I think Laura is right, and we do need to talk about this. On an immediate level, any slump in the economy that negatively affects the stock market will affect foundation endowments, which means grants will be smaller and harder to come by. If the economy suffers, people have less disposable income, or are less free in disposing of it, which will impact ticket sales. When people are suffering in our society for economic reasons, money gets shifted in that direction and away from the arts, which are considered "extras." If tax collections decline because there is less money in the economy, then school budgets decline as well, and arts education suffers.
The fact is that the arts live on the fat of the economy.
But Laura wants us to deal with this on the personal level, not just the macro level. "I'm not saying that we should come up with a public policy position on the matter. I'm talking about dealing with this problem both in our work and in our lives."
So much of our conversation tends to be about money and how it impacts our artistic choices and opportunities. It seems to me that there are several possibilities every time we create a production:
1. Lose money
2. Break even
3. Make a little money
4. Make a lot of money
The first option might have the most artistic freedom: if you are planning to lose money, and you can afford to lose money, then you don't have to compromise in any way. For this option to be effective, it helps if you have an independent source of income, which has been the case for many theatrical pioneers. Stanislavki, for instance, was the scion of a fairly wealthy family (although he had to run the family business as well as the Moscow Art Theatre during the early years). However, if you don't have an independent income, then losing money is something you can only do for a certain amount of time before you wear out.
Breaking even is often the goal of small, independent theatres. If they break even, these theatres feel they've done well. When the balance sheet is tallied, the definition of breaking even usually doesn't include the value of the time put into the project, which is contributed by the artists. In this case, breaking even means paying for the space, the materials, the advertising and publicity. In other words, having ticket prices pay for all the non-theatre stuff. Like the previous option, breaking even works best if you have a financial situation that allows you to catch some rest between shows, or at least not do the break even shows in addition to a demanding day job. Like losing money, breaking even has a shelf life -- at a certain age, the contributions of time becomes more expensive, as your contribution begins to impact your family and social life and involvement in other activities.
Making a little money is cause for celebration. You're in the black, those who contribute their time get a little reward for their efforts and so are a bit more likely to continue to contribute their time , this allowing the process to continue. If you are really lucky, you start making enough money to allow a few people to reduce their day job hours or devote their time to the theatre full time. Often, the first person to get freed up is the one who handles the administrative aspects of the theatre, because nobody else wants to do that job, and there is a perception that a focus on these parts of the theatre will pay dividends in the form of increased attendance or increased fundraising. Hope rises in this situation -- a breakthrough seems possible if only the right show can get the right review. If that doesn't occur, then this version has a shelf-life, too, especially since those who continue to donate their time start to resent those who are getting paid.
Finally, there is making a lot of money. This is the jackpot moment that catapults a young theatre to the forefront. Usually, overnight sensations have been building through the previous three stages for many years. Once this happens, a different set of pressures arise, as artists often become fearful that the success won't last, and begin creating work that seems sure to continue the trajectory.
All four of these outcomes are based on looking at art as a commodity, as something that is created and packaged to be sold within the marketplace. Once conceived of in this way, all of the traditional commodity aspects come along with it: branding, increasing customer base, competition from other brands, etc. Since many theatres exist within large cities, expenses are high, competition for the attention of the public is fierce, and alternatives are many.
My question is whether there is a way to disconnect from the commodity economy. Is there a way to make the arts less a product? Is there a way to move the arts into another type of economy? For instance, while still based in a money economy, a church doesn't really sell a product, but rather something else -- an experience? A shared identity? An extended family? [Etch-a-Sketch erase*] In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken talks about a workshop that took place at a large agricultural chemical manufacturing plant, where the attendees, all employees of the company, were intoruced to the "spaceship Earth" model and then put into groups and given a goodly amount of time to create a spaceship that was enclosed, needed to be self-sufficient, and had to last for 100 years. One of the interesting things is that the employees created a model that took along actual artists rather than a stock of DVDs and CDs, because for a 100-year self-contained trip they wanted people who could contribute new stuff that pertained to their journey. How might we get our artistic contributions looked as in this way?
Since the 1960s, studies have shown that the arts in the current capitalist economy cannot support themselves. Since then, our response has been to seek contributions to make up the difference, but such contributions ebb and flow according to the strength of the economy and to the focus of our society. In many ways, we have come to rely on the kindness of strangers, an approach that has worked for us about as effectively as it worked for Blanche DuBois.
So the questions that Laura leads me to is how to disconnect from the global economy as much as possible, and build on a more solid footing. There are economists and social thinkers who have written about things like barter, local economies, local currency, collectives and co-ops, intentional communities, and a wide variety of alternative economic approaches. Given how ineffective the current artistic economy has been, I wonder whether we might want to experiment with these alternatives. After all, it's not as if the status quo is working for most of us.bu
* I have decided that I like the image from my childhood of how you could create some image on the Etch-a-Sketch, and then erase it and start over.]
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