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Artist, Value Thyself

One of the more interesting discussion sessions at the Arts Presenters conference I attended was related to a study/discussion conducted by the Brooklyn Commune Project that was released last month. Andy Horowitz of Culturebot and Risa Shoup of Invisible Dog Art Center reviewed the results.

The report discusses a lot of the factors impacting the arts from Baumol and Bowen’s Cost Disease (which I guess I have been writing about for so long, I couldn’t believe was news to anyone), the idea of public good and a review of how arts funding in America got to the place it is.

In addressing funding by foundations, they noted that it is generally recognized that the best return on investments is realized when you balance investment in “safe” entities as well as entities that are prone to take more risk. However, 90%+ arts funding goes to the safer bets resulting in an environment which hampers innovation.

This is the part of the reports summary which I thought said it best:

We uncovered a treasure trove of lost documents, publications and reports, discovering that chief among the problems of the performing arts is a lack of meaningful documentation and knowledge management, as well as a disastrous lack of intergenerational dialogue and mentorship, not to mention peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

Most significantly, we learned that we, as artists, are not the problem. We have heretofore accepted the received assumptions about artists—that we are bad with money, that we are unprofessional and insufficiently entrepreneurial. We have heretofore accepted the notion that our labor is not “work”, and as such we should be grateful to labor without compensation, to provide our services for free to institutions who are funded expressly to produce and present our art to the public, for the public good. We have heretofore accepted the notion that the system desires to be equitable and just, that it is self-critical and working to improve itself. Now we know differently.

The issue of artists undervaluing their work and heavily self-subsidizing it came up in the conference presentation. According to the 526 respondents to their survey,

75.00% claimed to make between 0-10% of their income from their art practice.
50% of those polled spend at least $2000-5000/year out of pocket on their art practice.
81% of those polled spend $2000 or more per year out of pocket.
$75,000 was the median annual income to be considered “successful”
$45,000 was the median annual income to be considered adequate for “stability.”
20% is the amount of total current income artists claim to receive from their art practice
95% is the amount of total current income artists hope to receive from their art practice in five years.

The speaker oriented in on the income levels deemed to be a sign of success and stability and the fact that artists hoped that 95% of their income would be derived by their practice within five years.

Since all those surveyed lived in the boroughs of New York City, the speakers cited:

“a February 2013 report released by the office of former NYC City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and titled The Middle Class Squeeze, “middle class” in NYC means a household income between $66,400 and $199,200. Lower Middle Class would be $53,120 to $66,400 and Low Income would be anything below $53,120.

What people deemed stable was actually classified as low income and successful fell on the lower end of the middle class income bracket for NYC.

The report goes on to ask, “Why do artists think there even is an “enough”? Maybe it is because we do not work in a sector where extreme wealth is likely.”

Both the report and the speakers at the conference conceded that artists aren’t in it for the money and often view the “psychic income” derived from creating art to be more rewarding than earning cash.

The end of the report contains separate recommendation sections for presenters/producers, funders and artists. Among the suggestions for artists are to redefine the vocabulary and sense of an artist’s value, skills and products both for themselves and others. Part of that requires learning basic business skills like budgeting and finance so you get a better sense of your value.

“At the same time develop practical skills for the knowledge and creative industries (such as graphic and web design, video and audio editing, programming, copywriting) that will support the financial demands and flexible time requirements of your artistic practice.”

My overall impression was that the report was attempting to strike a tenuous balance. While the writers claimed that the problem isn’t the artists’ fault in the introduction, the recommendations say they have to contribute to rectifying the diminished view of their value by being better communicators and actively seeking productive partnerships.

While artists may be misperceived as not being business minded enough, they are enjoined to gain 21st century skills. That might be one of the toughest recommendations to make. They outright say to get a real job to support your artistic pursuits as a practical matter because it is difficult to support yourself otherwise. They note Philip Glass (who received an award at the APAP conference) drove a taxi for three years after Eisenstein on the Beach premiered at the Met.

Perhaps the biggest irony about the report is that even as they end with recommendations against undervaluing your work and discussions about how artists overly subsidize their own products, the report started by talking about the fact they applied for a grant, didn’t get it and went ahead with the effort of putting the report together anyway. (Though admitted they didn’t do a good job on the application.)

This document suggesting that artists motivated by the psychic income will often become involved in a project uncompensated wouldn’t exist if the artists hadn’t done just that.

I am sure they realized there was a conflict between what they said and did because they worked up a budget (see page 6) for what it “would have” cost, estimating the project at $131,000 of which $8,400 was actually contributed (probably by the participants), the rest was contributed in-kind. Their total contributed hours tallied up to 3165.

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A Conferencing We Go

I am off at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in NYC today. So as I am wont to do, I am reaching back to my archives for my post today.

I thought it was appropriate to share my reflections on Peter Drucker’s “Managing Oneself” since I was first introduced to the piece 7 years ago at the Emerging Leadership Institute at the APAP conference.

I still carry the article around with me to remind me of many of the points Drucker makes about how to understand what you need to function and thereby provide the same service to those with whom you work.

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Know Who You Are Dealing With

In about two weeks I will be attending the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in NYC. I will be hosting a discussion panel, but my primary objective is to learn about different artists that might potentially perform in my space and make contacts with different artists’ agents.

It occurs to me to toss out a cautionary tale about being very, very careful about verifying that the people with whom you are working to arrange a performance are, in fact, the actual artist’s representative.

When I was working in Hawaii, the University of Hawaii at Manoa Athletics department decided they wanted to present a fund raiser featuring Stevie Wonder. They sent $200,000 to people who were not Stevie Wonder’s agent who subsequently took the money and ran off. The FBI ended up getting involved.

Given the scrutiny we faced to even get a $2,000 check cut, those of us working for the university in the performing arts wondered how so much money ended up getting transferred in the first place. Second, even if they didn’t think to ask those of us who handled performing arts contracts for the university, we wondered why none of the other prominent promoters in the state weren’t consulted. Any of us could have told them they were dealing with the wrong person.

However, I will admit that for someone who is inexperienced, it is difficult to discern who Stevie Wonder’s agent is. Many artists have their agent listed on their website, but Stevie Wonder doesn’t. My suspicion is that this keeps people who aren’t seriously prepared and qualified to present him from deluging the agent with requests. Anyone who is serious about presenting him will know how to identify his agent, Creative Artists Agency. (CAA)

That lack of information provides an opening which allows other people to take advantage. Even though I don’t engage artists who command $400-$500,000, I know CAA is one of the few agencies large enough to handle the business of someone like Stevie Wonder. But if you search the internet for “Stevie Wonder agent,” you will find 6-10 listings of people offering to arrange a concert for you. If you didn’t know CAA was his agent, which would you choose? CAA is the first search result, but there are two paid placements that come in above them.

Most of the other companies listed will likely turn around and contact CAA on your behalf to arrange for Stevie Wonder’s performance, taking a cut themselves. This isn’t to say these middlemen are just skimming a piece of the action. There are many that will add value to the exchange and handle the details you don’t have the resources to deal with yourself.

Some might take the money and run.

There are organizations that work to apply a code of ethics to artist booking like North American Performing Arts Managers and Agents (NAPAMA), but plenty of wholly legitimate agents are not members. And the general layperson never knows if these trade organizations are legitimate themselves or just created to provide a semblance of legitimacy.

Probably the best guard against getting cheated is good research and relationships. As I said, many artists will have their agent listed on their website. If they don’t some careful research is in order.

This is especially true if you are partnering with another entity who is going to help you mount your event. The more expensive the artist is going to be, the more you want to work with someone trustworthy who has experience presenting artists of that caliber.

The problem is, if you don’t have a close relationship with such a person, you are basically left assuming that the person you do trust to vouch for them actually knows enough to make that judgement.

The wisest course is get experience presenting events, working your way up to larger and larger names to get the experience. But many people don’t plan to present shows frequently enough to acquire this experience.

Deciding you want to invite someone who regularly commands $50-100,000+ for your fundraiser or anniversary event, having never presented such a performance before and not working with an entity that has, is a recipe for disaster. There are going to be basic expectations about the experience that you are entirely unaware of and unprepared for.

And really, the same is true for artists with $10,000 fees. There will just be exponentially more people involved at the higher fee and the problems will be that much more public.

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Comes The Curator

While at the Arts Presenters conference, I learned that Wesleyan University has a certificate program in Curatorial Practice in Performance. My first thought was to wonder if there was really that much of a demand for such a program. Then I recalled that many arts organizations have long been consolidating their executive and artistic director positions into one person and that there were likely quite a few people who sought the training originating from this situation alone. People hired for their ability to run the arts organization like a business might find themselves a little anxious about making the correct artistic decisions.

According to the program website, the purpose is:

“…designed so that students can learn to modify and adapt curatorial practices from one discipline to another. ICPP welcomes emerging curators as well as other arts professionals who are interested in time-based art practices in visual art, traditional arts and the performing arts. The emphasis of the program is on the how of curating and focused on developing tools to contextualize performance.”

I was in a session where either Program Director Kristy Edmunds or Managing Director Pamela Tatge, (whomever was sitting behind me) noted that the visual arts have long had curatorial training, but it was lacking in performance disciplines.

In a separate session moderated by Alan Brown on what drives and inhibits our success, Brown noted that presenting arts organizations are becoming increasingly interested in having a curatorial relationship with artists rather than just taking what is offered. Given that most contracts coming across my desk stipulate that the artist has sole control over the artistic content of the show, I wondered if there is going to be a lot of pressure to on that very common contract clause in the future.

Conceivably, if arts organizations take their responsibility to more effectively serve and engage their community to heart, they will have a better sense of what their community will respond to than the artist. I am not talking about pressing artists to tone down edgy elements in the performance to conform to local tastes. Rather I envision a presenter may ask that a particular piece be performed knowing how it will resonate with the history of the location or address an on going concern of the region.

Brown noted that a few performing arts organizations are soliciting requests for proposals (RFQ) from performing artists so that projects more closely conform with what they want to achieve. RFQs from visual artists aren’t uncommon, and Brown says there aren’t a lot of performing arts organizations soliciting, but the fact there are may represent a shift in the approach to residencies. Pam Tatge who was on the panel for this session commented that artist residencies were becoming an intersection of the artist’s goals and presenter’s goals.

It seemed to me that this is something of a compromise between commissioning a piece and hosting an artist for a performance. There is a desire to provide the community a deeper experience than might be derived from attending a performance but not enough resources to direct the creation of a new work. So presenters are seeking artists who can provide additional experiences with specific relevance to the local community. These additional experiences seem to tend toward interaction and working with members of the community and de-emphasize the lecture/demonstration model.

It just occurred to me that another one of the underlying themes of the conference seemed to be the blurring of distinct roles. In addition to a session specifically about cross-discipline performance curation, there were two different sessions on the dissolving boundaries between agent, manager and producer with people taking on the functions of all three in various situations.

Those were just the sessions specifically dedicated to this idea. Just as the topic of cross-discipline curation came up in a separate session I attended, I am sure the topic permeated other conversations.

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