Text from the Smackdown

Here is what I said in my ‘prepared’ statement at The Field’s Smackdown event last week, as a couple people have asked to see it.


“It used to be that the arts were, or seemed to be, an exceptional and broken economy. So many people were making so much money out there while we were taking a loss. It must have just been our fault. But now a lot of systems are in disrepair – education, banking, and health care for instance. So what has changed, and what do we do?

Here are two small things: 1. we address the scarcity model; and we submit the work’s real cost and value.

A few months ago I was at an ART-NY fundraising roundtable. When the subject of funding cuts came up, people started saying, “we gotta learn how to do more with less.” I think that every year since 1993, whether the economy was booming, busting or staying just the same, I have heard someone – an artist, development person, funder, presenter – say that. I can almost hear a kind of relief in it, like crisis mode can keep us from having to risk real failure or real transcendance. So I want to advocate doing less with more. Make fewer, more brilliant shows, don’t put them up until they’re ready, and ask for enough to get them done right.

For presenters and funders, this can be tough. You’ve got all these fabulous artists who want your help. You’ve got a staff who needs a salary. You’ve got grantors or legislators or boards asking you to justify everything in terms of artistic excellence, community engagement, access, education, and diversity, all for $3,200 a year. And no one raises an eyebrow when you say you’re “commissionng” a piece for $5,000 that really costs 70 grand. But until we address this then maybe the system’s functioning just as it should: people are making a lot of art, labor costs are incredibly low– this is what the market has borne.

So, do we want to try and change the game? And if so, how?

For starters we could make budgets that reflect real cost of the work, including the amount we are all subsidizing the field via dayjobs, credit cards trust funds or partners.

I think that freeing up the truth by doing the numbers right ultimately allows us to advocate in a new way. We can stop relying too heavily on a skewed notion of economic impact that arises out of how much we agree to do for how little.

And then we can start being citizens with allies in other fields that are also asked to do more with less, who are also driven by a mission. Teachers, death row lawyers, journalists, rural doctors, etc.

And then we can start addressing creativity as a core human trait, and the articulated imagination as one of the few things that separates us from other species. “