Hashtag Fair Wage in the Offices Near the Stage; Or, Wacky Ideas for Finding More Money So We Can Pay Theatre People More

Recently, one of the largest non-profit theatre companies in New York City (and in North America) put up a job posting for an Assistant to the Director of Development with a listed salary of $30,000-$35,000. There were no additional benefits specified. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, nor does this posting mean that someone will be getting $30,000 per year. It would be reasonable to assume that they are just posting the $30k scenario so that when they make an offer that’s slightly higher, the young, hungry development officer will be more likely to take the job.

It is not uncommon for non-profit theatres large enough to be blessed with a budget big enough to accommodate associate and assistant positions to pay those entry-level folks five-figure salaries that start with a three, or even a two. If you’re making $30k per year, assuming you’re working forty hours per week (which you almost definitely aren’t—probably more), that breaks down to $14.42 per hour to live in NYC. That’s not great, is it?

 

Theatre is all employees. We have sets and lights and costumes and venue rentals and stuff, and those costs are all rising steadily. But our incredible and uncompromisable dependence on live human employees, coupled with a Gowanus Canal of new funding streams, means this is some tough math to figure out.

 

Here are a few assumptions that, even with our cynical arts admin outlooks that make us wish we were fundraising for something easier like cancer research or starving children, we need to assume are true for purposes of this discussion:

1. Theatre is necessary, even in these dark times. We all have lots of work to do to protect our basic human rights and the rights of our fellow citizens. There are many invaluable non-arts organizations that we should absolutely be supporting with our time, attention, and (of course) money. But theatre is a literal space for processing, healing, cultivating empathy, being engulfed in a world that isn’t your own and therefore teaches you something new, among other things. We needed this before the 2016 US presidential election, and we continue to need them, as individuals and as a society.

2. Artists and arts administrators are equally necessary to making theatre.

3. Theatre is a business, and businesses need paid employees to run (which is to say that a volunteer-run theatre venue or generative company is not a sustainable model, even though some intrepid souls are able to do it and they’re heroes).

4. Artists and arts administrators are all working as hard as they can.

5. Artists and arts administrators all deserve to get compensated fairly for their time.

6. Artists and arts administrators both struggle with entry-level compensation.

7. There are perks and trade-offs to being a full-time versus a contracted employee. Yes, administrators have the security of knowing where their next paycheck is coming from and when (most of the time—I know there are lots of administrators who have had to delay a paycheck because of cash flow), but many of them are working well over forty hours a week all the time. To incorrectly paraphrase Karl Marx, it’s all bad.

8. Non-profits are being run well and their money is, first and foremost, going towards necessary programs. (I think there are probably case studies we could do where we break into some 990’s and ponder fundraising expenses in particular, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s believe the best in ourselves.)

8a. No one should get paid less. Even artistic directors making a six-figure salary are (probably) personally bringing in seven figures to the organization and are therefore (hopefully) indispensable. Maintaining earning potential is crucial to keeping folks working in this industry instead of running off to get an easier and better-paid job at Google. Plus, we should all be in this together and advocate for each other’s value.

9. The non-profit business model is a functional way to run a theatre. (This is potentially the most controversial thing in this section.)

On board? Theoretically? Maybe? Enough? Great, thanks, onwards.

Why is it like this?
Assuming those things are true, here’s one of the big problems: It’s not like artistic directors have some big swimming pool full of gold that they aren’t sharing. And it’s not like there’s some big swimming pool full of gold that we just haven’t discovered yet. Foundation funding is, as ever, shrinking faster than new arts foundations can replace shifted funding priorities or closed institutions. We’re all in the great race for new board members and the elusive major donor who gives four figures to tons of theatres and will give five figures to us. We all throw benefits that nearly kill event staff (if we’re lucky enough to have event staff). We’re all going door-to-door to sell program ads and putting in the legwork for corporate sponsors who almost always won’t get the exposure that they want from the audience sizes theatres can offer. We try opening bars, selling t-shirts, raising ticket prices without alienating audiences.

Professional being-right-person Fran Lebowitz once said that there’s nothing more expensive than an employee. Theatre is all employees. We have sets and lights and costumes and venue rentals and stuff, and those costs are all rising steadily. But our incredible and uncompromisable dependence on live human employees, coupled with a Gowanus Canal of new funding streams, means this is some tough math to figure out.

So what do we do?
Well, friends, I don’t rightly know. One thing that’s important I think is not suggesting that theatres do fewer shows. Fewer shows means fewer opportunities for artists, and ultimately limits the ideas we explore. This is a dangerous path for an industry that already has trouble with diversity. But here are my thoughts:

1. Transparency. Arts administrators: Talk about what you’re getting paid. Shame is a religious thing and has no place in a professional environment, except when you’re pooping at work like a barbarian. The only people who have ever told me not to talk about my salary are my bosses, and that’s an old timey union-busting trick (not to mention a great way to keep paying men more than women). I’m an artistic director at The Tank and I get paid $40k per year, personally pay for fifty percent of my health insurance, and in my ten years working in this business, have never had an employer contribute to a retirement plan outside of Social Security. I usually work around sixty hours a week, though last year it was regularly closer to eighty. I know I’m lucky to be getting the salary that I am, and to be in the position that I am in. However, I also know that this salary doesn’t allow me to do much saving for the future—for kids, for retirement, for travel. The transparency about salary in this business is shockingly low, especially considering that your earning potential will probably cap out at around $100k per year, unless you get a few coveted leadership roles. If you’re earning $30k annually, you should tell people. It doesn’t reflect on you, it reflects on your employers. A lot of people think arts admin jobs are cushy because of the security in them. Don’t be afraid to let people know that isn’t always true.

2. Payroll tax…? I didn’t know this before I personally began running payroll, but your employer has to pay taxes on your salary to employ you. Non-profits are exempt from paying or charging sales tax, but not from payroll taxes. There is a dollar-for-dollar match contributing to each employee’s Social Security and Medicare, in addition to federal and state unemployment taxes that employees don’t pay. Your employer ends up paying the government around 11-14 percent of your total just for the privilege of your company each year (in addition to the taxes that are withheld from your paycheck and paid out by your employer).

There are non-profits in America, arts and otherwise, who pay more in payroll taxes every year than what they receive in the form of government grants. Even with the public support we receive, it can still more expensive to be a non-profit in America with employees than America is capable of subsidizing. I’m not saying that the purpose of government grants is to subsidize payroll taxes. They of course aren’t meant for that. But purely from an income/expense comparison, the government gives us money and a large chunk, if not all, if not more than that has to go directly back to the government. Cool!

Let me say this: I am not a tax expert. But! If I were an activist and not an overworked administrator, a big thing on my agenda would be replacing the payroll tax with a carbon tax, an idea brought to my attention by Al Gore’s not-recent cameo on 30 Rock in Season 2 Episode 5 (“Greenzo”), which I was rewatching last week. Turns out this is totally a real thing.

The idea is that taxing CO2 emissions, along with cutting all tax breaks and subsidies and stuff, would ostensibly replace the 1.4 trillion dollars or so that the government collects in payroll taxes. Much of the payroll tax goes towards social security and Medicare, so replacing it rather than eliminating it is indeed important for employees in America who intend to get old. This hasn’t been a practical plan, because payroll taxes are pretty high and the impact it would have on other existing tax plans would be gigantic.

I’m no economist, but I wonder what it would look like if the carbon tax replaced the payroll tax for non-profits only. This would free up a substantial chunk of cash for non-profits that could go directly to the employees, instead of enabling the company to have employees, with money that I suspect would primarily come from manufacturing and Amazon shipping. Plus, it would incentivize the non-profit business model in general (which is, in my non-profit-based opinion, a good thing, since it means any profit or surplus goes back into company services rather than back into the pockets of the people who had enough money to back the venture in the first place).

How do we make this happen? I don’t know. Lobbying, petitioning, getting organizations like Fractured Atlas and ART/NY on board. Tax reform, America’s most exciting cause!

 

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3. Unionize: I’m no Sally Field—jury’s out on if you like me or not—but let’s spin this out for a second. What would it look like if arts administrators unionized? We know that finding new money would still be incredibly difficult, so this wouldn’t solve the actual problem of wages and benefits. But there is one thing it could potentially provide: advocacy for the importance of having paid humans running theatre businesses.

I think most fundraisers would agree that, while still not easy, project support is easier to come by than general operating support. Of course, you can write some GenOp expenses into project budgets, accounting for the percentage of the GenOp expense directly related to the project (if I’m applying for a grant for a play that a Literary Associate is going to spend 10 percent of her time on, we can put 10 percent of her salary into the project budget). But since 2009, crowdfunding financed more art in this country than the NEA itself. Crowdfunding is almost always project-specific (as are NEA grants, if you’re really going to get into it). But part of what that means is that the culture of committing to an organization over time as an individual donor—saying, “I’m going to give them $100 every year,” rather than, “I’m going to give them $100 for this show I’m excited about”—is a practice that is quickly becoming a thing of the past. GenOp is findable and attainable, but it’s tricky, and even trickier to stabilize from year to year.

Having an organization or a union that is dedicated not only to ensuring humane working conditions for arts administrators, but also to ensuring that people know that arts administrators are a worthy thing to be funding, would be a really incredible shift that could have a major impact on funder priorities and perception of the role of arts administrators as a necessary part of the artistic eco-system. This is a great article about what that could look like and what it could do for us!

A union would cost money, though, which is the whole problem. And it would be really worthwhile for someone to write an article about the ways in which other unions successfully and unsuccessfully support their members, because I think we can all agree it’s not a quick fix for labor problems in the arts. But isn’t it cool to imagine that there’s an organization you could call when you’ve worked all the hours in a week, or have to negotiate for parental leave, or need to report some office place misconduct? 

 

Having an organization or a union that is dedicated not only to ensuring humane working conditions for arts administrators, but also to ensuring that people know that arts administrators are a worthy thing to be funding, would be a really incredible shift that could have a major impact on funder priorities and perception of the role of arts administrators as a necessary part of the artistic eco-system.

 

4. Salary Caps. I know that above I said that we should be maintaining earning potential for arts administrators. And I do believe that, so bear with me here! In sports, they have these things called salary caps. Players can only be paid up to a certain ceiling salary (generally many millions of dollars). Some sports allow you to exceed that cap and pay what they call a “luxury tax,” where for every dollar you go over, you pay an additional percentage of that dollar back into the league. The goal of this is to help level the playing field for large and small teams, and can also set up funds for farm leagues where players are trained up.

I don’t think there are many arts administrators earning salaries that would make them eligible for a salary cap, nor do we have a union that could help with the redistribution of funds. However, with the rise of the #fairwageonstage movement, we’ve been hearing a lot about the often paltry salaries offered to actors in theatre. They’re right; they should be getting paid more, and it’s great that they got an increase this year in their contracts. But what if we had a salary cap on the movie stars that get cast in theatre plays? Matthew Broderick was getting $100,000 a week in The Producers, as was more recently Daniel Craig in A Steady Rain. That amounts to the equivalent of $5.2 million per year, and I think we can assume that they got more than that from other jobs that they were working.

What if we imposed an actor salary cap and luxury tax? Or what if we found a way to do that through the Screen Actors Guild? What if SAG imposed a luxury tax on movie stars’ salaries of millions and millions of dollars on a single project, and put that tax into a fund that specifically benefited theatre actors working in non-profit theatre? This wouldn’t raise arts administrators’ salaries, but it could free up some cash going towards theatre actor salaries, and in general, opening up new funding streams benefits everybody, including arts administrators.

So I don’t know, gang. If you find a swimming pool full of gold, I really hope you’ll let me know. Though I understand if you don’t tell me so you can pay your own artists and staff more, because this business model is one tough nut to crack. But you should know that I got paid $50 to write this, and you can draw your own conclusions about whether or not that’s money well-spent.

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Money well spent! Great ideas! Love the idea of a union! We are behind as an industry in so many different ways, like parity and childcare. There are wonderful new things happening like the way smaller non-profits are banding together like they do on East 4th St in NYC or ART/NYC. . . Thank you for your words.

If you are interested in a labor union for theatrical arts administrators one already exists. You should contact ATPAM, which is affiliated with the IATSE. http://www.atpam.com/about/ You can also contact the IATSE International at http://IATSE.net The IATSE is more than just stagehands and wardrobe. They represent anyone and everyone who works in the arts as long as you are not the actor, director, or the musician.

"Maintaining earning potential is crucial to keeping folks working in this industry instead of running off to get an easier and better-paid job at Google."

That is not a bad idea, get a high paying job in IT! But not Google. Google is one of those top tier companies where the hiring process becomes a weird form of selection process torture. There is a story to be told there.

Information Technology is its own little world with its own celebrities and forms of creativity, building an app instead of doing a play. In that world you are valued for your genius, something you will probably never get in the world of the theater. Anyway, the best minds of my generation are writing code, not plays.

First, let me say that I applaud your tackling the issue. I’m with you onall nine of your assumptions, and I’d like highlight 8a for later discussion:

“No one should get paid less. Evenartistic directors making a six-figure salary are (probably) personallybringing in seven figures to the organization and are therefore (hopefully)indispensable. Maintaining earning potential is crucial to keeping folksworking in this industry instead of running off to get an easier andbetter-paid job at Google. Plus, we should all be in this together and advocatefor each other’s value.”

So Rosalind, you gave us 4 ideas here. Two are ways we might be ableto help ourselves. Two are basically ways we can get the money from someoneelse. I’m going to re-order them with that in mind.

1) Transparency: Bravo. Most civilians have no ideahow little arts administrators make. Some have a remote concept of how tough itis to be an artist professionally, but know nothing about the nuts and bolts.Knowledge is power, but in advocacy self-protective secrecy iscounter-productive. Special kudos for jumping in first. People should know, andmany people will care and respond.

2) Unionize: As a past and current member of 3 differentunions, there are a lot of good things unions can do for you, and advocacy forthe art admin class would certainly be a good. But as you point out, they arenot free, and are always essentially funded by the industry they operate in. Ifthere is no money in the industry… we are back to your basic problem. Notenough funds.

3) Payroll Tax: A subsidy by any other name… Hereyou are simply proposing that somebody else should pay your Social Security andMedicare taxes. Regardless of how worthy you think the taxing mechanism is, noteveryone will agree with you about who should be on the receivingend of these new taxes. So you are going to find yourself in a massivepolitical fight about your intended donors. You could just create a new taxbroad enough that it will pull in most of the population – but then you are upagainst what we already know is the wide-spread reluctance of Americans to fundthe arts thru government. Americans are wary of government support for the artsbecause they don’t want to support SOME of the art they find out there. Artistsshould be wary of government support, because even if it is there, which itclearly isn’t, it will inevitably come with strings. Ideological or otherwise.

4) Salary Caps: Now we are back to item 8a from your assumptions. Artistic Directorsmaking big salaries are ok, but not Matthew Broderick. Ok, the numbers aredifferent: but the principle is the same. No producer will deliberately payanyone more money than that person can generate for the production as awhole – in this case by putting bodies in the seats. If they get it right, alot of people get work, not just Matthew or Craig. If they do pay too much,they go out of business. And nobody gets work. Want to change the scale and goafter movie salaries? The principle is the same: they get the money becausethey make the project possible, and all the other jobs that go along with theproject. Just as “artistic directors making a six-figure salary are (probably)personally bringing in seven figures to the organization and are therefore (hopefully)indispensable”.

I have lots of family working in the arts – it is undeniable that administrators in the arts are, for the most part, woefully underpaid. But forcibly removing dollars from non-artists thru the agency of the government is not the answer.

well re: 3, the argument here is actually about not just arts non-profits, but ALL non-profits. so the idea is to include orgs like food banks and planned parenthood in this re-thinking of who is getting taxed for what. part of what this would be doing is penalizing companies with large carbon outputs to ideally make progress towards slowing climate change - which i think we can all agree is good for the world - and also further incentivizing companies to operate with the non-profit model over a for-profit business model - which i would argue is good for the world because it places the focus on the WORK of an organization rather than putting profit into the pockets of investors. maybe anti-capitalist, and certainly unrealistic, but i think especially in the coming four years as america leans into capitalism, probably at the expense of democracy, finding ways to rally around ideas that take money out of the hands of corporations is in-and-of-itself a valuable action.

and re: 4, part of what i'm saying here is that the folks who financing sports teams are able to make it work. people who produce movies are able to find thirty-five million dollars to pay johnny depp; if there's a salary cap, they can decide if they want to pay a man who's already four hundred million dollars a little less, or also contribute some percentage of whatever is over the cap (which i'm sure will also still be millions of dollars) into bettering the industry. the argument here is that those producers certainly DO have the money, and should be held accountable not only for product they're producing, but also for the eco-system that product is a part of. again, not a capitalist argument, but if the NBA can make it work...

So much I love about what you are saying in this article about the critical situation of funding in all aspects of theater in the U.S. As a tiny, new, professional theater company in Houston, non-equity, we strive to pay our actors a living wage, and we are not there yet, but we pay what works out to than double the Texas minimum wage. We do not yet pay me, the A.D., director, development person, and chief cook and bottle-washer. We strive to reach a goal of $25 per hour for everyone. In my experience, each person in a theater company is critical, at least in small theater companies—from actors, designers, crew, tech, directors, front of house managers, business managers (if you can afford one), artistic directors and executive directors (if you have one). Each works tirelessly to provide what we at Next Iteration Theater Company believe, is essential to humankind for all the reasons you mention in your article:

"Theatre is necessary, even in these dark times. We all have lots of work to do to protect our basic human rights and the rights of our fellow citizens. There are many invaluable non-arts organizations that we should absolutely be supporting with our time, attention, and (of course) money. But theatre is a literal space for processing, healing, cultivating empathy, being engulfed in a world that isn’t your own and therefore teaches you something new, among other things. We needed this before the 2016 US presidential election, and we continue to need them, as individuals and as a society."

I have often thought about the "tax" on actors and industry people who make a hugely disproportionate salary in film or stage; on taxing the profits in a way that funnels back to non-profit theater and subsidizes the arduous, time-consuming and critical process of developing new theater, interpreting classics, bringing the human condition to the stage for the work of evolving as we are giving opportunity to see ourselves and cultivate critical reflection on who we are, where we are and where we are headed and if we want to go there. I think it must be part of the equation.

I love the work of Fractured Atlas, they make our work possible. They are well positioned, in my hope, not to form a union (which often does not benefit the smaller theaters) but to lobby for this very kind of tax, or other legislation that provides some sort of source of income to cover base salaries, etc.

What also concerns me in all of this is that, in the redistribution of wealth in the U.S., with fewer and fewer people having expendable resources, and the rise of crowdfunding which relies on the "crowds" having expendable money to throw at projects rather that companies and their ongoing work, we, as a nation have secured the inevitable demise of our creative theatrical and artistic economy. If we are dependent on the very tiny percentage of people who have philanthropic potential, how do we truly have freedom of expression in the arts and enough money to support the free expression of our creatives so they can live, eat, and thrive as viable members of society? Should we be operating this way? Do we even want to be? Isn't it necessary to have some way to distribute the funding for the arts and creatives in a way that is not about the biases or interests of a few?

Thank you for opening this dialog. I am here with you, all the way with these significant questions. Here's to moving forward and finding viable answers.

"...your employer has to pay taxes on your salary to employ you... There is a dollar-for-dollar match contributing to each employee’s Social Security and Medicare, in addition to federal and state unemployment taxes that employees don’t pay. Your employer ends up paying the government around 11-14 percent of your total just for the privilege of your company each year (in addition to the taxes that are withheld from your paycheck and paid out by your employer)."

"There are non-profits in America, arts and otherwise, who pay more in payroll taxes every year than what they receive in the form of government grants."

Thank you so much for pointing out these facts! I agree wholeheartedly with eliminating the payroll tax on (to begin with) non-profit companies. (As well as, for that matter, the taxes that are withheld from the employee's paycheck.) But I don't agree with replacing those taxes with a carbon tax -- that is just using a different government hand to swipe money from people that they could otherwise spend on theater.

Rather, the way for the government to make up for not having all of that tax would be to spend that much less on the military each year. It would still leave us plenty to defend ourselves with; it just means there would be less temptation to meddle in every overseas conflict (often just making things much worse).

I also very much like the idea of having a "wage cap" or "luxury contribution" of sorts for actors, playwrights, directors, and producers. Not that any money paid above such a cap would go to the government (so I don't like the word "tax")! As the Rosalind Grush suggests (if I understand correctly), money over a certain limit would go to a general fund from which actors/playwrights/directors get supplemental pay (and/or health coverage) proportional to the pay they are already making.

Now I don't think this should be a law, but a voluntary agreement that people sign early in their careers (actors with AEA, playwrights with the Dramatists Guild, etc.) Thus when on occasion in their career they have some kind of major hit, instead of just them benefiting many will, including the many who in all probability often worked for next to nothing to help the playwright, director, or actor get to the place where they are able to have such hits.

thanks! re: the carbon tax thing, it's mostly about incentivizing more environmentally friendly practices. for example, if companies find ways of manufacturing that involve systems that are less detrimental to the environment, then they get taxed less, which also incentivizes developing what i would consider to be better systems. i'd love to think that if people had more money from lower taxes, they'd put it back towards services that impact their communities - including the arts, but i think this election has shown that counting on the goodness of our fellow man isn't necessarily a sure bet.

i did some super preliminary googling that didn't answer this question, but i'd definitely like to know if non-religious charitable giving is higher or lower in states with high taxes like NYC and California. i'm able to find that utah and bible belt states have higher per capita annual giving, but i also have to assume that a large percentage of that charitable giving is to religious institutions. although one thing that is fairly easy to observe is that states with higher taxes have more developed arts scenes, and states with lower taxes generally have less developed arts scenes (though not non-existent ones!). https://turbotax.intuit.com... of course, the issue of taxes and median incomes and arts opportunities and philanthropy by geography are all linked in myriad ways, but that would be a great other article/masters thesis to put together!

We have a similar movement in Germany. You can find information via #artbutfair. Kicked off around the same time as the ensemble network, also in Germany, started by actress Lisa Jobst in the city of Oldenburg. Minimum wage for full time actors just got raised to 1.800€ from January 1st.Best of luck with your initiative!Rainer Glaap

Rosalind, I really appreciate the conversation you're starting. This is how #FairWageOnstage began. It started with a community in crisis starting a conversation with itself and saying, "What can we do?" In our recent successful negotiations, many of us were very interested in brainstorming ways of working together with our employers on how to increase the revenue streams so that everyone who works an honest weeks work is able to pay their rent and most basic bills. I think you've got a lot of great ideas and don't stop brainstorming! I think organizing is a fantastic idea. We need a new labor movement in which Unions aren't looked at antagonistically. It doesn't have to be an adversarial relationship. Especially in our community, our union members have so much imagination and ability to contribute. I am actually incredibly optimistic about the economic future of our industry, especially here in New York. But here are some ideas....A certain movie-star studded production Off Broadway just did an extra night of their show and charged thousands for tickets. In one night, they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the theatre. When there is an opportunity to do that, why not take advantage of it? Build it in. Every eighth show is $1000 a ticket with all proceeds going to personnel, on stage and off. Anyway, there's lots of opportunities out there to make things happen as long as we stay positive, hopeful, collaborative, and with our eyes on solutions...like you.

totally agreed. and the benefit performance definitely falls under fundraising benefits! we all do them when we can, whether it's raising an $18 ticket to $50 or a $60 to $1000 hahah. i think most companies totally do take advantage of opportunities like that, and many stack their benefits with as much celebrity talent as possible to draw in that $$!