As I get ready for the 2009 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention, Renewable Resources: Arts in Sustainable Communities, and prepare a panel session on the creative economy for the 2009 Net Impact North America Conference, Advancing Sustainable Global Enterprise: Changemakers, Innovators, and Problem Solvers, I’ve been doing some thinking on what “sustainability” means for the arts.
Certainly, the term has had buzzword status in the field for at least several years, especially at the philanthropy/grand strategy level. Yet this ubiquity obscures the fact that when people talk about sustainability, they usually mean one of two different things. The more common usage comes from the donor perspective and boils down to when can I stop pouring money into this thing? For these people, a “sustainable” business model essentially means one that generates money from people other than them on a consistent and reliable basis, preferably in direct exchange for goods and services to a large extent since business-minded people tend to inherently distrust any long-term reliance on charity. You’ll notice that I’ve put “sustainable” and “sustainability” in quotes to this point – that’s because I believe that there are a lot of problems with this way of thinking about the concept. When a reader of this blog asked me recently what I thought about sustainability, I shrugged and said, “I think it’s a myth!” I was only half-joking. Some of the richest and most extravagant organizations on the planet (like, for example, the school I just graduated from) are nonprofit organizations that rely extensively on contributed income, giving lie to the notion that reliance on altruism is necessarily a risky strategy. On the other hand, the collapses of blue-chip institutions such as Merrill Lynch, GM, and AIG have shown that even the most powerful private-sector entities are vulnerable to market conditions, managerial incompetence, and fluctuations in consumer taste. So no, I don’t think that a business plan can be “sustainable” or “not.” Rather, sustainability of this kind exists in a continuum, best understood as the likelihood that financial health (or growth) can be maintained in the near future under current conditions. I think it is a useful metric or frame for understanding organizations, but by no means the be-all and end-all: it is no more and no less than a facet of overall good management.
By contrast, when other people mention sustainability, they mean it in more of an ecological sense. This definition of sustainability boils down to a system that, once set in motion, can run effectively without further input from the outside. It’s a much broader conception of the issue and one much more ideally suited for policy discussions as they relate to the arts (or other fields). The arts can easily be conceptualized in this way: the most important elements of the ecosystem would include artists themselves, the organizations that help to bring their work before the public, the ticket-buyers and other beneficiaries of arts programming, and the government and private institutions that subsidize the cost of doing it all. Certainly there are many important details that the above picture leaves out, but most attempts I’ve seen to define the arts infrastructure have shared these elements in common. A sustainable system is one that is kept in balance by its various components, where resources passing out of one part of the system are replaced or reused in another part. Markets, when they work, are inherently sustainable because the value created through transactions can be recycled to create more value in the future. The arts have a problem there because their costs cannot, in some ways by definition, be supported by the market. Therefore, a marketplace model that relies on other levers (like peer respect) is needed, one that might look something like what I described in this post back in March.
Many people, beginning with the pioneering work of William Baumol and William Bowen in Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma (1966), have tried to show that the arts, in the aggregate, are not sustainable. I hope to write more in depth on Baumol and Bowen later this summer, but for now suffice to say that while the work represented a giant leap forward in arts management, their conclusions suffer from the same misconception of sustainability mentioned above. They correctly diagnosed that performing arts organizations were doomed to rely increasingly on contributed income as their costs increased relative to the rest of society (a detailed discussion of why this is the case is available here), but failed to anticipate that contributed income sources would successfully make up the difference (as they have in other fields suffering from “cost disease,” such as higher education). Indeed, the forty-odd years since the publication of Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma have not seen a substantial contraction in the orchestra field; if anything, the opposite has been the case.
On the other hand, I am beginning to suspect that the arts are suffering from a different kind of threat to sustainability that is much more serious, in part because it is much trickier to deal with. This problem is the disappearing viability of the career as a professional artist for more than a tiny minority of A-list individuals.
My blogging buddy Isaac Butler at Parabasis has been on fire on this issue over the past few weeks. It started with this startling disclosure of his personal finances as he prepared for a busy year ahead:
The year stretching roughly from March 2009-March 2010 will be amongst the busiest and most successful times for me as a theatre director thus far. It will including the following:
— Being the SDCF observer on one off-broadway show
— Quite possibly assistant directing another off-broadway show
— Taking a show to the DC Fringe festival
— Staging a showcase of a song cycle in anticipation of a summer 2010 tour
— Directing a play regionally
— Directing multiple readings and short plays at various venues
— Guest teaching once or twice
— Scouting plays for a regional theatre
So let’s talk turkey. Or should I say, money:
– My total compensation for all of the above will most likely top out at $2500.
– I’m at a point in my career where I’m getting work somewhat regularly but it’s not paying
– But in order to be available to get that work, I can’t have steady day-time employment (the stuff that pays requires daytime work hours and/or going out of town) and being available to take meetings with people all the time has been enormously beneficial
This is a classic Catch-22 for so-called “emerging” artists, one that I myself faced while working full-time in New York for three years and losing several thousand dollars per annum on my artistic activities. The situation is hardly limited to Isaac and me, though. As he continued to point out in several follow-up posts, playwrights across the country take in ridiculously small amounts of money:
— Roughly 3% of income is from royalties
— Avg. commission amount = $3-4K
— Takes 6 months-2 years to write a play (if you took one year to write a play at $4K, you’d be making $333.33 a month off writing that play)
Isaac, these playwrights who make $4k a year from writing, and I are all examples of Pro-Am artists – individuals who produce professional (or near-professional) quality work and receive amateur-level compensation for it. And I believe that the greatest threat to the ongoing sustainability of the arts is the sheer number of us who are coming to get our piece of the pie.
In the past, this problem was “solved” (avoided, really) thanks to severe restrictions on who could become a successful artist. A powerful vise of racism, sexism, classism, and tightly controlled distribution channels conspired to dramatically narrow the pool of potential artists, meaning that competition was much lighter than it might otherwise have been. Markets were constricted as well, so indeed an artist’s life has never been easy. The difference, though, is that whereas semi-successful artists in the past disappeared into poverty and obscurity, today’s artists must compete, often directly, with all those who have gone before. The artist of the past’s claim to a share of attention, and therefore money, is no less legitimate than that of today’s emerging artist, and so the pie gets divided up among more recipients than ever before.
Furthermore, though the size of the pie is also increasing, it’s not clear to me that it’s in any way keeping up with the dramatic increase in the number of artists and arts organizations. The Internet has reduced the costs of distribution such that it’s now fairly easy to make one’s work available on a massive scale, greatly lowering the barriers to entry for new participants. As Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller detail in their 2004 monograph The Pro-Am Revolution, a number of societal changes are conspiring to encourage “serious leisure” activity in all kinds of human endeavors, not just the arts:
- the expanding life span (people are living between 10 and 20 years longer than they did 40 years ago)
- growing levels of education
- a more open society in which people want a sense of individual fulfilment
- the spread of horizontal social mobility as people develop distinctive lifestyles
- changes in occupational patterns which mean that people are increasingly likely to turn to second careers in their 40s and 50s
- increasing affluence, and an apparent willingness to downshift, trading income for time and better quality of life
In many ways, this is a beautiful thing. Of course we should want people to be able to express themselves fully, engage meaningfully in subjects that interest them, and perhaps most significantly, make important contributions to human progress whether they do so on a full-time basis or not. And that’s what makes this threat so difficult. Because the pernicious thing about the Pro-Am revolution is embodied in Isaac’s original post on the subject:
So how am I able to live? Well, I make some money off of writing, which is quite time consuming. In order to make more money off of it, I would need to devote more time to it. In order to make a living off of it, I would need to work at it full time and not direct any more. And as I said before, I’m quite lucky. I have a small amount of inheritance that I partially live off of and Anne has a good job.
This is the topic that no one in the arts wants to talk about. Now, Isaac was very courageous to share this information publicly; though I’m making an example of him here, it should not be taken in any way as a reflection upon his work, the quality of which I have no reason to doubt. But I feel it must be said: the fact that he, and others like him, are able to do what they do thanks to their family and/or marital situations is fundamentally inequitable. Every time someone in Isaac’s position gets a gig, he potentially takes a spot away from a more talented, but poorer competitor who, if he had the luxury of spending as much time on art as Isaac does, might outdo him for these kinds of opportunities. The societal changes of the past half-century may have succeeded in making luck a little more democratic, but luck is no less significant in determining artistic success than it was before.
Now, there’s nothing new about this – income inequality is a big issue throughout society, not just in the arts. However, the cash-starved nature of the arts makes the problem more acute. If the only way to earn money is through exposure, and the only way to get exposure is to spend thousands of hours making (and marketing) art that you could otherwise spend earning money, the people who need to earn money now are at a major, perhaps definitive, disadvantage. As a result, over time, you would expect to see more and more people who were lucky enough to have a cushion early in their careers (if not on an ongoing basis) persist to become professional artists, and fewer and fewer who have had to do it completely on their own. You see this in all sorts of places that this field touches; just today, Jodi Carter posted a great piece on performing arts internships that included this caveat:
It is an unfortunate reality that most organizations can’t afford to pay interns minimum wage and it is heart-breaking because it creates all sorts of issues, the most difficult to accept being that the programs are populated by interns whose families can afford to provide financial support.
Yet the truly frightening thing is that even the relatively lucky ones like Isaac, who achieve some measure of artistic success while financial success waits in the wings, can’t really make this work. The system is so strained that a living wage is only possible for a tiny, tiny minority.
Meanwhile, that minority is doing better all the time. Mark Stern documented income inequality among artists in a 2005 working paper available here, and found that the arts fit all the characteristics of “winner-take-all” economies: systems in which most of the economic value created (and captured) is attributable to a few people at the top. Between 1980 and 2000, this income inequality among professional artists, which was pronounced to begin with, only intensified, meaning that the people at the top enjoyed faster increases in their wealth than the people in the middle or at the bottom. And that’s only taking into account self-defined professional full-time artists according to Bureau of Labor statistics – the explosion in Pro-Am activity during that time would not be considered even though its impact on available resources (through competition for grants and audience members) is very real. For his part, Stern concurs that income inequality is only likely to increase going forward due to the changes afoot.
Wasn’t the Internet supposed to fix all this? you might be wondering. Indeed, in The Long Tail, Chris Anderson predicted that such power-law distributions would be lessened by the infinite carrying capacity of the Internet; with Amazon.com and iTunes providing a more robust back catalog than WalMart stores, he argued, won’t the back catalog do better? Though he’s right in a theoretical sense, at least one study has suggested that winner-take-all economies appear even when transaction costs are zero, such as among peer-to-peer file share systems.
This is the real threat to sustainability in the arts of which I speak. The Internet, by lowering the costs of distribution to negligible levels, has in fact democratized many aspects of participation in the arts as well as numerous other activities. But in opening up the gates to untold amateurs and semi-pros who had previously been shut out from public attention or supplemental income streams, it has simultaneously fostered an atmosphere of intense competition that makes it nearly impossible to succeed as a full-time professional.
To be honest, I find myself at a loss for a brilliant answer to this quandary. But it seems to me that we are probably not paying as much attention to it as we should. Most of the discussion about cost disease focuses on mainstream organizations, and in some ways those organizations are indeed at risk. To my mind, though, the most overwhelming changes are coming at the individual and quasi-individual (i.e., small organization) level. The commentary I most often hear about small organizations in the context of the recession is that they “are used to scrapping, so they’ll be fine.” I don’t think that’s true. Having run a couple of those small organizations myself, I can tell you that little scraps of money can be life or death, the difference between putting on a show or not. The same is going to be true of many artists. Sure, small organizations and individual artists as a category will survive, but as resources get divided among more and more competitors, you’re going to see a lot of carnage. And I’m not entirely sure what we can do about it.
- Isaac Butler, How are We to Pay Playwrights (Or, for That Matter, Anybody)? and Making Art Pay for Art
- Kevin Kelly, 1,000 True Fans as well as The Reality of Depending on True Fans and The Case Against 1,000 True Fans
- Ann Markusen et al, Crossover: How Artists Build Careers across Commercial, Nonprofit and Community Work
- Douglas McLennan, Is Working for Free a Threat or an Opportunity?
- yours truly, Professionals vs. Amateurs and Professionals vs. Amateurs (part 2)