The Untenable Economics of Dancing

Heather Kravas "A Quartet"

Liz Santoro and Cecilia Eliceche in Heather Kravas “A Quartet” (photo by Jenny May Peterson)

Claudia La Rocco’s recent report from the field “Master Narratives” begins, “Let us now praise New York dancers” and she is absolutely right. While I insist there must be a better word than “downtown” (and NYLA’s recent “Bill Chat” on “When Was the Downtown Established” did a wonderful job of dismantling the myth of downtown) there is something remarkable about the dance and dancers in NYC. As Claudia says, “The sheer amount of performance talent in this city—well, it’s ridiculous. And … for all the arguments against living here (the real estate! the weather!), there is something fiercely particular about New Yorkers, and something particularly sublime about New York dance artists.”

This is all the more astonishing given how little support there is for dancers to live or thrive as dancers. The myth of downtown is not merely an aesthetic problem, it has the  insidious effect of encouraging artists to create and conduct their lives predicated on an outdated imagining of the economic and cultural life of the city. And it encourages the dance community to focus its outrage on the mostly inconsequential – from a financial perspective – Alastair Macaulay rather than the very real and pernicious economic conditions that make their lives so difficult.

In 1993 the NEA published a study called Dancemakers that found that “the average annual income choreographers earned from their artistic work in 1989 was $6,000, while their professional expenses totaled $13,000. Including money earned in other pursuits, a dancer’s average income reached only $22,000.”

More than twenty years later it is fair to say that not much has changed, except that in 2014 that same dancer has crushing student loan debt from an MFA, the cost of living in New York City has skyrocketed and the funding infrastructure for dance has imploded. But still, we dance.

According to The NEA’s 2012 publication How Art Works, the human impulse to create and express is “the primary motive that powers the system.” The human impulse to create and express is so strong that people will withstand significant hardship to pursue it.  As far back as 1966 Baumol and Bowen’s groundbreaking study Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma told us that, “performers frequently are dedicated individuals who are willing to work under economic conditions which would be considered appalling in other activities,” exchanging real income for what is known as “psychic income.”

In 1966 Baumol and Bowen wrote, “… as the general level of real income increases over time, people may well feel that they are better able to afford to pursue careers which offer relatively lower money incomes but larger psychic incomes.” (Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, p.169)

That was more than 40 years ago and according to The Wall Street Journal, “apart from brief lapses, like in the late 1990s, wages have been falling for a generation.” In fact, measuring “on an inflation-adjusted basis, wages peaked in 1973, fully 40 years ago.”

The Brooklyn Commune Report goes into this crisis in great detail (see pages 14-15) but, in brief, the choice to “pursue careers which offer relatively lower money incomes but larger psychic incomes” is becoming less viable for a significant swath of the population, and for those who do choose a career in the arts, the negative economic impact on their quality of life is significantly higher than it was 40 years ago.

As the income gap in America has grown, the viability of a life in the arts has become increasingly elusive for all but the most fortunate, and for many Americans in 2014 the divergence between psychic income and real income has become a bridge too far. The reality is that Americans of modest means are increasingly unable to afford a life in the arts.

The vast majority of dancers enter the field with unrealistic career expectations, embarking on a life of personal uncertainty, financial precariousness and physical risk while the systems in place – the systems that allocate funding, the systems that evaluate quality and determine aesthetics, the systems that drive the marketplace even in the not-for-profit sector – persist not only with business as usual, but in perpetrating the illusion that this is an economically viable life choice.

Young dancers often take on staggering levels of student debt to get the requisite credentials for participation in the not-for-profit arts ecosystem. Upon entering the field they can expect to work as dancers, most for free or negligible pay, while supporting themselves as an arts administrator where the wages are also comically low, not to mention artificially depressed by the disproportionate presence of workers whose livelihoods are supplemented by remittances from family or other resources.

Let’s take a minute to look at this in real terms.

I have been working with dancers on the business of making “downtown” dance since I first started at PS122 in 2002. I recently checked in with some dancer friends on the whole “getting paid” situation and was astonished to find that very little has improved.

Anecdotally I found that, on average, a dancer working with an early career choreographer can expect to make anywhere from $100 – $500 for a 3 months development process, rehearsing a couple of times a week. Very occasionally, depending on the number of performances, they might make a total of $1500 for 3-4 months work.

Mid-career choreographers don’t pay much better, maybe $1000 for 3-5 months of work and a week of performances. If they can afford it they try to pay $15/hour.

The dancers’ wages for working with a really established, high profile mid-career choreographer aren’t that much better – sometimes as little as $5000 for a year of work – on and off – with two weeks of performances. The pay is much better if you go on tour, maybe $500-$700/wk.

Sometimes dancers will be asked to commit to a project with no end date for a specific, set fee, paid in installments that is almost negligible when amortized over time. 

It is as if The Dancers Forum Compact had never been written. (It is available for download at the Brooklyn Commune Facebook page).

Should we be surprised, then, if a dancer stops working “downtown” to take a job with a more mainstream or popular choreographer who can pay $4000/month, who can pay for the dancer to take movement classes relevant to the project at hand and who actually provides an hour of warm-up time before rehearsal?

Most young dancers are trained professionals, many with graduate degrees, whose art form depends on their bodies, and yet the persistence of the myth of “downtown” reinforces an ethos of working for free – or almost for free – in conditions that are often deleterious to the dancers’ physical health and, ultimately, undermines their status as trained professionals.

The persistence of the myth of downtown means, in practical terms, that dancers either persist at the expense of their personal health and financial well-being or they are able to pursue this career through remittances from an outside economy. That means they are subsidized through a spouse or family who can provide the support needed to pursue dance. I’m sure someone smarter and more informed than me can do a feminist reading on the devaluation of women’s labor and the marginalization of dance as an art form by being “women’s work”.

This also means that – on the administrative front – it is mostly those folks who are privately subsidized who are able to afford years of unpaid internships and work long enough at poorly paid administrative jobs to attain leadership positions in the arts. They then bring with them a set of implicit cultural biases predicated on their – often unacknowledged – access and privilege. That bias often includes a perception that conversations about money – especially money that must be earned through labor – are gauche.

This disinclination to discuss money in real terms, and the romantic poverty of the “downtown” myth leads to a brutal cycle of economic instability and inequality, and a concomitant narrowing of discourse related to both the production and aesthetic evaluation of dance.

And here, once again, I use American Realness as a case study.

Let’s say, before even paying dancers, it takes 500 hours for an artist like Rebecca Patek to make a single show and, based on their education and experience, we estimate their hourly wage in the job market at $25. That means they are self-funding the creation of their work to the tune of $12,500.

Then factor in that every self-funded hour of work is an hour NOT spent at a paying job, so double that to $25K. If a show costs $25K in labor alone, how long will it take the artist to earn that back? And if the artist is willing to invest that amount of money in their career without an expectation of financial return on investment, what is the expected or desired return on investment? How is appearing in American Realness helping them achieve ROI?

Even though American Realness is branded as a “festival”, it more truthfully functions as a marketing vehicle for the American Realness brand and a showcase for TBSP Management’s roster and associated artists. It is not materially different than any other arts manager’s showcase in APAP but for the fact that it presents mostly full-length work, and one must certainly ask if this format is the best format for selling niche work to a very limited pool of potential buyers, but more on that another time.

But if the artists’ contribution of time and labor is predicated on expectation of earnings based on future bookings, then that should be quantified: how much did you spend to make and perform the work, how much are you going to make at the box office and how many bookings would you need to break even?

This also casts Ann Liv Young’s behavior in the most relevant light: she intentionally subverted Rebecca’s showcase and damaged her ability to regain her investment in terms of real money and sweat equity. One could imagine an alternate universe where Rebecca takes Ann Liv to court and sues for damages. Ann Liv’s intervention can only be seen as “good theater” if one imagines that American Realness is actually PS122 in 1984, but it isn’t. It is a high profile professional dance showcase in one of the world’s largest and most prominent performing arts markets.

If TBSP Management is an artist management company creating a sales event for potential buyers then the costs of producing that event should not be passed along to the artists, nor should the artists’ compensation be predicated on box office sales.

And if TBSP management doesn’t see it that way, and if the budget line for AR festival administration is truly zero, as someone tweeted, it is irrelevant. American Realness is a showcase to market TBSP Management’s roster of artists to a group of potential buyers, thus the production of the festival is a cost of doing business, just like buying a booth at APAP.  If Ben chooses to not pay himself, or not pay his employees for their work, that’s just bad business, not a noble sacrifice.

I couldn’t agree more with Claudia when she says, “there is something fiercely particular about New Yorkers, and something particularly sublime about New York dance artists.”

So when are we going to really face the facts and how are we going make their lives sustainable and the system more equitable, just and inclusive?

14 thoughts on “The Untenable Economics of Dancing”

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