Saturday, February 12, 2011

Artists & Revolutions

As a prelude to this, I should explain that several years ago I was involved with the state of Maine’s creative economy initiative, which was an effort to acknowledge and encourage the link between Maine’s stellar arts community and its economic development goals. I spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to find resources to support the initiative, in part so that we (like many other states) could support our downtown revitalization strategies with artists and art-related endeavors. As a “wanna-be” writer and fiber artist, who is also enamored with photography and mixed-media work, I liked the idea of helping working artists succeed. And I truly believed their work was helping support the state’s economy (still do).

As a result of that work, and because I have artist friends, and because I’m now a full-time grant writer, I’ve watched with dismay over the past few years as the recession has decimated funding for arts projects across the country. Further complicating matters is that very few grants are available that provide funds directly to artists - and they are so competitive that there's virtually no return on investment for the time the artist puts in to preparing proposals. Most grant funds are given to nonprofit arts organizations, who apply for them and set the budgets and pay the artists. Strangely (to me, anyway), the artists are often the last to get paid, and their fees are often small “stipends” that are so inadequate that I feel like there should be an artist tip jar at every performance. Meanwhile, the nonprofit managers collect salaries and health insurance and paid sick/vacation days.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying arts managers are unimportant; I’m actually not even saying they are (necessarily) overpaid. In my own brief stint in an arts-related organization, I saw what a thankless job arts management can be, and contrary to what the media would like you to believe, most administrators are not inappropriately compensated (particularly if you calculate an hourly rate, since most easily work 60-80 hours/week). What I AM in a knot about is that somehow the costs for managing and producing the art are valued so much more than the actual creation of the art itself. Take a new musical theater production, for example. 200 hours of nonprofit management staff time might go directly to a new project…but the artists spent the better part of two YEARS creating the work, writing the script and music. On top of this, the artists have to market the work, chase down potential investors, and otherwise try to make a living. While there are exceptions, of course, the average artist doesn’t stand a chance at recouping her costs. (I actually drafted a make-believe grant budget to illustrate this, which I can post if anyone is really that interested.)

But this doesn’t just apply to theater. Kevin Smith, the film director/screen writer/potty mouth extraordinaire, figured out that the marketing and distribution costs for his movies were as much if not more than the production costs, and he recently ticked a bunch of people off by essentially self-releasing his latest flick. Many book authors find themselves self-financing their own book tours, and their residuals get eaten up by management and production costs, such that out of every $15 book we buy, something like $1 actually winds up in the author’s pocket. It’s why so many writers don’t (can’t) quit their day jobs. And this article about Ray LaMontagne suggests he too came to realize how much the traditional music business machine was putting the screws to him, both artistically and financially.

Recently an alternative strategy has developed to help the public directly fund artists who have projects in development. Several websites have cropped up that allow artists to post their projects online and solicit funding from friends and family members, including Kickstarter, United States Artists and Pledge Music. It’s kind of like Etsy, except they’re selling ideas instead of necklaces, and your "purchase" (contribution) helps those ideas come to fruition. Like Etsy, these sites do take a small transaction fee, but it appears that the majority of your contribution does land with the artist.

These sites intrigue me. On the one hand, it’s a fairly simple way for artists to circumvent the traditional, institutional-based grant path and gain a bit more control of the project development process. And, y’know, potentially get paid for the work they do. On the other hand, realistically how many times can an artist tap his friends and extended family? Even more challenging is the issue of getting the public to these sites. Nonprofit arts organizations function kind of like our representative democracy does – the public “elects” nonprofits (by donating money) because we want to support certain causes, and we let them sort out the details that we don’t have the time or inclination or knowledge to deal with ourselves. I mean, if I don’t know the artist personally, how am I even going to know projects exist? Plus, unless I am *really* passionate about something, I’m not going to take the time to sort through pages and pages of project profiles, and I think that’s true for most people. (And, in case you are curious, there were two quilt projects listed on Kickstarter, neither of which was successful in its fundraising efforts. Knitting projects have fared slightly better.)

Lo and behold, and because the universe likes to keep reminding me the world is a really small place: as I was drafting this post, someone on Facebook sent out a message about a friend of hers who is using Kickstarter to fundraise for a musical theater project (go on, pledge a few bucks, I'll be here when you are done - the artist is legit and a nice person to boot).

Frankly, although I use social media on a daily basis, I never really saw how it could have a whole lot of positive impact; mostly I just like to complain about my commute and share pictures of my cat. But (late to the party, I suppose), now I'm thinking that social media has the potential to instigate more revolutions than the one we saw in Egypt this week; that it could turn all sorts of taken-for-granted institutions on their heads, including the traditional models of philanthropy. Just to further underscore my point, I read this morning about Andy Carvin, a strategist at NPR who gained worldwide attention through his tweets about the Egypt uprising. He was using his personal Twitter feed, rather than an official NPR one, but NPR was smart enough to not shut him down - and in return, Carvin suggested his followers donate to NPR. While it's hard to say how much this will actually generate for NPR and its affiliate stations, this article here suggests it could be substantial. Great lessons there, not just for the nonprofit sector but for all of those institutions who seek above all to "control the message".

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