On artists being tossed off the truck

About a month ago I wrote a post on ‘‘on artists making a living and artistic directors that could make a difference but don’t.’ I had a significant number of comments (relative to other posts on my blog) including several from actors (thanks, all). One of the most inspiring posts came from Ron Russell of Epic Theatre in NYC.

Epic (founded in 2001) has operating expenses of approximately $1.7 million (according to its 2010 990 filing on Guidestar) and recently renegotiated its contract with Actors Equity Association (AEA) to enable it to (among other things) (1) put an ensemble of actors on a 20-week off-Broadway contract that includes teaching responsibilities and (2) to pay each actor a weekly salary of $900 per week (which, according to Ron, is ‘higher than the highest non-commercial minimum of any contract in NYC’). This 20-week contract also allows actors to get a year of health insurance at the end of the period. You can read about the specifics of the contract in a post on Ron’s own blog (evidently the first in a series).

Ron writes that, for years, Epic had an unspoken rule of thumb that the weekly salary of its actors would be equivalent to 1% of its total operating budget. The ratio began with its first show, which paid actors $200 per week (at the time its budget was $200,000 per year). But Ron remarks in his post that in recent years the ratio was not maintained. It was out of concern for this trend and a strong feeling that artists are critical to a thriving theater company that Epic condensed its production schedule, thereby enabling it to offer an ‘ensemble’ of actors nearly half a year’s work and a salary increase. He mentions in the post that AEA was cooperative when Epic approached the union to discuss its ideas.

In my post this was exactly the sort of thinking and action I was encouraging – however, I wasn’t aiming my comments at smaller theaters like Epic (which are often lightly institutionalized). I was directing my post to larger theaters.

If you’ve browsed the comments you’ll note that the response to the post was mixed. While most artists and many running theaters agreed that it’s an important issue and should be addressed, some theater staffers were quick to point out that theaters are barely getting by as is and that, in the most recent recession, it was administrators that took cuts to their salaries even while the weekly salaries of actors working at their theaters increased. (I feel compelled to point out that, while trimming administrative costs, many theaters also reduced the number of shows in their season, or their productions weeks, or the size of their casts, or all three–changes which would seem to negatively impact the total wages paid to artists even if their weekly rates were increased.)

More than a few people asked, “Where’s the money going to come from to pay for this?” Looking at Epic as an example, I would suggest that the short (and admittedly rather glib) answer is from other areas of the budget–as a result of restructuring and getting priorities straightened out.

While there were several comments that were quite moving, I was perhaps most struck by a comment from Zak Berkman (also from Epic) who wrote:

Reading your post and response to Carl reminded me of my experience reading OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE – and something Zelda F told us co-founders of Epic Theatre Ensemble ten years ago. I’m paraphrasing but it was essentially this: “when we started the regional movement, somewhere along the way the playwright fell off the truck and we never turned around to pick them back up.” I think as the economics and cultural dynamics of the regional theater evolved with various larger theatres disbanding or diminishing their rep/resident companies it does seem like even more artists are tumbling from the truck… And in the process the image of the artist as someone outside of the institution, outside of the community, is more and more perpetuated: not just by the public or by funders, but even by the artists themselves.

I read Zak’s comment and imagined a jalopy filled with artists lumbering across the US and all along the route a hand reaching out and hauling arts administrators onto the flatbed while quietly giving artists a gentle shove over the side. When the vehicle arrives at its destination it is filled with a bureaucracy of administrators, who have traded in their dilapidated wheels for something spiffier that they can proudly park at the Country Club when they meet with donors.

I recently listened for the 3rd or 4th time to a terrific 2005 TED talk on ‘institutions vs. collaboration’ by Clay Shirky, in which he discusses the ways that technology and the shrinking costs of communications have enabled systems to be designed that allow groups to coordinate their activities without institutional models (this is the theme that he addresses at length in his terrific book Here Comes Everybody). In his talk, Shirky describes four side effects of institutions: (1) institutions don’t simply require employees, they require managers to oversee employees; (2) institutions require structures, which bring costs; (3) institutions are exclusionary (they can’t hire everyone); and (4) as a result of this exclusion institutions end up with a ‘professional class’.

Shirky posits that there is a tension between institution as ‘enabler’ and institution as ‘obstacle’ and elaborates on this point saying:

Institutions hate being told they’re obstacles. One of the first things that happens when you institutionalize a problem is that […] the first goal of the institution immediately shifts from whatever the nominal goal was to self preservation.

He goes on to say that when institutions are told they are obstacles they go “through something like the Kubler-Ross stages of reaction to being told you have a fatal illness.”

For decades the goal of the nonprofit arts sector was institution building. We celebrated each time an organization could beef up its administrative staff and increase its budget and survive a leadership transition. Today, many arts institutions are increasingly perceived to be obstacles rather than enablers. And as Shirky and others might predict, their impulse to this threat is to self-preserve: to say, “No matter what, I think we’d all agree, that this institution must exist; the only question is, how do we sustain it?”

Instead, as difficult as it seems, I think the impulse needs to be to ask ourselves quite seriously whether the institution (as we currently conceive of it) needs to be sustained in order for great art to be created, presented, distributed and preserved. We’ve spent decades building exclusionary, professional, hierarchical institutions; perhaps it’s time to start moving to a cooperative infrastructure model (as Shirky suggests) and releasing control of at least parts of our major institutions to artists, community members, and other stakeholders.

It’s time to get not only artists back on the truck (as Epic has done) but the ‘communities-at-large’ that presumably ‘own’ our nonprofit institutions.

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  1. says

    Amen! Not every creative idea warrants its own perpetual corporate entity. The good news is that this shift is already well under way, though it may take a shift in generational leadership to fully manifest itself. The younger segments of our membership have long been skeptical of the necessity of 501(c)(3) institutions to accomplish their artistic goals.

    If I may be permitted an obnoxious nit-pick… $200 is 0.1% of $200K, not 1%. Paying someone 1% of your operating budget each week would take 52% of your annual budget to cover a single employee! 😉

  2. says

    Hi. I think this is a great article. I am a member of AEA, but don’t perform anymore.

    I am an independent filmmaker now and we are in the same predicament as individual artists. It seems at this point in time corporations have taken over major stage venues and the film industry to an extent that the structure of the institution and the profitability of the corporations seem to weigh with more importance than the artists and art they are supposedly trying to create.

    I wonder if we can all come together somehow to spark a rebirth of the arts industry.

    I think great art is going on out there…writers, performers, directors, etc. but it’s being drowned within the increasingly structured world of corporate America.

  3. says

    I rather wholeheartedly agree, so it’s sad that my first thought comes from the Devil’s advocate. Cooperative infrastructure sounds great, but in the case of richer collaboration with the (presumably unpaid) community there’s a danger in turning out to be another version of the Big Society, which cloaked dropping public services in the guise of a strengthened volunteer sector. That’s not a necessary consequence, just a danger about which to be careful when actually doing this stuff.

    Training and managing an increasing number of non-professional staff is also another job for which you’d need professional staff in a traditional setting. These thoughts either point to the difficulties of doing this in a typical organization or the need for an atypical organization. I’m on the side of the atypical organization.

    About a year ago ABC News completely restructured its news room in response to the staggeringly technological advances of the last ten years. It’s simply not necessary to have a giant staff of micro-specialists beautifully harmonized to produce a live news broadcast anymore. You can have fewer graphics people, fewer editors, fewer specialists of all stripes, and teach more of your people more skills that will fill less of their days and accomplish the same quality of finished product. This significantly modernized ABC News, but was an incredibly painful change for the organization that meant eliminating a lot of good paying creative jobs.

    In the arts we can do a similar thing because of the preposterous explosion of communications technology. We do, famously, suffer from cost disease (my iPhone doesn’t mean I need a smaller orchestra to perform Alpine Symphony – that cost isn’t going down). But apart from the actual making of the art we have all this _other work_ done by administrators, to do largely with communication. We talk to audiences, students, donors, government agencies, each other (at conferences, etc.) and we manage ourselves.

    That area of work is ripe for discovering efficiency and eliminating waste. We can reduce the cost of engaging with audiences fairly drastically. The technical side of all of these roles is becoming easier to handle and less specialized, and can provide auxiliary work to artists who are interested in it, especially audience engagement.

    This comment is getting a bit long and rambly, so I’ll close in short: Hear! Hear!

  4. Jeffrey E. Salzberg says

    If you want to truly be depressed, look at any theatre jobs site. See how many of the jobs listed are for administrators and how few are for designers, actors, and directors.

  5. says

    Thank you for speaking about this important issue. For years as an Artistic Director/Producer of small music groups raising money to pay my musicians seemed to be the last thing I was able to apply for when writing the many, many, grant proposals needed to create credibility for the groups. (and so be able to raise money from individuals etc). At the time, I was only concerned with being able to present interesting concerts and find an audience, the concerts were “kicked down the road” and I lost many a talented musician who couldn’t afford to perform on our concerts, since I could only pay them what money was left over. I’m sure that some of the fault lies in my own ability as a fund raiser, but I was often surprised by the emphasis on institution building in so many grants.

  6. Habeas says

    I work for a young non-profit theatre with an annual budget of about $150K, and artist fees are 33% of our budget. And that figure doesn’t include staffers, which we budget separately. We’ve tried to make the commitment to keep artists driving the truck.

    The biggest problem we face is that funding organizations do not want to fund artists, or to fund arts production. They want to fund arts education, community engagement, and outreach to underserved populations, but not the costs related to the production of art itself. Our company must take on projects and tasks in addition to theatrical production in order to attract grant funding, whether from family or corporate or private or state funders.

    Thus, in terms of revenue streams, ticket sales and private donations must be reserved for our artists’ fees and production expenses. We’re trying to avoid chasing money by tacking on programs specific to grantors’ wishes and desired program structures, but this makes meaningful growth very difficult since our revenues are capped by the size of our house and the length of our runs, and long-term planning is a challenge beyond a year ahead. It also keeps our staff working other day jobs, because none of us are earning anything approaching minimum wage for our administrative work. And that work has to be done for the company to survive, whether by artists (which we all are) or by administrators (which we have all become in response to company need).

    The cultural climate we work in says that high-quality performances aren’t enough to justify financial support for a non-profit theatre company. Art production, by itself, seems no longer to meet the non-profit criteria of “serving the public good.”

  7. Zak Berkman says


    I greatly appreciate your highlighting Ron and my comments to your provocative ‘‘on artists making a living and artistic directors that could make a difference but don’t.”

    Your notion of artistic cooperatives is compelling and I hope you’ll articulate more about your vision for that in the future. I also hope you’ll spotlight the implications for training programs and our broader understanding of the role and responsibilities of artists in such a cooperative approach (if you’ve already written on this and I missed it my apologies).

    My new vantage point here at People’s Light & Theatre provides me with an opportunity to be part of an institutional model that is still truly artist-led and serves to comprehensively enfranchise artists in a community. With a West Wing style “Artistic Cabinet” composed of directors, playwrights, actors, choreographers, and production managers, who also possess teaching, managerial, and administrative skills, we are the primary drivers of our 37-year sturdy truck, moving the organization to adapt to our evolving cultural climate, and better serve as a catalyst of and gravitational force for public engagement and celebration.

    What People’s Light and Epic share is our reliance on artistic leaders and collaborators who have a passion for being vital members of the community and possess multifaceted skills and experience to adopt this civic role with positive impact. What’s striking about Epic’s new contact with Equity is as much the philosophical precedence as the practical one. Equity is acknowledging that it is in within a professional actor’s sphere and soul to not only perform on stage, but also teach and serve as a bridge into and between communities. Epic can afford to pay artists at this increased level because the actors employed are taking on these multiple roles over the course of their commitment to the company. Meanwhile, at People’s Light, seven full time artists comprise our Cabinet because we are all capable of crafting a strategic vision for our company, designing programming to fulfill this vision, promote these programs, raise funds for them, integrate them with expansive student learning, and continue to relish the rehearsal room.

    I am greatly concerned, however, that the kind of education and experience necessary to allow for this kind of three-dimensional participation in an arts organization is not as highlighted and prized by our training programs and conservatories. Are enough artists learning that writing grants, conceiving education programs, developing trusting with relationships with likeminded social organizations, meeting with civic leaders, and beyond are all part of their future life if they truly want to be at the center of their communities and possessing some measure of control for their own destinies. Zelda’s image of the playwright falling off the truck is tragic if the playwright on board was being attentive to the needs and dynamics of the populations with whom they wish to engage. If, instead, they were just curled near the rear, lost in their own imagination and impulses, tapping on their computer keys, thinking their work should be received with attention and investment from an audience they barely know – then I’m not as eager to leap for the first aid kit as they tumble. I feel the same about actors who perceive their job as beginning with their entrance on stage and ending with their bow.

    With this in mind, I think there is still most definitely a place for strong large institutions that dedicate its energy and resources to demonstrate and establish ways for artists to activate their full selves, to be at the epicenter of a community. That said, like you, I hope that institutions that no longer can serve this purpose be replaced by new kinds of creative organisms that can.

      • Zak Berkman says

        My bad. Thanks for the catch. We do have a full-time designer as part of our artistic cabinet. That was an unintended Rick Perry Oops. In addition, we’ve launched a partnership with nearby Longwood Gardens to create new site-inspired work devised by teams of playwrights and designers. As part of the project, these teams are responsible for working with our staff to manage their budgets and articulate to funders and marketers their vision for the project. In other words, they are creators and leaders. Designers are very much part of this vision.

  8. Carrie says

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post. You rightly point out the danger that once something is institutionalized, sustaining the institution itself can become the top priority and it’s easy to put the original mission in second place. However, I can’t see how the goals of a nonprofit arts institution could be achieved in a truly decentralized model like that one that Clay Shirkey describes in his TED talk. Repertoire selection and performer selection seem to be the most obvious elements that must by definition remain exclusionary. True, in an institution you can’t hire everybody. But it’s also true that in a play you can’t have everybody act (at least, in most plays). And you can’t produce every play that’s ever been written. If the goal is to present concerts or plays or gallery shows, the selection of material and participants will require some choices to be made, and it’s unclear to me how those choices can be made effectively in the context of a truly cooperative, non-hierarchical infrastructure.

    I run a small nonprofit music ensemble with a core group of member musicians. A few years ago, during an artistic leadership transition, we experimented with not having a music director at all, and letting all of the musicians collaborate to choose the repertoire. It was not a successful experiment. The musicians didn’t have the time to sift through every possible piece, to consider the funding options that would enable pieces to be programmed, to work out the intricate puzzle of scheduling… In the end, everyone agreed that centralized artistic leadership (one that actively solicited input from the artists) was a far better model. We were left with a strong sense of the benefits that institutionalization gives us.

    You wrote: “I think the impulse needs to be to ask ourselves quite seriously whether the institution (as we currently conceive of it) needs to be sustained in order for great art to be created, presented, distributed and preserved.” For my ensemble, the answer seems to be that the ideal model for creating great art is to have a lightly institutionalized infrastructure that actively involves and respects the artists.

    That said, I’m also aware of the drawbacks of institutionalization, and I’m quite curious about what a collaborative arts model would look like.

    • says

      I once interviewed at a theatre which shall remain nameless (the Alley Theatre, in Houston) and was told, “You won’t mind exciting theatre here. the Alley is into being an institution.” My unspoken reaction was, “Yeah, but it got to be an institution by doing exciting theatre.”


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