Looking for Work in All the Wrong Places Or: How I Stopped Believing in Unicorns and Learned to Ride a Horse
The author would like to acknowledge that it has now been many months since the events written about below transpired and that he is exceedingly self-conscious about the possible loss of urgency and relevance and necessity of them being written about because he is no longer “in the thick of it,” so to speak. However, he also wishes to acknowledge that these words were not written to bring attention to the extraordinary nature of his particular set of circumstances, but were written, rather, because his circumstances are not in any way, shape, or form extraordinary, and are, in point of fact, lived daily by many other young, eager, hopeful people with dreams and aspirations who live generously and consume great quantities of coffee and alcohol and who, from time to time, exude a kind of bon vivance and possess varying levels of capability and ambition, people who fall in love easily and believe in the power of art to provide solace and to heal wounds and to inspire hope, people who may feel alone in their experiences, who may wonder if perhaps there is something wrong with them, if maybe they are a little bit crazy for thinking that there is a kinder, better way for the universe to deal with people who are really just trying to make the world a better and more beautiful place goddamnit! And so, in the spirit of and/or hope for and/or belief in the power of stories to connect people to each other and make us feel a little bit less alone in this vast and mysterious and sometimes cruel and unfeeling universe, here is my story, told in somewhat insufferably self-conscious fashion.
Part I: On being employed and then not being employed.
My name is Alexander Leslie Thompson. I am a creative consultant, community builder, and cultural organizer, though those descriptors are self-imposed so I will let you decide for yourself whether or not you wish to believe that I am any, all, or none of those things. When I originally wrote this I was entering my fourth week of unemployment.
Well, semi-employment, but we’ll get to that.
To understand the context of my unemployment, it may or may not be helpful to understand my employment history, to get to know me a little better. This is the part where I, the author, establish a sense of familiarity and trust with you, the reader. I moved to New York three years ago, in the manner in which I’ve come to believe most people move to New York: with a dual degree in music composition and dance, a backpack, a duffel bag, and a guitar. I was a cliché, really, but I was an earnest cliché. I was hungry to do as much dancing as I could physically and humanly do, being 25, idealistic, and not yet jaded or affected by all the articles people write about wanting to leave New York.
I got a part-time job at a Cuban eatery so that I could take classes and pick up dance work without burning through my relatively meager savings too quickly, but it didn’t take me long to decide that, while I liked my boss, my coworkers, and the spinach empanadas, I wanted to do something else with my non-dancing hours. So I began looking, somewhat naively, for internships in arts administration (mind you, I had no idea what arts administration actually was, just that it was a thing that other people ostensibly did and were ostensibly paid for).
Serendipitously, just as I was beginning my search a professor of mine from college, who also happened to be the Director of Education & Engagement at New York Live Arts, wrote to me, in the way these things sometimes happen (that is, suddenly and at precisely the right time), and asked if I’d be interested in being an Engagement Intern in her department. I said yes, because yes is a beautiful thing to say especially when it is in response to a genuine act of generosity and kindness and extraordinary good fortune.
By an additional stroke of luck, New York Live Arts asked to participate in a research project called Discovering Fiscally Sponsored NYC Dancemakers conducted by Dance/NYC. They received a stipend for their participation, which they used to hire me as a Research Assistant for the project. I had somehow stumbled upon the often talked about but seldom lived experience of having an unpaid internship turn into an actual paying position, the unicorn of professional experience. I wasn’t paid much, but it gave me hope, which is sometimes a more powerful currency than cash. After five months I was offered another astonishing opportunity: my boss decided to leave Live Arts to invest in her own artistic work and asked if I’d be interested in taking over the Associate Artist/Fiscal Sponsorship Program. It was, in no uncertain terms, a dream job. I said yes again. I cannot overstate how delicious that word can taste.
What follows is a list of my aspirations and achievements over the course of my work at Live Arts, so bear with me. However excruciating it is for you, it is likely doubly so for me. Two years after I inherited the program it had grown from 118 artists to 198 artists, I had built partnerships with RocketHub and OurGoods, taken steps to make the application and reporting process for the program paperless, and had created profile pages for all of our fiscally sponsored artists, but I was still only working 29 hours a week because: nonprofits, full stop. After an unsuccessful bid to make the position full time I began passively looking for other work. I loved my job, and I loved working with artists, but I was tired of trying to live in New York on $22,500/yr after taxes.
After a great deal of deliberation I ended up taking a full time position as the Programs Manager at another dance organization that inspired hope in me: Gibney Dance. I was thrilled. Ecstatic, even. They had just taken over a second location in downtown Manhattan and were developing new programming in addition to expanding their existing programming. It was, in many ways, an exciting time to be joining them and I was charged with overseeing a lot of wonderfully robust programs including artist residencies, a works-in-progress series, dance on film screenings, free one-on-one artist consultations, and a new professional development program for dance artists.
I felt exhilarated and liberated and I couldn’t have been happier until just three and a half weeks after starting I was told, as graciously as one can be told such things, that they had overestimated their hiring capacity, were restructuring, and unfortunately couldn’t continue with my position. I was devastated. Having your job eliminated is like being broken up with by an institution. It’s not you, it’s me, and other platitudes.
I am lucky to have an amazingly awesome community of support. Within 3 days of posting on Facebook that I was looking for work I had 32 comments and 44 messages offering sympathy, free meals/coffee/alcohol, and more job opportunities than I knew what to do with. It was overwhelming in quite possibly the best way possible and helped stave off the inevitable storm of self-doubt that accompanies break-ups and job losses.
Not every job posting that ended up in my inbox was appropriate for me, but the fact of them being sent my way bolstered and supported me in a way that I desperately needed. It solidified in me this belief I have in the importance of community and in being good and kind and true to one another. The world is too challenging and complex and there is too much heartbreak and devastation to navigate it alone. It was a relief to realize in a concrete way that I didn’t have to.Part II: On not being unemployed, but wanting to be employed. Or and also: if you’re unemployed and you’re not eating ice cream you’re doing it wrong.
I was twenty eight years old, held a degree in Music Composition and Dance from Bard College, and had 2.5 years of arts administration experience. Searching for jobs was an exercise in qualification. In my head I oscillated between being The Most Awesomely Qualified Candidate of All Time and The Guy Nobody Would Ever Hire. I was considering and applying for everything: Executive and Managing Director positions, customer service jobs, starting up a Thai Yoga Therapy practice, etc.
But I was also highly selective. There was a moral challenge to navigating the slew of opportunities that people were sending my way, the attempt to be gracious and appreciative while saying no to the jobs that weren’t quite right for me. Maybe I could be a Development Manager, or an Assistant to the Artistic Director, or an Educational Programs Associate. I began to wonder if there was an arrogance or a sense of entitlement to my selectivity, if I could even afford to be selective.
The way I saw it I had three options:
Option 1: The Road I Was Already Traveling, Because Fuck You Robert Frost
I had started to say yes to a few part-time/freelance opportunities doing things I liked with people I think are great. I was (and am) offering administrative support to Abraham.In.Motion, Michelle Boulé, Boomerang, Vanessa Walters, and Chase Angier (also: Alexandra Beller, Ori Flomin, and Yehuda Hyman). I began exploring the possibility of producing, though, truth be told, to this day nobody has really been able to explain to me what that means. I was hired to teach a twelve week arts administration course to dance students at NYU Tisch (this was one of the most wonderful things I have ever had the opportunity to do – my first day of class I talked to my students about having lost my job because it felt important for them to know and understand where I was coming from, to know that I was not perfect, that my life was not flawless, that I could be a person who was hired by NYU to teach a twelve week arts administration course to dance students and also be unemployed [or semi-employed]). All of these things were and are interesting and exciting to me, but I wasn’t and still am not sure how they stack up in the long run. The nature of freelance work is that it’s inconsistent. It ebbs and flows. It’s unclear whether or not it’s sustainable (whatever that elusive and nebulous and oft used word means) and that makes me nervous.
Option 2: The Road I Had Already Traveled, Because Really Somebody Tell Me What Robert Frost Knew That The Rest Of Us Don’t
I looked at a number of full time arts non-profit job listings too. The problem is that there are really only a handful of organizations that would allow me to do the kind of work I want to be doing in the way that I want to do it. The other problem is that most positions are grossly underpaid. I saw a listing for a full time job requiring a Bachelor’s Degree and Fire Guard Certification offering a salary of $28,000/yr. Which works out to $13/hr. Compare that to the $50,000/yr salary McDonald’s is offering for a General Manager position. One could literally make more working in fast food. All of which leads me to…
Option 3: The Road I’ve Yet To Travel, Because Okay Fine Maybe Robert Frost Might Have Been On To Something
It occurred to me that I could just get out of arts non-profits altogether. Make a real salary. Stop worrying about all the things I had been worrying about (most of which were and are money related). To that end I applied to a job at Kickstarter. The job was Director of Community Operations, which was a job I was pretty sure I was born to do (VP of Community was also open but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself). I wasn’t certain that I would be happy there, but I also couldn’t think of too many reasons why I wouldn’t be. I got so excited about it that I made an application video. Aside from Kickstarter I wasn’t sure where I would want to work or what I would do, but the thought of being able to put money in savings and to not silently wince every time I was invited to eat out and of being able to afford to go on more than just a handful of dates per month and buy my own plane ticket home to see my family for Christmas sounded pretty appealing to me. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get the job.
An aside: I don’t know if I’m setting up a false dichotomy, this choice between making a comfortable salary or doing the work I want to do, but it’s consistent with the narrative I hear time and time again from pretty much everybody in the non-profit arts world. I have no idea what my colleagues are making or how they’re making it work. Seriously, colleagues: what are you making and how are you making it work? Does everyone just have trust funds? Is everyone just poor? There’s not really a whole lot of transparency about salaries in the arts and I wonder if it’s because we’re embarrassed about the fact that we’re drastically undervaluing people.
I’m embarrassed for us.
Because that drastic undervaluation is a significant problem. It will ultimately drive valuable and skilled and big-hearted people who care deeply and have beautiful ideas and limitless energy out of the field. Because no matter how much psychic capital one might gain from a career in the arts (see the Brooklyn Commune’s report, The View From Here, which is a great and valuable resource put together by many of those valuable and skilled and big-hearted people who care deeply and have beautiful ideas and limitless energy and who are fighting tooth and nail to avoid being driven out of the field), most people will only spend so much time feeling undervalued and living a precarious existence before caving to the stability that a real salary and a savings account and a 401K and health insurance (with vision and dental, gasp!) can offer. Or maybe we’ll just be left with the people with trust funds, family support, and/or wealthy spouses. And there’s nothing wrong with those people, I’m sure I’d be very good friends with many and/or all of them, but we’re eliminating a huge pool of smart, passionate, capable, talented, creative people if arts jobs are only tenable to people with financial means.
I didn’t (and don’t) want to leave the arts but, like thousands of my peers, I wasn’t (and am not) sure I can afford to stay.
Part III: On not really having a real job even though you’re doing things and people are paying you to do those things that you’re doing.
Mine is ultimately a story about the power of community (it’s also a story about white male privilege, but that’s less hopeful and inspiring and therefore a subject for another post). I got my first job, in part, because of a relationship with someone who knew and trusted me, and I have been buoyed in my semi-employment by the relationships and trust that I’ve built over the course of the past three years with co-workers, colleagues, my peers on the Dance/NYC Junior Committee, and artists that I’ve had the tremendous honor and privilege of working with. I have felt fear and anxiety, certainly, but those emotions have been significantly quelled by the support I’ve been consistently surrounded by. And it looks like, for the time being, things are going to be okay. I haven’t completely come out on the other side of this thing yet, but I’m starting to see a little bit of light, starting to think that maybe it’s around that next corner, or over that next hill, or [insert your own optimistic nature analogy here].
For the past six months I have been making a living doing freelance work. I’m working with people I like who trust me to do good work and I’m building new and important skill sets. I have a half-time position as the Manager of Communications and Community for Abraham.In.Motion, and it seems like I have enough additional freelance work to sustain me.
There are, also and however, significant challenges to doing freelance work:
- It is difficult to value your time appropriately when you know the economics of dance. It’s much easier to ask an institution with a $6 million budget for a salary or a raise than it is to ask an artist whom you know is paying you out of their own pocket from a salary that is cobbled together from four or five other jobs and is definitely too meager for the amount of time and skill and effort they are putting into making it. It is also hard to ask for a higher hourly wage than you know someone is paying their dancers. It isn’t uncommon for administrators to be paid more than dancers. I think this is because oftentimes administrative work is the sole source of income for the administrator, whereas dancers usually have additional sources of income (often, interestingly and somewhat dishearteningly, doing administrative work). I understand this, but I think it’s a problematic practice and at the same time I’m negotiating the challenge of not knowing whether I can really work for less than $20-30/hr (I can’t).
- Time management is a nightmare. I’m generally only contracted for a handful of hours per project per week, but it feels like I’m supposed to be available/on call for all of the projects all of the time. Boundaries are not impossible, but they might as well be.
- You have many additional jobs that you don’t think about when you’re calculating your hourly rate and estimating how much work you need: the job of managing all of your other jobs, of generating invoices, of drafting letters of agreement, of managing your schedule, and of responding to emails from potential clients, and that’s not time for which you’re being paid.
- For all the talk about millennials and the freelance revolution and how 1000% of the workforce will be working remotely by 2016, I miss the structure of having a place that I go to do the thing that I do. I miss, too, the infrastructure that comes along with an office (the printers and the mailroom and the internet and the phone lines and the ability to receive packages at work and the kitchen, oh god the kitchen!). I even miss the job title. It’s much easier to answer the question “What do you do?” when you have an institutional affiliation and a business card and a name to call what you do. I miss those things, and I wonder what it means that I miss those things. Am I a monster? A slave to the man and/or the machine? A cog in the locomotive that is capitalism bulldozing all who stand in its way?
There’s a steep learning curve, but I’m climbing it. And I’m asking questions like crazy. There is no way I could possibly do the things that I’m doing well without countless coffee meetings with people who have experience that I don’t have and asking them questions that they may not know the answers to. People are amazing and generous and I am consistently overwhelmed by this fact.
Tim Kreider wrote a beautifully moving essay titled Up In the Air, a very important piece of writing to me in those early days of unemployment, in which he writes, in part, about Kim Stanley Robinson’s book 2312 (which I haven’t read) and the concept of “time without skin,” time spent “in transit, living in the vacuum between radically different worlds and lives.” For the time being I am living inside of that time without skin. The not knowing is unsettling, but it’s also a little bit thrilling, albeit in a nauseating kind of way. All of my understanding about who I am and what I’m doing in the world has been exploded into a thousand and one pieces, each of which represents a different possibility, a different future, a different life to be lived. I just have to find the right one, step up to the edge of the precipice, and leap with it. And I have the astounding good fortune to be surrounded by exceptional people who will aid me in that decision making, who will be there to greet me with warm embraces when I emerge from this nebulous not knowing, and who will support me no matter which one of the thousand and one pieces I decide to reach up, pluck out of the ether, hold tightly to my chest, and leap with.