We are left with the question of whether it is possible to change conditions in the theatre field without addressing the inequities and dysfunctions in the larger socioeconomic system within which theatre is embedded—including institutionalized racism, structural wealth inequality, extractive economic models, widespread privatization of and profiteering from commons resources. This is a hefty challenge, but we believe theatre and culture makers have a role to play in moving society toward a more equitable, just, and sustainable future, in partnership with the many other new economy changemakers working toward these ends.
Perhaps the most important point in our recent study of trends and conditions facing artists today is that the issues facing artists are systemic and structural. As Laura Zabel from Springboard for the Arts points out in her essay for the project research blog, ” In survey after survey, artists say what they need is income, health care, reliable housing. You know who else needs those things? Everybody. What if we could actually change how our larger economy works so that the need for artist-specific solutions became unnecessary?”
Basic income is an idea that is starting to gain traction in a wide range of circles, from high profile economists like Joseph Stiglitz to grassroots activists to Silicon Valley. I had a conversation with Jim Pugh who is leading basic income efforts in the Bay Area about the potential impact of this kind of overarching systemic intervention on artists and culture more broadly, and what artists might bring to the cause. Not only could basic income alleviate the ubiquitous financial stresses that most artists struggle with, it has the radical potential to advance cultural equity and diversity, stimulate creative risk taking and support artists engaging in social and community issues.
We’re working on an update to the data from our 2011 report “Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change” to come later this year (spoiler: it has actually gotten worse), but this article from Jason Tseng presents some current field perspectives and quotes our own Holly Sidford with a few data points.
If we agree neoliberalism has failed to grow what matters, could we talk about beauty?
This is exciting. The IMF has just published a paper from three of its top economists saying that neoliberalism was oversold and is actually causing more harm than good. This analysis from the Guardian puts it this way:
From the 1980s the policymaking elite has waved away the notion that they were acting ideologically – merely doing “what works”. But you can only get away with that claim if what you’re doing is actually working. Since the crash, central bankers, politicians and TV correspondents have tried to reassure the public that this wheeze or those billions would do the trick and put the economy right again. They have riffled through every page in the textbook and beyond – bank bailouts, spending cuts, wage freezes, pumping billions into financial markets – and still growth remains anaemic.
And the longer the slump goes on, the more the public tumbles to the fact that not only has growth been feebler, but ordinary workers have enjoyed much less of its benefits. Last year the rich countries’ thinktank, the OECD, made a remarkable concession. It acknowledged that the share of UK economic growth enjoyed by workers is now at its lowest since the second world war. Even more remarkably, it said the same or worse applied to workers across the capitalist west.
Could this be the crack where the light comes in? Could it provide the entry point for talking about what makes a meaningful life and a truly prosperous society, beyond GDP and economic growth? Could we even bring things like beauty back as legitimate topics for public policy?
Fiona Reynolds reminds us in this excellent article that “beauty was a word and an idea that people in previous centuries used freely and confidently, including in legislation and public policy.” But “today when we talk about progress we mean only economic progress, and our measure of that is GDP. GDP charts only income, expenditure and production, and doesn’t even try to count the many things that matter but money can’t buy, the things that make us happy, and the natural resources on which we all depend. So it flatters us into thinking things are going well while we are destroying our long-term future.” But she suggests that “beauty can help us. Beauty is not just about aesthetics: it is a way of looking at the world that values the things we can’t put a material price on, as well as the things that we can measure.”
Beauty is not essential because it is in service to some economic or social outcome that is more basic than it, it is in and of itself a basic need.
Last December, as part of the Art of Change initiative, our work with the Ford Foundation exploring the interplay for arts and social justice in the world today, we brought together a small group of experts and thinkers in a range of fields—including psychology, economics, art, philosophy, and public policy–to discuss the topic of beauty. The goal was to question the dominant paradigm of our society, which overvalues economic metrics as an indicator of wellbeing, and ask how we might more effectively articulate, value, and nurture beauty as a basic need and right.
The conversation had two parts:
Making the case for why beauty is essential to the health of human beings and society, and how it can be a catalyst for justice.
Expanding the space for beauty in our contemporary discourse and policymaking, and understanding the role of art and artists in that shift.
We are currently in the middle of writing a paper with Youth Speaks that is the culmination of two convenings with hip hop activists and research on the nonprofit arts sector and the next generation of artists and creative leaders. Here’s a brief snapshot of the framing of the work, from James Kass, Director of Youth Speaks:
This project has been prompted by the following realization: although many of us have found success in the nonprofit sector, or are on a trajectory toward it, it has been and continues to be a real struggle to get traction. The nonprofit performing arts ecoystem is not set up to welcome new people and new ideas into the system, unless those “new” people reflect already-constructed pathways. Many of us who hosted and participated in the convenings have benefited from visionary insiders, figured out survival tactics, or just been plain lucky, but the system is still as difficult for outsiders to penetrate as it was when we busted our way in 15 years ago. Although some of us have succeeded at moving from the outside to the center, we wonder if we have created more openings for others to do so too, or changed the system as a whole. To us it seems as though the “system” is still biased towards maintaining what already is, instead of opening to what might be coming next. This is particularly true in regards to the most marginalized voices, who often reflect the “audiences” everyone is trying to reach, but rarely are partnered with in deep and meaningful ways that can shift the arts sector to both be more inclusive, but also more reflective of the future of this country.
Cultural organizations deeply engaged in their communities
One of the most common questions we get about our Bright Spots report is what it really means to be “deeply engaged with your community,” which was one of the five principles that we identified as being key to healthy and dynamic cultural organizations. As part of our work evaluating the Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund we worked with some amazing filmmakers to create videos of some of the work that the grantees of that program are doing. All of these organizations hit the mark in terms of being highly relevant to and engaged with their communities.
Our friend and sometimes collaborator Nick Rabkin gave a recent Pecha Kucha presentation on the historical role that teaching artists have played in our arts ecosystem. There are lots of great nuggets in the video, but one of my favorites is in the very beginning where he draws the distinction between the “two strands of arts DNA,” and traces their historical roots to the early 20th Century. One strand is represented by the Art Institute in Chicago and other institutions who “drew a bright line around high art.” The other is represented by the Hull House Settlement other “community based” institutions who employed a much more democratic and participatory understanding of art. Unsurprisingly, these two strands have very different legacies today, something that we wrote about in our evaluation (which Nick was a key partner on) of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Cultural Innovation Fund program (page vi). The video is worth watching in its entirety (only 6 minutes long), if nothing else than for the trivia…want to know what “high art” has to do with male pattern baldness?
We are excited to announce the release of a capitalization tip sheet, developed in partnership with the Nonprofit Finance Fund, to help organizations and funders who are working towards strengthening the financial health of nonprofit cultural organizations. This is meant to be an easy to use companion guide, to complement longer capitalization monographs we’ve published with NFF over the past couple of years. We hope it will help guide action and inform conversations around capitalization. The short document includes tips for funders and cultural organizations, as well as a list of additional capitalization resources for those who want to dig deeper.
Implications of the Affordable Care Act for Artists
In 2010 we surveyed over 5,000 artists about their health care needs and challenges and found that it was one of their main concerns. Over 1/3 of artists (36%) reported being inadequately insured. Of those who were insured, half were worried about losing their insurance.
This article provides an interesting synopsis of how the Affordable Care Act affects artists, including making it easier to choose a path as an artist in the first place:
Being a writer, or a visual artist, or a musician, or an actor, has always been an economically risky choice where a few people succeed in dramatic terms, a larger number figure out middle-class existences doing what they love at least part of the time, and others struggle to do what they love. The ACA, and the ability to purchase more affordable insurance as an individual, doesn’t change that economic calculus. But it does help minimize a risk factor that can make it impossible to attempt careers as artists at all.
And this is the crux of it for me: these types of policies make it easier for people to take risks and do things outside of the norm. That is not only good for creativity and art, but for society and the economy at large. Imagine what types of entrepreneurial business ventures we might see if people had a baseline safety net so that failure didn’t mean death (sometimes literally)?
For more information on the Affordable Care Act for artists, as well as practical resources for getting covered, visit this site.