Why Should We Pay Artists More?

There’s an old joke about economists that goes something like this: A chemist, a physicist, and an economist all get stranded on a desert island, and their only food is in tin cans. But they don’t have a can opener. So each according to his specialty comes up with a method to open the cans. The physicist proposes using a lever to catapult the can into a rock, which should cause it to burst open. But then of course the food will be lost. The chemist propose using the corrosive properties of sea water to rust it open, but they’ll starve first. So when it comes to the economist, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Well, let’s assume a can opener….”

Okay, it’s not that funny a joke, I’ll grant you that (what academic humor is?), but the point’s still valid: there’s nothing more useless than a plan based on a useless assumption, which economics sadly has aplenty (witness Real Business Cycle Theory). Start from a faulty premise and what’s your analysis worth?

That thought has been on my mind the last couple weeks as I considered a variety of debates that happen in the arts over funding issues. Every few weeks, it seems, someone’s making some big new claim, provoking a firestorm of responses to the latest Big Idea, yet nothing, it seems, ever changes. There was NEA head Rocco Landesman’s barnstorming at Arena’s New Play fandango where he suggested we have too much art being made and some sorting of wheat from chaff needs to go on. There was playwright Mat Smart’s recent libertarian-esque post (rhetorically rather than politically speaking; you know, make a contrarian-seeming argument that upholds the status quo) contending that the reason playwrights, at least, feel they’re unsuccessful is really a combination of natural talent selection and otherwise laziness. And now there’s the Collective Arts Think Tank’s letter-proposal, complete with officious signatures from prominent artistic directors, with a series of points to make about artists’ compensation.

There are big differences between all of these (plus the many I declined, through either laziness or ignorance, to list, just this year so far), to be sure, in terms of insightfulness, intent, or follow-through. And each has, in its own way, already been subjected to the grilling of the arts blogosphere, leaving trails of responses so long and varied I simply can’t keep up half the time. But as someone who’s been concerned with the process of arts funding, and who writes about and genuinely wants to support meaningful measures to improve the state of the arts, I think it’s important at this point to maybe move beyond the standard opinion-mongering of blogging and take a hard and, hopefully, analytic look at the assumptions we’re all making about what we’re talking about, in the hopes that by considering the ends we want to achieve, we might be able to make some real, palpable decisions about the means by which we’ll achieve them.

Because if there’s one thing the arts has more than enough of, it’s Big Ideas; in terms of meaningful follow-through, though, we’re deeply impoverished. And now is not the time to continue “bitching in bars,” as my friend Paul Mullin likes to put it; the challenges are foundational.

Take the NEA. Predictably, NEA funding has been on Congressional Republicans’ chopping block. Not that everyone cares–one arts think tank manager I spoke to recently bluntly said that the NEA is for all intents and purposes irrelevant to the actual health of the arts insofar as his work was concerned. And given what a small piece of the pie the NEA constitutes, it’s likely true. But what’s alarming isn’t that Republicans want to get rid of it–it’s that liberal writers almost uniformly expressed a lack of concern, because philosophically and politically-speaking, they simply didn’t think public support of the arts was worth the effort, not a necessary intervention by government in a marketplace. Now while that was specifically concerning the issue of defending the NEA, it’s truly alarming to have both political wings arguing at the national level that public investment in the arts is simply unnecessary, unimportant, or not worth the trouble. Because that’s not a specific political issue; that’s guiding political philosophy, and if accepted, it threatens the basis for state and local funding as well, at which point the net has spread far and wide.

At least one–and possibly two–state has eliminated its state-level arts commission. (Sam Brownback carried through with it in Kansas; whether Texas governor Rick Perry has done so I am uncertain.) And then let’s consider private philanthropic giving: as Americans for the Arts’ most recent “Vitality of the Arts” report made clear, the portion of philanthropic giving going to the arts is falling proportionally.

So is this a doomsday scenario? Not remotely, but it is deeply concerning. At the moment, the evidence suggests that the fundamental mechanisms by which the arts in this country have traditionally been supported are undergoing massive changes–in the political sector by an apparently growing consensus that the government needs to stay out of the arts business, and in the private sector by a consensus that arts giving is a lower priority than others. What this likely leaves us with is not the “end of the arts as we know it,” for all that said. As I write this, I’m in New York City, a liberal city in a relatively liberal state that’s unlikely to tolerate a massive de-funding of the arts at any level (though it’s a given that the affects will be felt here). And like other liberal cities, such as Chicago (where Rahm Emmanuel has suggested he’ll be a badly needed ally), San Francisco, or Seattle (where arts funding is facing a still largely misunderstood threat–see Advocate4Culture for more info), in the end, ways will be found. Not only does public support exist for the arts, but all these cities have witnessed the benefit of arts to urban renewal, in terms of the relationship of art, nightlife, and hipsters to gentrification, to name but two reasons that the arts in blue areas aren’t facing the apocalypse.

In short, some areas will find ways to support the arts. Rich people (even conservative ones–liberal bogeyman David Koch, for instance, is a major underwriter of ballet and opera in NYC) will continue to support certain institutions, mainly the prestige ones: museums, major theaters, ballet, opera, the symphony. More progressive or experimental-minded ones will back edgier presenters of contemporary performance. And public and foundation funding, in some capacity, will be found to support “emerging” artists, the common and largely inaccurate term applied to the small companies, independent theater artists, choreographers with pick-up troupes, solo performers, and performance artists, whose creativity and diversity provides the basis for the health of performing arts, and who often rely on a combination of small grants, questionable (at best) labor practices, and collaborative relationships with presenters to make their work.

Everywhere else will suffer. In Texas, for instance, the arts commission has supported the Fusebox Festival. It may not be the primary sponsor, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle. Its elimination is one more blow, one more problem, one more piece of a puzzle that needs to be replaced in a (see above) increasingly hostile environment. Will it be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? No. But how many bales can the poor beast be expected to handle? And that’s really the problem. Jonathan Chait at The New Republic, a commentator whose work I normally really respect, said something I found shockingly naive expressing his opposition to NEA: “I suspect arts subsidies survive because their core constituency is rich and influential. But given that the government only provides 1% of art funding, is it really worth the trouble?”

Someone as smart as Chait normally is should be aware of the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy: If you want art to become the purview of the rich exclusively, art that appeals exclusively to the rich (and silencing the artists who dare poke so much as a bit of fun at an overly-sensitive ass like Koch), then by all means get rid of the pittance you spend supporting the artists unbeholden to the corporate teat. After all, we keep foisting evolution on the Christian right; it’s only fair we give them their gay-hatred and defund anything related to David Wojnarowicz. He only died as part of the AIDS plague that Ronald Reagan did absolutely nothing to…wait. What year is this again? Nevermind. I’m digressing.

The point is, that’s where we stand. The very idea of the arts as a public good is under assault, a last, delayed casualty of the spread of neoliberal economics and a smarmy right throwing morsels to their bloodthirsty base. Like health, quality education, and wages, arts funding will become a purview of the coastal blue states. And even there, it will remain at (likely) similar levels to what it is now: the large institutions reliant on the largesse of the wealthy, small artists dependent on limited funding from diverse sources and deeply exposed to economic shifts, many unable to weather cyclical decreases in available funding pools, resulting in a broad and constantly shifting base.

So, let’s have the discussion the Collective Arts Think Tank wants to have about artists’ compensation for making art. Their proposal(s), more than most of the rest of the issues I mentioned, interested me. This is my beat, after all: Culturebot concentrates on the small artists commissioned or presented by the likes of Dance Theater Workshop, PS 122, and the Chocolate Factory, many (if not most) of whom are under the fiscal umbrella of The Field, and CATT is comprised of the heads of all these organizations. I know these people, I cover the affected artists. So let’s consider artist compensation, and let’s look at our assumptions: Are artists actually under-paid?

Normally when it comes to compensation, some sort of market mechanism is in place to determine the rate of pay. If a skilled worker would be offered more money at Company B than he or she is making at Company A, the worker’s probably going to to Company B. There are other forms of compensation, of course, other than straight wages: health plan, retirement benefits, stock options, all the way down to issues of simple preference of workplace, quality of boss, all kinds of things. But fundamentally, the worker is selling his or her services in exchange for some sort of benefit. A person working at a non-profit makes less than he or she would in the private sector, but the person chooses to decline higher wages in exchange for doing something they care about. Likewise, many younger people choose to take low-compensation jobs in order to get experience or the prestige working for such and such a company carries, from low-pay entry level gig all the way down to the unpaid internship.

The trickier problem comes with unskilled labor–McDonald’s, for instance, or Wal-Mart. These jobs require little skill or experience, which pushes down wages because, of course, anyone could do them. In that case, socially we choose to intrude on the existing market mechanism that’s pushing down those wages by instituting a minimum wage. This is a moral choice. Legally, society establishes (or tries to establish) a base-line minimum that we believe people should be paid at.

So are artists actually underpaid? Based on the market mechanism, the answer is obviously no. If the artists really weren’t being paid enough to bother making work, they wouldn’t be making work. And this seemingly simple point, that’s rarely made, is actually extremely important. Let’s not beat around the bush: the point here isn’t that the market demands artists should be paid more, the point is that many people in the arts believe that artists should be better compensated. In a sense, the entire supply-demand issue is deeply misguided. Aside from Broadway and the relatively small amount of purely commercial theater produced in America, most performing arts are dependent on non-sales-based funding; that’s why a hit season with several extended runs or critical acclaim for the shows being produced often has nothing to do with the financial health of a large regional theater, because only a small portion of their budget actually comes from selling tickets to a show.

And to be fair, Landesman seemed to grasp this on some level when he made his comments in the first place–his point wasn’t so much that too much art is being made, his point was that given a lack of real demand for the art that is being made, we can of course simply make a moral choice to support other forms of art. He referenced local and community focused work, which may or may not be more in demand from the local public, but from beginning to end, the heart of his critique was to suggest that we should stop deluding ourselves into believing that we’re doing something other than making a top-down set of decisions about what sort of art is made. It’s the funders and producers who choose what we get to see, not an actual market demand, and they could just as easily decide to supply something else by using their money in different ways.

So let’s not kid ourselves: there’s no reason we have to pay artists more. Some people just happen to believe that we should. And if it was a consequence-free choice, I’d say it’s great, let’s do it. But again, as I’ve already been at pains to point out, the pool of money for the arts is finite and, in the short term, shrinking. So it’s not consequence free–more money spent in one place means less in another. And we, as a community, need to be concerned about that reality. As the CATT paper makes clear, at least at PS 122, higher wages are being afforded by producing less work. It’s not about “paying artists more,” then, it’s about paying the artists that PS 122 wants to hire more. For all its officiousness and seemingly economic analysis, the CATT paper really amounts to little but a justification for the status quo. The curators and gate-keepers who wrote it have made an argument that supports the decision-making they already do, which I have no problem with. I do, however, have a bit of a problem with these people portraying what they do as purely based in the realities of a capitalist marketplace, going so far as to discourage artists from making work outside of their respective institutions. Artists have no obligation whatsoever not to compete for ticket sales with DTW or the Chocolate Factory. And what’s more, I’d point out that in an actual marketplace, having the heads of three institutions getting together to, as a group, discuss how they compensate artists would amount to price-fixing. Theoretically, after all, the Chocolate Factory is in competition with PS 122 (by way of example), and should, theoretically, be forced to offer a better price to the artists it programs if it wants them at the Chocolate Factory rather than at PS.

So where does all this leave us? Actually, the point I’m trying to get to is that for all talk of supply and demand, underpayment, all that, in reality, the disbursement of money in the performing arts is always serving to generate the creation of certain sorts of work for which an insufficient market demand exists to produce the work on its own. So no matter how appealing the idea of paying artists more might seem, the real question is always: what sort of art do we want? Increasing payments to certain artists deprives others of opportunities. Should we try to pay playwrights who are hitting their stride more for their work, or should we channel that money to creating new opportunities for playwrights just starting out to produce their work? Should we invest heavily in “mid-career” artists (whatever that means these days), choreographers, say, who are reasonably established and could easily supplement their income through teaching, for instance, or should we create more small commissions for younger choreographers who need a chance to pursue the sort of sophisticated and complex project that’s prohibitively expensive for young artists?

In short, what I’m getting around to is what Andy Horwitz usually says when we chat about these sorts of issues: that we get so caught up in the economics of it, we lose all sight of what’s actually important–the work itself. And I for one find it deeply ironic that the larger arts community so often readily embraces ideas that seem to do nothing but reinforce the status quo by placing ever more power in the hands of cultural gatekeepers. Let the NEA declare we have too much art. Let artistic directors program less and pay more to those they do. It’s akin to the lower-class’s embrace of anti-tax policies that benefit the rich: people act to ensure the benefits keep flowing to the luckiest few in the hope that they will some day be one of those few.

I for one tend to think that casting a wider net is more important than ever. Until someone can suggest a realistic plan to make art a “career” for more performance people, a job that actually pays all of their bills and supports a reasonably middle-class lifestyle, I think that we’re deluding ourselves by believing that nominally better compensation is where the limited funds available to us should be going, rather than supporting the creation of more work. Again, economics would call this a “revealed preference”: for whatever reason, we already know, by their willingness to work for little or nothing, that artists believe the value of producing work, in some capacity, makes up for the low level of financial compensation. And that’s what we should be supporting: the work.

What does that mean? Well, I personally have my preferences, which I’m more than happy to share. But in general, what I think should happen is that the conversation should shift towards discussing what sort of things deserve support. And this, I think, does represent a fundamental shift. The arts, as I already said, loves Big Ideas, and the biggest one, and the one most rarely critiqued, is the very idea of the “arts.” Even in the world of theater, we’re all too ready to lump avant-garde devised work together with traditional production companies on up to LORT theaters and the most prominent Off-Broadway houses, as though the health of the Public and Nature Theater of Oklahoma were somehow tied together, when in fact they’re not. LORT theaters, I personally think, should be increasingly denied limited public funds; few if any of them have a real claim to risk-taking, and should therefore be seen more as a commercial venture and expected to survive without taking public funds. Today, few are really dependent on public funds anyway, and a $25,000 grant to an org with a $3 million operating budget could be better spent by supporting small, emerging artists.

Of course, the regional theaters could very easily reclaim some of their moral standing by choosing, finally, to see themselves as part of a local arts ecology. I’ve long argued that canceling one show a year and using that money to support residencies or new play festivals or a small experimental theater project under their umbrella is not too much to ask. As for the more experimental forms of work I normally cover, I think we should take a hard look at where funding is going already. The structural reality of arts funding already benefits established artists–creating more residency, training, and presenting opportunities for emerging artists is crucial. Their access to funds is the most rapidly shrinking of any sector’s, and if we think about the health of the art forms we’re concerned with, we have to support these artists. They’re the future.

The relevance of the form, the capacity for art to be a meaningful component of the larger social discourse, rests on them. Money is wasted not by spending a small amount to support the more often than not failures of young artists, it’s wasted on continuing to fund mid- and late-career artists who command a large share of the pie disproportionate to the actual quality of the work. And please don’t misunderstand, that’s not all established artists, that’s merely me acknowledging what we all already know: the getting money in the arts is a game, and it rewards those who know how to play it, not necessarily those whose work is most deserving.

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