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Centering Artists and The Development of New Work

Producers within the Creative and Independent Producer Alliance (CIPA) place the artists’ voice and needs at the center of our process. Many of us work exclusively or primarily in the development of new performance with generative artists at each project’s helm. Those of us who were part of CIPA’s initial organizing (Tommy Kriegsmann, Linda Brumbach, Alisa Regas, Mara Isaacs, and many other titans in our field) have held the process of developing new work—hand in hand with incredible artists—as some of the most important and satisfying work we can do as producers.

Because of this, new work development and centering the artist have become two of our leading values as an emerging alliance. As we collectively work to rebuild the field of contemporary performance, particularly with respect to new work development, we must simultaneously operate on local, national, and international levels. It’s critical that we advocate locally to get resources into the hands of artists to create, as well as build national and international networks to help disseminate the work.

Resources are always scarce, but it feels like we’ve found ourselves in a strange position during these elongated pandemic times. Arts organizations seem to have access to more unrestricted support than ever before. With the recent rollout of the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), even independent producers—as long as they’ve built some form of operating structure around themselves—have received grant funding in amounts that would have been unimaginable before the current crisis.

This funding has been transformative for organizations like mine: Los Angeles Performance Practice (LAPP). My organization first, and primarily, functions as a national producing entity that works hand in hand with generative artists across disciplines in performance. Secondarily, LAPP is a local arts presenter with a seven-year track record of producing a curated ten-day performance festival and a sprinkling of other smaller-scale presentations year-round. In addition to these two primary activities, we host a series of service-based programs for local artists in an effort to build out a more robust system of support for independent artists in Los Angeles county.

Seven people sitting on a lit-up rooftop.

Miranda Wright (far right) with audience members at Ace Hotel DTLA, LAX Festival featuring House Music by Jennie MaryTai Lui and Andrew Gilbert. Photo by Gema Galiana.

Our small, artist-focused organization has always struggled to adequately cover overhead costs and administrative needs as we aim to produce ambitious projects with artists who are under-resourced and carry high financial risk. The position of the independent creative producer in our field, ultimately, has become to absorb the risk (alongside the artist) of creating anything new. In most cases, unless an artist has access to family wealth and capital, the amount of available project support in our field is inadequate. The vision and chewy ideas of our most interesting and dynamic artists nearly always surpass the funding and resources available to support them—especially if you consider the artists involved to be highly trained professionals in a field that values advanced degrees and innovation. They are almost never compensated as such.

I have benefited greatly from stabilizing organizational grants over the past several months including an SVOG grant, which is now my organization’s largest grant to date. These funds have allowed me, as an independent and creative producer, to find personal financial stability in the short term and the funds have allowed LAPP to dedicate renewed time, energy, and resources into reimagining our artist-centered structure and model. But I recognize I have benefited more from these resources than any individual artist I work in service of. While these incredible, stabilizing sources of funding are going to make a long-term difference in my ability to support emerging artists, they are not necessarily making an immediate impact on my ability to produce large-scale, visionary, or innovative projects that artists are beginning to imagine again.

What would our field look like if this level of organizational or institutional support was always present? Now that organizations and established producers are finding new modes of stability, however temporary, how should those funds be prioritized? Better yet, what might the field look like if high-level resources were allocated directly to the generative artists and independent producers who are creating the content the field is built upon? What could our future look like if funding and resources were allocated based on what artists tell us they need?

Several initiatives have emerged that are worth examining as we collectively rebuild our field: CIPA’s New Work Development Network, an ambitious producer-led platform that aims to robustly support new performance projects at varying scales; the International Presenting Commons, a presenter-driven initiative to ensure a future for international collaboration and exchange hosted by HowlRound; and a sprinkling of independent initiatives happening nationally in support of building out local infrastructure for specific geographies—most often driven by smaller, less-resourced, artist-driven organizations and independent producers.

Local, national, and international initiatives each require attention and resources. How is our field’s funding community paying attention to each portion of our ecosystem? How is capital distributed across these three priority areas? Where are our artists’ needs centered and where are their voices included? How is each initiative attending to the generation of new work that desperately needs to be cultured and developed?

Artists—and the independent producers they may work closely with—might be the only members of our field who truly feel the weight of this work. So who better to design the next iteration of national artist support?

A New Work Development Network

The New Work Development Network (NWDN) has grown out of a series of think tank sessions. Organized by CIPA members, Tommy Kriegsmann, Karla Brom and Tyler Rai, these sessions were in conversation with producers, artists, and presenters from across the United States. Kriegsmann’s framework predates the development of CIPA, but is being well served by engaging thought partners across CIPA’s growing membership.

The current team behind the NWDN aims to “align the quality of support for new work development with the health of our creative ecosystem.” They write: “It is crucial that the resources available to us are culled, evaluated and strengthened on a steady basis to provide the maximum support possible for the development of new projects.”

The leading goals of the NWDN are built around reinforcing our field’s shared responsibility in buttressing and championing the development of new work by contemporary artists. Collaboration between producers, artists, arts presenters, and funders is necessary in order to progress this work. All of us have something on the line and something to contribute to this effort.

How will this initiative be different from those that already provide critical support for new work in the United States? Ideally, artists and their producers will drive the NWDN’s process by being at the center of how the program is designed and how future resources are allocated. The power pendulum must shift from the presenter to the artist. After all, it is the artists who will imagine and create the work and experiences that we don’t even know we need yet. The NWDN is still taking shape, and while I don’t know how the initiative will ultimately unfold, I know there are dozens of incredibly smart people who are relentless in their support of artists working behind the scenes to manifest this vision.

Developing new work requires a surprisingly wide range of resources and I’m not sure all members of the arts presenting field are aware of the risk, complexity, and pure grit involved in the process. Artists—and the independent producers they may work closely with—might be the only members of our field who truly feel the weight of this work. So who better to design the next iteration of national artist support?

To fully develop new work with an artist requires a full matrix of partners who contribute only a small slice of the full pie. As producers, we develop relationships with independent residency centers, local donors, foundation program directors, presenters at varying scales, academic institutions, and local rehearsal studios. We often need to secure a premiere partner well before the project is fully funded, and while the artist’s ideas are still percolating. We commit to contracts a year or more in advance without truly knowing what the production needs are or what the company size will be at the end of the day. We have to get creative when planning housing for artists coming in from out of town to work on a project and we often learn how to maximize frequent flier earnings so we can supplement travel costs that we’re told are otherwise “out of budget.”

There are also questions that arise around power and authority. Who will decide which artists, producers, and projects participate in this new network of resourcing? How might this idea scale to support a larger number of deserving ideas? What can the geographic reach be? How are equity and access considered? Who is already positioned to benefit and how can the network ensure preexisting relationships, preferences, and modes of operating are challenged?

Designing a new model to counter the extractive systems we’ve relied on for decades is important. Kriegsmann and his team have been gathering feedback from producers, presenters, artists, and advisors as they design a new matrix for national support that looks holistically at the development process. The challenges are endless, but the potential is worth the effort.

A Critical Need for Local Infrastructure

For over a decade, Los Angeles Performance Practice has been working to create systems and infrastructure to support the development of new work by Los Angeles–based artists. These projects have the potential and capacity to resonate in national and international contexts and spark creative and critical conversations between artists and audiences—both within Los Angeles’s communities and through exchange platforms with artists and artist-driven organizations in other cities.

LAPP’s Live Arts Exchange (LAX) Festival was positioned as a platform for city-to-city exchange between artists, audiences, curators, and patrons. We completed an exchange year with artists in Mexico City in 2017 and with artists in Philadelphia in 2018 and 2019 (in partnership with Sarah Bishop-Stone and her organization The Philadelphia Thing). These locally anchored and artist-driven projects were rich and meaningful, but not entirely robust in terms of what we were able to offer financially or technically. We often worked in rented venues, many of them open warehouse spaces or nontraditional events spaces. We have relied on friendly loans of equipment, and have received limited grant funding in Los Angeles. The festival truly operated on goodwill and twenty-dollar ticket sales. Even so, the festival platform has become an important opportunity to gain greater visibility as a local artist in our city.

After months and months of living in a pandemic, Los Angeles artists have lost so many artist-run spaces that had previously been central to experimentation and early project development. In response to the pandemic conditions in Los Angeles, we offered a handful of online opportunities for artists to connect with each other, as well as local arts leaders, to attempt to identify future dreams, needs, and current challenges. We are currently in the process of relaunching our LAX Festival as a “gentle reconnection” between artists and audiences after a long time apart.

Miranda Wright standing in front of a California state flag.

Miranda Wright at the Bootleg Theater. Photo by Gema Galiana.

Over the past year, we offered the self-guided Research and Development Residency Program that provided artists with financial support and assistance from our team in identifying a place to work. The residencies were not tied to any specific architecture, space, or parameters. We met with each residency artist, either virtually or in-person, to review their budget, establish a residency timeline, and identify the location of each residency based entirely on where their needs met our available resources.

These were small efforts, which we were able to offer only because of grant support. Artists in Los Angeles—and I suspect most American cities—have feeble levels of resources available to independent artists for the creation of new work. An artist’s ability to generate work that lives up to their vision is deeply tied to the local infrastructure available to them as an independent artist.

I often hear my colleagues group New York and Los Angeles together as coastal cities where the arts are thriving (compared to cities in the middle of the country). Based on a data-driven research initiative LAPP is currently leading, I challenge this assumption. Access to creative capital must be reframed. We can objectively evaluate support available to independent artists for the generation of their new work, based on the distribution of major national grants and awards, the frequency at which local arts presenters support local artists, the availability of local residency and development opportunities, and more. The data exists, and it points to something really important: artists who live in cities where resources and local presenting opportunities exist to support them receive more national project grants, major artist awards, and national/international touring opportunities.

Our current research initiative compares local infrastructure for independent performing artists in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. We’re examining the geographic distribution of national project grants (MAP Fund, Creative Capital, the New England Foundation for the Arts’ programs, and the National Performance Network Creation Fund), as well as local presenting opportunities, local residencies available, and local family foundation grants that an individual can apply to directly. When viewed with population in mind, Los Angeles is severely underperforming. For example, according to our early research, artists based in New York City have received nearly eight times the amount of funding from major artist awards compared to artists in Los Angeles, despite a comparable population count (five boroughs compared to Los Angeles county). New York is more on par with Minneapolis when assessed as a city where the arts are robustly supported.

We are finding that local infrastructure is everything. In Los Angeles, we are paddling upstream, with zero local foundation grants available directly to individual artists, minimal city funding directly available to independent performing artists, very few residency opportunities (those that do exist were largely hosted by other artist-led organizations), and very few robust presenting opportunities that offer adequate fees for artists. In our study, we’ve found the Los Angeles ecology of support for artists to underperform San Francisco.

Establishing local support for artists in cities across the country should be viewed as the foundational base of the work we need to do as a field. In my mind, nothing is more important; this is the most effective strategy for fostering diversity and equity in the field. I can think of several examples of artists who, when advocated for and supported by a local institutions, have reached new levels of national visibility—which often comes with expanded access to national resources and performance opportunities. At a national level, robust local support leads to a more diverse field through nearly every lens (geographic, racial, gender, age, career phase, ideological perspectives, etc.).

As producers, presenters, arts funders, and artists, how might we capture the opportunities for change and growth presented by this moment to embrace the synchronistic calls for new systems of support at international, national, and local levels?

Synchronicity and Network Building

Local infrastructure means very little without a national/global network to connect to. As passionately as I feel about investing locally, I recognize that we cannot allow artists to live in geographic silos. Creative exchange matters. Connecting artists in Los Angeles to those in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Milwaukee, and New York, has immense value for our national culture.

International exchange is also absolutely critical in our global society. The International Presenting Commons (IPC), which I am proud to be a part of, has emerged to address the dire and urgent restraints related to international presenting and exchange that pandemic-induced travel restrictions have exacerbated. International festivals have been so fruitful for United States–based artists looking to connect and learn from artists in other parts of the world. And, when United States–based presenters are able to host international projects in our venues and communities, portals of curiosity, global engagement, and empathy are opened for artists and audiences alike.

All of these efforts are critically important to the health of our field and our ability to produce urgent work at fitting scales. As producers, presenters, arts funders, and artists, how might we capture the opportunities for change and growth presented by this moment to embrace the synchronistic calls for new systems of support at international, national, and local levels? This work requires broader and direct access to capital for artists and independent producers—in addition to the support garnered by organizations and institutions.

To redesign a system of care for the development of new work—one that places the artist at its core—we can no longer afford to work within the systems that have failed us in the past. We’ve seen an outpouring of emergency response funding over the past eighteen months, and have each made commitments to “build back better.” Now is the time to resist our old habits, impulses, and limitations and lean into deeper collaboration and partnerships that center the needs of generative artists. Let’s work together to create robust systems of support locally, within the very real contexts of national and international exchange.

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