Some Words about Art and Money

by Caridad Svich

in National Conference

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(Photo by Ben Carver of Jarman (all this maddening beauty)This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive| Thrive} blog salon.)

I promised myself I wouldn’t use the words “thrive” and “survive” beyond the first sentence of this essay. I strive to keep that promise. Here is why.

Waking up

I get up every day as a freelance theatre-maker and try to figure out how to make a living, be it through my art or through my skills as someone educated in the arts (two degrees) and with years of experience added to my education. The dues (and student loans), as the saying goes, have been paid and then some. Yet, I know that every day real-life dues must need be paid (rent, utilities, the basics of living in a late capitalist system) or else the time and space to make the art – which is occasionally but not always funded – won’t pay itself. Each day, thus, becomes a lesson in creative problem-solving on a practical and aesthetic level.

“One for the art, one for the faith enterprise” is the phrase I mutter to myself every morning. What do I mean by this?

I mean that each day I promise to make some work (be it a sketch, a song, notes, etc.) to keep the artistic muscles tuned, and each day I trust in the leap of faith that requires making a living.

No one is forcing me to be an artist. I chose this path, knowing there was no guaranteed subsidy for my art-making. I chose it because it chose me. Plain and simple. It was a calling. It still is a calling.

I also like to think I’m good at what I do, that my diligence to making theatre is not a whimsical endeavor, but that I actually have talent and skill and have learned how to apply both (as well as my imagination) to the task at hand.

I don’t believe art grows on trees, falls down the sky or other kinds of wishful thinking. I do believe it takes work. Sometimes hard work. And yes, sometimes the gods do whisper in your ear and it does feel as if the work is not work at all but this other thing: this spirit coming through you. When that happens, you feel blessed. It’s a mighty good feeling. Sometimes you make art to allow that feeling, that moment, to come again.

Try as I may to dupe myself otherwise and pretend that oh, yes, I should change careers after putting 20 years into this one, I know I’m in this art game for the long haul. Partly because I love writing so much. Every time I say, no, no, this is the last play, wouldn’t you know it, another play sneaks up behind me and begs to be written. So, clearly, this is the deal. I’m not turning back, and though I know I wear many artistic hats (who doesn’t?) in this field, the writing hat is the one that drives all of the others.

I am what people call a “creative.” I rather don’t like that term, because it implies that some people are creative and some aren’t, that there is, in other words, a privileged place that “creatives” inhabit that others don’t. I think all people are creative and that creativity expresses itself in different ways, just not always through art-making.

But for the purposes of this essay, we are talking about art-making and those two other words I said I would not repeat, lest I break the promise with which we began.

So, the daily daily. What happens in the life of an artist?

For every artist, there’s a different story or perhaps several stories rolled into one.

Some artists paint houses to keep the writing going.

Some artists do temp work to keep the acting going.

Some artists juggle five to ten jobs to keep everything going.

Some artists have tenure. Lots of artists don’t.

Some artists have trust funds. Lots of artists don’t.

Some artists have private subsidy/patronage. Many don’t.

Some artists are in residence at arts institutions and actually receive a paycheck. Many don’t.

Some artists – well, many artists, actually –work for free. A lot. More than I think would dare admit.  And I’m not just talking about what has become the “free labor” racket called “internships.”

Some artists give money to other artists, and not just via kickstarter and other crowdfunding campaigns.

Some artists give when they cannot. It’s a bleeding economy. A love economy.

*

Strange Love

Waking up every day trying to figure it out is a constant for most in this field. The “somes” are few. Regardless of talent, experience, years of higher learning, professional training, etc. We know this. Because it has always been like this.

What has not always been, however, at least in relatively recent history in the United States (to keep this on the national level for the moment), is the fact that there are very few grants to which artists can apply as individuals without the attachment of an institution or an institution leading the grant. Sometime around the fabled NEA Four incident, NEA funding for individual artists applying on their own with a project started to dwindle and has, for the most part, disappeared entirely. Other viable funding bodies followed suit.

In turn, there has been a rise in by nomination-only or by invitation only or granted fellowships for artists. This latter turn has limited the funding “market” considerably for artists. If you cannot apply on your own, because so say the rules of this, that and the other grant, then you simply must erase from your mind what may be viable and sometimes significant funding opportunities to live and make your work. It’s an ironic Catch-22 situation. The field is narrow in and of itself, even though artistry is deep and wide across this country, so that narrowing it even further seems, well, strangely undemocratic.

Well, you may say, there’s TV and film. Go there. And so, many in our field have with varying measures of success (and here I use this word both in its crassest economic context and in regard to artistry). It is also true that the days of specialists are over. We are all required in one way or another to work in multiple media platforms.

Theatre is a dying animal, so they say and have said for centuries. So, why keep at it? It’s a rich man’s game, some say, and if you’re poor, good luck to you. Cuz it won’t be easy.

It’s not.

And kickstarter (and the like) is not the answer.

Already we know this.

Crowdsourcing fatigue has set in. Big time.

Every day another “ask” appears in our email inbox or on FB or other social media platforms.

Artists spend considerable amount of time, energy and wherewithal to construct these “asks” and the crowd source campaign that goes with them. It feels wrong somehow to be fatigued by what are fellow citizen-artists doing the thing we all do when we get up in the morning and mutter our appointed phrases to keep going. But the fact is: dumping what feels like ALL of the responsibility of funding art into fellow artists’ hands does feel wrong.

Where are the rest of our citizens? Where’s the rest of our culture?

I mean, we ARE the cultural workers here. Must we do the cultural work AND everything else?

Are we only talking to ourselves? Is that the deal?

Cuz that’s not the deal I signed up for when I got into this game, when this life path chose me. I did think and still do that, well, we go to work, just like the cop does or the doctor does or the teacher or the health care worker. We are part of society, even though our artistic job is to step outside society in order to listen to what it is saying and not saying, and reflect back its truths and ills transformed into art in the civic and spiritual enterprise we call theatre (in its broadest meaning).

Okay. Perhaps you’re thinking: whoa. Didn’t we talk about artists in society already? Aren’t we done with all that? Aren’t we talking about making sure art is tied to social efficacy? Art’s value, in other words? Cuz those are the numbers I care about, you may be thinking. Show me the numbers and then we can talk about whether there is a fiscal responsibility to artists in this country.

*

Market Share

In late summer of 2013, I wrote the text for performance piece inspired by the life, works and legacy of the late queer British filmmaker Derek Jarman. The piece is called Jarman (all this maddening beauty) and I wrote it on a handshake. You heard/read right.

Earlier in the year, in spring of 2013 I was chatting about art-making with director/performer John Moletress of the Washington D.C.-based ensemble force/collision outside the rehearsal hall of New Georges’ The Room on the Art/NY floor of 520 8th Avenue in New York City.

We had worked together once before, when he directed the premiere of my play Magnificent Waste for Factory 449 in D.C. some years ago. That play was about a visual artist and the cult of commodification and celebrity in the art world. It predated (in its writing, not eventual production) FB, Twitter, etc. yet, oddly enough, one of the tag lines of one of the characters in the play was “What’s on your mind?” When I wrote it, I had no idea that one day this same phrase would become what we now casually refer to as our status update.

Moletress said he wanted to work with me again. I said the same. We started to chat about artists we admire, because Magnificent Waste was set in the art world. It seemed a logical place to re-begin our conversation about what we could make next. He tossed out some ideas. I listened. And then I started to think about Derek Jarman’s work, a filmmaker who doesn’t get talked about much anymore, yet who I feel remains one of the most provocative and inspiring filmmakers of the 20th century in the DIY aesthetic and not. Seeing Jarman’s films changed the way I thought about form. Just the same as seeing Bill Viola’s work. I had been thinking about Jarman for a long time but never in the context of making a piece for live performance. Just as inspiration, a reminder of what is possible, and so forth. Touchstone, as it were. But suddenly standing in the hallway outside The Room, chatting with Moletress, it seemed almost transparent: of course, we should make a piece inspired by Jarman. I said this. He looked at me, and said “He’s my favorite artist.” I replied, “All right. I’ll write something, then.” We shook hands, and a deal was struck. No grant. No funding body. No one else standing there asking us what we might make. Like all art: an act of freedom, the freedom of following impulse and imagination.

I promised Moletress that I would have a text by end of summer 2013. Something we could look at least to begin a process. I am pretty sure that he thought I meant a sketch by summer of 2013, because when I sent the script to him via email, he replied (and I am paraphrasing here) “oh, my, a whole script?!”

Within weeks, a plan was set in motion: he would create a dossier for the show, then he and D.C. based filmmaker Ben Carver would make a trailer for the piece, a Hatchfund campaign would be put into effect toward goal to present a workshop staging at Atlas Performing Arts Center in April of 2014. Note: Hatchfund campaign was for the workshop. The work beforehand, including the writing, happened through sheer will, credit cards, faith, love, friends, more friends and all the things we do to make art possible.

At one point, late December 2013, when the Hatchfund campaign, which was quite modest in its budget, wasn’t gaining traction, I thought, well, it may not happen. Them’s the brakes. We dreamt a little. But maybe this mad dream is not to be.

Then, top of 2014, the campaign met its first match, and it seemed as if things may just work out to be able to present the work in progress in the spring. Filmmaker Ben Carver, director Moletress and 50 local, “underground” artists worked on the project. Massive labour of love all round. April of 2014 the workshop production happened. By the skin of its teeth. An archived performance is video on demand on Howlround, and now we are looking to tour somehow. Reinventing the wheel again, as the saying goes, and hoping that the mad dream to keep working on this piece can continue…

Throughout it all, so far, I have kept thinking about Derek Jarman making 50 short films on his Super 8, all before he made his first full length film Sebastiane (1976), and how the sheer diligence it must have taken to commit to exploring cinematic form (in his case) was nothing short of a lesson. Totally DIY but a lesson nonetheless. What I mean by this is making the work – outside of basic art supplies and you know, having a roof over your head, food on the table, truly affordable and not gouging-ly affordable health insurance, and some consistent monies coming in somehow to stave off debt – does not have a price on it. Its value is not dependent on a review in the NYT, 20,000 hits on Twitter, 5000 likes on FB and so forth. The “value” is in engaging with the form because you are following a path, a vision, if you like, and you’re just trying to see it through.

When I talk to scriptwriting students these days, I stress the importance of building a body of work, because it’s not about the ONE play that will become the McTheatre event of the season or the two plays that get written about in the “prestige” markets, but having your muscles as an artist trained so well that you can make, explore and discover something every time, even if it’s a short experiment. Being at the ready, sustaining what YOU value about what and why it is that you make what you make is what will keep you wanting to get up every morning to do this thing, even when no one is knocking on the door, asking for a play, calling up, or saying hallo. And believe me, in this business, unlike others, it’s interesting how courtesy can be perceived as an expendable value (but that is for another essay someday maybe).

For now, the point is this: there was no market share factoring in our decisions when we began Jarman (all this maddening beauty) - and I am talking about this one project here, but there are countless others that have taken similar paths in my own experience as well as those of other artists I know.

We just acted. On faith. And so did many others who have become part of the project. Somehow, despite all, we’re still making and dreaming.

*

The Goods

Well, you may say, you can’t buy groceries with dreaming. That’s true. You can’t. We are not in a barter culture, although we are in a debt culture (and by 2017, economists are already predicting massive debt culture will be in effect in the West). But for now, most of the time, especially when it comes to the essentials of living in a US market economy, we can’t really pay tomorrow what must be paid today.

Yet, whenever the unpopular, and some would even say vulgar, topic of money rears its head in conversations about the arts, people tend to look the other way. Money makes us uncomfortable. Talk about money even more so. Because it comes down to: who has it? Who wants it? Who needs it? How does one quantify need? Who deserves it? And where it is all going to come from?  Oh, and, will it get shared? That’s an important question. Cuz the pot is hot and everyone wants it, and doling out the goods in the pot is the art of funding, to a great extent.

So, I’m an artist.

I am not a funder. Although I occasionally pitch in to crowd source campaigns of artist pals.

I am not a producer. Although with NoPassport theatre alliance & press, I have worn what may be technically called a producer’s hat for several global and national play reading initiatives (The Way of Water, Spark, Gun Control Theatre Action, 30/30 US Latin@ National Reading Festival), and eight consecutive annual theatre conferences from 2007-2014.

I am biased, you might say, on the artist’s side of the equation.

I think artists should get paid.

I think artists should be able to apply directly for most funding opportunities. Well, all, actually, but let’s not get too carried away right now. Remember what happens with wishful thinking.

I think artists should be given the money. Period. Why?

Because we’re pretty good at

a) creative problem-solving,
b) at wearing way too many logistical, artistic and practical hats to keep going (and there are lessons that can be taught, thus, to others about this mad dance that art world demands of us),
c) we know a thing or two about culture and how to listen, and yeah, making things with other people, things that actually can be shared and live with others, and may even, depending on what it is, have tactical effect or a spiritual one.

(Imagine the spirit of a culture. No price on that.)

d) although we stage conflicts (sometimes) in our performances, we tend to be quite capable at resolving conflicts on a daily basis, which comes in handy, don’t you know, in times like these and the ones to come.
e) And the “results,” come day’s end, may not be what you expect or even dreamt of in the first place.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

[Caridad Svich’s play Spark receives its world premiere at Theater Alliance in Washington D.C. in September 2014.]


Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus). caridadsvich.com

  • undergradartist

    Thank you for this, Caridad. As an about-to-be-a-senior in undergrad double majoring in directing and theatre education, there was so much of import in this article for me to be reminded of. Again, thanks.

  • Rebeca Rad

    needed this… thank you!

  • brendanmccallnorway

    Thank you for your example, Caridad, articulating the thorny questions related to the arts, money, dreaming, faith, and the love-economy of making work happen. Your article reminded me of another piece I read recently in the NY Times, about the impact of money on culture: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/arts/a-resurgence-in-inequality-and-its-effects-on-culture.html?_r=0