel sometimes like we are stuck in the drudgery as others jet set around the world.

It’s hard not to compare, no?

And this is why it’s worth reminding ourselves the system is truly NOT solely set up to reward those with the greatest artistic prowess. That’s part of it, of course. But it is in NO WAY the entirety, maybe even the majority, of how the artistic field rewards its participants. The truth is that we all make use of whatever advantages we happen to have, some of which are artistic and some of which are not, to try and get a foothold in this insanely difficult career.

When I sit down with newbies to Philly and chat about how they will find their way in the world I often get asked questions like “How do I begin making my own work?”

I’ve taken to saying this: “If you ask me specific questions about how to get cheap risers or what fiscal sponsor I think is best I will be happy to answer those. But the honest answer to the question ‘How do I start making my work?’ is that you have to figure out how you will be able to make and support your work by using whatever is available to you.”

I can see it is a frustrating answer, even if it’s true.

But because our system is so chaotic and uneven in its distribution of resource, because it is so thoroughly unfair at times, especially at the start, I believe it’s a useful answer. To begin as an artist without a high level of resource is to be a person who has to come to terms with that unfairness. Perhaps not to subscribe to all aspects of the system that supports inequity, but to learn to at lest live with it. For in order to stay, we all learn to scrape and deal and do the best with what we do have. And we do our best not get to sour about what we don’t.

I think all the time about a many things for which I am intensely grateful.

I think about the fact that I studied science. That I spent a lot of time with complex math. That when I had to learn accounting and budgeting and report my company’s data, I had a familiarity with something roughly similar. That I never had to worry that what I was trying to do what too hard for me because I figured it couldn’t be more complicated than multi-variable calculus. (Though there are days… There are days…)

I think about the fact that when I made my first play I had a large network of family who even though not rich were stil willing to donate a little – 5, 50, 100 dollars – to help me pursue this thing that I so desperately wanted to make.

I think about the fact that I came to my career with high-level writing skills. That I’d been pushed to articulate difficult concepts and formulate arguments about creative works in the past. That grant writing wasn’t such a bear because again, I’d had experiences to prepare me.

I think about the fact that I did not have a crushing amount of student debt. That I had my share, but never so much that I felt I couldn’t take a risk on a low paying job or use a bit of my savings to buy a prop or a costume I needed.

I think about the fact that I have been surrounded by mentors who made me trust my own self worth, my vision of my creative product, and that this confidence allowed me to walk into a major historic site at the ripe age of 23 and ask to stage a play there with almost no money to offer in exchange.

I make myself think about these things on the days when I get frustrated about not having rich parents. I think about them on days when I think about how much more successful I might be if all my time could be devoted to my career of theater and not jobs that help to keep me fed and housed. And I try and remember that these things were gifts to me that may not be givens for others. That without that access to just a bit family support or set of math skills or a confidence boost I could be in a very different place in my career.

This is not to say that such things cannot be overcome in the long run. This is not to say that those with advantages at the start will always prevail. This is not to say that those who come into the work without trust funds should give up. But it is to say that we should give ourselves a break sometimes in trying to measure up. And it is also to say that when we can do something personally to help level the field and give someone a leg up when they need one, we really really ought to do it.

So here, at long last, is that plea for cash.

It’s a plea for an amazing and talented young person who deserves access to the kind of support one needs when they’re first starting to make their way into their work. Samia, Sam for short, is a phenom. She is a performer, a designer, a soon to be graduated student, and a truly lovely person. This is what she looks like:

samAnd because I stole this picture off facebook she doesn’t know that her thumbs up is now being used as a subliminal code to you readers to thank you in advance for help her out.

Sam is seriously awesome.

When The Berserker Residents and I teched The Giant Squid at Arcadia Sam won our onstage “squid raffle.” As she took the steps up to the stage she literally brimmed with joy and screamed “I won! I won! I won!”  I never laughed as hard at any of the subsequent audience participants as I did when I saw her face realizing her squid “prize” has mysteriously turned a tank of water into boiling ink.

When she played Hermia in the Midsummer I directed last fall she worked with a ferocity and grace and humility that I have rarely seen before in a college student. A colleague I invited to the show saw her and said, “She’s amazing. She’s really going to do this thing for real.”

And now, as a surprise to no one, she’s won a national award for puppet design and needs a little boost to get her to Las Vegas to take part in an 8-week technical theater intensive that comes as a prize with the award.

Look again at this amazing human in a cardigan:

sam and ian

Admit it. She’s adorable.

Who would not want to donate to that face? A face that’s also confident. And smart. And hardworking. And kind.

I have every belief that she’s going to be one of the Amazing Ladies of this community’s future.

So click this link Philadelphia creators and give this awesome little lady a couple bucks. In the spirit of helping another amazing new artist. In the spirit of giving her some gifts that she seriously deserves. In the spirit of making the artistic landscape just this tiny bit fairer. Because she deserves to have the chance to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities afforded her.

HERE IS THE LINK YOU CLICK SHOULD BUT BIGGER THIS TIME.

Do it.

– A

PS – Thanks to Alisa for setting up this amazing cheerleading squad!

3 years and $300,000 and I’ll fix it, for realz…

Alright, enough moping.

So remember how I said that the tough thing about talking about the issue of gender parity, the problem, wasn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

In other words, how do you get people to not just think about doing the right thing but actually motivate them to do it?

Guess what?

Yesterday, I figured it out.

You just need some money.

You need a funding program that has nothing to do with intentions, because we all have the best intentions. What you need is a reward system that is entirely based on outcomes.

So.

Without further ado, I give you:

SWIM PONY MASSIVELY OVERHAULS THE STATE OF WOMEN ARTISTS IN THREE YEARS AND WHO KNEW IT WOULD BE THIS FLIPPIN EASY GRANT PROGRAM

Also known as:

AWESOME LADIES GETTIN’ WHAT’S DUE (ALGWD for short)

(With support from Pew Charitable Trusts

Or maybe William Penn

Or maybe The Wyncote Foundation

Or The Knight Foundation

Really who cares, someone has to fund this, right?)

Here are my proposed guidelines:

1)   The ALGWD team announces to the Philadelphia-area theater community that starting next season any company, of any size, with access to their own non-profit status or a fiscal sponsor is eligible for an award at the end of a three year period.

2)   The funding awards will be made in two categories:

  • $25,000 will be awarded to 5 companies with the highest percentage of women artists represented across three artistic categories (see below).
  • Any company that achieves 45% female representation across all three categories is eligible to receive $10,000.
  • PS – You have to hit the minimum in all three. No exceptions.

3)   Female artists represented will be calculated based on a statistics over three categories:

  • Number of women playwrights
  • Number of women directors
  • Number of women actors

4)   Other rules and guidelines:

  • Companies will submit their statistics and then have them validated by the grant committee in order to be eligible.
  • The statistics must include all artistic output by a company.
  • Artistic outputs included must be open to the public.
  • A company must meet a minimum of three public works to be eligible for consideration.
  • Funds are string-free. You can use them for whatever you want.

5)   And maybe we could also add this as a bonus:

  • A $1,000 in additional funds are available for any company that can also show an equal parity across all categories of theatrical design regardless of whether they reach the above minimums.

This means for three years there’s a looming pile of cash incentivizing the choice to bring women artists in. It’s not the only consideration, but it’s enough to help counteract a tiny bit of that un-intentional push away from a female artists in the other direction.

And happily, unlike calling someone out or making a stink, this grant doesn’t hurt anyone who decides they can’t or won’t be able to meet the gender equality minimum. You can do all the dude heavy, dude written, dude directed plays you want. It just means you’re missing out on the free money party.

Of the 12 companies I surveyed numbers on last year, a few were pretty darn close – Flashpoint, Simpatico and Azuka – but not one would have hit this minimum requirement across all three categories. But if there were $10,000 at stake, how much do you want to bet they’d tweak their selections just a tiny bit to nudge them over the line? If the next time the AD’s of these companies looked at their numbers and knew that hiring one more female director got them $10,000 do you think they’d think as hard about whether or not to do it? Do you think that the choice between a female playwright and a male one would be quite so agonizing if one picking the former meant they might be one of those companies competing for the top 5 slot?

For most companies, $25,000 or $10,000 in funds that aren’t project ear-marked would make a huge difference. That’s an entire person’s salary in some cases. That’s the budget for an entire show for the really small ones. And even if you’re a bigger dog, one where the scale you’re operating on won’t be totally transformed by this kind of cash, think about how hard you chase donors on this scale. You could just do the work you’re already doing AND save women artists from inequity while getting money handed to you.

The way I see it there are something on the order of 30 – 40 companies in Philly and the surrounding areas who’d be eligible. If I had to guess, right now, there are probably only a handful – 5 maybe – that potentially meet those guidelines already.  From rough estimation it seems like about half those companies could probably hit those numbers with just a bit of effort to add a few female directors or playwrights or plays with more female roles. If I were a betting woman, I’d guess the same half of those 30 – 40 would come out the other side of three years with hands outstretched for their $10,000.

Think about the impact that would make in this community:

  • 5 companies at the top x $25,000 = $125,000
  • ~16 more companies at the minimum x $10,000 = $160,000
  •  ~15 that also hit the design minimum x $1,000 = $15,000

That’s $300,000.

This is really not that much money.

Think about that Philly funders…  For a single upper limit Pew organizational project grant:

  • You could have an incredibly concrete means to measure the impact of your efforts by surveying the stats on gender before the award period and after.
  • You could incentivize not promises or discussions but measurable, quantifiable outcomes.
  • You could reward those companies already employing positive gender parity practices.
  • You could send a message that your organization cares deeply about the status of women artists and is able to take steps to do something about it.
  • You could create an art-making environment in Philadelphia that can be nationally recognized as the most female friendly in the country.
  • You could massively shift everything about the way this city works for women artists.

No hemming or hawing. No yelling or fighting. No pipelining. No apologies for what we intended to do but couldn’t quite make happen.  Just three years to make it happen or not.

Some folks will ask you for a whole new system and ten years or more to implement it.

I’m just asking for three years and $300,000.

Let’s do it now Philly before some other city snatches up our good idea.

– Adrienne

PS – Shout out to Brad Wrenn who dreamed this up in the car with me when I was having a shitty morning yesterday.

Some days I’m just tired of talking about money

There’s a moment in Inside Llewyn Davis that absolutely slayed me when I saw it on Monday night. The movie, which follows a young folk singer from Greenwich Village in 1961, shows an artist struggling to survive. There’s plenty of emotional twist and turnage that make this film an engrossing one, but the moment that gutted me, that hit awfully close to my own heart’s home was one about two thirds of the way through. The protagonist has taken an arduous journey from New York to Chicago in hopes of impressing a music mogal named Bud Grossman. Llewyn Davis arrives in Grossman’s office looking beaten. He asks for… what? Recognition, money, help, something he doesn’t even quite know how to ask for, for an opportunity it seems he already believes he has no shot at.

Grossman looks condescendingly at the record he has just been handed, one bearing the same name as the movie, and says something to the effect of “Well show me what you got. Show me what’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

So he does.

In a dark, half lit room, the character nervously sits with this man who holds the potential to change his future, a man who sits like a stone staring, unblinkingly at him.

Here Llewyn Davis sings.

Sing beautifully, achingly, heart-breakingly open. The camera moves so little, it is one of the closest things I have felt in film to the real spirit of live music, to being that close to someone who is filled up with song. For me, it felt as if I was witnessing someone doing the very, exactly, and absolutely necessary thing they were put on the earth to do.  It felt that for Llewyn Davis music is the language that he as a person is truly intended to be speaking to the world. And the song, which I barely remember, is itself almost besides the point. The singing of it, and the feeling of doing it, is what’s really worth watching, and in the act is contained a beautiful kind of holiness.

At the end of the song there is this thick and vulnerable silence that feels like nakedness.

The man with the power looks at the one without and with all the casualness and ease of a Hawaii vacation, with all the finality and solidness of a period at the end of a sentence, says to him:

“Well I don’t see any money in that.”

Sucker punch.

In the heart.

With a spear.

Made of ice.

I’ve thought about that scene for days now. I’ve repeated this line to myself over and over and somehow, it only makes it worse the more I think about it.

Why does this injure me so much? Why does this wound to an imagined artist from 50 in the past get to me so much? Why does the reduction of one person’s lovely song to a lack of dollar signs get in me and stomp around? I keep asking myself these questions. And I really do wonder why, in a life where I spend so much time and effort fretting over and raising and dealing with and paying out and worrying worrying worrying about money why this stupid little line in this movie has got me so twisted and tangled inside.

This happened to me, this moment, in almost exact verbatim.

I was sitting across a table from someone proposing a production of my work. I was asked to describe the project that I wanted to create. I talked about the legacy of a movement and the music that it produced. I talked about the textures of peeling walls and echoing voices down a 200-foot corridor. I spoke about the sweeping grandeur of becoming a legend and the power of watching and listening and singing as the eye bounces between the living humans and the decaying space that contains them. And for once, happily, when I finished speaking I really felt that I had captured it, this vision of my future creation, at least in part, at least enough that I believed I had spoken about it with honesty and truth and sincerity.

And at the end of speaking, I too found myself in a moment of silence, thick and vulnerable, waiting in a kind of nakedness.

“I don’t think we can get enough chairs in there. I don’t know how we’ll be able to cover the costs of this thing.”

Same story, different medium.

And you know the funny thing?

I felt bad for having done it. I felt stupid for bringing such a proposal in. Preposterous, even, for wanting to do something so commercially unviable. That I came to that meeting kind of knowing and not really caring that the thing wasn’t ever going to make money, that it was an inordinate amount of work for such a tiny number of potential audience viewers, but that I didn’t care and wanted to do it anyway. That I believed in its value despite this.

Here is a true statement: I am not a religious person. I was not raised in a tradition of faith.  But sometimes when I make something it opens up a space that is larger than myself. And that space it is the closest thing I know to belief in something higher, bigger and more powerful than me. The moment of creation is the moment in which I feel the distinguishing line between the tiny bits that make up me and the tiny bits that make up the clothes on my body and the tiny bits that make up the people in the room and the lights above my head and the sound that passes between us and the floor that we rest on and the building we reside in and the whole rest of the world, all those tiny pieces become one part of one big thing that we all share together for the moment that the feeling passes through all of us.

Eventually I did end up making that piece that didn’t have enough chairs to make it monetarily worthwhile.

But I will never forget that moment: when you hope that the person sitting across from you, by virtue of being so close to the thing you have committed yourself to will understand, when you dream that they will see the world and the thing you show them with the eyes with which you also see it. When you imagine for a just a moment that it might be as easy as it was before you had to start selling the things you’ve made, things that in truth you would rather give away freely for the sheer love that the creation of them affords. It is the definitive nonchalance with which that hope is shattered, the tedium with which the deepness and sanctity and need you have for what you make is disregarded. This misunderstanding of what the art’s usefulness is, what it is there for, this is what punctures the chest.

It is not intended as cruel, this act of refusal, this alternate measure of art’s worth, but it is presented as truth, which to me is so incredibly much worse. Because it makes one feel that such a feeling is so thoroughly beside the point, and that you the person feeling it are silly and small in doing so.

It’s negotiating the massive space between a dollar sign and the thing that lights you up inside and makes you so much bigger than you were before. It’s taking that thing and then having to figure out how you can push and poke it so that 50 chairs instead of 40 fit inside your vision of it.  It’s taking the most beautiful song that you know how to sing, the one that comes from way way way deep down inside you and being told, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, that it will never make any money.

It is the definitive and inflexibly casual insignificance of the artistic product when it is unable to be shaped into commodification.

This is the thing that hardens the soul.

This is the moment of singing that song, Llewyn Davis, and I feel it with you.

The way we think about charity is all wrong

I’m not usually a re-poster of videos and I’m usually especially loathe to re-post TED  videos. Too often it’s just too easy to pass along another person’s great ideas in place of the far more difficult task of sitting down and coming up with one’s own. Too often it feels as if such videos are a way of saying, “Here in place of original and provoking thoughts I had to wrestle and wrangle myself is a shorthand to someone else’s.”

But today I make an exception.

I want you to watch this. All the way through. It’s 20 minutes and it encapsulates so many of the feelings I’ve tried to express in this space that I felt like I need to pass it along.

Mr Pallotta eloquently expresses how our current conception of what a non-profit is and how the current system actually hurts the causes they claim to be protecting. Here are just a few responses to the five points he lays out.

1) Compensation: The quote from this that struck me most: “We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people.”

He then follows with: “You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of WIRED magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”

It’s funny. I still have an internal sensor that goes off when I think about that statement. I believe artists are important. I believe their work matters. And when I think about an Artistic Director making half a million dollars a year, but first instinct is to think of them as stealing. This “ethical” stand requires those of us who imagine going into such a field to make a trade off between doing good for the world in general or doing good for ourselves in particular. Wouldn’t it be better if we could incentivize the future’s most brilliant thinkers away from working for oil companies and towards making the greatest art possible?

This is not a theoretical conversation for me. I did not think I would go into the arts. And if I hadn’t, I would be making a lot more money than I do now. Not a lot like 20 or 30% more. A lot like 10, 20 maybe even 50 times more than I do now. My chemistry degree is one I could have parlayed into a career at places like Dow or Dupont. I could have gone to a grad school that someone would have paid for. My very first year out of college I could have made triple what I currently earn. That is a long term sacrifice. And I think that as Pallotta says in the video the “stark and mutually exclusive choice” can at times seem like a crazy thing to have done.

There’s a graph he shows in the talk that looks like this:

compensation

Is it any wonder that the best and brightest are NOT staying in the non-profit arts world?

Terry Nolan, for reference, the AD of one of the largest theaters in town was making just under $101,000 for the year 2011. Amy Murphy, the Arden’s managing director, was at just over $88,000. Do those numbers of first blush make you angry? They might, because we’ve been taught that our work is intrinsically rewarding and therefore not worthy of payment. It is up to us to think about how we can recalibrate this expectation. I don’t know either of these two terribly well. But guess that these figures are nothing close to what they could be making for similar intelligence and hours applied to other fields. And this is the very top end of what’s currently being compensated in Philly.

I found both of these numbers, by the way, from a 5 minute Google search. Because if you’re a high paid member of a non-profit, you are legally required to publish to the world, exactly what your salary is.

2) Advertising and Marketing

This section is especially interesting to me in thinking about my work as a performance medium. Pallotta cites 2% of GDP as the figure at which charitable giving is stuck. I thought about at different 2% – the percentage of people in the Philadelphia area that go to see theater. Does your theater company convince 2% of the population to come see your work? I doubt it. Could it? Would changing the way with think about investing in marketing help? Once we reached those people once could we fundamentally increase the participation in the art form as a whole?

3) Taking Risk

“So Disney can make a 200 million dollar movie that flops and no one calls the attorney general.”

In the arts in particular this topic hits incredibly close to home. Pallotta’s talk is mostly in relation to risk based on revenue generating ideas and that does ring true in the arts, but the micro-managing fatigue I hear in others and feel in myself is particularly pointed in the arts section. Creating new work is inherently a risky business and I’ve written before about the ways in which current funding structures don’t reward innovative or unanticipat-able process that result in real revolution in art making but instead encourage all aspects of a project to be figured out ahead of time.

“When you prohibit failure, you kill innovation.”

The larger culture praises the Googles and Apples and Facebooks for trying 100 crazy of ideas in the hopes that one of them changes everything about the way we think about the internet or phones or email. Artists are by their very nature programmed to be doing this kind of out of the box thinking. By definition they are masters at bringing into being things that neither  they or anyone else has yet been able to conceive. So why do the systems for getting them the resources to do that so often require overly controlling and specific explanations of process and outcome before they’ve even begun to create? It’s a recipe for non-visionary work. That artists manage to succeed despite this is a testament to their creativity and power, not a message that the system is a good one.

4) Time

“Amazon went for 6 years without returning any profit to investors.”

Artists know exactly how long it takes to hone and build craft. But were we to ask for the kind of time and investment of funds towards a project on the order of 6 years we’d be laughed at.

5) Profit to Attract Risk Capital

This is a major difference in the way for profit art mediums – record labels, movie studios, Broadway theaters – work compared to the non-profit. I’m not saying that we should all become corporations but it might be worth thinking about the ways in which entrepreneurship and traditional business structures can help revitalize the way we think about raising money in the arts.

Lastly, he goes into the point that the question of funders wanting to stick to project based work and keeping overhead low. This again, is an area that most artists I know are constantly up against. So much work needs to happen before a project is conceived and in the in between spaces to continue to keep the company going that we end up with overworked, under-resourced administrators and creators who when they finally get into the room are so distracted and tired they aren’t able to make the work they’ve been spending all the time preparing for. What if ALL funding was “general operating”? What if artists had TOTAL control over how they funded their art making process? I bet after a few years of adjusting to the shock they – the folks who are making work every day and see how and where that implementation would be most useful – would be more productive than anyone would imagine.

Are you interested in this? I am. And I want to open up this discussion with other artists. Maybe if we can all get on the same page, we can codify the way we’d like things to be and share that vision with the people that could help make that happen.

If you want in, hit me up?

– A

PS – Thanks to Brendon Gawel for passing this along to me in the first place.

Production “Values”

I’ve talked in the past about how we make choices with the money we have available to us for a given creative project, how we can sometimes justify undercutting people in the present by imagining a vague future in which we’ll have more money and therefore more ability to give people what they’re worth.

If you read this blog you probably know that I don’t agree. You probably know that I think no matter what level you’re working it, your value system should be in place. That I would posit that at these smaller levels, when no one is watching or expecting anything of you, it’s even more important, because it sets the tone for the maker you will be. I think we lean quite heavily on production and not enough on personnel. Which is why audiences don’t know that actors and designers and directors costs anything, because we show them through our actions that their money is best spent on fancy sets and stuff and not more rehearsal hours.

I have seen innumerable large companies in town decide to cut a week of rehearsal for a show and present it with no noticeable dip in set “fanciness” (that’s the technical term).

I see that and I say, “What the hell? Are you serious? I came to see a play, not an expensive paint job.”

I am not maligning design here. I love design. But I hate design that is not integrated and necessary and I hate design that says “This play is expensive” in lieu of “This play is about something.” This results in what I see as a culture of under-rehearsed, high production value pieces of bleh. In these shows, the actors seem unspecific, insubstantial and boring next to the detail and “quality” of the space they perform in.

And in the face of such a wave of underwhelming work, I ask if you have little time to develop anything past a first idea (and good or not, a first idea is still a first idea) what are you really accomplishing? Is that the art you want to make? That just because it’s done, but was it worth doing?

I know there are people who think that’s cheating  audience out of the money they spent on tickets to give them the finer production things in life. That viewers need to see where their cash has been spent. I think that’s all wrong and that making this kind of display a priority says you’re in the wrong business. Theater’s ultimate goal cannot be the delivery of luxury. Because then it undercuts our ability to say things we want to say in our artwork that are not pretty or luxury or expensive. Theatre’s real purpose is in its ability to make humans engage with each other in acts of communication and communion. And the vehicle by which we do that can be expensive or cheap depending on what you’re trying to say but ultimately the job of the artist is to make sure the work is delivering the message. If your priority is to make an expensive thing you stand to lose making a meaningful one, and risk your audience treating what you do like an expensive thing that they should evaluate the value of. They will treat you like a latte.

The problem is of course from the inside and in process you can see money when it’s spent on stuff in tangible and immediately obvious ways. And you have to feel and guess and test it when it’s put into the intangibles like time and people. But didn’t we all go into art to chase just that feeling? Don’t people come to see us because that feeling is something they can’t just go out and buy? I really think higher ups at many of these theaters think audiences notice when the set is smaller or simpler but that they don’t when actors have barely gotten blocking under their belts. But it’s just not true. An audience member may not be able to articulate the difference, but they feel it. If we really believe all that stuff most of us say – the stuff about connection to audience, and the deep respect we have for the viewer, and our love for them supporting our work – than we shouldn’t be the ones to assume they can’t tell when something is surface level deep. That thinking says it’s more important that you make it look like quality versus actually containing quality. But I would wager that a producer who consistently looks at a too small pot of cash and puts the money in the personnel instead of stuff will have far higher actual quality of artwork over the long run.

In short: Pay big bucks for the designer not the design. Because a brilliant designer does a lot more for you and your show. A brilliant and well compensated designer will make something that really serves the work.

Ok fine. Agree with me there or not, there’s actually another assumption that I don’t know that I agree with. And this is one that I think we’re all making on an even larger level in the community: that expensive and high production value  makes the work better. More and more, I really don’t know that I agree with that. More and more I wonder if all that stuff doesn’t just get in the way. Not simply because I want to put the money where the people are, but because I think sometimes all that fancy makes the work worse.

Last year I worked with local company The Berserker Residents on our co-produced piece, THE GIANT SQUID in a re-worked, re-mounted version from it’s original in 2008. For those who haven’t seen their work, this is a company that is scrappy, spontaneous and hilariously DIY. Their work is smart and sophisticated and it soars best when you feel like the whole giant spinning comedy machine might fly off and smash into you at any moment. It took me time to understand this as a director. I had to realize that much of the job was finding where the crafting and detail work was useful and where the scaffold was all that mattered, and that other moments needed enough room for the show to bounce without too much rigidity. I had to realize that over crafting some of the directing got in the way.

There were lots of things that we wanted to fix in terms of structure, plot and character in the show. And of course, as one does with a remount we looked again at the design world. Everything in the original was funky and silly and made by our own hands. And truth be told, it was a huge part of the conceit of the show, that these characters had made this thing they were showing to the audience themselves and that these people were not experts at the making. It made it endearing and human and real. And halfway through the new process as we started “updating,” I began to get nervous. I started thinking about some of the changes we were making, changes that were more polished, more professional by any traditional standard, and I wondered if we were undercutting the spirit of the thing. In many cases, I made a point not to let the show over polish certain aspects, not to make things look to beautiful. Like my directing I had to resist many impulses that seemed obvious because though they made the show look more expensive, they didn’t actually make the thing a better play. Some things we did update, because it was useful, and in some cases a tech upgrade actually improved a moment, but in many cases we kept the thing exactly with what had worked before.

During that show I realized just how much there is an unspoken assumption that more money equals better art. And if I, who had built this thing from scratch and stood to gain the extra money saved still had the impulse to update and fancify, then clearly something external is pushing me towards that. And for the first time I really saw how hard I would have to work now, with some amount of success and more access to resources to really keep that voice in check. I realized that some times that is true, that more money for something can give you access to more choices, but just as often, nay maybe way more than we realize, the work done at a smaller production scale is just as compelling (and much more sustainable).

I have this pet theory that perhaps you’ll indulge me in sharing:

Have you ever heard of the uncanny valley?  This, in a nutshell, is a theory used mostly in things like robotics or animation, says that there’s a relationship between realism of representation (in the original case of the human form) and our emotional response to the thing.

So a rock. Not very human. We are essentially indifferent to it. But put two googly eyes on it and suddenly we like that rock a whole lot more. Why? Because it’s humanness has increased dramatically. This relationship, the making a thing more and more like us resulting in an increases our affinity/familiarity for said thing, continues but only to a point. And then, the more realistic it becomes the more we actually start to dislike it. So much that there’s actually a point where a thing is so similar to us, but not exactly the same that we find it totally alien and repulsive. Think creepy mannequins and robots. The differences are so small but because of the similarity become so much more noticeable.

Ok. This is a really specific theory to human recognition of other humans, but I think that the same general concept might be applicable to this discussion. Here’s how: For realistic representative theater, naturalism is an assumption. And I think for a long time in our careers, the closer we get to naturalistic and realistic settings, the more impressive our shows seem. And so we put more and more money into making bigger and more professional looking work. But somewhere along the line, that impulse can stop serving us.

At the biggest and most moneyed theaters,  I think we been able to let this tendency impulse run so unchecked that we get these “real” spaces that are actually pretty creepy. Or at the very least distracting. I don’t need to see every detail of an intimate drama. I go to art to have the world focus and crafted, not simply presented. And for me, and I bet there are others out there who feel this way, just a table and chairs allows me room to imagine a space whereas a full kitchen with detailing on the tile and ceiling panels with weathered aging just makes me notice all the ways in which your set actually isn’t the thing you are trying to make me believe it is, actually just makes me see that there’s something fakey about your wall’s water stains because when they are so damn literal I get annoyed that I can tell you used a painting technique to make them.

It makes me focus where you’ve put so much attention. And when you’re drawing the eye to things that aren’t really the main focal point it obscures the larger picture entirely.

Maybe more on this soon…

A

PS – Thanks to all who’ve reached out. Things with my Dad are much better, as best as they can be for the moment.

Sell Out

I wrote a bit last week about the difference that can occur between the way an artist lives their life and the way almost everyone else does. I’ve been thinking a bit more about that difference and what’s been hitting me especially hard is the strange and terrible relationship most artists have to money. I think this issue in particular – how we think about money, what it means in relation to our work, and how we decide to navigate that relationship – has a lot to do with why so many of us feel like no one understands how we live.

While it’s obviously simplistic to reduce an entire nation into one value system, in my own experience I can say that I often find myself a little at odds with the American context in which I exist. Ours is, and of course I’m generalizing, a culture that places a high value on earning as a measure of success. And because of that, it’s one that makes justifying the life of an artist particularly tough, tougher perhaps than countries whose wealth it exceeds.

I would wager that on the whole, the impulse to make and share our work is anti-monetary. Artist are in a rush to give away their product, especially when they first start making it. I would also wager that the impulse to “own” ones work like a product or thing is a learned skill. It’s something we find ourselves having to do, not something that is inherent to the thing itself. Of course this is not always true, and not always true of everyone, but for the purposes of this article, I’m again going to generalize and say that on the whole the artistic process is one that is at its core financially altruistic, and therefore at odds often with commodification. (Read Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift for more on this.) We do it because it’s what we really want to do. And for whatever reason, we’ve managed to value doing that higher than we value making it value driven.

Think about how radical a notion that is. Seriously.

For most, the conversation about how to navigate career is so thoroughly dominated by money that it’s almost hard to imagine how deeply strange it is to most people. No one is surprised that a doctor might choose a specialty that pays more, but we often feel guilt about picking a role or working with a company for the same reason. We make our work and then we are dying to give it away. We are inclined (and often do) so whether or not other people want to pay us. We don’t want to choose jobs on solely on income potential but equally (if not more) on artistic merit. The fact that you feel that at all means you have decided to step outside a value system that many people accept as a large guiding path in their entire lives.

And weirdly, because art does live outside of this metric in some ways, I think the oddity of such a thing, the mystery of how art can “charm” people out of this traditional way of thinking, becomes romanticized in its own right. We think about “poor” art as something that must be so enrapturing and enthralling that one would give up money to do it. Even I still bring forth the specter of the young impassioned creator in a terribly tiny apartment and having no money but loving your art so so so much that it’s worth it. This is in the cultural subconscious and it’s something we have to contend with.

But we’re not oblivious. There are tangible ways that money matters: it influences who has power and status, it can give us access to security and education, it feeds and houses us, and can give us cool stuff. Wealth can determine an artist’s path – to pursue art in the best way that the work demands or to make difficult choices about the kinds of personal investment they can leverage or the resources and programs they have access to. Frustratingly, training in the arts is almost always expensive. Compensation in the career is generally not. As creators we don’t want to care about it, but as citizens in this country we see we need it. We don’t want to make our work about the money, but we also don’t want the people we work (or ourselves) with to live in an unhealthful and unsustainable way.

This must be why some parents bitterly resist their children embracing a life in the arts. If you don’t have the experience of the intensity and depth of the artistic practice and experience, of course doing such a thing looks like a waste – like deciding to work at the GAP when you could be saving lives in the medical professional or running a business. Not all artists are poor. But in general, a great painter or theater actor or dancer is not making the same income as a doctor or lawyer. We are indoctrinated early that we do our work for love and not money. We are told ad nauseam by our society that “starving” and “artist” are nearly synonymous.

So as artists, we live daily with some pretty insanely contradictory attitudes and behaviors in relation to money. There are a lot of voices saying that we should want to make a lot of money if we’re good at what we do and there are a lot of voices also saying at the same time that if we are doing this art thing then it must be fulfilling enough to do for it’s own sake.

Take for example the phrase: “Sell out.” What’s your gut reaction to it? Is it good or bad? Well, it all depends on what context you’re looking at.

When you are mounting a new work there is this thing that happens when a show starts to “sell out.” This is true even outside of the self-producer realm, where you actually are counting the dollars that those ticket sales are bringing in. Yes, I’d say even in a straight up “actor for hire setting,” if you’re a “sell out” show there is a sense of accomplishment, of pride, of elevation in your work having reached a certain kind of level. That it’s something people connect to. Even if you receive not a single extra cent for the sold out-ness, it makes you feel better, doesn’t it?

What does that phrase even mean? Literally, that all the seats were bought. But it’s come to roughly equate with artistic quality. If all the seats are bought it must be valuable. And if it’s valuable it must be good or why would so many people pay for it? Conversely, there’s an unspoken pressure that says if a beautiful and amazing production has few buyers that something is wrong it. It’s a value system that isn’t concerned whether a piece happens to have picked a bad time of the year to perform. Or that the subject matter happens to have a smaller audience base but for that base the work is HIGHLY impactful. Or that your 3/4 full houses absolutely LOVE your show compared to the full houses for the work down the street that is merely entertaining enough to spend 20 bucks on. It’s a message that uncomplicatedly says more money equals better art.

Even if you know it’s not true, it’s still working on you somewhere in the back of your mind. So it’s worth sometimes saying out loud, even when it seems obvious, that small houses don’t mean you’re a bad artist. You might be, but the two aren’t necessarily related.

And weirdly, while on the one side we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be financially successful, we also have another voice inside telling us that making art for money is a cop out, a cheapening, a bastardization of the “true” impulse for creation. “Sell out” also has the connotation of the artist that is corrupted by money, who makes their work for financial gain alone and has lost touch with a “real” creative spirit. We tend to romanticize the bohemian life, both from within and outside the profession. It’s also a fallacy, this idea that our work without the pressure of money is “purer,” but it’s equally as potent.

It is strange, no, that the exact same phrase is both an indicator of our highest measure of success as well as a total debasement of the form. It is a frustrating dissonance that an art maker is trying to navigate all the time. And if we aren’t vigilant about what the goal is at a given moment we can end up in a kind of schizophrenic negativity where no matter what we do we’re coming up short.

Look, if we only made the work that made the most money, we’d probably cut out the most ambitious, and personally fulfilling projects. And yet, it’s also true that there are limitations on what’s possible with our work and those limitations are often determined by a project’s bottom line.

There are times I’ve looked back at works I made with a thousand dollars and felt wistful about the “purity” of my choices. I look at that work and think about how I did it just because I loved the art, that it was uncomplicated and “true” (or whatever). But, really, when I’m honest, that’s pretty BS right? The impulse for the work wasn’t actually less complicated by money, I was just making the same kinds of choices about how and where to allocate cash but on a much tinier scale.

I think that as we become more successful, we more obviously have to confront these questions – how does money work in out work, what do I spend it on, what kind of aesthetic am I after and how does cost play into that – but I don’t actually think they are new.  People who want to always spend all the cash on fancy stuff do it when they have a little. They do it when they have a lot. We just notice it more.

And troublingly, I have no good answers here. Just an observation that we, like everyone, have to figure out what standard of living we want and what we are and aren’t willing to do to achieve it. What we can do is not abdicate the decision to others but continue to make it for ourselves. You can argue whether you agree with the way that America equates wealth with success and decide how much you’re willing to let it influence your goals in life. You can create a work environment you believe in and pay people whatever you decide you want to and allow them to make the choice if the monetary recompense is equal to the task. Your project can lose money or knock it out of the cashola park. It can be the best thing your ever made or a total hack job. With every choice there are two assessment tools we need to use – one financial and the other artistic. And it’s up to you to decide which one needs to take precedence at this particular moment.

We don’t want to make money the value on which we measure our creations, so we should be wary of allowing it become an indicator of our success. On the same token, our ability to make work is predicated on the rest of our life being functional enough to keep the artistic part going. Money plays a part in that.

I don’t want money to drive my art making process.

I want to make enough money as an artist to live sustainably.

Two statements.

Two totally different standards of measurement.

So the trick is to remember that they have to be either/or and they don’t have to be correlated directly. They both are like spinning plates that I need to pay attention to in order to keep them in balance. Which might mean a little nudge on one for a while and then run back and push on the other a little.

And my guess is that I’ll always have to keep an eye on that balancing act.

– A