The Digest: March 23, 2011

Irish Modern Dance Theater's "Fall and Recover" at La MaMa.

They forgot to mention a tip jar: Last week, on March 17, a group called the Collective Arts Think Tank, consisting of the directors of PS122, DTW, the Chocolate Factory, the Field, and others, released a letter addressed to the community regarding the results of a year-long endeavor try to re-think how artists are compensated for their work. The entire thing is certainly interesting and worth reading, particularly because the people involved actually put some actions behind their big ideas (a rare enough thing to see), and I think we here at Culturebot will be returning to it in the near future. But that said, for as much as I appreciate their efforts, I’m going to have to dissent from a fair bit of what they have to say, particularly big statements like: “Art is a profession; and artists who do not get paid are not professionals. Period.”

Actually, I have trouble imagining how artists actually are professionals, rather than amateurs (in the Olympic athlete sense). Looking over how the various presenters are trying to offer more money to artists reveals a ridiculously low rate of pay. As PS122, this includes $450 per week before opening (for a 40-hour week) and $250 during the run. I’m not criticizing them for the amount they’re paying, it’s just that by no stretch of the imagination is $11.25 an hour actually fair compensation for an artist. Your “job” is always a transaction: you exchange your labor for a certain benefit. Artists accept less money for a reason, and there other economic exchanges occurring simultaneously to simply being paid. The signatories of the letter are certainly correct when they note that we are all “creating an ecosystem that has as its foundation labor paid for by unrecognized sources from outside of the ‘Arts Sector’ [i.e., people’s day jobs],” but it’s a stretch to describe that situation as “undervaluing the artists and their product.”

In the broader sense, that suggests that the only “value” the product has is its commercial value, which is obviously quite low; in the narrower sense of this being written by commissioning presenters, I suppose that means they think they should have been paying more. However, they don’t exactly address whether it’s an issue of they should have or could have. And considering that at PS122, for instance, higher commissions and fees are being paid for by reducing the number of commissions by 15 percent, I think we have our answer.

The point is, looking at this critically, what I see is a general sense that artists aren’t compensated properly. Fair enough, but without an existing market mechanism to determine what the level of pay should be, you have artistic curators essentially deciding to do their best to nominally increase payments by decreasing other cost outlays. In practice, what that means is that if Vallejo Gantner, say, likes your work, you’ll get paid a bit more; if he doesn’t, you will in fact have less opportunity to get produced and develop your career because PS122 is producing fewer shows. And nowhere does this address the very complex commissioning process used to support big new shows, often through simultaneous commissions throughout the US tour circuit, as documented by Alyssa Alpine previously at Culturebot.

We just wanted to make sure we weren’t the ones who tortured them: The Journal has an article on the travails international artists face getting visas to perform in the US, concentrating on Irish Modern Dance Theater‘s Fall and Recover, which was meant to open last week at La MaMa but couldn’t due to visa delays (the show now opens Friday). The piece is a collaboration between members of the company and torture survivors who received asylum in Ireland, and I’ve been mulling over snarky headlines directed at the State Department for a couple weeks now. But the Journal article is a must-read just to get an idea of the insane BS artists go through. Here’s my favorite tidbit, from the Citizen and Immigration Service’s (USCIS, part of Homeland Security) review questioning IMDT’s visa applications: “Given the multi-ethnic composition of the group and the universal subject matter of the work to be performed, USCIS is unsure whether the term ‘cultural’ applies in this case.”

So “multi-ethnic” and “universal” subjects don’t count as “culture”? Apparently, America has no culture.

Tempest in a bloggy teapot: Oh, how I love the interwebs for their debates! Really I do, and I love taking part in some of them. Other times, well…I hope people have started to notice my generally sneering disregard for “big ideas.” Case in point: poor playwright Mat Smart, who dared write the piece “The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail.” TONY‘s Upstaged blog has a nice round-up, but here it is in short: Smart argues that “we’re fucking lazy.” The post is, as Isaac Butler well summarizes, “supposedly provocative” but really just “a lot of reinforcement of institutional thinking disguised as Bold Contrarian Truth Telling.”

Arturo Vidich's "Body Island," March 24 at Abrons Arts Center.

The trick is that as Helen Shaw rather sagely pointed out in Upstaged, Sharp’s post was really just saying that success is often a matter of hard work, and that many playwrights (and generally other artists) conflate personal challenges with institutional woes. Of course, he says this rather poorly, and his critics are generally right to point out that, indeed, there are institutional issues which need to be addressed. Desperately. In cases like this, I like to point people to my friend Paul Mullin, a Seattle-based playwright, who has written extensively about what it would take to make Seattle a world class theater town. His critiques and punchy but very smart, and he does (I believe) a good job separating personal challenges from legitimate structural issues.

Odds & Ends: Marc Kirschner of TenduTV discusses social media policy in the arts – Modern dance and ballet come to Abu Dhabi – our pal Zachary Whittenberg on three choreographers bringing politically engaged dance to the Chicago stage – our London chums at Belly Flop magazine wonder if artists actually like sports as London prepares for the Olympics – East of Borneo has a marvelous piece on the films of William Leavitt – and don’t forget that Arturo Vidich’s Body Island goes down tomorrow at Abrons Arts Center.

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