FROM TC: In August 2009, the Collective Arts Think Thank -- "a loose collection of contemporary performance stakeholders" -- posted a letter to the field, outlining what they thought was working and not working in the industry.  The following is an excerpt from a "sequel" that CATT has spent more than a year putting together.  For space reasons, I am only able to excerpt a small portion of this large document and encourage you to read the rest on their website:


Commentary: A follow-up letter to the field

Collective Arts Think Tank website, 3/17/11

Issues on our mind right now:

  1. Artists need to embrace the fact that they control the product and supply side of the contemporary performance economy.
  2. They have been doing themselves no favors by giving their labor and products away for free without any strategy or long-term plan beyond making "this show".
  3. By undervaluing the artists and their product, we are all -- artists, presenters, and funders -- tacitly creating an ecosystem that has as its foundation labor paid for by unrecognized sources from outside of the "Arts Sector".
  4. How do we continue to sustain the ecosystem on diminishing finances without devolving to "just let the excess die" strategies.

Assuming that contemporary performing arts are an ecosystem...artists are stuck at the bottom of this food chain.... The artist is fully complicit in this. They are desperate to get the gig, because there are so few gigs to be had. They convince themselves that they should be grateful for the opportunity, grateful to be paid anything at all and that "everyone is in the same boat."  Art is a profession; and artists who do not get paid are not professionals. Period.  We say this not to impugn the unpaid contributions made by artists in our lifetimes. We are simply trying to hold up a mirror to our own practices, and to challenge any conscious or unconscious justification on the part of arts organizations, funders, audience members and artists who place the moniker of professionalism (from which they extract tangible value) onto work for which the creators are not paid.... We thought it would be good to imagine a field in which "professional" means "paid" and paid at least half-decently. For the purpose of this posting, we are starting with an hourly rate of $20 (incidentally, the typical hourly wage of a regional airline pilot).  While the viability of this rate depends on where you live, our perspective is that of living in New York City, where $20 per hour is just above substandard when accounting for the cost of living and real estate.  What would happen if everyone working in our community was paid at this level for every hour worked?

(1)    It would take more time to raise enough money to pay everyone at this scale.
(2)    We might end up with less work being made.
(3)    Everyone in the entire ecosystem -- from receptionist at a foundation to development director at an institution to dancer on a stage -- might get paid equitably and not have to subsidize their process with as much income from outside the arts sector.
(4)    There might be more demand for the work in the long run.

SO HOW DO WE DO THAT?  [Read more here.]

Commentary: Please don't blame (only) the artists

Linda Essig, Creative Infrastructure blog, 3/20/11

There's a lot to agree with in [CATT's] manifesto, but there are a few things to argue about. 

What I agree with

  1. There is too little attention paid to actual costs at every level of the "food chain."  Funders, presenters, artists, collaborators and audience need to acknowledge the real cost of making art.
  2. [Although they are] "at the bottom of the food chain," artists have a lot of latent power. 
  3. Artists -- and their collaborators -- should be paid a living wage by arts organizations.
  4. Artists should view themselves as entrepreneurs, and develop a business plan accordingly.

What I question

  1. "Artists who do not get paid are not professionals."  Why measure one's status as a professional by money, especially when money is so hard to come by. 
  2. Although artists have latent power in the production stream, control of the means of production is one of only several bases of power over supply.  Others include control of information and control of resources.  The artist controls neither of these.

Two other thoughts

  1. We can't really talk about the oversupply of artists, arts organizations, or artistic product without talking about the oversupply of training programs.  Why are there so many MFA programs, if there is not viable employment for them? 
  2. A performing arts ecosystem is a local ecosystem.  The CATT members write from a specific New York-centric perspective.  There are people making interesting work in urban -- and rural -- enclaves throughout the country, but in each region or city, the arts "food chain" is unique. 

 = = =


Commentary: Risk vs. reward for artists

Lee Liebeskind, 2AM Theatre blog, 3/17/11

As artists, we don't look at failure as a stopping point or a wall, we look at it as a bump or curve in the road.  It's something we look at, learn from and move forward.  We use the "failure" as something to propel us towards our next step, or at least we should.   In our rehearsals, in our artistic processes and even in our journeys in creation, we look at the times we failed and learned what not to do in our process, what to do differently, and even, "why didn't that thing I thought would work, work?"  Even theaters both large and small are turning their "failures" into success by the discussion of them.... It's hard to talk about failure in a financial climate this bleak.  It's hard to see institutions that do hire and pay hundreds of artists a year -- we can argue the living wage/pay scale some other time -- think about risking its financial status.  I am not a crazy dreamer thinking that all theaters should be bold and produce a new play no matter what.  No.  I am a big believer in theaters sticking to their missions.  I think as we move forward in these next couple of years, the conversation that I want to be having with my fellow artists is "Risk vs. Reward".   I feel it's our job to not follow the pack in how things are done, but as artists it is our job to have the discussion and lead that discussion wherever it goes.  We shouldn't shy away from the topic of "Supply and Demand" but I feel a little worn out from that discussion for the past couple months.  Let's start "Risk vs. Reward" and "Can We Fail Successfully?" Let's talk, how far can we truly risk?  What are we willing to give up to take the risk  Should we be risking anything at all?  Can we risk or is that for someone else to hopefully do?  Is Failure even on the table?

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."