Commentary: What can we do to help more artists succeed?

Excerpts below are from The Field's 2013 e-book "To Fail and Fail Big: A Study of Mid-Career Artists, Success and Failure." Jennifer Wright Cook, The Field's Executive Director, writes at the outset:  


A desire for success is the seed-start of any artistic process. "Success" for one artist might consciously or unconsciously translate as a desire for a clear artistic vision or tantalizing language or dynamic narrative line. For another artist "success" is a stellar review in the
Times, a generous MAP Fund grant or enough box office income to pay back your college loans. Most likely, it's several of these desires rolled into one. Success's next-door neighbor, however, is failure. The desire not to fail is primal. It wins nearly every time. This Study is about five artists who lean into failure, who push against it hard with varying degrees of success and sustainability. This Study is also about the ways that success is often supported by privilege or thwarted by under-privilege; whether that privilege is economic, cultural identity, education, gender or class-based. The divide between who gets to be an artist, who can afford arts school or who can afford not to have health insurance is getting wider and wider.  We are losing people. We are losing their artistic revelations. But we can do something about it. This Study offers concrete actions and distinct dreams about what we (arts administrators, funders, producers, other artists, audience, donors, presenters, agents, etc.) can do to help.


Advice to funders and donors

' Give multi-year funding cycles that are artist-specific, not project-specific.

' Make commissioning money REAL money. $15,000? $30,000! Make it enough for the artist to really make the work; rather than just, essentially, a subsidized rental.

' Offer general operating support for the unincorporated. Having a 501c3 doesn't equal being professional.

' Offer more career-level specific funding programs la Jerome Foundation's support for emerging artists.

' Launch more of the large money awards like the Doris Duke Artist Awards and Impact Awards for mid-career and established artists. The Fellowships from Guggenheim, Foundation for Contemporary Arts and United States Artists are also crucial but they are all once in a lifetime. Many artists use this money to re-pay old debt that they racked up for being "successful" or from school debt.

' Stop relying so heavily on project narratives to determine funding. Pay attention to the art work. Invest in site visits and see shows. (Many narrative applications require high-paid development directors and have little to do with the artist or the art making. Or they privilege artists with a strong academic education; often from privileged families who can afford these schools.)

' Create a global database where artists can submit relevant information for a variety of grant opportunities once a year, and then have the grantmakers fish in that database for the information they want. Reverse the power structure from funder to artist.

' Nurture the producers! "Pay more attention to non-artist roles in the ecosystem -- producers in particular who have so few opportunities to learn, to stretch their own creative powers, to implement change."


Advice to presenters, producers, residency providers, service orgs

' Let artists "throw more stuff on the wall" easily and affordably. [But, at the same time,] does "work-in-progress" really mean that the artist can show something raw and unfinished and learn from the audience and the performance?

' Give multiple opportunities to experiment "[and] actually practice without the stakes being impossibly high...I don't see a whole lot of entities that understand this principle."

' Create more non-pressurized residency opportunities with more money attached... residencies with no pressure to produce. There are opportunities, of course, but this is New York City. We can do more.

' Give multiple opportunities to the outliers -- not just the "it" artists.

' Don't give the "it" kids too much too fast. Give them time to reflect and digest. Give them time to grow their voice and vision.

' Give more money for artists' fees to create and develop complex projects.

' Pay a real fee to teach (to the universities and art schools in particular).

' Some organization that could co-ordinate artist residencies with all the universities across the country that have empty studios for nearly 30% of the year.

' More extended developmental opportunities, more long-term residencies and partnerships with presenters.

' More investment by the big, established venues in early career and mid-career artists.

' An embracing of diverse and challenging work."Everyone knows this and pays lip-service to it...[but] people are driven by what is familiar and comfortable to them. I mean this in the world of 'experimental' work in particular... really original artists are almost certainly going to be doing things that I do not immediately recognize as worthwhile, so the imperative is for me to attempt to come to terms with whatever their aesthetic criteria and goals are, while relinquishing my own."


Advice to all of us

' Erase the borders between disciplines from a funding and press perspective. Artists and audiences don't draw lines. The rest of the sector needs to embrace that too.

' Stop focusing on the "innovative" or the "new."

' Stop pushing artists to professionalize or institutionalize. "Sometimes the easiest part is getting the 501c3 status or the infrastructure; rather than go back in the dreaded rehearsal room and face the vast empty and terrifying space."

' Be flexible -- listen to what artists say they need to make their own work, don't pressure them into assembly line art making.


= = =


In the UK, a start-up fund is helping nurture new theater producers

Matt Trueman, The Guardian's Culture Professionals Network, 5/20/13

How does an independent theatre producer ever get started?  Producing -- particularly as an independent -- hinges on contacts and the confidence of others, both of which must be earned. You're responsible for almost every aspect of a production, from casting to contracts, all of which require a certain know-how. That comes from experience and, as a new producer, it's the one thing you don't have. Producer James Quaife remembers these conundrums well. Starting out, he repeatedly met with scepticism from established industry figures: agents would question his age and inexperience; investors would ask him to come back to them in a few years, with something bigger and better. He had to ask actors to work at reduced rates. "It's difficult to get people to trust you," he says. "You have to have a catalogue of work -- a track record." 4 years on, the 28-year-old is co-producing his first major West End show, Barking in Essex, a new comedy starring Lee Evans and Sheila Hancock. It's a phenomenal opportunity for an emerging producer, made possible by 50,000 start-up [funding] (the biggest ever) from Stage One, a charity that supports producers early on in their careers. "The jump between the fringe or off-West End to the West End is a substantial one," explains Stage One's chief executive Joseph Smith, himself a commercial producer by day. "Mostly that's about money. You can produce a show in a 100-seat theatre off-West End for anywhere between 10,000 and 25,000. You cannot do it in the West End, even in a small theatre, for much less than 350,000."  The start-up fund is designed to make that jump possible. Applicants undergo a rigorous interview process and must match any investment with money raised independently, [and funding is] only open to producers who have already completed other Stage One [training or mentoring].

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