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The Phantom Seats of Philanthropy

If the defunding of arts were to become a nation-wide reality, what charge would it put on artists?

We’re not opposed to arts funding, in fact we’re in the midst of multiple grant applications as we write this! But the system, as many other systems in our country, is corrupt and must be challenged by those who have the power and imagination to do so.

And do so without asking permission.

We view artists as anthropologists. Their role is to absorb, observe, reflect, defend, oppose, and challenge; to study the making of cultures close to home, throughout the globe, and across the universe. 

Let us imagine: government and private funds previously designated for the arts redirected to initiatives of cancer research, clean water, poverty, human trafficking, education—arts in education. If creative non-profits ceased to exist, where would these insightful, compassionate people put their energy?

In an exponentially expanding society the ability to disseminate creative ideas is easier and more accessible than it has ever been. This means there is abundance: more people are able to pursue their artistic and unconscious lives. The means and mediums of artistic production are not only available to the privileged, as it has been in previous eras. Artistic production has been democratized. This means more art, more artists, and especially, more imaginative thinking.

The influx of art (excess supply), however, cannot exist in any current economic markets (little demand). We must imagine another value system that empathizes with and warrants agency to the individual while adjusting their compensatory expectations.

From this very thesis, over the past six months, Buran Theatre toured its work, Nightmares: A Demonstration of the Sublime, to communities throughout the United States without soliciting government, private, or institutional funding as well as individual donors. We asked ourselves: would it be possible to tour our work without raising any funds? Would we be able to tour to communities and invest in the artists living there by involving them in the process and imparting our ethos? Would taking just the box office receipts be enough to fund our way to the next city?

We put our heads down and from January through May 2013 the core of Buran Theatre (Adam Burnett, Jud Knudsen, and Nick Kostner) went to work, taking on numerous freelance gigs, saving our tax refunds, and draining 401k(s). Our model for the tour was to spend, at most, two weeks in each city, recasting the show entirely with local performers, designers, and laborers, presenting the re-imagined Nightmares for two nights only, which seemed most efficient: opening and closing. Bam.



Our intent was to do our work exactly the way we wanted to within the confines of the available funds, without sacrificing quality or aesthetics. The only donations we took were in-kind, for lodging or meals and drinks offered during the course of our travels. These findings—financial, practical and anecdotal—will be released in our case study, “Funding your Own Imagination,” in the coming months.

This model is dependent upon the absolute willingness of the leading participants. We could not operate in this manner if we had even the slightest inkling that any of us would go back on our commitment to devote our whole selves to the project. This is the first obstacle to overcome. Once you have that trust you can cultivate everyone you work with in a similar fashion. Buran’s cultivation of community comes from falling in love with fellow artists and their homes and making the promise to return as often as we can. Our performance training is based upon the innate presence and impulses of the individual, which allows for the truncated rehearsal process. To elaborate a bit, when we tour we do not lead our actors through a rigorous rehearsal process—we trust their presence and what they innately bring to the table. It is this sense of presence that allows us to insert any person into any role, regardless of body type, ethnicity, or skill set.

This, more than anything, is the hallmark of our work.

Due to this process we have seen firsthand, from Brooklyn to Lawrence, Kansas to Los Angeles, how vital and alive theater can be. The show, the act of performance, is really just a conduit for a larger conversation where we can see and hear one another, over drinks, across a table and face-to-face. The separation we construct in the performance is the attempt to destroy, to reach above and beyond the anxiety of social and cultural structures. Despite what happens in front of the foot lights and how we feel about it, theater is for peopling energy toward a shared design. This is the sacred space of theater: the possibility for transcendence with others.

If we consider the value of this interaction—people in a space in a place at a predetermined time—perhaps we can rethink value: professional artists making work from their own earned income. If we defund the arts this will be required, that is, until we are able to cooperate, to work together to make a theater that requires the audience and a true collaborative kinship amongst artist of all disciplines. Not just theater artists—but architects and printmakers and ice sculptors.

What does this theater look like?

It’s not pretty. It’s not polished.

We have been bamboozled to believe that art is supposed to be clean.

But it shouldn’t! There should be piss on the floor and tomatoes in the air.

The dollar sign has mandated cleanliness. And money is not as real as the dollar sign. Anyone who has generated a budget knows this.


So, let us imagine a theater that needs the audience and an audience that needs the theater. Let us consider defunding the arts. Let us imagine a reciprocal ecology that grows and fails and experiments and sustains itself by creating an actual marketplace for the imagination with a value disassociated from monies. Let us reach out across disciplines and aesthetics and support others with a generosity of spirit that extends into the generosity of humanity.


We contend that contemporary theater is largely a false market supported by philanthropy’s phantom seats and unless we want to really invest in letting it fail with the support of funding, we ought to pull the rug out from underneath. Zero reimbursement. Pure philanthropy. Unless philanthropy can move away from the model of funding successful products (returns on investment), we have to move away from philanthropy altogether and investigate what lives on the other side.

The phantom seats of philanthropy have made us envious and jealous of opportunity. It has made art a game of competition. It has created a business model of unreal expectations and subterfuge. We pettily envy fellow artists in light of their “successes,” losing our generosity of spirit.

Education points artists in the direction of the competition for opportunity. Young people arrive in the professional world of theater making—whether commercial or independent—with valuable tools but with little agency other than conforming to how others want and need to see them. Non-profit and commercial theaters alike take advantage of this and devalue the actor, director, playwright, and designer by pilfering their time and energy, promising them exposure and no pay. These individuals eventually find themselves in a circular pattern of self-torture and unhappiness, attempting to make their bodies/brains/hearts do things they are incapable of and with absolutely no agency.

The artist, whatever they have to offer, should be set free by their imagination: “make your demons work for you.”

When Buran Theatre develops a new theater work, which can take a year or more since we work in a satellite system of performance communities, all participating artists get compensated monetarily for the premiere. Certainly not as much as we’d like, but it does happen. And we make sure it happens, even if it comes from our own pockets—from Adam’s day job as a grants writer and Jud’s day job as whatever-he’s-doing-this-month. Rather than seeing this as burden, this has been an opportunity of empowerment: treating others as we want to be treated by imparting our ethos as a model for creative agency in pursuit of a life and a lifestyle.

Theater making is not a career. Perhaps it can be, but this is not something one can truly plan for or expect. It is a lifestyle. A huge, fruitful lifestyle that can exponentially expand. That is, it can, if you’re willing to forgo financial expectation.

So, let us imagine a theater that needs the audience and an audience that needs the theater. Let us consider defunding the arts. Let us imagine a reciprocal ecology that grows and fails and experiments and sustains itself by creating an actual marketplace for the imagination with a value disassociated from monies. Let us reach out across disciplines and aesthetics and support others with a generosity of spirit that extends into the generosity of humanity.

If we can imagine a world where our theater’s seats have been ridden of the phantom funder, then the word sustainability might have meaning again.


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The question of how to fund the arts--particularly arts at the edge--will always be hard. The reason is, like science or medicine, most new ideas are steps along the way. It ALL struggles for funding because very few people will pay for exploration. Look at Elon Musk, one of the most creative geniuses of our time, made his initial money with PayPal. That is what allowed him to establish SpaceX, an idea that Musk says was inspired by Isaac Asamov's writing. We see the connections only in hindsight.

Thanks guys! The artificial economy of the arts has made it counter intuitive to take risks for fear of offending the wrong people, or losing the theater "palace" you've created, or, worse still, risking your comfortable life. That theater hasn't embraced movements like the Occupy or even the Tea Party is more a sad comment on theater and the value of creative discussion of issues than it is for the extreme divide in politics - left or right - in America. We need more people like you who recognize and are tired of the comfortable lull of our current theater system. There are some people doing it, but too few, and too far in between. We need to stop focusing on what we don't have, and do much more, much creatively with what we do have. Whatever we lack, us artists seem to always somehow boil over with passion. I hope it doesn't take the complete loss of arts funding for artists to realize that the only constant in theater's battle with diminishing audiences and financial resources is theater. We're the ones to blame, not the audiences or the philanthropists. Cheers!

Thanks for this very provocative piece. Philanthropy in the

business world is likewise, a huge concern, because it is offered in lieu of

legislative reform, so it enables the same dysfunctional democracy to

continue. I’ll argue that like philanthropy, theatre is disconnected from relevant action rather than functioning as an agent of change. With the huge number of individuals working in theatre, it would be inspiring to see some solidarity in terms of intent, and I’d be thrilled to see multiple institutions

joining to leverage theatre’s capacity to affect the central issues of the day,

such as corporate personhood/Citizens United and money in politics/elections, in

other words, to see theatrics extend beyond a single play’s opening and closing,

and beyond the scope of an individual company or playwright’s success toward

larger efforts that couldn’t be addressed by a single company or an individual.

It would be inspiring to see theatre engage in real conflict or extend key conversations.

There are so many plays “about” this and that, and such

expense of energy and funding goes into soooo many productions. I’d love to see

collaborations that extend the power of theatre toward interventions in life

situations. What if twenty theatres committed to supporting one NGO’s effort or

teamed up to support a piece of legislation? I’m not saying small can’t be good, but I’m also curious what we can do collectively. What if the public couldn’t escape a Nationwide

initiative collectively sponsored by theatres. What happened if theatre dreamed

large? People complain that OWS is disorganized, but the many branches are

extremely focused and organized and becoming more so by the day, not to mention

they are increasingly networked and supportive of one another in essential


It’s kind of surprising that theatre hasn’t taken some

inspiration from television and its tactics, since TV reaches huge groups of

people. With the vast number of existing

theatres, networking would seem to be a more frequent event. Sure, there is

some cooperation among commercial theatre in terms of joint promotion of a

single work, but there is little theatrical collaboration and a surprising lack

of investment in the potential power accessed through such larger

collaborations. Although I can recall some instances of cooperation, such as the

simultaneous staging of a single work, I can’t think of a single example of

theatres banding together to tackle political reality. Themed evenings of

ten-minute plays are touching, but this isn’t really what I’m talking about.

It’s still a group of individuals creating, without a greater plan. Perhaps

someone can fill me in if I have overlooked something extraordinary that happened

as a result of theatre. I’m aware that the Foundry Theatre has managed to get

work done in their community, but I’d love to hear of other examples.

I share your concern that theatre remains insular and

theatre practitioners remain concerned with their own successes, and this makes

for some boring and inactive work.

The networked activism between branches of OWS is extremely interesting;

the conversations between people trying to figure out how to DO something

relevant, and then the actual steps of DOING it, and the conversation about how

to do it more effectively eclipse anything I could see in a theatre.

I like the spirit in which you are making this argument is strong. You might want to invest some time looking into the history of arts funding beyond the American nonprofit system to see what models have been explored. For example the patronage system of Europe, which some people buff, but I think could be interesting.

There is an interesting book called "The Revolution will not be Funded" that could be interesting for you. I think there is some space some where for co-op theatre making models, which is almost where I think you are leaning towards.

The fact of the matter is that the nonprofit structure didn´t make art-making competitive, in the western tradition, it has always been so. In fact, you could make an argument that the nonprofit theatre system has done more to democratize the theatre industry that it has done harm. Also, most funders understand and accept the nature of risk taking when funding theatrical season, and do so. Maybe you are thinking of funders supporting smaller, newer organizations? Plenty do...NET and TCG to name a few.

I struggle daily with the whether or not our industry should stay a charitable one, at least by society´s definitions (see definition of 501(c)(3)...mainly because a lot of your points here. The reality is that without it, we would see even more discrepancy between larger theatres and smaller artists collectives.

There are some very interesting ideas put forth here, however I can't help but feel myself pushing back. You talk of those who would support the arts as corrupt, yet were you to truly remove grants and donors from the arts marketplace, the marketplace would eat itself. As you admit - making theater takes $. Not every artist working a day job can successfully juggle said day job and art-for-art's-sake ad nauseum. Theater companies would eat one another alive in their attempts to survive.

You yourselves admit that you're currently applying for grants in order to create the kind of theater you believe in... which tells me that the receipts on your performances were not substantial enough to continue to self-fund as you propose we artists should do. And while it would be nice if society took better care of itself/demonstrated more compassion for one another/and created a system to provide for all, it seems to me such systemic changes would require a complete revolution of political/cultural/economic thought. In the meantime, many artists are already living as you outline - we have "day jobs" & make art, in the hopes of someday being able to afford to do less of the former and more of the latter. What you're proposing doesn't seem to be very different from the artist's "life that already exists" - rather, you seem to be encouraging artists to accept their fate or make art at the expense of their own meager savings with no plan to rebuild them after the money is gone. I'm sorry, but until there is a network in place to make art possible and affordable sans these "phantom philanthropists" you speak of, the philanthropists continue to be key to allowing us day-workers to make any art at all.

I'm all for for-profit arts and more autonomy for the artist, and basically everything else you say here, and I really do think that more artists should consider this route. However, I don't see how seats filled by people paying a philanthropically-lowered ticket price are "phantom." Each donation a company receives is the price that a particular person or foundation is willing to pay in order to keep the arts in their community. It is a very real expression of demand.

I agree with you 90% of the way. I've hammered out a life in the arts, starting in this manner as part of Duck's Breath Mystery Theater... However, for this to work fully, we need a society that takes care of the basic needs of it's people. Most artists don't mind sacrificing themselves for their art, but when a spouse or child needs medical help, it's a hard person who says, "Good luck with those bills, I've got some shows to do..." As I get old enough to see friends younger that me in the obituary and worse, friends who have strokes and are incapable of caring for themselves, I have to ask that question... what will I do? Sorry to be a downer. I love your energy and determination and agree the fight is to build a society that takes care of everyone to a basic degree.

Hi Jee Jee,

The core of the company all have day jobs to support the work. One of our company members spent a few years working in a position which gave him the opportunity to start a 4o1(k). This is what made the tour this past year possible for him. But it needn't always be a 401(k). It takes years to make any significant gains, but in his case, it worked out. Thanks for the question!


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