Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Money and Art

Over at Gasp, Laura Axelrod draws our attention as artists to the current economic crisis. "It will affect you and your work," she writes. "Something with this kind of impact will change our culture. It will alter the way society sees itself and the world." Isaac followed with a post entitled, "Money, the Arts, Etc" and Matt Freeman discussed "Laura Axelrod on Money and the Arts." [Update: another contribution from Adam Thurman at Mission Paradox.]

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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14 comments:

Adam said...

I posted a few thoughts on art and the economy here:

http://missionparadox.typepad.com/the_mission_paradox_blog/2008/09/the-money-question-in-the-arts.html

Tony Adams said...

It's not easy to disconnect, if you're not independently wealthy and have a massive student loan debt.

That's the biggest issue facing young adults, and the biggest failure of higher education.

Once an organization is up an running things could be easier. But starting off without money coupled with massive debt makes it really difficult.

That is the biggest step missing from your tribal theories and would be a great area for focus.

Scott Walters said...

Tony -- Surely it's not any easier to NOT walk away while carrying student loan debt.

I totally agree that student loan debt is an issue. That's why I have been decidedly anti-MFA program, especially high-dollar MFA programs. I just don't see how it is any easier to play the theatre game as it is currently laid out than in some other model.

As far as the tribe idea is concerned, I wouldn't argue that model is the magic bullet. What I am saying is that we need to start thinking outside the box, instead of everything coming back to "we need more public arts funding" and "we need better marketing."

Scott Walters said...

By the way, just to keep this real: I just made my last student loan payment on the first of this month. Fifty years old -- last student loan payment. So I DO know what you're talking about.

Laura said...

My question would be this: what is a community willing to pay to have produced at their doorsteps? What does the community value? Here, there's a huge premium placed on locally grown organic produce (yes, I know it's popular with the trendy and wealthy everywhere, but here it's borderline obsessive). It's important to eat apples grown in central New York, for a variety of reasons. With our entertainment, it's not necessarily so important where it comes from, because the effects aren't really felt locally by anyone except the season ticket holders to the lone summer stock company and the artists who pack up each fall and move back to wherever they came from. People don't buy local apples just to support one specific orchard owner; they see a bigger community value - one that also affects THEM personally - to it. So I think we need to step outside the bubble of the people who are already theatre patrons. We need to make them value local art as much as they value local apples. Because financial stability isn't going to come from those who are already supporting us. It's got to come from those who aren't when they realize that they want to keep what we're doing where they live.

Scott Walters said...

There is an interesting model in David Diamond's "Theatre for Living." Diamond is a Canadian. While he produces one mainstage production a year, the rest of his productions (which are based on Boal-type work, but with an underlying philosophy I find more compelling than Boal's) are the result of an invitation from a community to come into their community (or within the home community) to address an issue. How would the ballgame change if an arts organization produced only after an invitation? In other words, instead of "pushing" a product out to the community, if we responded to a community's call. Of course, that has huge ramifications in a lot of areas, but focusing solely on the economic -- well, it changes everything, too.

What if nobody invited us? Ahem. Well, then it would be pretty clear that we need to rethink from the ground up, right?

Freeman said...

I'd agree that we need creative models. I just think that divorcing ourselves from the economy is just not realistic.

You mentioned Bill McKibben in a posting, and I'm a huge fan of his. I also think that the idea of local economies is one that can do a lot of good. But these small, local economies still function like larger economies on a smaller scale. The principles are still at play: supply and demand, jobs, loans, capital needed for investment. It just becomes all closer to home.

All "new" economic systems seem to be hybrids of existing ones. China has had an effective capitalist system while having strict centralized controls. Our economy has been the template for many economies, but has been taking hits due to deregulation. The idea of the Invisible Hand is obsolete in a world where wants have replaced needs and much of the money made is by way of trading ideas as opposed to goods (bundling and trading high-risk mortgages for example).

We can't pull backwards from the industrial revolution or even the technology revolution. We need to become relevant to the place in which we live, which is this economy, right now.

I'm not against experimentation, of course, and I'd bet it's possible for a group of artists to become important to their community and find ways to function as a collective that's not primarily based on the production of "product."

But "product" has a long history. The Greeks were putting on entertainments. So was Shakespeare. Many famous painters and musicians were fueled by the grace of individual wealthy patrons. American artists are often seduced by tales of deeper subsidies for the Arts in other countries. But at the end of the day, the question comes back to where the funding comes from. You can grow your own food, but you've still got to pay for the land. You can have land granted to you...but by whom? You can share your wealth, but from where is that wealth originally derived?

I think the best solutions tend to be both socially minded and economically wise. We should promote the arts (and we agree here) as more than just one more thing to be traded on the market. We should seek and promote the acknowledgment that Artists are fundamental to a healthy society, and that systemic support that helps remove market pressures on artists is not only important, but necessary.

But we should also see how we can utilize real economic forces to our advantage. Construct arguments about how theater adds to the local economy (brings people to restaurants and shops); how it adds jobs (designers, builders, professional musicians, actors, lighting rentals, food services); how it improves education. Think hard about ticket prices and other ways to draw income.

Early on in the writing of my blog, I talked about the wine industry (can't remember when) and how it could be used as a model for theater marketing. If you think about wine, it wasn't until well into the late 90s that wine became wholly embraced by the general population and a part of the popular culture.

Part of this was the popularity of the movie Sideways, I'd bet. But theater if film is rarely advertised as anything but comic and idealistic. There's little love for the stage is popular cinema that's not tongue in cheek.

But the other thing wine did was to actively promote its complexity as a sort of "inner circle" of which you could be a part. Everyone has a favorite wine now, everyone uses the almost-cliche phrases of wine-expertise ("I'd like a wine with a great nose that's full-bodied.") Wine promoted inexpensive bottles that were great. The wine industry became inclusive, inviting, without sacrificing its identity. It said "This is an exciting and cool club and we want you to be a member."

At wine shops, free tastings are at the very least weekly occasions. Magazines devoted to wine are both entertainingly snobby, and down-to-earth.

What changed? Not wine. But how wine approached the market and how the market responded.

I don't think we need to change our work or remove ourselves from the culture. I think we need to become more effective communicators WITH the culture in order to thrive in this, or any, economy.

Scott Walters said...

Hybrids are fine, Matt. You're right: you can't walk away from the economy entirely unless you are going to move to the woods in Montana and live in a cave. But you can walk away from as much as possible. If you grow your own food, that is money you don't have to earn. One of the major changes that happened in rural economies was when they switched from subsistence economies (where your focus was on growing enough food to feed your family) to cash economies (where you grew enough of one or two things to sell for cash to feed your family). That's a big switch, and led to monocultural farming, industrial farms, and the diminishing of the farm economy overall.

So what? Change is continual. If we recognize that a particular approach to economy is destructive of those things we hold dear, then we can still change them. The fact is that non-industrial farms are more productive per acre than industrial farms. The fact is that a diverse crop leads to greater yield, a healthier permaculture, and a diversified system that isn't so likely to fall prey to factors beyond its control.

In theatre, despite all the different styles of theatre that are out there, we have a monoculture as far as how we approach production, and how artists relate to the community.

In a comment above, I outlined David Diamond's model that relies on an invitation from the community to produce -- that's a difference that costs no money to make, but requires a change in our relationship with the community. The Greeks weren't putting on "entertainments," they were part of a festival that was initiated by the community, and the artists were not professional artists but members of the community. The same was true of the medieval mystery plays. Moliere and Jonson wrote masques; Paul Green wrote pageants that, in the first 1/3 of this century, were very popular and also very experimental. We have come to regard a market-based model as being the only one that existed, and it simply isn't true.

Here's another: artists have to eat. Instead of raising money to pay them to buy food, ask for donations from gardens, homebaked bread, invitations for supper. In other words, go around the cash economy to a barter economy. For everything? No. But every little bit helps, right?

I think promoting the arts as an engine for the economy is fine, but at the same time we have to realize that the same arguments can be (and are) used to support public support for sports teams, theme parks, and just about anything. The general public hasn't really bought into those arguments from the arts, and unless we figure out a better way to make that argument, I don't think they will.

I really don't think it comes down to marketing and communication. I think there is something more foundational.

Regardless, examining alternate business models may lead to more diversity in our approaches to theatre, and more diversity in the artist-audience relationship. And as any environmentalist knows, a more diverse environment is a healthier environment. I think that applies to the arts as well as to the ecosystem.

Director said...

On a semi-related note, I paid off all my student loans this week. I'm debt free! I'd like to thank myself for all the hard work and dedication I put into this job--err.. who am I kidding? I lucked out with an inheritance. (Thanks, Aunt Estelle! RIP).

As for the economy, your ideas make a lot of sense, but at the same time, how practical are they?

Freeman said...

I think diversity is the right approach, and that means inviting all solutions. The fact is that the public HAS bought into the argument that sports teams help their economies. Smaller communities might find something on a smaller scale attractive using the same argument. I don't think that it's an argument we're making as a whole, so I don't think we can say that the public has rejected it. I think you're right when you say that most theaters operate under the same assumptions of fundraising and sustainability, and it's true that one model does not fit all. That doesn't mean some organizations don't function well on grantwriting; it just means not everyone can.

I agree that artists can be smarter about how the accept donations of things beyond cash. But I think independently, both of us are proposing band-aids on a broken back. We can't reshape the artistic economy purely through smarter marketing, that's true. But we also can't reshape the artistic economy by being better gardeners or collectively getting invited to supper more often. It's a combination of better outreach, stronger marketing and communications, and a stronger connections to the local communities that will likely work.

Scott Walters said...

Congrats, Director! Great feeling, ain't it? Did I mention that I just paid mine off two weeks ago? I did? Well, let me say it again: I paid mine off two weeks ago!

OK, to your question: practical. Well, define that. And define it in terms of the current options -- just how practical are they? Seems to me that the bar is pretty low as far as practicality is concerned, since we work in an industry with an 86% unemployment rate, an audience that is shrinking, and a business model that requires a constant cash drip!

Admittedly, I am writing in terms of a small or rural community, not a Nylachi economy. The costs in Nylachi are so high that I find producing there far less practical then in other places.

Scott Walters said...

Matt -- We may be using the same word -- "outreach" -- to describe two parts of the same elephant. getting invited to dinner would be pretty good outreach, wouldn't it? Let's say that there was somebody who was a fan of your theatre, and they decided to have a potluck dinner for their neighborhood and the artists of the theatre -- mightn't that be as effective (or even more effective) than taking out a newspaper ad?

I think the back is broken, but the break has occurred at the level of the artist-community connection. This is the level of purpose, the level of relationship, the level of communication. To that end, I am suggesting that we shift from the commodity-based approach which tries to create audiences via advertising to a relationship-based approach where we try to create audiences through personal contact. A switch from the impersonal to the personal, the indirect to the direct, from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. That's the trend that's worth exploring. If you go to a farmer's market, not only do you get fresher, locally-grown produce, but you also have many times more personal contacts than going to the grocery store -- people talk at farmer's markets, to each other and to the various vendors. That's something we ought to learn from in the arts.

We can't change the artistic economy solely by growing vegetables and getting invited to dinner, but it also won't change from any single thing. It will be an additive process, a series of little things that are conjoined around a central value or philosophy. And I think that central philosophy has something to do with disconnecting from the global commodity mindset and going back to a more local, interpersonal, experiential approach.

Rex Winsome said...

Scott, i'm with you, and i encourage everyone to look at the punk rock model of arts production.

Punks drop out of school (avoiding debt) live comunally (avoiding high rent) perform illegally in basements, abandoned warehouses and various other shitboxes (avoiding high venue costs) connect with the blue collar masses (shared poverty can unite people) and create more cutting edge art than even the universities (if you doubt this claim, dig a bit and i bet you'll find a thriving noise scene hidden in your own community).

Theatre people can tap this community. I spent two weeks traveling to the east coast this summer, performing a full length (1 3/4 hours long) highly intellectual brechtian play in punk houses and warehouses, in an alley and a city park. It sucked sometimes, booking a tour like this is a bitch, cuz venues are totally unprofessional and unreliable (they've all got day jobs too, and are running their spaces at a loss) sometimes we rolled into town and there was no one there, no promotion for the show, no local bands, no audience.

But othertimes, it worked like gangbusters. Sometimes there were kids who came up to me before the show and asked "wait, so insurgent theatre is actually doing theatre? You're not just a band with a clever name? Wow." and then came up afterward and said "that was the most amazing thing i've ever seen, holy shit!"

The tour on the whole lost money, and most things happening under the punk mode of production lose money, but the key is: we're losing less money, and we're totally prepared to lose this money, and (this is the most important part) more and more, people are sticking it out in this lifestyle.

For example: i just cut the hours in half at my already totally stress-free slacker day job, moved in with two roomates to cut my rent almost in half. My roomates and i just got back from spending two weeks sleeping on the floor or couches at venues we'd performed at, and i'm planning another trip of this type now. While on this tour i turned 30.

I've been saving half my paychecks to fund future theatre endevors, should we hit a rough spot and paying down my student loans (which i regret accumulating) at probably four times the required rate. I'm completely prepared to stay at this slacker job and use it to fund my artistic life until i die if needs be, and i am not alone in this sort of sentiment.

Obviously, my consumption levels are ridiculously low, but they are also ethical. I shop at the co-op when i can. I don't eat meat. My slacker job is at a non profit. I am always looking for more opportunities to step out of the capitalist economy, and my theatre (the play we're touring with) deals with the complexities of these lifestyle choices.

Rex Winsome said...

Another thing: on stadiums vs art.

Richard Florida has endlessly described how much better street level culture is for a cities economy than building stadiums or convention centers. Yet cities continue to do the latter instead of the former.

I think to some degree this happens because city governments are stupid, and are working for a general population that is stupid, a general population that in addition to being stupid also despises street level culture and "art". That's because street level culture and art are often critical of society as a whole, and these poor fools hate being shown how stupid they are.

But, i see the current economic woes as a potential opportunity. The housing market crash is pretty strong evidence to suggest that society as a whole deserves some serious criticism. It's possible for artists to serve the public, talk to them straight, and create a relationship in which they trust us more than they trust the government, or the corporations who have so obviously ripped them off creating this mess.

Look to chzech theatre, Valcav Havel.