This is About Us, Not About You
A Call for Action
This post is part of a series exploring what it's like for an artist to have an entrepreneurial mindset, and all of the different challenges that can come with it.
It’s time for us to stop dilly dallying, theorizing all day long, and pointing at quantitative data as an excuse to sit on our hands and wonder why the performing arts community has a huge poverty mentality running it into the ground. I’m not in any way above this. Ever since I decided to be a performer on as much of a full time basis as possible I’ve been struggling financially. But I’m tired of just talking about it.
I write this series as a way to generate conversation and awareness of how imperative it is to get serious about understanding the business fundamentals as much as possible. I want to point out the main objective that I reference but want to get really loud about: we can’t make an impact or significant change without each other.
It’s time to up the ante on ourselves as artists and willingly claim responsibility for where the field is headed. We are a part of this, not merely spectators, sidelined by the people who have more business prowess.
I’m currently in the process of writing a book that goes into depth about how we need to build a systematic and pragmatic movement that focuses on collective ownership in the performing arts; a movement that can’t be ignored. Education from artist-to-artist is a key element and it needs to be done in small groups face-to-face. Yes, group manifestos are a good start. Yes, debate about the right approach is necessary. Yes, people from all economic class systems and identities need a voice at the table. Yes, this won’t necessarily be easy.
But it’s completely possible because there are models from various Do-It-Yourself record labels to music collectives to larger worker-owned cooperative companies that provide excellent frameworks and inspirations of both successes and failures that can be examined. Movements like Occupy have a distinct reputation for being unorganized, but the positive repercussions of focused offshoots like Strike Debt wouldn’t have happened if that initial outrage hadn’t been expressed. It’s time for us to work in tandem towards building a vision of shared values and financial/sociological worth that makes waves.
We’ve become complacent through armchair activism, expecting Facebook threads that argue over audience numbers and community building will somehow reveal the next steps towards momentum. Action is not a sedentary experience. It’s time to have uncomfortable conversations face-to-face about financial transparency, festival failures, organizational implosions, and the folding of black boxes whose executive directors got their appendixes taken out from working eighty-hour weeks.
It’s time to then shift that conversation towards models of sustainable endurance and cooperative thriving. A landscape of de-siloed organizations that share resources and data without question. Working groups that include artists, community members, and advocates from ages five to ninety-five that get clear about what community expectations are as well as the confusions spring up around how the performing arts are experienced. A movement towards cooperatively-owned infrastructure that creates stable and affordable working spaces for decades to come, not temporary live/work band-aids that gentrification rips off without hesitation.
Two solid examples I can point to are the Art x Culture x Social Justice Network (ACSJN) and the New York CIty Real Estate Investment Cooperative (NYCREIC). ACSJN focuses on the three specific action areas of Race, Place, and Evaluation. By getting specific and having an administrator as a point person to facilitate conversations between the leaders of each subgroup, there can be room for dynamic exploration while staying grounded. NYCREIC is as grassroots as it gets, leading the charge to collectively own commercial spaces in Brooklyn by pooling funds and giving voting rights to members at ten dollars. The most important and crucial part is the Working Groups. By sharing responsibility and upping the use of creative skill sets, forward momentum and visibility are front and center.
We can try and live in the brand of the Creative Economy or distinguish ourselves as the Arts Economy, one that shares resources and networks with the former, but has a value system and inherent sociological benefit that is distinguished in its visionary engagement and cannot be measured in dollar signs alone. We then have to demonstrate how that benefit affects our overall culture on a crucial level. We can’t rely on large service organizations with ties to regional and national economic development to do this for us. We need to create our own sense of advocacy—an ongoing teach-in that creates so much awareness that it cannot be silenced or ignored, that cannot be a blip that fades in social media feeds, but instead creates a steady, strong current that ebbs and flows through our communities.
One way to do this is to flatten the hierarchy that we abide by. The system of gatekeepers is only in place because we let it be. Take these three greater/less than examples:
Arts Presenter >>> Booking Agent/Manager >>> Artist
Funder >>> Nonprofit >>> Artist
Training Program >>> Financial Aid >>> Student
Imagine if every performing artist in theatre, music, and dance collectively decided to go on strike during the summer festival season. Most presenters and organizers would never recover. They would yell about contract obligations at first but quickly scramble and switch to groveling—something artists do both consciously and unconsciously all the time. Can you see what happens when the power dynamic gets turned on its head? I’m not advocating for this scenario in the slightest. I’m demanding a level playing field where artists are respected as leaders and advocates for the field as a whole, as self-selecting members of a collective movement that understands how to use a group-enhanced creative skill set to build a framework of honest equity, where we all take responsibility for the overall health of our peers.
Enough of the “You’re so talented. You’ll totally make it” and applying three years in a row for a grant that you have a 20 percent chance of getting the first two tries. It’s time to up the ante on ourselves as artists and willingly claim responsibility for where the field is headed. We are a part of this, not merely spectators, sidelined by the people who have more business prowess.
We can change this for the better without leaving anyone out. We must change this so as to become allies across the spectrum. If the “I” is dead and the “we” is alive and well I ask you this:
What are the three main focus areas we as a field of performing arts practitioners need to focus on? What is crucial and needs absolute attention? What three objectives can be chosen that feed into one another, that by solving aspects of one can lead to revelations of the other two? What’s our plan of action?