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).
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.