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The Unsustainable State of Art



If you want to make great art, you must suffer. If you are truly compelled, truly gifted, you will find a way to make art and be heard. So attest our collective wisdom and a handful of recent HowlRound articles. An artist’s poverty becomes a testament to the value of his or her art—an artistic virtue. She crams artistic pursuits into evenings and weekends, to fit around her day-job, because what artist can live on art alone? Young artists, making their way out of increasingly expensive educational institutions into unpaid internships (if they are lucky) and life-long professionals in the field alike stack jobs like coffee cups and unpaid bills. Here we are.

When I look back at the history of art, in America and abroad, there is a direct and undeniable connection between money for the production of art (and supportive political structures) and the preponderance of “Great Art.” The Renaissance was funded. You know Michelangelo wasn’t dangling from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel “for the experience.” I am reminded of a quote from The West Wing (originally spoken by John F. Kennedy), when Toby is fighting for the paltry NEA budget. He says, “There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the Arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.”


So, if you are comfortable living in a world where art is a bonus, art is extra, art is a night and weekend activity, you must also be comfortable living in a world where art is not a profession, but a hobby. You must be comfortable living in a world without Shakespeare, or Mozart. I am not comfortable with these ideas.


Shakespeare is a great example of the unease I feel with what I’ll call the “status quo” arguments. If Shakespeare were alive today in America, he wouldn't be a playwright. At best, he might be writing for HBO but, honestly, my bet is lawyer or Ad man (But, Nora, didn’t he write, “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers?” Yes—that’s my point). If child Mozart were alive today, he wouldn't be writing great symphonies. He probably wouldn't have had access to a piano in the first place, so maybe he would be a real life Doogie Howser. I bring up these two dudes because: 1. We generally recognize them as geniuses who revolutionized their respective art forms, and 2. they were in it for the money. Can you imagine aging Shakespeare working at a tavern to feed his playwriting habit, or Mozart’s dad dragging him all around Europe, incurring debt and disease, because he was just so proud of him? They had talents they could exploit for dollars and prestige, and did so.

So, if you are comfortable living in a world where art is a bonus, art is extra, art is a night and weekend activity, you must also be comfortable living in a world where art is not a profession, but a hobby. You must be comfortable living in a world without Shakespeare, or Mozart.

I am not comfortable with these ideas.

I don’t think that if you really have something to say, you find a way to say it. Because, that implies we live in a world where the people we don’t hear from just aren’t trying hard enough to be heard. I know a number of extraordinary artists in the country who give up making art, because they want a family, they want to go to the dentist, they want to eat vegetables. This is not a strategy to consistently retain our best artists, only those who get improbably lucky or have the highest tolerance for pain.

I don’t think that everyone can be an artist—I don’t think every person is born with the talent, the drive, or the dedication to produce great art. But I do believe anyone could be a great artist. Our Shakespeare could be anywhere right now. I know he or she cannot grow up in a vacuum.

Would you expect anyone in any other job to do it well (or at all) if they weren’t being paid for it? Why is it okay then for an artist? My theory is we don’t collectively value the arts—even artists. The internet is a tremendous tool for the democratization of resources. But, we have successfully raised a generation to believe that music is not something worth paying for, because you can get it for free. We have successfully cultivated a culture in which we can abdicate personal responsibility for the survival of art, because “everyone is doing it.” The internet and new technologies are changing revenue strategies, and we definitely need to look at how to best utilize them, but for every Justin Beiber there are thousands of artists who are not making the system work for them. A system that survives on the exceptions is not sustainable.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started a series of Federal art programs as part of his New Deal to support artists who were out of work. He believed that it was a cultural detriment for violinists to be building roads—it was a bad investment. Now, we are encouraging “road-building” (or the modern equivalent—Starbucks) as a great job to give you your nights free. If we can shift one way, we can shift another.

In Boston, a number of our great cultural institutions hail from about the same period of time, due, in large part, to a handful of philanthropists who believed that for America to be a great nation, we had to have a great cultural infrastructure. Isabella Stewart Gardner, one of these amazing people, said, "Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… So, I determined to make it my life's work if I could."

The museums she helped to build are sandwiched between a number of the greatest hospitals in the world, hospitals that are pioneering treatments for diseases, revolutionizing medical procedures, extending the life-span. Too often, we are forced into a conversation about ranking importance because of budgets. Is it better to cure AIDS or Cancer? But what if I asked you, “Would you rather keep your right arm or your left?” You started to think, “Well, I’m right-handed, so I could probably get away without the left,” right? The correct answer is, “Both. I’d rather keep both. And, why are you threatening to cut my arms off?” The suppression of the arts, the commercialization of the university system, the dismantling of the middle-class, the celebration of mediocrity, are all related, and, frankly, insidious. They are all the subjects of larger and more elaborate conversations about class, race, sex, and, well, everything problematic in America today.

We need to change the question. We need to change the conversation. We tell stories, but we don’t (or can’t) tell the story of why we matter. We have internalized half a century or more of unsound rhetoric. We have the opportunity to make more Shakespeares and that is more than a part-time gig after-hours. That is a multi-generational commitment to value art. Let’s please stop celebrating how we are keeping a boat with no bottom afloat. Let’s raise the alarm and change this nonsense. We might not all be able to be Shakespeare, but we can all be a little more Mrs. Gardner.



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I don't understand why theater artists think they're special. Only the 1% can afford to go often to see theater, tickets are expensive for the greater population. You want government funding for the arts? What about my friend who is going for a Masters in Social work? Do you know what those people are actually paid? And she will be dealing with abused children, another friend makes $20,000 a year doing this in her government job. What makes you as "theater artists" special? What about the painter? Who doesn't sell any paintings, or the boy band who just wants to sing and dance? There are other forms of art too - do they deserve to be government funded? And who decides, you know if the government decides it will be the usual suspects - people who are already successful and already notable. And then you're going to tax the nurse, and the plumber and the taxi driver and the policeman to pay you people a living wage, when these people can't even afford to buy tickets to see your "art." It's Show Business - emphasis on business, it's not "show art." Make it a business, make it profitable, make it pay you a living wage just like every small business - how are you different as a "theater artist" than a chef running a new restaurant? You think his / her culinary skills are less an "art" than yours? Somehow the Chefs make it pay them, or go out of business. Theater should be the same - esp since your ticket prices are only affordable to the elite. It's show business, make it pay you a living by making something people want to come and see. Stop thinking of yourselves as precious and special. Think of it as a business. Don't expect people to pay taxes to (because WE are the Government) to support you. The professors in Universities figured out long ago they couldn't make a living in theater - so now they teach. None of us are more special than a nurse or a chef.

Samuel, a lot of theater only costs about the cost of two movie theater tickets. And many regular theater-goers actually spend less per year than what many others (far more than one percent) spend on violent videogames.

But I agree with your basic point, that the taxpayers shouldn't be forced to pay for theater. If you read my two posts you'll see my goal is how to make things far better for virtually everyone, allowing them to support theater or whatever other things they want to.

You may not care if theater dies (though I urge you to give it a try), but as with the canary in the coal mine, if it does it won't be much longer before things you care about do.

I do care if theater dies. I don't think it ever will. But when was the last time your theater performed for the non-eites? I mean the non-white-non baby boomers? They are mostly the ones who go. It's statistics. They're going to pass away and then theater will be left to the next generation. And in reality - and your comment about two movie tickets shows your income level in life (and congrats to you on that) lots and lots of people in this world can't afford a $30 ticket and most theater isn't worth that when you can see a movie for $15. Think about that for a second. Very few plays have the thrills most movies have and they are more than twice the price. And parents have to pay for baby sitters if they are going to the theater and not taking their kids. So an evening out for a couple to the theater at $30 / each is over 100 with parking and baby sitters. When they can take the whole family to the local movie theater for less. I was raised poor, so I realize how little there is to go around. But theater isn't as good or as cheap as TV - which with Breaking Bad and Mad Men is better than most $30 theater. sadly. BTW I see theater all the time, and I wish I could find a decent play for $30. I'm in NYC and most is far far far more expensive than that. I don't see movies either, I watch them on my iPad. That is a whole other problem.

I haven't seen a movie (in the theater) in nearly ten years as most of them don't apeal to me and I'd rather spend that money on live theater. (You are, of course, welcome to choose otherwise... to each his or her own.)

I don't know about NYC, but there are many theaters here in the Chicagoland area that cost $30 or less (especially if you subscribe), and they quite often feature non-white, non-prosperous characters.

The idea that most theater people are "elites" is simply incorrect.

Yes!!! If I were to distill the my life's purpose into one sentence, I would say that it is to try to help create a world where artists (and other good people) can have a decent living doing what they want to do.

Once one understands this (I admit it took a long time for me to), all of my different interests, from economics to government to science and engineering, make sense.

For the essence of all my interests is understanding how do things work, and how (in the case of economics and government in particular) have they been so corrupted to the point where people who contribute so little to society are paid so much, and those who provide real value (including the beauty and insights brought by artists) are paid so little.

The good news is that I have become convinced that there are indeed specific reasons things are so bad, and therefore there are solutions. I plan to spend the rest of my days more fully understanding these reasons and solutions, and articulating them in various forms, from plays to essays.

For the bottom line is this: artists are the canaries in the coal mine. And if we don't lead the way to the solution, before much longer things will be far, far worse than they are now. (Think how rapidly Germany was taken over by the Nazis once things got to a certain point.)

In case I drop dead in my sleep tonight (or anytime soon), let me say right now one thing: If all artists, or people who care about art, would invest six hours to watch and understand the following three documentaries, I believe that alone might be enough to change the world:

"Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve" (2013)"The House I live in" (2012)"Inside Job" (2010)

At minimum, please, get hold of the recently released documentary "Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve" and watch it at least once. It's currently in minor theatrical release in a handful of cities, but the best way is probably to get the DVD or digital download from their web site: http://moneyfornothingthemo...

In 90 minutes it details the one hundred year history of the Fed, and how it is responsible for everything from the stock market bubble and crash in 1929 (and the following great depression) to the most recent circa 2007 bubble/crash. (And it warns how if Bernanke's plan is continued by the new chairwoman that another, even worse crash, is not far off.)

"The House I Live In" shows how black people are being used as fodder for the legal-prison-industrial complex to a degree that arguably makes our time even worse than the slave era.

And "Inside Job" shows the true causes of the recent recession, and how the bailouts were for the benefit of the insiders, not (despite what we were told by everyone, including Obama) us.

Please watch them. In the meantime I'm be working on plays and screenplays that address some of the same concepts from a dramatic viewpoint.

(Yes, writing this was in part a way for me to avoid working on the tough middle section of my current play... I'm as good as anyone else [probably better] when it comes to avoiding writing.)

Well, that was weird. After posting all about the Fed yesterday I woke up today to find that the mainstream media is all abuzz over Bernanke's cutting back on inflating the money supply from $85 billion a month to "only" $75 billion a month.

Most depressing (though, alas, not surprising), even the occasionally reliable NBC evening news and Chicago Tonight didn't bother to mention that not all economists agree with Bernanke's huge "quantative easing" of the money supply over the last couple of years.

Instead everyone acted like it was a given that this policy was the right thing to do; the only question was whether he was wrong to cut the inflation back a little (from $85 billion a month to $75 billion).

Nowhere was there any mention of even the possibility that the so-called stimulus (and original bail-outs starting with Bush) might have actually made things worse for main street -- that it's purpose was to drive up stock prices, not the economy.

Furthermore, while some economists noted that the real economy isn't all that great, that there are still fewer jobs now than in 2007, none of them pointed out that things are actually far worse than that as so many people who had full time jobs with good benefits up until 2007 now only have part-time minimum wage jobs. And yet the government considers these part-time no-benefit jobs the same (in order to make people think the economy is better than it is)!

So don't be fooled (like the old Styx song says) into thinking everyone else has his/her recovery made, and that there must be something wrong with you. This is the "Grand Illusion" that the establishment economists, on behalf of the establishment politicians (whom most of them rely on their jobs for one way or another).

And I suspect the reason that Bernanke did the modest cut is so when it finally becomes clear just how bad things really are, instead of blaming it on his (and previous Fed's) long-term policies (of massive inflation of the money supply), he can blame it on this trivial cut-back of the inflation and say he was "pressured into it".

(End of economic lecture. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.)

(But for those of you who want a little more, but don't have the time or money to watch "Money for Nothing" yet, check out my essay from a year ago, "The ABCs of Economic Ignorance". It's actually pretty entertaining: http://nuzcom.com/abcs-econ...

This is great Nora, thank you! The other comments here mention the issue of where the money comes from (Kickstarter vs. NEA, trust funds vs. Gardners vs. Medicis) and who deserves what (which gets hairy real quick). But to me your most important point is that we all have to learn to value art and artists more, both as a society and as individuals in our everyday lives. That's where it all starts. It probably has something to do with education: kids who learn to make art and appreciate art will grow up to be adults who do the same. But we can all do our part to appreciate and support each other as artists, right now!

Yes. I am so tired of the notion that wanting to earn even 1/2 a decent salary from my craft is entitlement. It's demoralizing to tell my students, "You will never make a steady living as a playwright," but it's not a wonder that 70% of them move to Los Angeles and try to write for TV.

Thank you, Nora, for writing this. Been there, doing this, working to change it.

1.-One constant argument that I hear is that we need the help of the government to support the arts, because they're in dire straits.2.-One of the reasons for which the arts in dire straits is because people don't appreciate them properly.3.-The reason for this, I am told, is that schools and education neglect the arts (usually in favor of sports) and do not give them their proper place, allowing for a proper appreciation of the arts.4.-It should be propert to observe here that the government runs most of the schools.

As an artist, I'm not sure I want someone who is incapable of teaching kids to appreciate the arts (among many, many other things) in a position to decide which companies or artistic projects get funding and support... but hey, that's just me.

The main issue, to me, seems to be #4 and #3, with #1 being nothing more than a direct result of #3 and #4, so the approach here seems to be definitely back-to-front and bereft of critical thinking. The core issue is that you have bureaucrats deciding what your kids can or can't be taught, and telling teachers what they can or can't prioritize (and, heck, telling the schools who can or can't be hired to teach).

It honestly shouldn't surprise you that most kids grow up ignorant of art--- most of them grow ignorant of most things. As a Teaching Assistant at University, I grade about 120 papers per assignment, and out of those I would say that maybe 20 or less are from students capable of writing coherently. The other papers range from invariably mediocre to "cringe in horror."

Teachers, not government bureaucrats, should be in charge of the curriculum, and how those curriculae are to be evaluated, not the government. If you want a populace capable of appreciating the arts, then divorce government from education- otherwise the only thing that occurs is that you have education played as a political pawn in the hands of incompetent buffoons--- and it becomes a single point of failure, as we are seeing right now.

I'm with you on a lot of points here, but I would point out that divorcing government from education sounds like doing away with public schools...is that what you mean?

I saw a great documentary about Finland's public schools (link below), which are government operated and consistently top-rated for at least a decade, but also leave teachers the responsibility of designing the curriculum---apparently, each grade level has one page's worth of guidelines, which teachers can put into play however they deem best.

However, there are a few differences here: in Finland, "Public School Teacher" is a masters level position. It is very competitive even to get accepted into teaching school, and once there, teachers are trained rigorously and are expected to think of their position as a research position---to continue to develop and research teaching methods even after they're in charge of their own classrooms.

In contrast, I have often heard stats here in the U.S. indicating that college students studying in education programs are *not* our top students, and that GPAs and test scores are on the lower end on average within these programs. Of course, we have excellent teachers, too, but on average, we in the U.S. are sending less-qualified people who haven't received as much training into the classrooms. While I would like to see teachers in charge of curriculum, I don't know that I would want to see that without seeing teachers being more qualified and better trained.

Just to add one more problem into this conversation :)

The documentary in question: http://www.2mminutes.com/pr...

Local Mentors, Independent Study and organizational support are what we need to ring in the new world of the artist. Step away from the debt of college - go local if your kid wants to be an artist of any kind. Think local, invest local- pay your local music teacher that $ for the three credit class.

Interesting post, Nora. This sentence caught my eye in particular: "...we have successfully raised a generation to believe music is not something worth paying for, because you can get it for free." Yes, but...

Taking your reference to Mozart as an interesting point of comparison between then and now, I'd say little has changed. In Mozart's day, it was royalty (often a Duke) who commissioned new music. The audience actually didn't pay to enjoy it. The Duke paid to have fancy music to show off with. Today's analog to this would be the corporation that sponsors a festival in order to increase its brand recognition or promote good will in the community. The concentration of cash in the hands of a few powerful patrons is very much the same. No?

I think in Mozart's day, it would have been impossible to convince hordes of people (regardless of class) to fork over cash for what they perceived to be a jewel in the crown of the commissioning patron.

But, we have successfully raised a generation to believe that music is not something worth paying for, because you can get it for free. - See more at: http://www.howlround.com/th...

But what happens if there's a ton of funding. What if we increases the budgets 1000 times over, but you're still not talented enough to make a living out of art, but want to pursue art? What then?

For every Mozart and DaVinci there were millions living in abject poverty, unable to rise above. I don't really see how Shakespeare lived in a different world from Justin Bieber.

No matter how much money is granted to artists, there is still no guarantee that you'll be able to make a living from it. And you might simply trade your day job working at Starbucks for a day job filling out government grant applications.

I'd love to see a new, better funding model for art, but I can't help think Kickstarter as a patronage system is going to be much more ideal than an increase in some government budget.

At the start of the last great recession, I sent an article about the astonishingly productive Federal Theater, run by Hallie Flanagan, as a proud part of the Works Progress Administration, to the New York Times. The editor, whom I knew slightly, was also the grandson of two union organizer-playwrights who were close to the New Deal, knew Hallie and supported the Federal Theater. He was enormously sympathetic to my article; he was enthusiastic about its chances of publication. But it went no where. The NY Times is the official mouthpiece for administration policies, which ever administration is currently in power (remember their enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq). When my piece fell into the cyber-trash bin, I understood, there was to be no WPA, no Federal Arts Project, for us, the artist victims of the recession. It was already off-the-table. Bailing out banks and auto companies, yes. Addressing the need of artists, absolutely unmentionable. I have no conclusion. I am struggling, as always, to raise money for my new play, so to pay our actors and designers...it is useless, self-defeating work. We say this will be last project, we cannot sustain it any longer.

There is a dilemma inherent in this fine piece of writing that you hint at when you say, "everyone is doing it." I, too, place artists at the top of the "needs" chain in our culture, but there is a proving ground for, say, doctors. They must go through a grueling number of years and a kind of certification in order to be called doctors (or lawyers, bless them, or teachers). Yet anyone can take the name "artist" by just saying, "I am an artist." We've tried to set up proving grounds with "filters" like the MFA, but the proliferation of this testing ground has weakened that degree as some kind of "proof" of artistic ability. We don't really have the apprenticeship system that a Da Vinci or Michelangelo had or a direct patronage system that helped Shakespeare (except through universities). Even Roosevelt's program had a screening process (Tennessee Williams was turned down for funding).

You are so right in your stern judgment of our societal dismissiveness of the artistic struggle. As you say, our "proving ground" seems to be" can you make it through poverty, rejection, and loneliness until you are finally recognized, make a little money, and go to the dentist?" When I first started writing, friends and family said, "You're crazy." It was amazing that after some years of toil and destitution, I had some success and heard the same people say, "I really admire your persistence!" How does "crazy" turn into admiration? Here you are right again. Our social construct concerning the arts is wrong; however, just as I wouldn't want anyone who wanted to to say, "I'm a doctor," I would be hesitant (were I a Gardner) to fund all who say, "I am an artist."

David, first of all, thanks for reading. This is an interesting conversation to have. How do we measure artists? Who gets to identify that way? I would read that blog post. I suppose for my purposes, we can't totally avoid the "struggling artist" - there will always be a Monet toiling in the corner, ahead of his time, but unable (at least initially) to get recognized by the power structures at the time. However, if we are all Monet, if even the most recognized, the most popular, the most revered artists of our time are actually surviving on their side jobs, what's the endgame there?I really appreciate your thoughtfulness on this.

I loved watching The West Wing as much as the next guy, but please don't attribute that quote about the age of Pericles also being the age of Phidias to "Toby." It's a famous quote by President John F. Kennedy. I suspect that the character Toby was citing JFK, rather than that West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin was plagiarizing him.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you!The change needs to start with the artists. It makes me ill when I hear artists talk about how we shouldn't expect to pay, or be paid, that it should all just be this gift we give (or that somehow we are receiving the gift by being "allowed" to perform, or create). The work we do is no less valuable than work which is paid, and paid well-- sometimes, it is more important. We need to fight for compensation, and for business models in our arts organizations that support ARTISTS, not just buildings or administrative staffs.

I don't know exactly what it looks like yet, but I want to figure it out! I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and love to hear thoughts about it anywhere I can find them. I think we can learn a lot from the for-profit business world, for example, and I spent the past 4 years starting and then running a company so I could take that experience back with me to further my personal goal of starting a small ensemble-based theater company. I don't think that there should be NO administrative staff, but I think the current model where the only people getting regularly paid ARE the administrative staff (and the only way to make a truly livable wage is to be an AD or similar) is not the best or only way it has to be. I think we can do better. The biggest lesson I learned as an entrepreneur was to value the work that I do, and that if I am able to speak to my audience/clients about the value I am providing them in an authentic, understandable way, that they will be happy to pay me enough to cover costs and pay myself. I think we can take this attitude into the arts, and I want to figure out how. I'm sure there are thousands of different ways we can do it.

What you are speaking of requires audience support I believe, which goes back to the article. Like you, I have been on both sides of the equation. In my company, when there was no paid staff only artists, it was unsustainable becuase funders didn't trust the model. Funding requires at least two paid staff ( and I may add, many of the artists were unwilling to do admnistrative duties, it all fell to me). But, I believe we have created a culture that does not see theater vital to the average man and ticket prices make it inaccessible. We are not inlusive - demographically and processually. (is that a word). It is not our willingness, imo to get paid for our work, it is the vacuum we often work in and how little we challenge ourselves and our audiences.

I think these right here are the key, really: "how little we challenge ourselves and our audiences" (And, I might add, our philanthropic funding sources) - and- "we have created a culture that does not see theater vital to the average man." If there is value in what we do, and we are able to communicate about that value to our audiences and our funders (and unless we can find a RADICALLY different model, there needs to be a combination of both), then I believe the money will follow. What is often missing is attempting to fill a need in the community (rather than just pursue our own artistic interests in a bubble) and then communicating effectively about what we are offering our audiences.