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Time to say NO to the “Scarcity Principle”

 

Theatre-makers in America undeniably work in an embattled field.  Artists face low salaries, inconsistent opportunities, and the difficulties any freelance American worker must manage apropos of health insurance, retirement, and child-rearing.  The organizations that employ them face cuts, conundrums (e.g. as government funding levels decrease annually, their compliance and reporting requirements for not-for-profits increase, requiring us to spend a higher percentage of declining dollars on administration), and competition for audiences’ time and attention from forms that are increasingly more convenient, accessible, and affordable.

Almost every non-commercial production “loses” money in commercial parlance – very seldom does anyone make more at the box office that they spent on artistic, marketing, and administrative costs components – so artistic leaders are, de facto, looking for what to cut.  More often than not, artists’ salaries and benefits CAN be cut: we all know by now that most theatre artists’ will work for minimum wage and that their union will consent.  So that’s the first place cuts are made, often to the point that artists are more or less subsidizing the work of the organization by accepting less than a living wage.  And I don’t know anyone in our field who’s really happy with that.

But when we discuss the reasons we’re in this position solely in terms of money – which generally leads to an argument about whose fault it is that none of us have enough – we often miss the bigger contextual picture, and a much more complex set of challenges, regarding artists’ value in our society.

The low salary problem is just one bullet point of a much bigger problem of low perceived value: too many Americans don’t see theatre artists as vital to improving their quality of life.  This blog series will explore why that’s happening and what we can all do to change it.  But we’ll have to start with a pretty elementary mental shift (and by we I mean everyone in our field, from artists to producers to funders): we’ll have to stop believing in, and working in accordance with, a “scarcity principle” regarding opportunities, audiences, and money.

In economics, the scarcity principle focuses on how an insufficiency of goods that have high demand can drive up prices for these goods beyond the natural equilibrium, such that only the wealthiest can afford them.  The scarcity principle we suffer under is sort of the reverse.  Because we don’t sufficiently cultivate demand for our goods, we’ve gotten focused on competing for scarce opportunities and constituencies; this culture of competition has slowly led us to believe that it’s our only possible “business model” (and this applies equally to artists, leaders, and funders).

There’s a great exchange in J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways (the first play Epic produced Off-Broadway!), in which the conservative Ernest and the socialist Madge argue about labor strikes in England in 1919:

Ernest:  The working class is out for itself.  Then why shouldn’t the middle class be out for itself?

Madge:  The middle class must have already been successfully out for itself or it wouldn’t be a comfortable middle class.    Then why turn against the working class when at last it tries to look after itself?

Ernest: That’s easy.  There’s only so much to go ‘round, and if you take more, then I get less.

Madge: I’m sorry, but that’s bad economics as well as bad ethics.

Who among us in our field hasn’t felt what Ernest articulates?  That there’s a lack of artistic opportunities, or funding sources, or potential audiences, and that we have to put our resources towards competing for those that already exist, rather than toward trying to build new ones?  But as Madge points out, it’s just bad business.  A business that fails to actively create demand for its’ product, and just relies on historical demand – unless it sells something like milk – will swiftly lose significance.  So the economic side of this thing is just common sense, self-protection, even, and there’s lots of easy solutions that can be employed to shift this paradigm toward the development of new audiences, opportunities, and funds, which this blog will explore in later Chapters.

The ethical side of things is a lot more controversial, I think.  I’ll be developing an argument for the ethical importance of increasing artist value over my next few blogs.  But let me start with a question.  Most of us cringe when an American corporation moves operations to a country where much lower salaries can be paid for the same quality of work, right?  Most of us know that this kind of practice is bad for both the country the corporation has left and ultimately the one it has entered, even if those workers have freely consented.  We know how crippling this lack of investment in local resources has been to the quality of life of middle- and working-class American families.  Sure, these corporations do it for profit, but here’s my question: really, how is it any “less bad” to underpay our workers for artistic and educational profit than for financial profit?  We can’t expect these for-profit corporations to take any kind of moral or ethical stand on this issue, obviously; but have we gotten to the point where we no longer expect it from ourselves?

Comments

  1. Floyd Rumohr says

    You raise an important point of societal value, Ron — particularly from the demand side, a perspective that I’ve been arguing for some time has gone under the radar in some nonprofit arts contexts. I wonder how your argument might adapt if, for example, we frame it in the broader nonprofit environment in which 40,000 new ones were created last year. 20,000 went bankrupt, merged, or were acquired.

    Whatever your perspective, it seems to me that economic resources for the arts will continue to contract as competition for them escalates. Scarcity here, too. I predict that more “wheels” in the arts and other fields will continue to be invented as if their creators had thought of them first.

    Sustainable, competitive, creative inventions will be as much a product of strategic thinking as they will be of artistic imagination. How does my idea, my invention, fill a particular need or boldly respond to opportunity? Most of us humans have within an artist of one kind or another which might not be as visible given the material effects of life. If that artist is to thrive in a material world there will have to be something significant it for others. There’s nothing wrong with making art for yourself and those you love. But your first employee ascribes the responsibility to cultivate demand if it doesn’t already exist.

    Oh man, did I just hear someone quote Spiderman?

  2. Thank you for articulating all this. Especially this: “A business that fails to actively create demand for its product and just relies on historical demand – unless it sells something like milk – will swiftly lose significance.” Can’t be said enough.

    We in the arts focus almost entirely on diminishing historical demand (just look at the silly nonsense we publish in our brochures and emails) and ignore the expectations of new audiences. The opportunities are abundant, but we have to stop speaking exclusively to our inner circle and start paying attention to the “undecided” audiences who are waiting for us to convince them that we’re worth their time and money.

    • Well said, Trevor – I love the idea of thinking of potential audiences as “undecided” – rather than “disinclined” or similar commonly-used words that subtly imply that it’s the audience’s fault, rather than ours, that they are not being actively engaged –

  3. HA Beasley says

    Economically, we’re also dealing with the aftermath of the NEA Four in the 1990’s, and the government’s near-absolute refusal to fund individual artists or to take responsibility for judging their artistic merit. The Supreme Court decision and the resulting shift in NEA granting policies tricked down through foundations and other public and private funding sources, the non-profit’s equivalent of “venture capital.” It has been increasingly difficult ever since to find direct funding for artists and artistic creation, as separated from arts education or community (re)development efforts.

    The public refusal to determine what art is good, and what art is worthy of funding, leads to a market in which artists have no economic value. When all artists are either “priceless” (for arts lovers) or “worthless” (for those who don’t care about the arts), there’s no way to create a quantifiable competitive market. If we seek to convince a nation of indifferent folk that art and artists are worth work and effort and perhaps even money to have around, we’re fighting the decades-long trends toward “democratizing” the arts and the blurring of lines between professionals and amateurs in these fields.

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