Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not this again...

Yes. It rears it's ugly head again. "Why can't I get paid for my art?!"

I've posted about this before here and here. I think this will probably be the last time I deal with this on the blog. Not that the problem will go away. Wow, it would be awesome if my next post was like "hey, I have this awesome idea" or "this group found a great solution" or something. But I doubt that will happen. I doubt that the issues here or the solutions (or lack of solutions) will change much. I'm not saying it's impossible... I guess I'm just pessimistic.

Anyway, this came up again on Facebook, on an actor's page, as it does every 12 months or so. Someone says "hey, you wouldn't expect bakers to bake bread for free" or "accountants to do your taxes for free" or some variation, "so why do you expect actors to work for free?" Usually (though not always) this comes with a "let's all band together"/"if people didn't do it for free people would have to pay us" etc... (which often devolves into attacking/demonizing people who are willing to act for little or no money... but that's another issue).

So yeah. Every year or so, someone posts this, and generates a lot of support, but then also people saying "hey, we can't really always do that" and then it usually goes down hill from there.

Couple things up front:
1)  I am not going to offer solutions. Some people are. Some people think Patreon is a new model that is going to solve (or help solve?) all this (to me it looks like just a new way to sell season memberships but, hey, if it works...). Others will tell you that kickstarter or gofundme or [insert possible solution] is the answer. So far, the solutions I've seen seem to fall short. Put me in the "skeptical a solution exists but hopeful it does" camp.
2) When I say "the arts" I'm mostly, but not exclusively, talking about theatre arts. This is just because that is my art form thus my perception and knowledge is skewed to that art form. Often I may use broader language, and what I say may be applicable to more art forms, but if I make a generalization that makes you go "well but in painting.." or something, just understand that's where I'm coming from, so that's mostly what I'm talking about, even if I don't explicitly say so every time.
3) Let's remember where we AGREE. Look, we all agree that artists work deserves more compensation in the philosophical sense. I've seen some OK work, and I've seen some excellent work, and I've seen some bad work. But everyone, EVERYONE I know involved in the arts thinks, as a general proposition, that artists should (as in "ought to") be able to get a living wage. Does that mean they offer a living wage? Hell no. But what I'm saying is that it's not because they don't want to, it's because, usually, they can't.

OK, on with the show.

SO - why can't artists get a living wage. There are three, intersecting forces at work here, and any approach that desires to understand the problem needs to be cognizant of all of them. They are: supply, demand, and community.

First - supply. The beauty of art, the magic and the democratic power of art, is that anyone can do it. I'm not saying everyone can do it with equal skill, but everyone can create art.

This fact is immensely powerful. That's why underground theatre and subversive music is a force that threatens capitalism, totalitarianism, and autocracies. You can limit it's dissemination, you can deride and attempt to discourage it's creators, but there's no lever you can apply that can prevent it's creation. All you need to create theatre is a story, actors, and an audience. Try and ban it, and you have to patrol every municipal park, church basement and empty storefront. Good luck.

But this very democracy means that you can't limit the supply. There is a stage actors union, of course, and if you want access to equity houses you typically need to be a member (not always, but it helps a great deal). But the vast majority of theatre in america today does not take place in Equity houses or under equity contracts. The truth is that the vast majority of Equity actors (theoretically, the "professionals") do not earn the majority of their income from acting (according to the '15-'16 AEA report, the average Equity member worked 16.6 weeks/year, and at any given time, only about 13% of AEA members are working - in acting). Why?

Well, making art, creating, telling stories, these are activities that nourish the soul. The bring a sense of community, place, wholeness to their participants. Humans need to create, to be a part of something, and to build together. And some of us need to act. We can't not. This reward, this need, means that the supply can't be limited. Because if a group (a local union, a rule, whatever) tried to prevent people from acting for less than $X per week, hour, whatever... well people would not obey. Look, I'd rather get paid than not. But if you told me I couldn't, I WASN'T ALLOWED to act for free if I wanted to, I'd laugh in your face. Try to stop me. And not because I dislike solidarity. Look, I'm not much of a joiner, but I generally support unions and their goals. But, there is something that is, for me, part of being alive. It's necessary for my happiness and well being.

Is that fair? I don't know. But it's a fact. The fact that art brings non-tangible rewards, the fact that people will paint or write or draw or act for their own satisfaction and personal fulfillment, plus the fact that the barriers for entry (cost of materials) is, or can be, so low means that you will be hard pressed to create any economic solution that focuses on supply.

Now, again, this doesn't talk about quality. The supply of good actors is not unlimited. The supply of good actors that meet your current specifications of age/sex/ethnicity/etc... is even smaller. And sometimes, when something is in short supply the cost can go up. This is definitely true with projects that are anticipated to MAKE MONEY. We need this person to make sure this project has the best chance of success! But if it isn't going to make much money, if the marginal difference in ticket sales between one actor and another is small, well, that brings us to the second point:

And the other side. Because I act and I produce, I'm familiar with both sides of this coin... or lack thereof.

You make art, and you expect to get paid. Great. So are you making art people want to buy? Because if you're not, how exactly do you expect to get paid? Shakespeare was writing plays for a commercial audience. Caravaggio wanted to paint the whores and musicians he counted as friends, but he was commissioned by the church, so he painted them... as saints and martyrs. Because he was producing work for money.

Virtually no art in the area, certainly no theatrical performance, can afford to pay people what they are worth, because the demand simply isn't there for live performance to consistently support paid, professional work. I went into detail about the finances of our last production here. As I point out in that post, even if I sold out every show at the maximum ticket price (and impossible task), I still could not provide people minimum wage (to say nothing of a "living wage"). And our last show was no better. In fact, it was considerably worse. We put up a show that I consider to be the equal of any show in the triangle, and in fact, of any show anywhere. A gentleman came to see Blackbird who had seen the production in New York. His response: where's the audience? All I could do was agree. And look, I'm not talking about just my own work. Many other production companies are putting on excellent work. Some have built a loyal following and a subscriber base. And even THOSE companies can't afford to pay people a real wage. The stipend is nice, but it's nothing that can support a career.

Speaking personally, we could make judgments about what to produce based solely on "will it sell?" I have plenty of respect for people who choose their season that way. Temple Theatre's slate of shows may seem un-adventurous, but they have an audience they know and want to please, and they are looking to sell tickets. Artistically - personally - I think it's unexciting. But I have nothing but respect for their choices. Frankly, IF we do produce again, we are going to think long and hard about if it will sell.

If artists banded together to demand a living wage, the result wouldn't be "producers pay a living wage for local theatrical productions." The result would be "no local theatrical productions." Because there's just no money there. That's why I'm saying this problem is complicated. Even if you had complete control of one lever (something that's impossible), you don't get the results you want.

I don't know if this is the right label, but a few of my thoughts didn't line up well with either of the other two.

What do I mean by community? Well, often the response is "well you should get funding" - apply for grants, seek donations, etc... But please know, that is MUCH easier to say than it is to do.

First - someone has to, you know, do that. Applying for grants is time consuming and costly (remember how you were going to pay a living wage? well that should apply to the grant writer too). They also, almost always, come with strings. They stipulate how you spend the money, what it can and can't be applied to, and reporting requirements to prove you obeyed the rules. These are real costs. Even the time and expense of obtaining a 501(c)3 status is non-trivial.

And the other thing: he who pays the piper calls the tune. Just as choosing a show or a season based on if it will sell is limiting - so is getting donations. Is this the kind of show our sponsors will like? Will our donors turn us down next year if we are "too controversial"? There's just as many (though different) issues with getting foundation money and donations as there are with picking "popular" shows.

And saying money - paying artists a living wage - is a requirement for art. That is problematic. Because what you are saying is that having enough free time to write grant applications, fund-raise, host gala events for supporters, sell sponsorships, etc... having all those things is a pre-requisite for making art. That's a problem too. Art isn't (or shouldn't be) just for the wealthy and the well connected. It should be for a group of people with a desire to tell a story and enough free time to make it happen. It should be for people who do graffiti as much as people who hang in galleries.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I said at the beginning that I didn't have any solutions. I still don't.

For us, well, to be honest, I put in all the work of an artist. As much as anyone else could or would for my latest show. And I paid for the privilege out of my own pocket. Think about that. People are saying artists should be given a living wage (and they should!)... but I actually wound up paying money to create art. It sold for less than my cost of materials, so to speak, and that's WITHOUT paying my artists anything. (Note- we do pay money to artists if we make a profit, but we don't if we lose money, it's a collective endeavor on the positive side of the ledger, but not the negative one).

I don't like that. I don't like not paying artists, especially when my cast and crew produce work that is, in my opinion, of "professional quality." I don't like losing money either.

To be honest, something has to change for us to decide to produce more work. We will if we find something we are absolutely on fire about, but as it stands, I don't know if it's possible, if it's realistic, to expect to break even. And if that continues to be the case, I don't know if it makes sense to continue to produce.

We shall see. . .

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