Making (It) Work

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In the interests of ensuring engaging conversation, there are topics better left undiscussed in certain circles of society. Last winter, This American Life ran a program enumerating these Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About. In a crisp British accent, an ever-proper Mrs. Matthiessen recited a list that included your health (nobody cares), your dreams and how you slept (nobody cares), and most importantly, money. The discussion of money is considered vulgar—“it’s just not done,” says Mrs. Matthiessen. Uncouth as it may be, money is a big issue that’s becoming ever larger, particularly in the arts world. The devaluing of art is rampant in a market saturated with free entertainment and information. For professional artists, arts administrators, and producers, this means that money is more than a valid topic of discussion. It is a conversation that has become essential in order to keep the arts world sustainable.

Victoria McConnell and Marissa Quimby perform at a July 2014 fundraiser for choreographers Michele Miller and Alana O Rogers Photo by Nico Tower
Victoria McConnell and Marissa Quimby perform at a July 2014 fundraiser for choreographers Michele Miller and Alana O Rogers
Photo by Nico Tower

“Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value,” noted A.O. Scott in a New York Times article this spring, “and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.” The truth of Scott’s statement has been evident across artistic genres for decades, but it seems to ring particularly true today. This prevailing attitude engenders a difficult dynamic: when society fails to compensate its artists, the artists are left to subsidize their own work, in addition to continuing their creative labor. And while artists have always found ways to create regardless of the financial climate, today this means elaborate fundraising efforts. Artists now channel a formidable amount of energy into Do-It-Yourself fundraising, on top of actually making their work. “We’ve arrived at the place where the fundraiser can demand the same amount of attention and energy as the artwork it’s supposed to support,” says veteran Seattle-based dance writer Sandra Kurtz. While there has never been a simple solution to arts funding, placing the burden on the artists themselves, as we increasingly do today, is problematic.

 

Historically, art has been funded by wealthy people of influence who took a personal interest in the arts. Think Lincoln Kirstein, Serge Diaghilev, and the Medicis. At least in the United States, “it wasn’t until the advent of government-supported arts agencies in the middle of the century that we assumed that supporting the arts was something that the whole country should do through its government,” says Kurtz. “Alas, that didn’t seem to last very long—the culture wars of the 1980s damaged the process in ways we are still grappling with.” In the dance world, today, the main sources of revenue fall under a few categories: grants from federal or state budgets, individual patrons, presenting institutions (who are themselves often subsidized by corporate sponsors or patrons), and ticket revenue. Many of these modes depend upon a process of application. The decision about who receives support is largely merit-based, and the criteria are subjective. This competitive process can create its own problems (read more about that here), but it remains a standard way for artists to produce performances.

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Silent auction table at a July 2014 event to raise money to cover the costs of Michele Miller and Alana O Rogers’ upcoming self-produced show
Photo by Ryan Goldstein

In addition to these more traditional funding modes, the last few years have seen the rise of what Kurtz calls a “DIY world where artists underwrite their own work,” largely through grassroots fundraising. These grassroots efforts include the live fundraiser (like the one SeattleDances is having on September 11), and crowdsourcing through sites like Kickstarter and Hatchfund. These types of online campaigns have become a widely popularized and hugely effective fundraising tactic, particularly in the dance world—according to SFGate, dance is the most successful category on Kickstarter. The appeal of these campaigns is clear: patrons unable to attend a performance can support it from afar, reward systems are built in to incentivize donations, and the sites are tailored to help artists organize their campaign. This type of funding also provides more artistic freedom as artists aren’t beholden to a grant applications or an institution’s requirements. Furthermore, social media makes it easy to share these campaigns with one’s entire social network, which can substantially widen the pool of donors.

 

Though competition is less of a factor here, the Kickstarter style of fundraising has its own drawbacks. With some platforms, the artists only receive the money if they reach their goals; if they fall short, they won’t receive the funds they worked to procure. Online campaigns also slip into a marketing game. If you have a broader network of people to draw on, or have more time and energy to put into promoting yourself, there’s an inherent advantage. More worrisome though, is the risk of oversaturation. There are so many campaigns floating around the internet that it becomes difficult to choose which project to support. Furthermore, this kind of grassroots funding can cultivate a tiresome cycle: the friends and family members asked to donate to a project are often the same people who will later be asked to buy tickets.

 

Alana O Rogers, a Seattle dancer and choreographer in the midst of self-producing a show, has been utilizing a combination of grassroots approaches to fund her upcoming show. Rogers cites “fundraising burnout” as a deterrent from producing shows on a regular basis. “You don’t want to keep asking your donors the same question, for money over and over again when they haven’t even made it to the show yet.” It starts to feel a bit like begging from the hand that’s continually feeding you.

Guests mingle at a July 2014 fundraiser for choreographers Michele Miller and Alana O Rogers Photo by Ryan Goldstein
Guests mingle at a July 2014 fundraiser for choreographers Michele Miller and Alana O Rogers
Photo by Ryan Goldstein

While fundraising efforts, regardless of their format, have become a fact of art-making today, they all represent a formidable extra step in the art making process. The sequence becomes: do the work to make the money, in order to make the art you actually want to make. In the performing arts world particularly (where ticket sales alone would hardly cover a fraction of the cost of producing a show), it’s never a simple transaction of payment for the product created. Now more than ever, artists are forced to be their own managers and marketers on top of being creative agents. All of this, in addition to making a living—often doing some kind of work outside of their artistic field—makes for an exhausting enterprise. What’s “really hard about this process is we all have jobs on top of this,” says Rogers, who is a physical therapist as well as a freelance choreographer. “If I had to do everything myself, and I didn’t have to work, I might be able to do it all. But it’s still not as good as if I had a team—where I had a marketing person, and I had a fundraising person, and I had a production person.” Larger arts organizations have the luxury of the division of labor, but, for independent artists, these tasks all fall to the creator and his or her collaborators. Presumably, this is where passion steps in.

 

Of course, artists have made things work one way or another throughout the course of history. This is nothing new, to be sure. But one has to wonder what the art would look like if they didn’t have to simply make things work. “The quality would be better,” muses Rogers. “You’d have the opportunity for more depth within the work.” For dance certainly, pieces might look more polished, performances could have more than just a few nights per run, and the work itself could be more fully realized, the concepts more fully explored.

 

Unfortunately, we do not live in a utopian artistic world—nor would such a utopia create a healthy artistic ecology. Creativity thrives under a certain tension, from constraints financial or otherwise, and completely eliminating these pressures would not be uniformly conducive to better art. While the work would look different if artists could make a living from it, the issue is not solved by simply dumping money into it. The question of who should subsidize this work—the government? the wealthy? the art consumer?—remains, but perhaps we can find ways to fund art that doesn’t make the artist the primary financier. Ways that don’t require artists to divert creative energy into working multiple jobs, source revenue from their social networks, or rely on competition for a small pool of resources. Though the DIY method has been enormously successful in some cases, it is not sustainable for artists or their communities. A change of course necessitates a larger societal shift to placing greater value on the arts. A collective realization, as Scott puts, it that art “is labor, and therefore has a value that is material as well as abstract.” This realization must be accompanied by action, where we collectively agree to pay for the value of the artistic labor we indulge in. Though the particulars of this shift aren’t clear, it starts with discussion, Mrs. Matthiessen’s list and propriety be damned.

 

One comment

  1. Continuing to think about this issue, and especially about the shift to individual fundraisers. As you point out, the development of web-based crowdsourcing tools is having an exciting flurry, but you’re also right about the potential for overuse and burnout. In Seattle, the auction fundraiser was a solution to a problem in the 1960s when a group of local civic boosters held one to dissolve the debt left over from the World’s Fair production of Aida. That group became PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations), and their annual auction raised significant amounts of cash for local causes, the arts included. Alongside developing their fundraising tools, they also created a decent system to administer those grants — for years, getting through the application process for PONCHO was a stamp of approval in local fundraising circles.

    But success inspires replication, and over the years, the auction fundraiser became the go-to mechanism for all kinds of projects, especially anything that had the potential for social connections. When schools (and individual programs inside schools) started holding their own auctions, the whole scene just exploded — where in the past, you got touched to buy wrapping paper or cookies to support someone’s school play, now you’re invited to their auction. We are over-auctioned, and as they are spreading out, they seem to be dying out in relationship to the organizations that were the first to use them. Ironically, PONCHO discontinued its event in 2008, and closed up shop altogether in 2013 (Jean Godden’s article in Crosscut is a great overview of that history http://crosscut.com/2013/03/14/nonprofits-philanthropy/113360/poncho-jean-godden/)

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