Artists, Institutions, and the Decline of Public Discourse
Last spring I was asked to lead a panel that would foster a conversation between artists and institutions to address ways to bridge what has become an ongoing and growing divide between them. This all seemed pretty straightforward, and by no means some progressive or cutting-edge agenda. One minute before the panel was to begin, an arts administrator from a large regional theatre approached me threatening to close down the conversation. I was so stunned that I could hardly figure out what he was saying, but it went something like, “You’re fueling a divide here and it’s insulting to arts administrators and I can’t sanction this conversation.” I felt bullied and shaken by this confrontation, but because we’re living in America under the rule of a democracy, I decided to go on with the panel conversation anyway.
Recently my colleague David Dower found himself in an imbroglio about script submissions via the New Play Institute’s blog. I can’t bear to rehash that argument here because it left me feeling so beleaguered, but the disturbing part came in watching the response from artists who see themselves as outsiders to a perceived abundance of institutional theatre. What became clear was that the emotional content of the argument wasn’t really about David’s actual words on Arena’s submission policy but was really rooted in a lack of confidence in Arena’s ability to tell the truth. As one respondent put it, Arena is part of the 1 percent and these artists are in the 99 percent and never the twain shall meet. In a joking exchange on Twitter, #occupyarena was actually floated.
Arts administrators don’t want to be bothered talking about how artists feel disenfranchised anymore because they find the conversation both insulting and passé, and artists don’t believe what arts administrators have to say so why should an arts administrator bother to engage in the first place.
My two disturbing moments taken together, in what I will admit is a bleak interpretation, amounted to something like: arts administrators don’t want to be bothered talking about how artists feel disenfranchised anymore because they find the conversation both insulting and passé, and artists don’t believe what arts administrators have to say so why should an arts administrator bother to engage in the first place. All I can think is we’re mimicking congressional politics. We’re all happily ensconced in our immovable worldviews and we’re willing to manipulate whatever the other side says to prop up our own vantage point. This form of public discourse is straight out of certain disreputable news rooms most of us complain about. Our own discourse is no more fact-based, careful, or informed. As artists and institutions, we are actively participating in the decline of public discourse taking over our nation. And frankly, I think we should stop it. But it’s no surprise we find ourselves here. Diane Ragsdale on her Jumper blog recently wrote a post responding to last week’s “shocking” report Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy. She argues that the report is hardly shocking:
I by no means want to suggest that it is a waste of time to periodically document the fact that private funding for the arts continues to primarily support upper middle class white people. This is, perhaps, a message that needs to be transmitted continually if the situation is to change. And, as the report accurately suggests, this issue is becoming more acute as arts funding fails to keep pace with dramatic socio-economic changes that are occurring.
Ragsdale points out that an almost identical report was published in 1983. We went about business as usual for almost thirty years and then published this report that says essentially the same thing. The first report didn’t have much impact, why would we think this one will? But what I want to focus on in Ragsdale’s comments is the notion that things are becoming more “acute" in the battle over resources and funding.
In the midst of dramatic socio-economic changes the fear we all feel about our precarious place in the world impedes engaging in honest and respectful public discourse. Our fragile emotional state makes true dialogue almost impossible. In both of my opening examples, what I can see most clearly is that our interactions are driven by irrational fears and a profound distrust. In this irrational and, might I say, dramatic moment, the Haves in our field seek to run from all of this Internet transparency because for all their abundance they fear they have everything to lose. They become obsessed with protecting their riches. And it’s no surprise that the only class that has gained anything from our limping along economic “recovery” are those that we blame for causing this mess in the first place. They are stockpiling their portfolios.
In the meantime… The Have Nots are embracing all this transparency, blogging, and tweeting, and exposing the shady behavior of the Haves because they feel they have nothing to lose. The hope is all this transparency will lead to the fall/death of the Haves. The example most often cited (I’ve used it myself) is the power of Internet transparency as evidenced in Egypt and the end of the Mubarek dictatorship led by a Facebook/Twitter revolution.
And in what feels like an unbridgeable divide, all Haves seem smug and all Have Nots seem whiny. But the question we have to ask ourselves is are we planning to fight each other to the death? Or perhaps because we are living inside of a democracy, (albeit barely functioning) the Egypt analogy isn’t quite apt, and we need to consider a solution other than a complete overthrow of existing institutions. We need a solution that acknowledges the interdependent nature of artists and institutions.
And in what feels like an unbridgeable divide, all Haves seem smug and all Have Nots seem whiny. But the question we have to ask ourselves is are we planning to fight each other to the death?
Depending on your vantage point your opinions will differ on where my voice fits in this, but I must stop and consider it because how you ingest this intervention into the conversation will inevitably be influenced from where you sit and from where you think I sit via where you sit. If you’re an artist reading an online journal like HowlRound on a break from your unrelated-to-theatre day job, it’s likely that you’ll see me as a Have. And you’re completely right in this assessment. I’m now in my second job with a multi-million-dollar theatre. I am well compensated for my work and I have merged my day job with my artistic aspirations (sort of, anyway). I also have access to resources to make theatre in the various ways I define that.
If you’re perhaps not reading HowlRound because you’re in charge of a multi-million dollar theatre and have little time for the transparency of the blogosphere, you’ll probably perceive me as a whiny Have Not. You’ll be annoyed to see me harping again on the issues of disparity in our field and find my critique of the regional theatre movement as overly corporate and in an ethically compromised state as simply naïve.
But Either Way
I could go on at length about where I perceive myself on this spectrum. I’ll only say the thought that I’d be perceived in the 1 percent of anything except maybe in the 1 percent of people with exceptional tattoos is shocking to me. But either way I have some suggestions for both sides of the artist/institution divide.
To the Haves:
- Write your ethics statement today. I’ve said this before in this journal but I’m going to say it again—this business of not-for-profit theatre requires something different in the approach than what the corporate sector has to offer us. We chose this line of business—the particularity of the not-for-profit venue—because we believe our work transcends mere commerce. We believe we’re offering some value to the communities we serve. It’s time we define that value in the form of an ethics statement that addresses issues of salary disparity, diversity, ticket pricing, subsidiary rights, and enhancement money.
- Be certain when you’ve completed your ethics statement that you’ve properly categorized yourself as a not-for-profit. You might in fact be a commercial operation parading as a not-for-profit. And that’s okay. Just own it and embrace your organization’s truth.
- Become obsessed with ways to bring more theatre artists into your institution. Build partnerships with local companies, give your space away when it’s empty (yes, I know that’s really hard to do, but find a way dammit), and give away tickets to your artistic community when seats are empty. Concretely assess how much money you put back in artists pockets with a particular eye to how you support local artists because that was the point of building theatres across regions! The regional theatre movement started because the Ford Foundation among others sought to create the circumstances for artists’ lives to be sustained in communities across the country.
- Keep a sense of humor. Don’t threaten to close down conversations. Don’t squash what frightens you. Generously embrace the artist/institution divide and be a positive force in helping our field to navigate our way through these tensions. Navigate with levity and grace.
To the Have Nots:
- Get way clearer about who the enemy is. Do your homework. Where are truly egregious things happening? Where are resources being wasted? What are the problems in this business that need our full attention? Let’s focus.
- Think of every blog post or comment on someone else’s blog as a privilege. We are pioneers in a remarkable moment in history where what we think and believe can be known to a broader audience in seconds. We have a platform for participation that is entirely new and one that has the capacity to launch our voice and our creativity out into the universe with impact. More than at any other time in our history it might be fair to say that more individuals than ever before have the ability to change the world but in this new world order every word we post matters.
- Admit right now that all institutions aren’t bad. Assess which institutions matter to you, which ones you want to be a part of and which ones you never need to think about again. For the institutions you decide you care about: actively seek ways to make them better.
- Keep a sense of humor. Don’t throw stones from behind your computer and carelessly judge institutions and their people as your nemesis. Generously embrace the artist/institution divide and be a positive force in supporting fellow artists to make their way through these tensions. Navigate with levity and grace.
We have our work cut out for us. We’re in a strange time where regardless of our vantage point, we see the enemy everywhere. Recently a YouTube video made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. In the video, Judith Butler, a well-known academic theorist is addressing the #occupywallstreet crowd. She is reading her remarks from an iPhone. The comments about the video have little to do with what she is saying but are more focused on the “evil” device in her hand, “She holds big business in her hand and condemns it with her mouth…total hypocrisy.”
But is Judith Butler really the enemy? Her committed scholarship over many years has contributed to broadening and deepening our conversations about gender and sexuality. We’re not listening to each other. We’re weighing in with a fat accusatory thumb on the scale of judgment. We’re jumping to conclusions, overreacting to untested assumptions, and not giving anybody the benefit of the doubt, let alone common courtesy and respect for a difference of opinion. But if we’re as creative as we say we are, let’s harness every last creative drop in our blood and imagine a new public discourse. Let’s show our colleagues in other disciplines and our political leaders what the embodied and live nature of theatre has to offer the world.