Wishing You Were A Famous Actor, Tenured Professor Or A Drug Kingpin

This weekend I was reading an piece on Slate that likened new Ph.Ds seeking tenured positions in higher ed to drug dealers hoping to become drug kingpins.

“If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at McDonald’s. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forgo current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and-file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing,” wrote Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London.

“The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics,” he writes. “Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labor markets virtually everywhere… Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail.”

Since I work in higher education, I thought this theory was interesting and entertaining and then moved on. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized this pretty much describes the same situation faced by people who want to be actors (as well a orchestra musicians, I imagine). I don’t know why it didn’t strike me earlier, I have been reading Scott Walters’ thoughts on the subject of too many acting students being graduated for the available jobs for years.

Just like the rank and file drug dealers and doctoral program graduates, thousands of actors graduate a training program at some level hoping to become a big star, or at least steadily employed at a livable wage, each year.

The problem is, the only opportunities are on the periphery as either a low level drug dealer or adjunct, while the available spots at the core as a kingpin or tenured professor are increasingly few. (Though I will confess that other than increased pressure from law enforcement and internecine conflicts, I am not sure what is limiting the number of kingpin slots.)

It may be much worse for actors because it appears there are fewer and fewer paid opportunities even on the periphery for them to pick up, much less achieve a reasonable career and income. (Though it is difficult to gauge because the surveys aren’t able to comprehensively measure all paid opportunities.)

But I have long known about all these factors that conspire against practicing artists and that students are undeterred and pursue the career path anyway. My realization that the comparison of Phds to drug dealers was apt for actors was pretty much just that– a realization that arts people don’t really diverge too far from the norm in their aspirations.

Not that desiring to be a drug kingpin is normal, but the act of aspiring to achieve a severely limited status is widely shared by all humans and not specific to artists.

This may seem like common sense, but when you hear students urged to pursue practical majors in Business and STEM fields, you might get the impression that aspiring to the unobtainable is embraced by only the margins of society. As the Slate article notes, the similar conditions exist across all areas of the labor market. It may only be pursued to greater extremes by the margins, but the impulse is deep seated in us all.

You Wanna Be Where Everybody Knows Your Name

As I have stated before, I grew up in a rural setting in upstate NY and just before I started blogging, I worked at a rural arts and music center. But now that I am paying much closer attention to the lives of arts organizations and the communities they try to serve, moving to work in a rural environment has given much greater insight into the impetus behind Scott Walters’ efforts on behalf of rural arts organizations that lead to the creation of the Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education (CRADLE).

There may not be the financial support or audience attendance in numbers that larger cities and communities enjoy, but the impact of arts programs and opportunities can be much more immediate and apparent. This is not to say there isn’t just as profound an impact in other places, just that the feedback loop is that much smaller. Because everyone knows everyone, even if a person doesn’t make a comment about their experience to you, you are likely to hear about it from someone else.

Case in point, I met an administrator at the university early one Friday, later that day he got his haircut. That night his hairdresser, whom I had never met before, said he made positive remarks about me.

What has been interesting to me is to have confirmation of many of the benefits we in the arts claim we bring to the community.

People from the local hospital told me my arts center is important to the health of their organization because they generally don’t have problems attracting doctors to the area, but after a year or two pressure from their families often sees them moving away due to lack of activities. The better a job I do, the better it is for them.

The community board which helps us fund the bulk of our presenting was invited to have a fund raiser at a local wine store. The board had a band playing and the store owner had wine and beer tasting. The community board made quite a respectable amount of money that night so they were happy.

The owner of the shop said the arts people attracted the type of clientele he was looking for. They came, they chatted, they browsed, they bought. He was happy. I think everyone hopes there will be another opportunity to do that again.

Yeah, you can say this only reinforces the stereotype of arts people as effete wine drinkers, but you can grab a six pack of Bud in the supermarket. This business owner is focused on attracting people who drink wine and craft brewed beer and smoke cigars and the arts board helped to deliver them.

On the other hand, there were many people to just stopped in to grab a six pack and bottles who picked up performance season information and bought raffle tickets so the store potentially delivered new audiences to the theatre.

The last incident falls into the “big impact/change of life” category. This past weekend the local arts council had its first ever community arts awards event in my theatre. It was actually pretty well put together for a first attempt. Each award was interspersed with performances by youth performers.

I was surprised to learn that not only does this small town have an organization that teaches kids to do aerial acrobatics, but that the school is under the umbrella of the local museum. I am going to have to check it out. It may give Nina Simon and her Museum 2.0 a run for her money.

Probably the most conspicuous example of the arts impacting lives was the honoree who had been teaching piano for 60 years and so had a legion of people, from music teachers to kids attending top music conservatories, speaking her praises.

Among the other honorees were the Irish owners of the local pub who declared “what good is a pub without stories and music to fill it?” and the owners of a plumbing supply house who between them have sat on the boards of just about every arts organization in town.

There was a visual artist who had moved from Seattle and was instrumental in the founding of the local visual arts center. Known to be something of a recluse, the awards organizers went to his studio and made a really nice video of him talking about his art and his process. I wondered if the reception the film received from the audience emboldened him a little because he spoke a fair bit when he went on stage to accept the award.

Granted, there is a big fish in a small pond element to all of this. In terms of reaching numbers, a performer doing a show in Tampa impacts the lives of more people in one night than one of those honorees might in a year. Many times that is what foundations and granting organization are looking for.

But as I sat there Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think that what was happening in this town was what many arts organizations dreamed of. The results of an interaction with the arts, both positive and negative, and the bonds it creates between people are so easy to observe.

Person A and Person B may leave an event and separately speak about their experience with Persons C and D, respectively. No only is there a high chance that C and D will meet and speak about the experience related to them second hand, there is a good chance C will meet B, another person who actually attended, and get their view on the experience. All four then share a common bond around the experience.

Unless all four travel in the same circles, what is the chance that this interaction will happen often in a city of 300,000? Here it happens many times every day.

Obviously, there is a downside to this lack of anonymity. I was both amused and a little uneasy about having the an opinion of me by someone I just met come back to me via their hair stylist at a wine tasting that same afternoon. I am certainly going to have to step carefully at times.

But it also strikes me that for those willing to listen, it can be very easy to collect a fairly accurate view of the community without the need to resort to a lot of guess work.

Speaking of drinking wine and beer, this entry title brought to you by Cheers, of course

I Don’t Remember The Nest Being So Nice

There is potential that cities across the country can ultimately benefit from this economic downturn if they play their cards right and tap into those returning home to help contribute to raising the quality of life. This at least, according to a piece by Will Doig on Salon.com.

According to Doig, young people who have moved to the big cities around the country like NYC, LA and Chicago, find the cost of living to be too high and returning to the places they left, often to start their own businesses.

“Or as urban analyst Aaron Renn puts it: “New York City is like a giant refinery for human capital … Taking in people, adding value, then exporting them is one of New York’s core competencies.”

And it exports them in droves. People associate brain drain with the agricultural and industrial Midwest. But most years, when foreign immigration is excluded, it’s places like New York and Chicago that lose the most residents. Chicago loses nearly 81 people a day to out-migration, more than any other metro area in America. Between mid-2010 and mid-2011, nearly 100,000 people left the New York area. Los Angeles lost almost 50,000.”

Of course, this doesn’t diminish the fact that a whole lot of people are returning home to live a fairly depressing unemployed existence. But according to Doig, in returning home, these people bring expectations of products and services they experienced in the big cities, paving the way for these same products and creating demand for business and government services. They also tell their friends about the great environment in the “nests” to which they have returned attracting more people there.

The reason why I mention cities need to play their cards right is because they have a role in perpetuating an image of their cities as vibrant, interesting places to live. According to Doig’s piece, the reputation perpetuated about cities belie the actual conditions in those cities. (My emphasis)

“The mesofacts say that Charlotte [North Carolina] is a boom town and Portland [Oregon] is cool.” In reality, the economies of both Charlotte and Portland have been struggling for a while now. Yet new residents still flock to these places because the mesofacts tell them they’re hot, when it’s actually Pittsburgh they should be looking to, where per capita income has risen faster than any other major Midwestern city’s, and the unemployment rate has been lower than the national average since 2006.

“I’ve been saying to people in Pittsburgh for years, ‘What Seattle was in the ’90s, you’re going to be that big.’ And they’d laugh. But the data show it,” says Russell. “The editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette keeps saying the biggest problem in Pittsburgh is brain drain. And I’m like, you’re 20 years too late. Why are you torpedoing your own in-migration? When you’re running around saying you have a brain drain problem, what you’re saying to the world is, ‘We’re a loser.’ But if you can convince people the data are true as opposed to the mesofacts, then you open the sluicegates.”

If Doig is correct about all this, it could be the time for arts organizations to step up and take advantage of their trend. As Scott Walters and many other have noted, artists flock to cities like NYC, Chicago and LA convinced they can make their careers there. This is due not only to the alluring glow of the lights of Broadway, but to the practices of many regional theatres that often do their casting in major cities forcing actors to move there if they want to work back home.

This isn’t just the case for theatre either, Trey McIntyre confounded everyone when he chose to base his dance company in Boise, ID rather than one of the major cities. Artists aren’t just seduced away from home by the mythology of these cities, there are very practical reasons to move there if you want an opportunity to practice.

But as I said, arts organizations have an opportunity to reverse this trend by focusing on hiring locally and then getting the local arts community to tell their friends in the big cities why they should move back. For many of those who left, artistic spaces that seemed provincial and under equipped when they left may suddenly seem luxurious after working and living in dingy, holes in the wall in the big city. Yet they have also probably seen and done some pretty artistically interesting things.

As people move back, the arts organizations can tap into the returnees’ experiences interacting with the current thought and aesthetics churning in the big cities and adapt them as their own. You are never going to overcome the allure of going off to the golden cities, but by providing a reason to return, many places across the country can embrace the situation and leverage it to their own advantage.

What Values Matter In Arts Grad Training Programs?

This weekend Scott Walters quoted an extensive comment made on another blog about the value of MFA acting programs. The gist is, students are ill served by the programs which need to focus on training students for 21st century opportunities.

This struck a chord with me because I had recently read a Fast Company article about how UC Berkeley’s Business School started to screen applicants based on whether they embodied the school’s core values. The school had decided to embrace these values in the interests of creating a “reduction of overconfidence and self-focus, which are perceived to be excessively present among the business graduates and leaders of the top business schools.”

At the time I read it, I was idly wondering if arts training programs at the master level might do something similar to address any perceived (and real) problems with those they graduate. It had been a long time since I was in grad school so I didn’t feel I knew enough about the state of things write a post about it. Having read Walter’s recent post, I am no more certain than before since it is the view of a single unidentified commenter. I do feel fairly confident in assuming that, as with most things, there is room for improvement.

I will readily admit that given my ignorance of the state of things, I don’t have any concrete suggestions about they might be done differently. I will say that one thing that stood out in the Fast Company piece was that Berkeley-Haas instituted significant changes in their program based on their stated values and then required their applicants to adhere to them.

Most remarkably, they are not simply communication tools but drive operations from the curriculum, research priorities to staff programs, and faculty hiring. The curriculum, for example, has been extensively revamped in order to introduce elements of creativity, innovation, collaboration, ethics, and social responsibility.

They made sure they embodied the values before they required the students to do the same. It would have been much easier for them to decide to implement the change by altering their admission criteria and assuming that choosing the right students would result in producing the right graduates. But that is less likely if the infrastructure surrounding the students doesn’t emulate and reinforce the values the school wishes to cultivate in its graduates.

Successful realization of any goal is easier for any entity if all members are aligned toward attaining it. Probably the most powerful thing an arts training program can do to convince applicants that it can prepare them to ply their craft in the current environment is to point to a major realignment of priorities to that end.

As the commenter that Walters quotes, SayItLoud, notes, theatre training programs often cite successful graduates and places their students have worked or can intern at. As impressive as that is, the reality is the path those graduates took to success may no longer be viable.

What training programs may really need to do is say to applicants, “We’ve changed ourselves from top to bottom and what success requires now is to push you off the conventional path. This is not the place to pursue training in becoming a triple-threat, actor/singer/dancer. You may have become a video editor/painter/acrobat or a ecologist/architect/percussionist or all six plus four things we aren’t mentioning. Do your interests, values and practices align with ours?”

At the very least, it will get everyone thinking about the whole training process. Given that the current conversation is that arts organizations need to change the way they operate and interact with audiences, you aren’t leading students astray by telling them they need to obtain a wider spectrum of skills. Like as not, they will be the ones helping to drive the change with the types of works they develop.

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