Working It

This article in the Chicago Tribune (originally it published on January 13) ran with the headline “Study on pay: Working in arts is labor of love”. I read about it in the Arts Newsletter when the headline “Study: Arts Workers Pay Sucks (The Details)” grabbed my attention. As some loyal Culturebot leaders may recall, I’ve long been campaigning for the increased use of the term “Art Worker”, and was glad to see it used in this context. From my request for Art Worker Horror Stories back in May, to my October post elaborating the reasons for my advocacy, I’ve tried to push the idea that people who make art are workers, as are the administrators, techies, house management and everybody else.

If you’ve ever watched the TV show The West Wing, you’ve heard them say something along the lines of “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” Well, almost everybody in the non-profit arts world serves at the pleasure of the donors. It’s called non-profit for a reason. And in many ways it is a great system. Donors give money to help artists make art and they don’t expect a financial return on their investment. Super. The problem is that the existing giving structures require a successful arts organization to maintain a large, complicated network of donors, many of whom exist outside the artists’ world. Especially in a place like New York, with an insane cost of living, the only people that can successfully – or comfortably – straddle the worlds of funders and artists, are people who come from the world of funders but live in the world of artists. And since they come from that world, they can subsist on low wages because they have other forms of income or cost-of-living subsidies from other sources. One could even conjecture that in some ways, to certain people, the wages paid by arts organizations are symbolic, rather than practical.

Which is fine, except that there are many people who come to the arts without the advantage of outside income or cost-of-living subsidies from outside sources. Many people work in the arts because they love the arts, and they still depend on their income to actually cover the basic necessities.

There is a very complicated dynamic at play in terms of why arts wages are low. Part of it is because there’s no chance of profit. Maybe part of it is that the arts are percieved, in some people’s eyes, as women’s work (except the prestigious high-profile positions) and thus subject to the same wage bias as support professionals everywhere. Maybe the arts, and particuarly funding, is seen as a hobby of the wealthy. One way or another, eventually, if arts organizations really want to succeed, stay healthy and vibrant and stay culturally relevant, they will have to find a way to retain innovative Arts Workers. In a different world maybe the government would help. Maybe there would be a housing subsidy or a tax credit or an education credit. Maybe, if the arts (and education and all the other trademarks of a civilized, enlightened society) were valued in our culture, there would be systems in place to affirm that. But as it is, we’re stuck with an imperfect system.

That being said, artists and arts administrators, funders, arts organizations and everyone else who believes in the importance of the Arts, who believes that creativity and expression are vital to the health and well-being of an enlightened and progressive society, need to engage in constant dialogue. We need to find ways to address the conditions in which art is made, the way we advocate for the arts in the larger culture and the ways in which we relate to one another. Too often the artist/funder dance is one of co-dependence, each one trying to figure out what the other one needs or wants, trying to gain approval, trying to stick to appearances and not ruffle feathers. Because of the unspoken rules of conduct, we’ve seen resentful artists try and work the system and we’ve seen funders throw up their hands in despair.

Eventually, everybody who is a part of this thing is going to have to sit down and take a good long look at what really works and what doesn’t. We’re in a new era and things are shifting. It may be time to at least reassess our models.

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