Thursday, December 11, 2014


I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations.

Recently, three published pieces raised the question of our expectations as artists and how we present our work.1 While not all discuss the same topic, each one raises, at least by inference or implication, the question of how an artist can fulfill his or her expectation of a reasonable living wage in our current environment.

These pieces, addressing various aspects of this topic (which I have been mulling and discussing with colleagues for a while) are: Why “Where”? Because “Who”: Arts venues, spaces and traditions by Brent Reidy of AEA Consulting for the James Irvine Foundation, Artists Report Back: A National Study on the Lives of Arts Graduates and Working Artists, a report by BFAMFAPhD, and The Pomplamoose Problem: Artists Can’t Survive as Saints and Martyrs. Two of the pieces, Artists Report Back and The Pomplamoose Problem detail the gap in the reality of making a living that artists face. The third, Why “Where”? Because “Who” details the changed expectation of current audiences and the changing relationship between audience and artist regarding the space in which the art takes place.

The heart of the matter is that we expect to be able to earn a reasonable living through our art, but the current environment makes this an unrealistic expectation except for a very select few. We partially find ourselves in this situation because of the overwhelming success of our funding and cultural policies and strategies during the twentieth century (particularly the second half of that century) that aimed to professionalize the artistic landscape and broaden the reach of culture throughout our society.

While there has always been a commercial industry that existed alongside amateur practitioners, commercial opportunities were traditionally limited and selective. Through the use of “leveraged funding,” pioneered by the Ford Foundation and then adopted by the government and other funders, we built a strong and vibrant professional non-profit creative sector.2 A natural outcome of this “professionalization” was an increased expectation for all participants that it was possible for the first time, certainly within our country’s history, to earn a living as an artist.3 This sense has been strengthened by the institutionalization of arts education and training that came with the professionalization and to which Artists Report Back responds.

As we have transitioned into the twenty-first century, however, the demographic and social milieu has fundamentally shifted, resulting in a gap between the expectation of artists and the expectation of audiences. To put it another way, audiences are increasingly skipping the traditional artforms (often referred to as “high” or “fine” arts) because these artforms, at least as they are traditionally presented, no longer deliver the value they once did. The success of our strategies of the past hundred years in increasing the supply of artists has not been matched with strategies to insure sufficient value and demand for the work of those artists. The result is the gap many funders are now seeking to address.

It is well documented that our country is in the midst of a major demographic shift from a European based Caucasian culture to a multi-ethnic culture. The vast majority of the traditional arts that have been professionalized in this country flowed from a European background and aesthetic system that is not the same as that of other heritages, many of which have a different (or additional) set of cultural artifacts and experiences that they value. As the ethnic and racial balance in our country shifts, so do the cultural experiences and artifacts in which audiences find value, which is directly linked to demand.

At the same time, disruptive digital technologies have eviscerated the underpinnings of many industries and the previous generation’s work, turning the business models of our sector upside down. The underlying issue - the inability to rely on making a living as an artist today - is not limited to the non-profit sector. Taylor Swift’s recent withdrawal of her catalog from Spotify and the pitched battle between Amazon and Hachette are indications that the pressures from these shifts are also wreaking havoc with the commercial segments of the creative industries.

Many of today’s funders and analysts in our sector are understandably focused on the changing rules of engagement between artist and audience. Some, like Bill Ivey, have nostalgically focused their writing on the shift or return to a public engagement with the arts that is reminiscent of past times and norms.4 Unfortunately, this earlier kind of engagement never included a professionalized sector, and consequently the expectation of artists that they might reasonably earn a living from their art did not exist or at least did not exist on the general scale it does today.

Reidy, looking at it from the audience point of view, urges artists to go where the audiences are and not expect audiences to come to them, as they have in the past.5 For Reidy, these changes are irrevocable:

The most shortsighted of these efforts are calculated attempts to hook new patrons and somehow convince them to come back to the places they do not currently attend. Increasing attendance back at base is possible, but only when an organization can re-legitimize and ground itself through efforts that reach new patrons in genuine ways. For the work to be truly effective,[ ] it must be part of the mission, not only of strategy, and an organization must be committed to meeting its current and future patrons where they are, not where that organization wishes they were (emphasis in the original).6

Looking at it from the artist’s point of view, both The Pomplamoose Problem, and Artists Report Back urge that we address the crisis of the difficulty artists have to earn a living. Each assumes artists should be able to earn a living. Perhaps just as Reidy acknowledges the reality of a changed expectations and desires of audiences, so too must artists acknowledge the changed reality of their situation. And some may already be doing so.

The Pomplamoose Problem responds to a report by the band Pomplamoose, in which the band details the costs and revenues of their recent self-produced tour. While the band believes that their investment and personal loss on the tour was well worth it, their loss is bemoaned in the Pomplamoose Problem as a sign of how we are failing our artists and this forms the basis of the post’s call to action. The only real difference I can see, however, between the Pomplamoose artists and the Pomplamoose Problem commenter is that they have different expectations.

Along with Brent Reidy’s findings and recommendations, it seems that this is the real message that more and more are suggesting for our sector: changing expectations are required to continue making art and being satisfied with the return on that work for the artist. Such a change, though, may spell the end of the “professionalized” arts sector we have come to expect. As the Pomplamoose band's reactions shows, it is possible to be successful in the current environment, though to do so, today's artists may need a different set of expectations than those of artists of a previous period.

1. Many thanks to Thomas Cott and You’ve Cott Mail for alerting us to these and many other salient conversations.
2. A second outcome of this process was the solidifying of a dichotomy between “high” and “popular” art. With the return to an earlier relationship between artist and audience, as Reidy and others report, this distinction is also waning or disappearing.
3. For a concise and enlightening history of this process, see, for example The Performing Arts in a New Era, from the Rand Corporation for the Pew Charitable Trusts, 2001.
4. See, for example, Ivey’s Handmaking America: A Back-to-Basics Pathway to a Revitalized American Democracy, Counterpoint Press, 2012.
5. While not explicitly stated, the report appears to be addressed more to institutional readers than individual artists, but his points are just as applicable.
6. Reidy, p12.

A New Sense of Value at the Core

This article originally appeared in the Dance/USA Journal, Vo. 25, No.1, Spring 2009, as part of a series of comments on the state of the field from a diverse set of DUSA Trustees.

Recently, my family entered the 21st century by getting a DVR. Suddenly, we are able to choose and enjoy any entertainment offering when and how we want it. We have been freed from the past, where the only way to experience culture was communally, joining with others at a set time to partake in what was being offered.

This change has been coming for a long time. Television, like radio before it, fostered a regular presence for the performing arts that one could enjoy in private. As is inevitable, technology has continued to advance so that information and experiences are now available on demand, at any place and any time. The result, epitomized by the DVR and like devices, is that each of us can act as a curator, determining our own personalized entertainment, obviating the need for communal experiences, which is inherently a part of what we in the dance community do best.

Studies show that the most reliable predictors of commitment to the arts are continued exposure and education, whether in a formal setting (such as at school), or in a private setting (such as in the home). Those who make the commitment are guided to it by their own private curator(s). It is not surprising, then, that as individualization has replaced community, we have lost the innate appreciation for and valuing of the live arts, which we as a nation should hold dear. Even worse, life is often experienced today through simulacra, replacing real experiences with ones that we believe are real. Umberto Eco would say, rather than using these representations to invoke previous memories, we now take them as the real thing without yearning for the lost original.

As a response to this individualization of experience, engaging audiences - meeting them on their own terms to empower their individualization - is currently a high priority among funders and administrators. Recent studies conclude that although more people participate in dance and classical music than ever before, fewer and fewer experience these arts in the theater or concert hall. In a world of individualized experience, culture is falling prey to the elevation of the individual over the communal. Opera and theater director Peter Sellars, at the American Symphony Orchestra League (now known as the League of American Orchestras) annual conference two years ago, described how he and Music Director Esa Pekka Salonen moved the Los Angeles Philharmonic out of the concert hall. Others have embarked on similar efforts to redefine the relationship between audiences and classical arts.

Last spring, impresario Gerard Mortier, at his keynote address to Opera America, implored us to remember that performance is truly unique and transcendental when it is experienced live. Peter Gelb, who as general manager redefined the Metropolitan Opera by offering performances around the world in high-definition video transmission, believes that his program's success depends on audiences in Des Moines, Palm Beach, San Antonio, and Edinburgh knowing that they are simultaneously watching a live performance along with 3,600 others sitting in the theater in New York.

Curious about how younger people feel about live performance, I asked my son (for whom technology and on-demand access to information and experience are innate) about it because he periodically asks me to take him to a ballet or opera performance. He told me that live performance is all-enveloping and cannot be matched by a two-dimensional version of the same experience. It might be satisfying in a different way, but it is not the same.

Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report on the state of theater around the country. It concluded that we have successfully stimulated the supply of theater performances and spaces over recent decades, but put little effort into stimulating demand. The result is an over-capacity of theaters and theatrical offerings with insufficient demand to draw adequate audiences.

At New York City Ballet, we perform seven times a week for 23 weeks in our home theater each year. Like many of our Dance/USA colleagues, we are suffering from decreasing demand and outlets for our artistry. We now sell 330,000 tickets annually in New York, a decline from the 400,000-plus tickets we sold 25 years ago. Increasing costs are conspiring with these diminishing audiences to threaten our very business model. I spend much of my day learning to address this challenge - whether through exploring ways to increase audiences or re-imagining how we present our work to make it more available to more people in more places.

But these efforts, and those of my colleagues, will be for naught unless there are audiences who appreciate and value the live performing arts we esteem. Sufficient demand for our art is essential to our future and the future of the field. And it is the only way to assure the future of our artists' unique work and its relevance. Herein, then, lies the crux of the matter: unless we are able to inculcate a new sense of value for the live performances we all believe so deeply are core to our dance experience, we are in danger - in danger of losing our relevance and our very future,.

This is the greatest challenge we face and I urge all of us - government, foundations, administrators, and artists - to face it head on and with all earnestness. I am unsure of how to accomplish it or what the answer is, but, one way or another, we must all commit to what we have neglected over recent decades: stimulating demand and appreciation for live cultural performances.


"The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak, . . . In the 21st century, the level of control is going to be decreased, . . ." Jared Cohen and Alec Ross in the New York Times Magazine, July 18, 2010.

I've been thinking a lot about chaos lately. Thinking about the increased level of chaos we all live with. We have seen the disintegration of nation states and the rise of failed states around the world. At the same time, the proliferation of non-governmental actors, capable of sowing tremendous destruction and disruption, has raised questions about the long-term viability of the sovereign state model that has been the norm since Bismark. Most interesting, however, is the level of "comfort" young people seem to have with this situation that sets many of us on edge.

Growing up today, one is constantly engaging in multiple discussions, through different technology, with many people. "Multi-tasking" is accepted as the norm and more time is spent interacting than contemplating. The end-result is a flat experience, devoid of the richness and depth that comes with allowing time to affect our thoughts and experience.

Creativity can be seen as the synthesis of data in a unique and inventive way. Sometimes, the creativity yields a result that resonates broadly, imbuing it with increased societal value. Sometimes the creativity yields a result that is banal and uninteresting - in which case we would hesitate to call it creativity. In either case, though, time and contemplation play a critical part.

The implication of total involvement in the immediate here-and-now is that we no longer are able to engage in the non-linear contemplation of data that happens as our mind works over time. In the end, it is our loss as we no longer will synthesize our experiences to create a unique response, diminishing the richness of our artistic and cultural life.

What is most curious for our future is how the work of young artists, engaging constantly in flat, broad, immediate interactions will differ from the work of other generations, steeped in long contemplative exploration of themes and experiences.