Making art without the big budgets

There is always a danger in embarking on a discussion of generations that one will fall into stereotypes. After all, broad generalizations are just that--they describe common traits that apply to many, but never all the people they describe. It's also why I usually embrace labels for myself--because I appreciate the dry humor and delicious irony in how they can lead to assumptions that are totally false.

So it is with some trepidation that I return to an earlier discussion on generational differences. I know that exceptions could be found for everything that I set forth; however, if such concerns were barriers to theory, we'd never be able to have any conversation because we'd spend all day on the disclaimers (something my friends will tell you I'm prone to do anyway).

I was once told that the reason there is so much tension between parent and teenager is because they have conflicting jobs. It is the job of the teenager to become more independent and to pull away from the control and direction of the adults in their life. They're becoming adults and have to find their way. The parent, meanwhile, has the job of continuing to hold on tight while imparting those final life lessons and making sure the child survives his or her boundary testing.

It's that tension that you'll often see among generations as well. The older generation has gained its wisdom by traversing the world and making its mistakes. It would, if it could, spare the next generation its errors. It also wants to protect what it worked so hard to create. Meanwhile, the newer generation is charging off into what it is certain is new ground and grows frustrated at what it perceives to be roadblocks thrown up by those lacking their perspective and enthusiasm.

I recognize that I'm writing from the perspective of one who is pretty enthusiastic about where my generation is headed and who has made the choice to be optimistic and hopeful in the face of plenty of potential evidence to the contrary. I'm a firm believer that hope will always be found in every box that Pandora opens, even as she unleashes newfound horrors and terrors.

So when I wrote about "It's not the product, it's the connection," I was fascinated by some of the responses to mine and the subsequent entries. One of the questions that seemed to be asked in a couple different ways is when and whether Generation X was going to get on board with the proper model and start coughing up money the way the Boomers have.

My gut response was, "Why should we follow that model? Why shouldn't we form our own?"

I do think that you're going to have a much harder time getting Gen X'rs to write checks for organizations that they are involved in only peripherally. I don't think it is necessary for them to have to be a founder of the organization, but they have to believe that they can be involved--that they can be a co-creator today.

There may also start to be a new economic model for developing shows. I experienced a bit of culture shock while in Los Angeles at the NEA Institute when an artistic director shared the price tag for developing a single new show. It was a price tag that would have encompassed the entire annual budget of the thirteen most active groups in Lansing.

Why must the development of a new work carry with it such a high price tag? It's nice when that money is available, but is it really essential?

Let me bring up another Lansing theater company, Icarus Falling (IF). I've had several long conversations and debates with their artistic director. This is a group that consistently puts on brand-new works. Typically two shows every season are new works--one from a company member and the other from an outside playwright who submits his or her script.

The artistic director firmly believes that an artist has no right to demand financing for a work that the marketplace won't support. His group receives no public money and they do very little soliciting for donations. Myself being the good liberal Democrat argues that our tax dollars should support the arts because there is a communal benefit to art that accrues to more than just the art consumer. He feels it is disrespectful and arrogant for an artist to demand support for something that people don't value enough to pay for.

More importantly, he insists that it doesn't take a lot of money to create art and that it is disingenuous to demand it. In fact, he's even gone so far as to say that someone who is truly an artist will find a way to make their art regardless of whether there is money available. What this means for them is that they must plough a far more difficult path and that their actors get paid too little to allow them to give up their day jobs. However, they have shown that they can put up fascinating new work. The work doesn't always go further than their stage, but even that has its own value.

Other scripts are launched into far wider production. This past summer they did a workshop production of Love Person, a new script with a fair amount of technical demands as it mixes American Sign Language, Sanskrit, English, and electronic text messaging. It's a play that will be premiered at Mixed Blood Theater next February. One of their company member's plays, Trunk, was recently performed in Chicago, a few years after IF first staged it.

One of the things that he's said is that if someone has millions of dollars to pour into a production, it damn well better be good, but that you can do a good production without all that money. How do you do it? You rely a lot on donated labor and donated or loaned items. Collaboration becomes the name of the game because you can't simply purchase what you need. You have to find a way to either do it yourself or provide other people with reason to care enough to participate.

It's a frightening thought, but why does art need so much money? The more money that gets poured into a show, the more an organization has to charge for tickets. The more you charge for tickets, the less accessible your art becomes.

Mind, I'm not being completely naïve here. As the wife of an actor, I can say it would be nice if it were possible to make more money in theater. However, I'd rather do with less than to have him not practice his art. We can do without a second car. We can do without a television and the associated cable bills. We can do without new clothes. We can't do without art, regardless of how much or little money is there.

When I look around my community, I see many others who have made the same choice. We have theater and art thriving in small communities around the country because no one is expecting to make millions--or even tens of thousands. Rather, they're concentrating on making enough money to let them make art.

September 27, 2007 5:35 AM | | Comments (6)

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My point, Jeff, is that the government is supporting those $15 million homes via mortgage interest deductions, due to the strength of the real estate lobby, the construction lobby and the rich folks' lobby, while people like yourself shout "mealy-mouthed entitlement mentality" when the arts ask for a slice of the pie. Funny thing, but Nature in her wisdom gives young birds in the nest the innate wisdom to "jostle and squeak" so they'll be fed. In fact, as the proud dad of a young budding ornithologist, I can tell you that in some species the nestling who is too weak to "jostle and squeak" vigorously enough ends up dying in the nest, or worse, being scorned and tossed out. It's a cruel world out there, and for the arts to thrive, there need to be jostlers and squeakers doing their jostling and squeaking on any front, public or private, where they think it can do them some good. Dignified (or is it merely fearful) reticence gets you nothing. Except maybe deep-down disrespect and dismissal from the hard-headed folks who pride themselves on running things in our society via their accumulation of money and power. Political powers and business powers need to be smacked upside those hard heads repeatedly with "jostling and squeaking" and maybe voter information campaigns that ask why they favor favors for millionaires' private advantage, but not for the symphony or theater company that's seeking grant money for a program that helps kids spend some productive time after school out of trouble and harm's way - while maybe discovering a lifelong passion. Or money that simply supports the creation of worthwhile art. Even many people who don't spring for a ticket to see that art will value it because it gives them a sense of civic pride to live in a community that fosters excellence across the board.

Thanks for the civics lesson, but I wasn't referencing government entitlements. I was referencing a mentality or sentiment that suggests because people have $15 million dollar homes, that others deserve money for their art. Regardless of whether one is an artist, day laborer or an accountant, there is no obligation to promote or encourage them. The obligation falls to the individual or organization to build the relationships and community of support that enables them to express their creative voice or build their career. Would I like to see more people supporting the arts? Absolutely. Is excessive consumerism crass? Most definitely. But raising our voices in expectant supplication to the government coffers is naive at best. Creation of something compelling and working to bring it to the public will in the long run result in funding for those that respect the donors and their generosity. It will also build respect for the art. Simply jostling and squeaking like young birds in the nest doesn't constitute building a relationship by the way.

Yo Jeff, it's always a shame when a little information pops up to spoil a nice tidy misconception, but here goes: Arts grants are not given as "entitlements." Medicare is an entitlement; Social Security is an entitlement; if you're 65, you're in. Ditto for public education if you're the right age for K-12. But support for the arts is no entitlement. Responsible foundations and government granting agencies require detailed proposals and run them by panels made up of supposedly knowledgeable people. I'm not saying that every granting decision is ironclad, or immune from faddish or sloppy thinking, but there are no freebies for yokels off the street with their hands out, saying, "love me, I'm an artist." Those who can't make a case for their art based on current ideas and past performance don't get funded. No quasi-responsible grantmaker is going to underwrite a writer's research trip to Thailand or even the next town over without a solid game plan and evidence that the writer can deliver. I'm curious why you would assume that arts grants would be doled out to generic entitled "artists" who pick a number and line up at some trough, as opposed to people who have earned some sort of reputation for their work and can show some sort of useful plan for spending the money.

Certainly if your writer friends would like to convince a benefactor of the value to send them to Thailand, then have at it. Patrons of the arts have always existed and the artist needed to always show the glimmer of something that would capture their imagination and their financing. I am not adverse to spending money on an artistic endevour, but I'm vehemently against a mealy mouthed entitlement mentality. To call ones self an artist doesn't inherently mean that you are paid to be such; or that there is an inherent obligation on the community to support that effort. While it is sad to see excess, it isn't the government's responsibility to offset an individual's gauche obsession with the trappings of wealth with guilt money for the arts.

If you artist friends can't bring a glimpse of their genius to a potential funder on a smaller scale to secure financing, then they are far less creative than you give them credit for.

Funny you should mention roads. There's a huge issue in downtown Lansing right now because no one can get through anywhere because of all the construction. The last time I tried to get to BoarsHead to see "Mrs. Warren's Profession," I had to take a very confusing detour (thankfully I knew the area) to get to the theater because all the roads around it were blocked off. The bus station across the street had to be moved because of the sinkholes that recently appeared in the roads.

It's also interesting that you bring up "Faust" as this same director has staged a futuristic production of Marlowe's Faustus with a great deal of special effects on an incredibly minuscule budget.

I find the argument fascinating even though I fall far more in the camp of taxes should be used to promote the communal good. Life would be boring if I only heard things I agreed with. I find the viewpoint challenging and one that I like to spend time with for that reason.

Pretty narrow vision your artistic director friend has. And pretty self-absorbed to think that his minimalist approach should apply as a one-(very small)-size-fits-all for all artists. It's perfect for him, but what about the sculptor who needs a ton of steel, blowtorches and cutting tools, an engineering consultant, and a truck to move it all around? What about the artistic director across town who's just had a huge inspiration for how to stage "The Odyssey," or "Faust," and needs some good special effects to pull it off? Or, god forbid, someone wants to bring the good folk of Lansing a diet of plays that require royalty payments. What about the Lansing writer who needs to finance a year in Thailand, or Timbuktu, or wherever, to write a very worthwhile book?

The biggest nonprofit theater company on the West Coast has an annual budget of less than $50 million. High-end houses in LA are selling for $15 million, and I have to stop myself from laughing at the numbers whenever I do an arts-finance story. The cost of that house is more than a tenth of the NEA's budget, and it's triple the budget of California's state arts-granting agency. Why shouldn't the arts get to keep a finger in the pie when the billionaire who buys that $15 million pad as his fifth vacation home gets to write off the mortgage on the backs of you, me, and Mr. "I pay my own way" Theater Director there in Lansing? Yeah, independence and self reliance are laudable, until something ambitious or difficult needs doing -- like building and maintaining the road system that lets the public attend those bare-bones shows in Lansing. I think Gen Xers (and anyone else) who buys into the hardcore Libertarian shtick need to start reading less theory and more newspapers, so they can learn how the real world works and start acting accordingly.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 27, 2007 5:35 AM.

The Life and Times of an Every(art)man was the previous entry in this blog.

A question about reviewing is the next entry in this blog.

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