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.

20 thoughts on “Why Should We Pay Artists More?”

  1. Omar Willey says:

    Well put. We’ve been proceeding from the most absurd presumptions about “art” and the “arts” for a long time. I became aware of this quite some time ago, in the 90s, when my own city arts commission put it on their books that they would not fund any film projects that were fictional features. The assumption, I suppose, is that any fictional feature is inherently commercial. I am sure Larry Jordan, Stan Brakhage, Su Friedrich and others would find that amusing–but of course this arts commission had probably never heard of them.

    One unspoken factor in the whole picture of “arts” funding is that a more than passing interest our federal government has had in funding the arts has been as a weapon of ideological warfare–witness the CIA involvement with Abstract Expressionism–and there is no longer any immediately identifiable ideological foe against whom we can compare our arts. If one views the arts as part of a campaign of our Warfare State against the heathens, then part of the issue becomes the effectiveness of the weapon. Our military at this moment hasn’t found a use for the weaponry. But people often too easily assume that the funding of the arts occurs because of a national belief in the value of artworks as cultural enrichment etc. I think this is not so great a factor in the equation as people assume.

  2. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Thanks Mel–I generally agree with some of the points you make, particularly vis-a-vis the demands on mid-career artists whose midcareer commissions in effect subsidize their early career work. This is part of the problem I'm trying to talk about.

    But more generally, what Andy and I are both trying to raise is the issue of is the implicit assumptions about the work being made. Discussions of how to fund and where money goes more often than not assume that the artists who will receive the money deserve it. But why? Within your example above, you suggest that the a mid-career artist has different sorts of support needs that should be addressed–child care being one. The presumes that because the artist has made it to this stage, efforts should be taken to meet those needs to support the artist's continuing efforts. But of course not all artists who reach that stage of their career will have access to continuing funds. Some will be swamped with the debt they may incur early on their careers (I know an artist or two who've run up thousands in credit card debt financial productions, for instance, making up the difference beyond grants).

    What interests me is that I think we need to have conversations about which people get that money. Again, if it was not a finite resource, I wouldn't have any complaints. But it is a finite resource, and so to view funding issues to the exclusion of programming choices seems misguided. It presumes that the current decisionmakers are always choosing to support the art that is most vital, most beneficial to the long-term health of the form, the work, that is, which is most deserving of support. I'm not sure that's an entirely accurate presumption. I'm not one to go around complaining about curators, for instance, but grant panels and foundations? I'm not sure I do agree with their choices.

    What I see happening not infrequently is that the artists most capable of managing the bureaucracy of funding get the resources, rather than the most urgent or vital work. And this is a structural issue, causing younger artists to invest heavily early in their careers in expectation of a payoff at a later date which somehow helps establish them. It's akin to saddling college students with tons of debt under the assumption that by their thirties, they'll be better off. But nothing in the arts being easy, more than a few who do reach a more established stage will not be successful because the payoff is so low compared to the investment, and furthermore even more artists will simply give up, quit, or shift to other practices because they have not, in effect, been anointed by the gatekeepers as worthy of continued support.

    There's all sorts of assumptions being made here. One, that there's little reason to be concerned about the sacrifices made by young artists nor the long-term consequences of them. Two, that middle-aged artists who've not received substantial interest from funders and presenters should perhaps just quit, which–as a critic–I find deeply troublesome, because this seems to largely perpetuate a system that inherently favors the young and the new over the potential increased sophistication that age and experience brings. (We fetishize newness but wait a while before we invest in it…what kind of system is that?) And three, that the existing funding system's structure is somehow "fair" or efficient at distributing resources to support the most vital work, rather than the artists seen as most deserving.

    In all cases, I would say that we seem to impoverish innovation and reward those who stick around long enough and most meet our expectations. I'm not sure that in the current environment that's a wise move. What I think will happen is that increased competition for limited resources will continue shifting more of the limited rewards to artists whose work is either past its prime (paying them back, in other words, after the fact) or simply better bureaucrats.

    The point is that simply looking at the challenges artists face and coming up with hackneyed solutions isn't good for the art. And that, in turn, isn't good for the artists.

    1. Mel Lee says:

      Hi Jeremy — indeed, agreed, glad to hear more of your POV. I finally read the CATT. I hear the struggle of validation that artists have through work, friends, the community, my inner voice, and just watched the Academy-nominated "Exit Through the GIft Shop," which clearly demonstrates how the market of art as a vehicle for collective public desire and in that sense of public good, does not necessarily reward financially commensurate to "worth" — or is artistic worth as much as pop-cultural sociological worth? I'm not sure about this discussion of "worth". But here's how I'm hearing it:
      — (a) Funding Priorities
      — (b) National Interest
      —-(c) "Artistic Merit" or "Worthwhileness" — very, very subjective
      —-(d) "Artistic Integrity" (does the artist follow a principled logic, whether according to careerist or market demands [product – price – placement – legacy], identity, belief, art history, some other system of belief or representation — and does this logic enable innovation)

      I used to be of the mindset that lusted after European style support systems for (performance) art, but I'm reminded that the complicity in such systems is often a history of socialist propaganda infrastructure, and reading the comments below am further reminded that the U.S. government's lack of strategic interest in American art (vis-a-vis competitive sports for example) might actually be healthy for it (if the alternative were intrusive or propagandistic intervention, and albeit that the existing system can be seen to be a maladaptive political behavior).

      So what actions / suggestions within the realm of democratic community procedure are there to address Funding Priorities, Sustainability and Innovation in the arts from the arts industry itself? Well there are issues of taste, or what can be considered merit, but is merit antithetical to an idea of risk, well whatever. Like your argument that the market cannot be underpaying if there is still greater supply of than demand for art makers, then a corollary argument might be that should a mediocre/"bad"/boring/past prime artist retain in the industry making art and be rewarded for their tenure from presenters, funders and audiences to do so, as "good business" or otherwise, then the market is fulfilling itself. The failure is likely less managerial/distributive than it is cultural — a lack of common vision of the role of the established artist in society, what they represent and to whom, how choice making changes and how it doesn't. One would think the wheat magically falls from the chaff, but as something to love and hate about this country in particular, in America even the corn and the grain get special subsidies to feed private profit.

      I'd like to therefore return to the question of addressing "human rights" in the ways that the arts industry within itself can — conditions of labor, healthcare, institutional infrastructure to accommodate childcare support or critical injury — what more? I understand, I think, why CATT was written in the way it was — and I do believe in the general onus of simply "be better with your budgets"! See what you're doing as contractual agreement. Stop junking up the system. Be a better entrepreneur. I think that's all valid in principle, and really the last point on creative entrepreneurship being the strongest thing we've got to go on in the culture wars.

      But particularly in the realm of experimental arts, nationally acclaimed award winners work at cafes and restaurants and offices and as teachers and more. The financial validation bar we know is pretty low, which one may think is fine when it's "just you", but it's never that and the spread of low wages across the board is demoralizing. And while these roles in society are sometimes very good for art and artists — places to meet potential patrons and to network vertically, places to ground artistic vision in an audience's reality — they are exhausting and often compromise the freedom for thought leadership.

      Ultimately, I've heard it said that the non-profit model as a whole isn't working for artists, rather than maybe artists not knowing their own worth–the non-profit model sets the assumption that breaking even is the goal, that if you are not a private foundation making distributions then your received contributions only need to cover your "charitable activities" and not the development of any investment portfolio or endowment.

      So what can we do about these things? What kinds of workshops or software or advisors or spatial support infrastructure can be offered?

      1. Mel Lee says:

        Sorry sorry, in much simpler terms what I'm saying is
        if deservingness is too complex and ancient a problem to solve
        then i wonder if accessibility to resources not just their distribution is something to talk about.
        Finally, in light of the question of "how funders fund", if you make a mock panel and run a certain kind of points-based system, the rule of averages trumps extreme tastes. A mathematical problem. CATT's a good step towards industry-wide transparency, and there could be too then for the grants panel system (and I assume the investment of funding bodies into refining them?).

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  5. Jeremy says:

    Wow – great (and long!) article.
    Interesting use of economics ideas, as well. I would suggest that the supply of performing arts is relatively inelastic because artists usually don't create their work for a paycheck. They're more motivated by a particular idea or original concept that they want to realize rather than relying on a particular funding source. As a result, many artists (myself included) work other jobs to subsidize their art projects because they want to make them happen, whether there is financial support or not. I think that to get really a lot of really phenomenal artworks, you need to have more full-time artists who don't have to work so much on their other non-art jobs so that they can really focus on honing their craft. Personally, I can never see myself making a sustainable living from just the performing arts and, as a result, I'm basically stuck doing other work to underwrite my artistic goals. It's frustrating, but if you care enough about what you are doing, then you'll keep doing it regardless of pay.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Totally agreed on the supply inelasticity! It's true. As for the question of full-time artists, though…I want to agree. I also would like to see some real evidence though that such a situation has ever existed in the US. I like CATT for trying to de-romanticize the shit artists go through…but I also do sometimes wonder if the professionalization of the arts and the rise of a "cultural class" or some other David Brooks sounding crap I hate using but will anyway, I wonder if that isn't sometimes a problem by limiting artists' exposure to other experiences and leaving them stuck in a sort of blackbox, where they're primarily creating work for other people with a similar background, creating closed, homogeneous worlds. As a white collar office worker in my day job, for instance, I can safely say that there's only one show I've seen in the last ten years that was a remotely accurate representation of the absurdities of being an office worker. And it was a weird performance piece, not even a straight play like you might expect. And I think that's just because most artists don't wind up working at tech companies. And if that's the case, how are they ever going to make work that's a meaningful representation or exploration of my experience?

  6. Stephen says:

    Thorough and commendable take down. Count me as a fan. But I would also like to suggest that your argument leads me to think that the CATT paper ultimately reveals a form of Stockholm syndrome in that it chooses to embrace without question a purely economic (ie, political) argument which basically hews to the grand neoliberal project to reframe all public discourse in purely economic terms. I think much of the discourse on 'the state of the field' (a corrupt term on it's face to begin with) is basically a symptom of a larger cultural virus that seeks to cast all the aspects of our lives in economic terms, the end result of which is the hegemony of capital.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      I think you have a very good point, on a level just above what I'm talking about. It is very symptomatic of a society that primarily values things in terms of straight up money to give up on the idea of, say, the arts as a public good. It's not even an issue of capitalism per se–plenty of capitalist societies fund all kinds of other efforts because they embrace the idea that government sometimes exists not just to set baselines or guide the economy, but you, to actually do something to create a society that people want. It amazes me that some liberal writers hemmed and hawed over whether the arts market had "failed" and thus justified a government intervention. It's just…weird. It sets the terms of the debate in a way that the arts, I don't think, will ever win.

      So I guess in general blah blah blah let's all stand up and try to convince the electorate and the political class that we should believe in things and do them because we believe in them and all that jazz. Or, as Omar sagely points out, let's hope Al Qaeda starts producing theater and chess champions like the Soviets did so that the government will step to pay us just to show 'em what-for,

      Practically speaking, though, I'm glad my point carried. You can, using economic theory, make sense of the arts just like any other field of human behavior, but let's not pretend that it's fundamentally just a "job." Artists clearly aren't making work in the expectation of great compensation (unless they really don't know anything or are working in a potentially commercial form, i.e., popular music, making indie rock a poor comparison to theater or dance). If we can all at least comes to terms with the fact that we have a finite resource pool that we have to divvy up in such a manner as to support the continued creation of valuable work, we can actually talk about what sort of structural realities we need to respond to. But to simple accept the argument that art is primarily a vocation, that artists should not work for less than they believe they're worth, and on top of that to define it in such ridiculously low terms…come on.

  7. Aaron Landsman says:


    Thanks for contributing to the dialogue. As an "officious" signatory of CATT, I would like to take issue with a couple of points you're trying to make (or that I think you're trying to make, as I find it hard to tell).

    The first is the idea that we are strictly a collective of "gatekeepers." I'm a working, self-employed artist. I make my living by performing and making theater and by teaching and some freelance work. So your assertion about who we are is simply incorrect. Perhaps the officiousness of our signatures deterred you from doing a good job of reading the piece. Jennifer Cook (also a performer) runs The Field, where there is nary a gate in site. Morgan Pecelli is also an artist and independent administrator; Brian Rogers makes work as well as curates, and Sheila both performs and administrates. We wrote the piece together, as we did our last post, to ask the question of what 'professional' means, how we can all be paid better, and how we can all be more transparent about the financial realities we all face, in different ways, at different institutions and in our lives.

    Radical transparency about finances is something our market-driven culture frowns on, so one of the reasons I was willing to make myself vulnerable here in that way was to try and set an example of possible collective knowledge-sharing.

    Of course, none of us feel that economics should be the only barometer of art's worth. But it's sometimes a great mirror to hold up. And becoming more financially savvy, more aware of the way money drives us whether we like it or not, more open with our books, is not the same as judging the entire field by economic metrics alone.

    Ignorance about money, and pontificating about money, and a lack of ambition around money, is becoming the arts community's undoing. For instance, your idea that more established choreographers can "easily" get teaching jobs belies straight up lack of knowledge. Tenure track jobs tend only to be available to a very few; adjunct gigs pay about what table waiting does, at least in NYC. Please know that when you become "established" as an artist, most of what you establish is a chance to lose more money than you did when you were emerging. The answer is not to rehash the endless argument about who more deserves the tiny piddle of money the field has in store. it's about making the numbers clear as a first step to getting paid better.

    I think the point I need to reiterate from our post is that there is a chain of events in play all the time, at every level of the career ladder, affecting artists and organizations of all stripes, in which willful or helpless ignorance about money is hobbling the work and the people making it. And I think it's up to us to address that ignorance in as many ways as we can think of. As long as it falls back to an us-versus-them (gatekeepers versus gateknockers, Nike versus Addidas, mid-career versus emerging) no one will move forward meaningfully.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Aaron–First off, I'm not trying to be combative, so let's please get beyond that. I know you're an artist, and I know what the Field does. And in general, I agree that (a) transparency is good, and (b) being cognizant about the financial issues involved is important on many levels, and in the arts, that's often a failing.

      However, my point is actually pretty simple if long: arts funding cannot be divorced from the question of what art gets supported and what does not. All plans that fail to address this fundamental point aren't going to go anywhere, which is precisely why i brought in the concept of gatekeepers. I don't think your intent was to suggest that the only value of art is its financial value as a product, but you went well beyond simply talking about transparency to make a number of claims, including saying that artists should make less in art in some circumstances and that you are only a professional if you're receiving compensation. I disagree with the first on principle because you fail to demonstrate why that's actually valuable (would reducing supply actually make other art sustainable?) and on the second point, it's quibbling: technically true (if by professional you mean someone who's paid) but sort of irrelevant to the value of the product. It shifts the discussion from the work to the maker, and while I'm totally in favor of artists being better compensated and supported, again, if we're dealing with a finite pool of money, then perhaps the assumption that "professional" is a status more people should achieve is actually the problem. If it's not feasible or sustainable in a practicable manner, which the CATT paper fails to demonstrate it is, then perhaps your assumptions are simply wrong.

      1. Aaron says:

        I don't buy that you're not trying to be combative, and I don't think there is anything wrong with a bit of combat when we all clearly care very much about the issues. You referred to our signatures as "officious" and lumped us all together as prominent artistic directors – what's not combative about that?

        I think the point of our letter was provocation – to ask what makes us professional (and by raising that question, ask how we fit into the broader fabric of American culture), and to point out some ways that some of the ideas we carry about professionalism are perhaps detrimental to the field. That's supposed to provoke combativeness. You've played right into our gatekeeping scheme!

        I am not sure we're dealing with a finite pool of money. There is a finite pool of grant money, surely, but not necessarily actual money in the field. But that's maybe another story.

        I do think it's better to make work that can be paid for and not publicly present work that can't be paid for. I see artists and organizations who make less work and devote more resources to that work (I'm thinking of ERS, and Soho Rep off the top of my head) coming out ahead. I see the demand for that work increasing and the quality of the work going up. I see so many emerging artists burn out because they believe that to be "professional" they have to show a piece every year by any means necessary. And funders and presenters go along with it because it's convenient.

        For me, this has been a matter of necessity. As an emerging artist i ran up debt. As a father in his 40s, married to another independent artist, and someone trying to establish himself more viably in the world so that I can effect good things here, I can't do that any more. So I make fewer shows, I sacrifice some measure of recognition for the ability to pay for health insurance via other work. I turn down some gigs because they would cost too much to do. It also means that when I do get to do a piece, I am that much more invested in it – financially, emotionally, and ethically.

        A bottom line for me is that artists get smarter about money and then make their own choices. I know so few artists who know what their work costs them to make and so few presenters who are willing to take a look at what the work costs. Starting with a better sense of reality I'm sure is something anyone could agree would make us all better off.

        1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

          Totally agreed that starting from a better sense of reality is important. And again, generally I agree with all the sentiments, my issue from beginning to end really is that there are reasons this is happening, and what I didn't see the CATT paper doing was addressing them. You're not a programmer or commissioner, okay–let's talk about the three theaters represented that are. With the possible exclusion of DTW, which actually has developmental tracks (and is otherwise prevented by the entire NYLA thing from actually knowing what it's going to be like in the short or long term), what;s not being addressed is how people like Brian and Sheila and Carla and Vallejo will actually find and determine who to commission outside a system in which artists have to cover their own costs in order to establish themselves. You're in a slightly different boat, which is why I didn't address most of the response to you. If believe and can better compensate and more sustainably manage your own artistic production, great! If it serves as an example for others, likewise. But if I was an artist in this field starting out and wanting to be at PS122 or DTW or Chocolate Factory, and the heads of those institutions just told me not to make work unless I was properly funded, I'd be like, okay, well, no one's going to give me money at this point so what should I do? And I really do not see how that issue has been addressed, which is why I tried to apply a sort of economic understanding to it, which establishes that at any moment, the artist is making a complex economic calculation of current and future benefits when they invest their time and money into a project. The art and money sides are not mutually exclusive, they both constitute some sort of benefit to the artist, who wants to make art and would like to be compensated and supported in doing so. Realistically, I think that the actual issue isn't to say that "you should never make work unless you receive some sort of relevant compensation," it's "you need to determine how much, realistically, you want to invest in this based on what you expect to get out of it," or just plain, "how much is too much?" The CATT paper doesn't do that, and any artist below the level of being programmed by those institutions (or who hasn;t achieved your level of accomplishment to be competitive for grant money) is just being told to stop. And I'd point out that if you've had to run up debt financing yourself to reach your level of accomplishment and competitiveness, that's actually a sign that the system of accepting part of the cost works, if people want to wind up in your shoes. So maybe part of what you should publicly address is the question of, was it worth it? Was there another way? At what point should you have moved toward the model you're using now? It's not exactly an enforcement mechanism or a broad statement of intent, but forcing artists at earlier stages of their careers to ask meaningful questions about how much is worth investing in themselves and their careers actually does provide some really important information and helps them make better informed decisions.

          1. Aaron says:

            That is a great question I wish more artists asked themselves – how much is worth investing and when. My own sense is there are points along the way, at various stages, when you have to invest on your own, as anyone operating entrepreneurially would.

            I was thinking as I have read over a lot of the stuff that is being posted here and elsewhere is that we often conflate cost with value. (This is maybe separate from the main topic we're talking about now now). People think that if an institution is offering a particular presenting fee, for instance, that ought to be what it costs to make. In fact, that fee is just a measure of value or available resources. And so I think all of us at CATT are really about saying learn what the work costs before you enter into an agreement with anyone because if you don't you'll end up letting them determine value and you'll be stuck with the cost.

            Maybe the part of the statement you took issue with will make enough people mad enough to actually do good budgets? Who knows.

            I know for me that the the idea that a paper like ours would discourage very new artists from doing work doesn't jibe with my experience. I started making work in 1993. People were always saying discouraging things about me, my collaborators, my generation, the state of the field, etc. They were not returning calls or emails (or back in the day, faxes), they were underpaying and so on. Rejection is hard but everyone has to bear it. I think if my 1994 self had read CATT's statement, I'd hope to be called to arms.

            And I do remember back then going, wow, such and such artists is taking all the funding, but they're so well supported already! And then I saw one of said such-and-such's at a show and he had, literally, taped his winter boots together because he couldn't afford the new ones yet. And I was like, "oh." And I also stopped worrying about whichever curators or producers liked or didn't like me at a certain point. I just got the work done by finding the people who could help. Sometimes it was someone who had extra space in an office, sometimes it was someone who had a little gate.

            I really think that if we advocate for one versus another part of the sector getting or not getting what's out there we miss the larger mission: the whole sector needs money. The whole of the US public sector needs money. Our allies are anyone who believes in public education, creativity, roads, transportation, or any other kind of infrastructure. The more we continue fighting ourselves for the crumbs, the more the terrorists (in this case the far right) have won.

            Anyway, has the system worked in my case? Hmmm…I don't know that I can weigh in on that yet. I do know that as my projects become more competitive, the budgets become larger than the grants or other funding I'm likely to get. I'm competitive but so are a lot of people. So there is a chance the debt cycle won't stop, or I'll keep subsidizing the work through other work.

            One of the most harrowing but helpful lessons I learned about the funding pool was when I got to be a notetaker at Creative Capital for one of their panels. What was totally clear, besides the fact that artists at all points in their career need support, was that there were more worthy projects than there was money in the pot. So, Creative Capital gives out 20 grants in live performance? There were at least 35 projects that everyone at the table wanted to fund based on the work's merit. They narrowed it down because they had to, through whatever tiny differences they could find. I think that experience informed my future thinking a lot – and it informs what I'm contributing to the CATT post. It's a way of saying, we don't know the answers, but the numbers don't add up. Maybe taking longer and producing better is part of what we can do.

            I feel like Carla, Brian, Sheila and Vallejo are trying to wrap their minds around a dynamic they participate in, in a very engaging way. I also think they are all incredibly serious about knowing the field they work in, not just the field as it is sanctioned by established venues or funds, but the field as it is popping up in the nooks and crannies of everywhere.

          2. Mel Lee says:

            Hi Aaron, Jeremy, everyone —

            Just want to point out conversations and actions related to this thread that are occurring, which you've probably seen but I figure bears connecting to here:

            Wall Street Journal article and powerful comments (Kevin Cunningham, Kate Peila, others) on efforts to get more accurate data to measure the economic impact of the arts, who gets counted as an artist, what the numbers mean in reflection of values : http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703

            And Dance NYC Junior Committee's upcoming survey "Dance Workforce Census – Earning among individuals 21-35" that is attempting now to get a comprehensive snapshot in this particular industry:


            Aaron, just want to say that what you've written here is really refreshing and wise. As a foreign national I personally have a whole other set of life and career and cultural issues to question, but I take much inspiration from the lived experience of American artists like yourself; like Miguel Gutierrez's edict on stage earlier this year in heavens what have I done: "do not wait for permission!" Also inspirational is the effort of CATT for greater transparency in the Follow up Letter, again I think adding to the quest for more agency in the field through data in the likes of Paul Nagle's Institute as mentioned in the WSJ article.

            The perplexing thing for me was the letter's bottom line: "artists who do not get paid are not professionals. Period." If anything, this was the take-away from the article which seemed too black and white and maybe against the spirit of what you all were saying, which I fully support!

            I feel like what CATT was saying was and what you're clarifying here is, "artists should not view their work as set apart from the greater economy" — and I mean that in both directions, that as a professional aspirant the role of the "established" or "more greatly but never fully funded" artist is akin to being a public good (and what does that mean? who is the artist in society?) and seeing oneself as a creative entrepreneur and one's products as economic goods/capital, one's services as business. Whether or not, and how cultural capital translates monetarily … is a question, right, because overhead increases (in life and work), donor levels plateau, adaptability of your cost of production is relatively inflexible unless you choose as you said to slow down production (make less work), craft a niche market (make only a certain kind of work), reduce component costs (make work with fewer people involved), etc. But right, what you're saying is that many artists don't measure the true cost of production …

            p.s. One avenue for empowerment based on what you all were saying is available through NYFA's Artist as Entrepreneur Bootcamp:

  8. culturebot says:

    Brian I think it is disingenuous to suggest that there are no longer gatekeepers – there most definitely are.

    Curators and funders definitely serve as gatekeepers to their resources – financial support, social capital, real estate, etc. You may not feel comfortable identifying as such, but I think that's the reality. Arts administrators – particularly people in curatorial or funding positions – have a network of social, professional and political connections that enable them to be decision-makers in the allocation of resources. We – and I include myself – get invited to serve on awards panels and grants panels, we have discussions with funders about programs and work. We participate in political processes regarding funding in the arts and much more.

    If someone gets a show at Chocolate Factory – or PS122 or DTW – you are much more likely to get a NY Times review, much more likely to be taken "seriously" as an artist, much more likely to have your work exposed to funders and curators (national and international) who will be able to allocate additional resources.

    It is an ecosystem in which some people have more influence than others – and it may be a reluctant influence but it is a form of gatekeeping nonetheless. The longer you stay in the sector, the more people you meet, the more you advance, the more you build a reputation, the more likely it is that you will gain influence and make choices that affect artists professional lives.

    Yes, more than ever it is possible for artists to go around the traditional avenues of support and – ultimately they hold a lot of control in that way. We've discussed this offline before – curators are always looking for new artists and in that, artists hold all the power. But they have to invest a lot of time and money of their own to build enough of a body of work and reputation to get the attention of overworked curators and thus get incorporated into the venue/funder ecosystem.

    It is not that the resources can only be gotten through the established ecosystem – one can find money and real estate without the help of funders and curators, one can produce one's own work and hopefully get good reviews and never work inside the system at all. But for those people who aspire to a certain kind of critical and professional appreciation, they are going to seek it in the established world, one which has, for lack of a better word, gatekeepers.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Part 3: So the question of what work is deemed worthy of support isn't incidental, it's crucial and central. And that's part of my point about thinking of the economy of ecology as a whole rather than the limited set with access to funds you addressed the second letter to. Given the degree to which concepts like body-based performance are coming into vogue, or the use of technology in performance, or other sorts of cross-disciplinary work are the future, these all have larger fixed costs, and for the health of the development of the aesthetic form, the increasingly lack of opportunity for younger artists will wind up hampering their artistic development in pursuing these avenues, the same way a lot of theater learns to function without complex sets and lighting by sheer necessity. It's easier to make a solo show, and potentially more profitable if its salable on the fringe circuit, than ensemble driven theater. So if people want to see more ensemble driven theater, shouldn't we find a way to support artists emerging in that field?

      I could go on and on, obviously, and you could certainly just argue, "That's not what we were talking about." Which is, I suppose, fair to a degree. But in your wide ranging proposals and calls to action contained in both letters, your focus seems clearly on finding ways to offer better support to fewer projects and a small subset of artists, with little regard to the actual questions of how the expenditure of these funds actually helps determine and shape the work that is ultimately made. In response to your comment, I guess I'm simply saying that it's way more complicated than just saying that artists should be better compensated. I want them to be, we all agree on that, but short of returning to the 1960s level of Great Society funding, most people are just not going to wind up in Aaron Landsman's shoes, say. And it's unfair to simply write off their choices and decisions as somehow completely wrongheaded and ultimately even hurtful to the arts without considering the real reasons why they would do such things, which I hope we can all agree are probably a bit more complicated than "artists make art."

  9. Jeremy M. Barker says:

    Part 1: Brian–thanks for responding. To start with your second point, I think this gets to the crux of the issue. I don't really think you're trying to define art exclusively in financial terms, but I think that this paper does fall into the same trap most arts discussions do vis-a-vis money. Although money isn't why most artists (particularly in the fields we're talking about) make art, the reality of making work in a low reward, low compensation field engenders this sort of bitter take on money, wherein there's this entire "money is how we value things in our society so our work is not considered valuable" sort of thing. It can ever turn into a chip on the shoulder, and in some ways it should. But simply saying that doesn't necessarily mean that (a) money is actually the only value something can have, even in our culture, and (b) it's certainly not a good place to begin trying to analyze the arts landscape from, because, to start with my ending point, the money that is available often comes from non-demand-based sources (i.e., it's not from ticket sales which is the actual financial valuation of the art). The money inherently creates an artificial oversupply because we want it to. In other words, we find money to help artists make art because we think art is good and important and has some value to the culture.

    But I'm sort of getting ahead of myself.

    My actual issue with the analysis put forward is that it's missing pieces and I think that if we actually try to analyze arts production through an economic lens, we might actually be able to ask some really valid questions about how to compensate and/or support the creation of work. So to start out with, let's set aside the value of the art as a product and just concentrate on the work the artist puts in to create it.

    When an artist sets out to create a work of art, they expect some sort of package of different benefits from completing it. One may (and hopefully is) some sort of financial compensation; but, as I tried to demonstrate with my discussion of for-profit versus not-for-profit jobs in the original piece, there are other non-financial benefits the artist gets from making work. One is the simple personal preference to create art. Artists want to make art and the completion of the art work has some personal value to the artist. Beyond this, there are other benefits, one of which might be some sort of investment in personal capital–that is, that by doing a work of art, the artist may gain skills, experience, or otherwise just signal a capacity for creating work which facilitates creating work later on.

    1. Jeremy M. Barker says:

      Part 2: This latter point is, I think, really important to this discussion. Lots of artists create work for free (or nearly free), which you take strong issue with. But instead of seeing in terms of paid versus unpaid work, think about it for a minute in terms of cost. Creating a work always has a cost, which includes not just the financial investment to make it happen (rehearsal space, set construction, whatever), but the unfinanced expenditure of the artist's time, which also has a value as you make clear. So why would someone give away their time free, to say nothing of covering costs out of pocket, when there's little or no hope of recouping that investment through the actual finished product? Well, the answer is some combination of the benefits I mentioned above. They want to create the work so they do. They hope they to improve their skills and experience by tackling new challenges. And probably they hope that by demonstrating some level of accomplishment, so programmer such as yourself will notice them and deem them worthy of a commission to create a better funded new work, which, in the long-run, they hope will help establish themselves as competitive for grants and other funding sources themselves, in addition to further commissions.

      So the young artist who's not commissioned, not supported by grants, who is working a job to make money to support their art-making, is making an investment, and like all investments has some idea (rational or not) of an expected return on that investment. It's not entirely different from the concept of taking out a student loan to get an education with the expectation you're going to make more money at a job requiring a college education. And it's not quite the same as free unpaid labor; the artist working for little or no money isn't quite the same as a the Wal-Mart employee forced to work off the clock. That person's being exploited for an employer's benefit. And while there are certainly some circumstances in which artists may be exploited or taken advantage of by someone in an employment role, I don't think these scenarios are a case in point.

      So the larger point is that these artists are actually making a complex set of transactions trying to maximize current and future benefit. And yes, it differs case by case, role by role. A generative artist may get more current satisfaction out of the creative process than the pick-up dancer performing in the piece to build a portfolio, same as the actor performing in a small show by an emerging playwright. The thing to take away and talk about is addressing this structurally and addressing them. To take Aaron's point above, transparency is good, but it can't just be about the budget. I called you a gatekeeper, and that may be unfair because that term is usually used by someone looking up the chain as an accusation for why they're not getting somewhere (Andy's defense notwithstanding). But you, as a programmer or director or curator or whatever you would preferred to be called, along with Sheila and Vallejo and Carla, can offer a distinct package of benefits to the artists you program, in terms of commissioning funds, exposure, reviews, and career advancement. There are quite literally thousands of artists working in the US (if not just in New York) who are making work they would love to be seen by the people who program DTW, PS122, and Chocolate Factory (as well as surprisingly small handful of others). On a fundamental level, impressing you or otherwise demonstrating their worthiness to be programmed by you is part of the reason they're investing time and effort and money into work, and it would be equally useful to help illuminate the curatorial processes as well as the grant-making processes. In your initial letter you had some things to say on these topics as well, and I guess we just need to wait and see what comes out later.

      In short, there are tools and opportunities being handed out by a small group of people which are being pursued by a larger base, for perfectly natural and reasonable and non-controversial reasons. And the role of the decisionmakers in this case is not only to better support artists you help/fund/commission/employ, but to offer more than a "stop doing that!" to the ones you don't or who are making work at a level below what you would normally work with but which, for aesthetic or other reasons, will not receive support via these channels in the future, at least insofar as you're concerned. You are, in short, a way more important critic than I'll ever be unless I wind up in your shoes, and yet critical candor is something you rarely get in a meaningful fashion from decisionmakers in contemporary performance.

  10. lindaessig says:

    Wow! I'm so sorry to have stumbled upon this exchange (slightly) after the fact. What seems to be largely forgotten from the discussion is that there is whole world west of the Hudson River. The arts ecosystem(s) in much of the rest of the country is very different than that in NY (and I've lived and worked in both). Unfortunately, I don't have the time to respond as thoughtfully as you all have to Jeremy's original or subsequent posts, but my response to the CATT manifesto is at http://creativeinfrastructure.wordpress.com/2011/

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