Monday, February 28, 2011

The Smart Kind of Capitulation

The Obama Administration has told the Governors of the several states that they can opt out of the Health Care bill. Well, there's a catch:
States can ask Washington for a waiver from other provisions, such as the law's mandate that all individuals get insurance — but they would have to cover as many people, provide the same level of benefits and not raise the federal deficit.
Who likes this?
On the other hand, the president's move was applauded by lawmakers in Vermont who want to go even further than the federal law, which is designed to cover 32 million more Americans with health insurance. The law will expand Medicaid and create a system of health exchanges, or marketplaces, in which insurers compete for customers.
I'm excited to see if Vermont can do to the Single Payer system what Mitt Romney did to affordable universal healthcare.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Supply/Demand Cont'd

A must-read from Scott Walters, in the room with the heavy-hitters of the art world. Here's a key paragraph:
The one thing I heard that did make me cock my head to the side, however, was the way that bloggers and tweeters were talked about by the assembled leaders. It wasn't good. Many of them seemed to see the whole on-line conversation as airing dirty laundry and working against the field, as people just speaking off the top of their heads and engaging in crazy talk. This came up again and again. And that's when I became a more confirmed blogger and tweeter.

These leaders are used to controlling the conversation from their privileged positions. If they think it ought to be talked about, it will be; if not, it will be silenced. Things should be decided behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the public and preferably not within earshot of artists. All this on-line democratization of conversation just works against creating a unified message to the general public.

I did a round-up earlier of ways to make the case. The idea, however, that we should all make the same case, is a pretty sad one.

Information in the Noisiest System

To all the Wikipedia nay-sayers out there, I think Freeman Dyson has the final word on Wikipedia:
Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon's law of reliable communication. Shannon's law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.


I'm doing some research on music like Beethoven's 9th performed over 24 hours, Erik Satie's Vexations, and I happened to come across this BBC Radio 4 concert performance of John Cage's 4'33":

My understanding of the original 4'3" is that, amongst other things, it was a huge prank on an audience who had paid for sound and were being confronted with silence. To a certain extent, the fun of John Cage is that the audience is not in on the joke.

So I watched this 4'33" with interest, to see if it would hold up in a very different scenario where it was basically performed by an audience full of people who are probably mostly in on the joke.

What results, in my opinion, is a wholly different piece -- a satire of the modern orchestra. I direct your attention to 2:44, where the first movement ends. Notice the huge release of tension -- it suddenly becomes apparent how much work classical music is, even when there is no music. The coughing, the shifting, the permission to laugh, all of it comes out in that brief moment between movements when whatever iron-clad dictatorship of the orchestra eases.

And then, utter silence again, until 5:20, when the next movement draws to a close.

And watch at 6:30 when the conductor signals that the piece is done. Obviously no one has any idea when the piece is "done." They wait until they're told to clap, and then the go crazy.

Tunisia Phase 2

The interim Prime Minister of Tunisia has now resigned, following in the footsteps of ousted President Ben Ali. I find this rather encouraging, because it indicates that at least the Tunisian democratic movement has the endurance to continue struggling for their democracy. There has been speculation, in Egypt as well, that the high-profile ousting of the man in charge would act as a pressure valve, and many of the underlying problems would continue. At least in Tunisia, it seems as though the pressure will continue until free and fair elections have come to pass.

Presented Without Comment

- BANK OF AMERICA: In 2009, Bank of America didn't pay a single penny in federal income taxes, exploiting the tax code so as to avoid paying its fair share. "Oh, yeah, this happens all the time," said Robert Willens, a tax accounting expert interviewed by McClatchy. "If you go out and try to make money and you don't do it, why should the government pay you for your losses?" asked Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. The same year, the mega-bank's top executives received pay "ranging from $6 million to nearly $30 million."

- BOEING: Despite receiving billions of dollars from the federal government every single year in taxpayer subsidies from the U.S. government, Boeing didn't "pay a dime of U.S. federal corporate income taxes" between 2008 and 2010.

- CITIGROUP: Citigroup's deferred income taxes for the third quarter of 2010 amounted to a grand total of $0.00. At the same time, Citigroup has continued to pay its staff lavishly. "John Havens, the head of Citigroup's investment bank, is expected to be the bank's highest paid executive for the second year in a row, with a compensation package worth $9.5 million."

(Via ThinkProgress)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

How We Make The Case: Round-Up

Talked about the NEA and indirect subsidies a bunch. I'm going to try and round-up the ideas of how we make the case into a single post. If I've missed any, let me know and I'll update this post.


Any examination into urban communities determines that the arts fuel jobs, fuel arts-related spending, and fuel tourism. (Example: San Francisco). Whatever the criticisms of some of Richard Florida's methodology, he and others are increasingly acknowledging the role that arts and culture play in developing a cultural economy. One of America's most successful cities is New York, and it often places the arts at the center of its urban policy. Fostering the arts is fostering the economy. The LA Times, for instance, said that for every dollar spent in the arts, it returned $18.75. There's a strong economic case to be made for us.

As Isaac pointed out, although the NEA doesn't give out a lot of direct spending, it does support state and local agencies in a big way.

The arts are not some sort of failed industry because we accept subsidies. So do most of the rest of the economy.

There's a certain slice of culture that will survive in the marketplace. Some of it may not. Just as Republican Democracy involves protecting the rights of the minority from the rule of the majority, so does arts subsidy have the potential to protect smaller communities -- what has been described as "the long tail" of culture. In some areas, the low cost of business allows the long tail to flourish. But in others (e.g. performing arts) the cost remains incredibly high.

As FDR realized with the WPA, money to the arts is really a way to get artists to support themselves using their skills, so they can move out of low-skill work and transition them off of other forms of subsidy. Unemployed artists will take unemployment checks and food stamps instead of NEA money.

Ironically, this is following in the footsteps of Andrew Carnegie: if you're going to fund institutions, fund institutions that help enrich the community. If the arts are a form of stimulus, remember that they're a form of stimulus that can help create community and enrich the mind (to take a study at random: The Effects of Art on the Brain of an Underprivileged Child). This is why we provide massive subsidies for the literary arts in the form of libraries, rather than just having bookstores and letting the market do the rest.

There's a lot of research out there about the role arts play in gentrifying communities, and many local communities choose to use the arts to make their cities better. Why is that a need for the NEA? Look above: local decisions require federal support.

Look at what the NEA supports. It works. Not perfectly (see below) but it works.

Allowing people to write off charitable donations to the arts allow people to allocate Federal money to art organizations in a way that is a lot less fraught than having an elite panel giving out the money directly. I think the NEA and direct subsidies can be good for getting money in the hands of arts service organizations and establish organizations that do a lot of good to the whole community; indirect subsidies are basically audiences "voting" on the arts organizations they like. They prove that the arts organization is, in fact, serving a group of people who are interested in its survival.

There's no reason that the arts should suffer when we're so insignificant in the budget. We spend far more money on stupid things, like oil subsidies or farm subsidies, and we're not linked to the structural problems that contribute to the massive deficit, so cutting us is only going to provide short-term benefit.

In England, they have a Minister of Culture, Media, and Sport. For people in the cultural industry, he's the person looking out for them -- the person in government they can appeal to as a representative. Today, for better or for worse, that's Rocco Landesman. If you get rid of the National Endowment of the Arts, then the arts and culture have no one looking over cultural policy. And when it comes to important legal/political issues (e.g. copyright), it would be good to have someone from the arts representing the arts. If we lose the NEA, we're invisible.


Rather than trying to use the NEA to simply preserve and promote all arts, focus the NEA's attention on ensuring that under-served communities have equal access to culture. This can mean geography (see: Scott Walters), diversity, poverty, and other groups, to ensure that our "marketplace of ideas" doesn't drive niche communities out of the arts. The NEA should be able to articulate its aim to serve the public interest. This, by the way, might mean de-emphasizing the NEA's focus on excellence, in the way that subsidies to film don't place that same emphasis.

One way that the NEA's money could be used better is if it used the money it gives out as leverage, to encourage needed reforms along the lines above.

Arts Service organization, and services to artists, can often have a much broader and diverse impact rather than giving direct money to artists -- although the latter is still important. Groups like Fractured Atlas, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Chashama, and Volunteer Accountants for the Arts lower the cost of doing business in the arts; lowering the cost increases the vitality of the arts field without having to play favorites.

Literary Arts for Soldiers!

There was a time when the US Army published its own editions of literature to distribute to the soldiers so they would have contact with literature while in the field.

Just thought you should know.

Legal Commentary: DOMA cont'd... an DADT

While suggesting that Congress had the authority to pass the ban, when it did so in 1993, the new filing argued that, now, the courts — if they do anything at all — should conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to give the Pentagon some time to achieve actual repeal of the policy under the law passed in December.

Under one scenario that the government suggested might come about, and one that it apparently would consider acceptable, the Ninth Circuit could go ahead and rule that the ban was unconstitutional, but then “adopt some form of…orderly process as a remedy” — presumably, matching the timetable that the new repeal law provides for the military to carry out the repeal.
It doesn't change much, but it's interesting to watch the Obama Administration simultaneously lobby for big changes in the Legislature while going out of their way to make sure those changes don't happen in the courts.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Critics in the Inky Shadows

Michael Billington in the Guardian reflects on the role of critics at audience-participatory performances:
The moment a critic sets foot on stage, he or she becomes the story; the critic also becomes complicit in the event. Over the years, I've noticed colleagues even refusing to engage in public banter with the cast: in a play at the Gate, Alastair Macaulay once reduced Marcello Magni to speechless impotence by refusing to offer him the feed-line he desperately craved. And, much as I admire Hitchings's courage, I think Macaulay was right. A critic's place is in the dark, among the watchers, not the watched.
I'm sympathetic to the idea of the critic as the objective observer. My question is, though, doesn't the critic also have an obligation to engage honestly with shows that may need their engagement?

I have been to and participated in some performances that were participatory which were big successes when the audiences participated along. I can imagine a situation in which at press night, a phalanx of stony-faced critics remaining aloof would create a bad show, but the rest of the run include shows which are much more successful.

A counter-hypothetical would be a show which is entertaining to watch, but which is horrible to participate in.

Not to say that the critic should work to make the show a success. Instead, they should just respond honestly to whatever offers the play is giving them. If they feel that they want to participate, they should participate. If not, they shouldn't.

This would create a more honest review of the participatory element -- not just from the perspective of the observer, but from the perspective of a participant. Obviously, some balance needs to be struck between the two, but if the reviewer puts up a deliberate stone wall in all circumstances, they may come out with a less accurate review.

Solution: Part Time Stable Jobs With Benefits!

At 2AMt, Gwydion thinks that artists could be supported by part-time jobs, if those part-time jobs offered benefits. Many of my friends cobble together low rents by doing part-time or freelance work, but those jobs don't offer benefits, so the first time you get seriously ill, you lose out. A lot.

Believe it or not, there’s no actual rule that says a stable career must demand 40 hours a week. In fact, the idea that every single job in the world must be in performed in the same amount of time is ridiculous, isn’t it? If employers were thinking flexibly and creatively, you’d have to assume that more of them would realize this. Few of them, however, do.

So convince them! I didn’t just walk into an office and expect the deal I have. I developed a skill set over many years, alongside my work as a playwright; held a few traditional full-time jobs for a while, building up my resume; and eventually came to merit (if I may be so bold) the opportunity I now have. I don’t take it for granted, either; I work my tail off, and I continue to do whatever I can to earn the arrangement. I don’t walk around wishing I could be writing full-time; I’m not waiting for five o’clock so I can punch out and head home. As I’ve said, I like what I do.
To add to this idea: this is actually how Olympic Athletes used to be supported. You see, Home Depot used to pay Olympic Athletes full-time rates (and benefits) for half-time work, and would allow them to leave for competitions and return with their jobs safe and intact. Unfortunately, it was discontinued once this economic mess started, for obvious reasons.

Theater Deathwatch: Actor's Express, Atlanta

Another theater facing a "life or death moment":
Actor's Express, the highly regarded 23-year-old theater, sent an e-mail plea to supporters on Wednesday afternoon that terms its situation "a true life or death moment."

The company, which is $140,000 in debt and struggling to pay bills, is seeking $50,000 over the next four weeks and an additional $150,000 before its fiscal year ends July 31.

The metro area's mid-size theaters, which don't have the resources of the Alliance Theatre but can't operate on a shoestring like smaller Equity and nonprofessional groups, have been especially hard hit by the economy.
A completely different case from the Initman. Some curious details:
Actor's Express leaders, operating with a budget of $650,000 this year, cite reduced corporate donations and slumping individual ticket sales and subscriptions as the biggest factors in its mounting debt.

"We know it's not as much as other theaters have had," board chairman Bruce Cohen said, "but we just realized that we can't continue to operate from the position of acquiring more and more debt. We've got to address the situation."

Artistic director Freddie Ashley inherited some shortfalls in 2007 when he became the fifth leader in seven years of the Westside theater known for mounting premieres and edgy stagings. But he said those bills have been retired and the current debt is from his watch.

"The issue at hand is operational," Ashley said. "It's the lack of liquidity. The amount of debt we're carrying eliminates previously pursued options to address those shortfalls."
So, the debt is new, the shortfall isn't as bad as other theater companies, but because of a lack of liquidity the debt could crush them.

One last quote:
"I'm hopeful, because Actor's Express is 23 years old and has a reputation throughout Atlanta, the Southeast and the nation as one of the finest theater companies," said Cohen, president of Vision Properties Inc. "However, I am concerned. I think there is a tremendous amount of fatigue on the part of givers."

Liberals Unite! pt. 2

It's worth noting, also, that yet again we have a look into our past. Donald Rumsfeld took on The Daily Show:

Jon Stewart does an excellent job. He doesn't have a "Gotcha" moment on Don Rumsfeld, the way that a Stephen Colbert might, but he lays out the case quietly, firmly, and fairly. I do wish Don Rumsfeld had been forced to respond more to the things that he said that threw us for a loop, but he looked prepared to handle some of those statements and it was better to focus on the case that Iraq was neither unique nor was the planning of the post-Iraq world as extensive as the pre-war.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Liberals Unite!

As I suspected, 2010 has had one immediate effect: it has united liberals after the election the way that Democrats were hoping they would before the election.

Remember how before the election Healthcare didn't go far enough, the President didn't do enough to support gay rights, etc.? Well, with Republicans trying to destroy all unions, defund major institutions, redefine rape, and legalize murdering abortion providers, it turns out that even though Democratic measures are disappointing, they're still at least in the right direction.

2012 is going to be a lot more animated; liberals are going to have tangible villains to rally around Obama with, and the Tea Party is going to continue to charge forward with blood in the water.

Legal Commentary: No More DOMA

The Justice Department will no longer defend the Defense of Marriages Act:
In the two years since this Administration took office, the Department of Justice has defended Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on several occasions in federal court. Each of those cases evaluating Section 3 was considered in jurisdictions in which binding circuit court precedents hold that laws singling out people based on sexual orientation, as DOMA does, are constitutional if there is a rational basis for their enactment. While the President opposes DOMA and believes it should be repealed, the Department has defended it in court because we were able to advance reasonable arguments under that rational basis standard.

Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated. In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny. The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases. I fully concur with the President’s determination.
I love the lawyerly wrangling that allows the Justice Department to change its position while pretending that it is still holding to a unified set of legal principles. That's not a criticism -- one of the secret good things about the legal system is that different players can hold to different legal principles for different arguments. Hypocrisy? Sometimes.

At any rate, this is the beginning of the end for DOMA but it's a long way until the end. Some groups may try to appeal on behalf of DOMA even though the government hasn't (see: Proposition 8). Once the law falls apart, there's a lot of legal fun that begins.

Too Big To Fail pt. 3: Mismanagement

More background on the Initman. It's hard not to be upset at a company that was basically being managed to failure. They weren't paying unions, they didn't have documented procedures, they weren't paying taxes, they weren't providing any oversight over their managing director. Hell, I can imagine that on a company of my scale, but the Initman?

I'm not surprised at the lack of sympathy. After all, giving them $1 million dollars when they completely mismanaged the money up until here. And they still don't have proper controls in: they just are working to slap them together.

Shorter David Cote

Seriously, Cote misses the only part of the comparison that could actually be insightful:
If there's a grain of truth to my point – that the British lack the cultural DNA to produce exciting, innovative musical theatre – why would that be? Historically, the genius of the American musical, as it evolved on Broadway, has do with the rise of immigrants, the advent of jazz and the frenzied urbanisation of New York in the first half of the 20th century. Out of that ethnic and commercial melting pot came groundbreaking works such as Show Boat, Anything Goes, Oklahoma!, Porgy and Bess, Guys and Dolls and others – a rich and varied songbook that paved the way for Sondheim's intellectually dazzling innovations.
Guess what? Today, London is a city of incredible diversity -- roughly 40% are from an ethnic minority. The largest non-white minority group is Indian, and you'd be insane to posit that they can't bring some of their culture and heritage to compete with the American melting pot of culture.

After all, although the 19th Century had an incredibly diverse Broadway, look at it today. It's not the home of diversity of styles it was.

So if the West End can stop looking with envy at what we're doing and mine the wealth of culture in their neighborhood, there's no reason they can't compete hit for hit with us.

We Might Still Have a Good Spiderman Musical...

... it just won't be from Julie Taymor:
Frustrated by the web of delays engulfing “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the $65 million Broadway spectacle that is now to open on March 15 (if not later), Mr. Moran, an improv comedian and a composer, has decided to beat Julie Taymor and her team to the punch by opening his own show about that comic-book wall-crawler one day earlier, on March 14.
Around 2 a.m. on Feb. 11, Mr. Moran posted the first in a series of YouTube videos he calls the “Spiderman Smackdown,” announcing that he was creating his own musical — with a budget of exactly zero dollars. By 10 or 11 that morning, Mr. Moran said he was already getting e-mails from prospective cast members, composers, costume and set designers, and other crew members volunteering to participate.
My only question is, do they have the rights to Spiderman? After all, the Fitzgerald estate kept Gatz out of New York for a while because of a competing license of The Great Gatsby.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The NEA pt. 6: Some Old Gold

Ah, the memories.

Am I Alone On This?

Congressman Paul Ryan:

Gabe from the Office:

Devised Work pt. 2

Earlier, I wrote a little missive about Devised Work in response to questions from Isaac. This weekend, I was at a new little playwright's circle with some fellow company members and some other peers.

My co-creator, Ben, decided to share something that wasn't a "play" he was writing, but rather one of a series of short stories that he is writing to devise a production from later.

One of the other playwrights, who had studied in the Strasberg method of drama and teaches playwrighting, asked the question: "What are you trying to do with devised work? What's the point?"

It took us a little bit to unpack the question, and it was like building a new common language between people who have experience in devised work and people who don't. Here were the questions inside of it.

The question above comes from a conflation of "Devised" work and "Experimental" work.

Devising work is not the same as making "experimental" work; devised work can be "experimental", or it can be not. I'm putting "experimental" in quotation marks because that's a whole other kettle of chaos; I'm not going to touch that definition here.

Devising work is, as I said before, a process. You could create a devised work that comes out thoroughly main-stream. For instance, I don't think that there's anything "experimental" about The Laramie Project. But I know that it came out of a devised process -- in fact, the process of devising it is included in the content of the final piece.

So we can't say what the product of devised work is, because not all devised processes are the same and they're really just tools to an end.

(Devised vs. Non-Narrative)
The question was really posed as, "If you want to paint an image in the stage, Why don't you just paint?" and "If you're writing a short story to adapt devised work from, why don't you just write short stories?"

To the script writer that we were talking to, theater is dialogue between characters; how the characters interact over space and time, and how they communicate with each other, is the core of theater.

To the devised work writer, theater is a venue for exploring an idea using physical bodies in space. The thing that makes theater "theater" is the live body. For him, dialogue between characters isn't enough to require theater; you could just watch the same action unfold on the TV screen or on a web series.

The devised work writer took the question "Why don't you just paint" and reworded it as "What requires my presence?" The question that you should ask when you want to make a work of theater is, "What about this theater piece requires my physical presence at a theater?"

I can't understate how huge a question this is. If you're expecting someone to get off their couch, get dressed reasonably nicely, go out in the 28 degree weather or the 95 degree weather or whatever to be somewhere promptly at 7:30 to stand in line to pay $15 or $25 or $200, the question you need to ask is "Why do I have to be here? Why can't it come to me?"

To take an arbitrary example, Cirque du Soleil answers that question. Seeing it lives means that there are no tricks; you can evaluate for yourself whether they do the amazing things with the human body that they purport to. Cirque due Soleil, at the very least, is about the amazing potential of the human body.

Does a David Mamet play really require your physical presence?

(Script-as-blueprint vs. Script-as-fuel)
The classical view of the playwright to the text is to try and create a 1:1 blueprint of what the show should be like. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Beckett, whose estate now rigidly enforces that 1:1 blueprint to the extent of denying anyone the right to do anything different.

Usually, however, the playwright tries to create a sense of the production: what bodies will be where, how they will move, what they will say and in what order.

When this question came up, I realized that I hadn't worked with a writer in a devised work scenario -- I tend to write from dead writers, existing work that is static. I am now interested to work with writers who are interested in writing for devised work.

Our current play, though (details coming realllllllly soon!) does have a writer in a devised scenario. And Ben himself writes for his devised work -- he does devised work based on his writing.

The idea for the writing, though, is not to create a blueprint; the short story that he read was thoroughly unstageable -- at least, if you tried to adapt it 1:1. You could argue that The Sound and The Fury is thoroughly unstageable as well. But that's if you're trying to adapt it 1:1; when Elevator Repair Service tackled it, they found a way.

The writer for devised work is trying to create artifacts which are compelling and useful spring-boards to create work from. Sometimes the unstageability is precisely what the theatermakers need to make work that is original and engaging; sometimes if the playwright solves all the problems ahead of time, it reduces the opportunities for amazement.

(I've been watching a lot of Mythbusters lately; the reason their show is compelling is because you get to watch them struggle to take things that seem impossible and convert them by force into the possible -- e.g. creating a working hovercraft out of leafblowers)

(Industry vs. Art)
The last point was the most sobering. The person who was questioning us related it back to the playwrighting class they teach, and said, "Someone came in with a piece that was written entirely in images, and I said to them, 'I know that this is something you feel strongly about, but I'm also really familiar with literary departments and what will go up in theaters, and this won't.' As a teacher, should I be fostering the sorts of things that won't go anywhere?"

Ben responded that the teacher should be teaching the students about the sort of world that would produce that sort of work (Ontological, Dixon Place, etc.). I mentioned that that's why we're founding companies, to try and create the places that would produce that sort of work.

But I could tell that the old canard was there that "nobody" would see it; "nobody" being, at least for my last show, around 500 people, which is not necessarily my wildest dreams but is actually 500 somebodies. Furthermore, they're 500 people who I got to shake hands with, each of them. Well, personally greeted (people are weird about shaking hands with strangers).

Supply/Demand pt. 3

Createquity has one of those incredible posts that you really have to read word for word and sit over. If you don't read the whole thing, you're doing yourself an incredible disservice.

Here's just one of the many meaty sections:

The Arts’ Dirty Secret

We regard the market’s lack of capacity to evaluate all the available art as a systemic and rapidly worsening problem in the arts today. Artists take time to learn their craft and capture attention; while the market may support an “up-and-coming” artist to maturity if she is lucky, making the transition to “up-and-coming” requires nurturing that the market will not provide. Before an artist becomes well known, the “market” she encounters is not the market of consumers but rather the market for access to consumers. This market is controlled by a small number of gatekeepers—e.g., agents, journalists, literary managers, venue owners—who each face the same capacity problems described above. Even the most dedicated and hardworking individuals could not possibly keep up with the sheer volume of material demanding to be evaluated.

This tremendous competition for gatekeepers’ attention frequently forces aspiring artists into a position of having to assume considerable financial risk to have even a shot at being noticed. An increasing number are receiving pre-professional training in their work; degrees awarded in the visual and performing arts jumped an astonishing 51% between 1998 and 2007.6 Others are starting their own organizations; the number of registered 501(c)(3) arts and culture nonprofits rose 42% in the past ten years.7

Yet all of this increased training and activity comes at a steep price, one all too often borne by the artist herself. Master’s degrees at top institutions can set her back as much as $50,000 per year; internships that could provide key industry connections are frequently unpaid. Artists in the field have been known to incur crippling consumer debt in pursuit of their dreams; the award-winning film documentary Spellbound, for example, was made possible because the co-creators maxed out some 14 credit cards to finance production. Indeed, a daunting investment of direct expense and thousands of hours of time not spent earning a living are virtual requirements to develop the portfolio and reputation necessary to translate ability into success. However one defines artistic talent, it is clear that talent alone is not enough to enable an artist to support herself through her work.

It’s not just those with education debt that have a hard time being a full-time artist, but really anyone without a safety net. I know I can count on one hand the number of composers I know in our age bracket whose parents didn’t pay for their undergraduate education (at least the vast majority of it).8

—Composer, age 27

If traditional gatekeepers lack the capacity to identify and provide critical early support to artistic entrepreneurs with little pedigree but plenty of potential, there is a real concern that to compete for serious and ongoing recognition in the arts is an entitlement of the already privileged. For a sector of society that often justifies philanthropic and public subsidy by purporting to celebrate diverse voices and build bridges between people who see the world in very different ways, this is a grave problem.

If I'm reading this right, this is the best articulation of having a "Supply and Demand" problem in the arts. But the demand that is short is not audience demand; it's an artificially low demand from the delivery system itself. The institutions whose job it is to hook up the supply with the audience demand are failing.

I sympathize a lot with this. I started a theater company roughly two years ago; and already I'm creating a submissions process because I have to turn away work on a regular basis. I already can't keep up with the level of work being submitted to me. Because there are so many artists out there who rely on gatekeepers to have their work out there.

Oh, and by the way, as I was finishing up this article, the Guardian addressed somewhat parallel issues:
Last week I spent a happy afternoon talking with students on Birkbeck's MA courses in theatre directing and creative producing. They were bright, buzzy, clued-up, and many of them are clearly already finding their way in the professional theatre world. But our session came on the same day that unemployment figures were announced, showing that it's the young who have been hit hardest by the recession: one in five school-leavers and graduates in the 17-24 year old age bracket are without work, and that figure is likely to rise.

(UPDATE: Oh my goodness, check out the comment the post has gotten as well!)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Tobacco Warehouse pt. 2

Brooklyn Heights Blog has a recap of the arguments so far in favor and against giving St. Anne's Warehouse the Tobacco Warehouse. I hadn't heard the arguments against St. Anne's before; I found it enlightening, even if the presentation is a bit irritating:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The NEA pt. 5: Excellence

Scott Walters is wondering about the NEA's definition of "excellence":
The NEA regularly asserts that its primary criterion for awarding grants is "excellence," and the citizens of the arts world nod in agreement. The peer review panels are instructed to search for excellence in each and every grant proposal, and they do so with confidence that they will recognize that particular quality in each and every variety and permutation, and award pots of money accordingly.
He spends the rest of the post wondering about that definition. Go and read it. But I have a tangential question: are any other fields' subsidies (of which there are many) related to "excellence"? Farm subsidies aren't. Oil subsidies certainly aren't. I'm sure some are, but I am curious about when we subsidize "the best" and when we subsidize all who meet a certain class (more like film subsidies).

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The NEA pt 4 / How We Make The Case VI

Isaac's third installment about why the NEA is important is a must read.

Here's a key paragraph:
(1) NEA grants are administered through partnerships with other organizations, many of whom are state arts agencies. In his post, Matt asks why we need federal arts subsidies. One of the reasons is so that we can have local, city and state arts councils to begin with. 40% of the NEA's money goes into that pot. I'm sure there could be more efficient ways to do this, but it's worth saying that it's not that we face an either/or choice when it comes to federalism and arts funding.
Another one:
It's easy to get spooked out by the specter of the government determining what art you should like. This view is an inaccurate picture of the NEA. The NEA is our way as a society of pooling resources (in the form of taxes) in order to support the arts (for reasons I'll get into below) and entrusting that money with a group of experts with decades of experience in the field.
One last one:
Over the last few days, I've been posting a lot about the NEA and how we make the case for arts subsidy, and I think I've focused a lot on the untapped potential that the NEA is not living up to, but could if it was funded more and given more direction. I really do continue to believe that if we want to start to survive these fights, we need to address those.

But reading Isaac's post, I realize I've been a bit of tough love. It's true that the NEA doesn't necessarily directly support the things I see, but it is doing a lot more than I give it credit for sometimes. And it must be harder for them, to be working indirectly in an already indirect field. They must be jealous that at least the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can summon up Big Bird as a lobbyist.

At any rate, my next step is going to be to try to order up all the points we've hit so far in an abbreviated format. See, we've been having this conversation in many ways, in many forums, for the last few decades. But now seems like the first moment that anyone outside of our field is even briefly listening. We gotta get our note-cards in order.

And lest you think that the House's vote is the end of the road, remember that the Coburn Amendment to the Stimulus bill.

No? Don't remember it? It was the amendment offered that removed $50 million in funding to the NEA from the stimulus bill. It passed in the Senate, with the vote of many liberal Senators like Feinstein (D-CA), Feingold (former D-WI) and shockingly Schumer (D-NY).

In the end, however, the arts funding was restored to the bill thanks to people like Congressman David Obey (D-WI):
When the House voted on the final bill, Democratic Congressman David Obey, who sponsored the bill, explained why he thought it was important to retain NEA funding in the stimulus package: “There are five million people who work in the arts industry. And right now they have 12.5% unemployment—or are you suggesting that somehow if you work in that field, it isn’t real when you lose your job, your mortgage or your health insurance? We’re trying to treat people who work in the arts the same way as anybody else.”
Where's Obey now? Retired.

The point is that the NEA isn't out of the fight yet. But the prognosis isn't great. Even the Obama Administration has NEA cuts planned, also around $20 million.

So. Enough for this post. The round up is coming up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Related Question

Has anyone ever done a survey of subsidies by field? I think the arts is far less subsidized than oil, farms, the Egyptian military, the film industry, banking, mortgages, and of course Old People.

The NEA pt 3: You Win Some, You Lose Some

Good news, the NEA still exists.

At the very least, $20.6 million less of it does.

(Update: although not if you read their blog or look at their website!)

How We Make The Case V: Geography / Monoculture / Education

I mentioned before that what the NEA should be doing is not simply supporting art as it exists, but reshaping the arts to make it better. In particular, it should be using its influence to help more disadvantaged community to have an equal chance to sharing and having access to culture.

It's not even worth me going into this on my own, since we all know that the resident expert is Scott Walters:
When I analyzed the NEA grant data for one round of grants in 2006, I found that almost 40% of the money went to New York City, Chicago, and the state of California. They represent less than 17% of the US population. On the other end of the spectrum, 17 entire states didn't see a single dime.
Not only could the NEA help support arts in wider communities, it could also be the focal point of a network between these different arts communities.

The market can deliver culture in many forms, but market-driven culture tends to best serve the widest consumers. In that way, it can often over-represent the most profitable aspects of culture, and under-represent the least profitable aspects of culture.

Take, for example, educational culture. I remember a time when I learned a lot from the Discovery Channel. Here's the line-up on their front page right now:
  • Gold Rush Alaska
  • Man vs. Wild
  • Out of the Wild Venezuela
  • Flying Wild Alaska
  • Tommy Guns
  • Desert Car Kings
  • Dirty Jobs
  • American Chopper
Mythbusters, one of their most educational shows, isn't listed on their front page (you can get to it from the menu).

To be fair, all of those have some educational component... although if that's the case, so does America's Next Top Model (which admittedly taught me about everything I know about modeling).

On the other hand, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting created Sesame Street, which is not only significant for the show itself but because it provides a lot of information for other children's educational Television. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting also supports Nova Science Now! hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who truly is the heir of Carl Sagan (another television personality supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).

In other realms, progressives understand that with a little nudging, we can get things which may not be quite as popular but are still positive and contribute to society spread. Michelle Obama has just announced that she has worked with Walmart to encourage the spread of healthier food.

Does that mean the market has "failed" to provide a food solution? No, clearly not. McDonald's proved that you can do incredible things with food, and the market will support you. And the government should not be actively stopping people from eating at McDonald's. But if the government can help make it less expensive (i.e. increase access) to eat healthier food, people are in a better positon to make their own choice.

Now, unlike food, the arts are not so clear as healthy/unhealthy. But the need to preserve choice and competition in the market remains.

A whole other aspect of arts is arts role in education. That's a huge topic that I'm also not as experienced in arguing for, but it should not be forgotten. Not because it benefits the arts, but because it benefits the students. It provides more opportunity for thinking critically and voicing their own identity.

Quote of the Day

From now on, I'm going to imagine Boehner saying that after every public appearance.

(The quote of the day, by the way, is "I can't believe I just said that.")

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Too Big To Fail? Cont'd

Trisha Mead has an excellent analysis of Intiman's fiscal troubles. RTWT. Not being a member of the Seattle community, I can no way judge whether the "Legitimacy" that Trisha is talking about is well-earned, or if it is simply the sort of "Legitimacy" that Goldman Sachs uses to keep investors.

At any rate, I'm glad that, in this case (and in the Case case of the NEA), the question is being looked at critically.

How We Make The Case IV: Matt Yglesias!

Isaac also gets a response from Matt Yglesias, who wants off the list of philistines:
One is that I want off the Drum/Chait list of philistines. All I said about this is that the big federal arts subsidy is the indirect subsidy provided through the tax code. I think decentralized subsidization of aesthetic endeavors makes a lot of sense, I was just observing that perennial complaining about the NEA is kind of a sideshow.
I am pretty sympathetic to the argument. I think there is still a need for some direct spending. But, for instance, I happen to think that $100,000 to Lincoln Center wouldn't benefit the arts as much as $1,000 to Fractured Atlas -- I think Fractured Atlas benefits a wider and more diverse group of artists and art audiences in a more cost-effective way.

I think I've argued before that the role of Federal spending could more effectively shift from funding arts organizations directly to funding arts service organizations, people who find innovative ways to address the needs of artists without needing to be arbiters of taste. As I said before, we should fight cuts with reform: make the NEA better to justify keeping it around.


Although Drum may not be aware of it, Americans provide MASSIVE subsidies for film through tax breaks that average on 30%. And the reason they do it is to provide a competitive advantage economically. When I studied film production, we were told bluntly that step one in choosing a location is to find which location you could film in that has the highest tax break.

And that film subsidy is provided irregardless of if your mission is in the public good; it's provided for the same reason that there's a Small Business Administration -- because having people be employed for good wages is also a public need.

When Isaac mentioned in passing that the historical root of the NEA is really the WPA, remember that the WPA was one parts beauty, and three parts economic stimulus. The idea was that if artists could get employed for good money in their own fields, they would free jobs in other fields that people with less skills could do.

For example, if I could pay everyone in my tiny theater company a decent wage, that would open up two jobs in the service industry, one job in nannying, and one fairly decent job in software, and two in not-for profits.

(Also, I should make it pretty clear at this point that I really don't think the NEA should be giving me money yet. One day, when they're a financial powerhouse that really can give money to every aspiring group, we'll be waiting.)

How We Make Our Case III

What he leaves out are things like Jazz, "Classical" Music, Theatre, Dance etc. In other words, it may in fact be true that some art forms are supported well by the market. But others are not theatre, the one I happen to know the best, is suffering an insane level of market breakdown. It is simply too expensive to make (most) theater to be able to price it accurately. Even now, thanks to lack of support, it is still overpriced in most major markets.

Furthermore, it's worth saying that (at least in theatre) we are still suffering the aftershocks of the government not making good on its promises in the 1960s. The regional theater system was seeded by the Ford foundation on the promise that it would be watered by aggressive NEA funding. The NEA was supposed to sustain it. It never did. We've been spinning plates ever since. There's a reason why theatre always seems to be in crisis. It was built and designed on certain assumptions that turned out not to be true.
[H]ow do you know that the market for this kind of art has broken down? The fact that something is expensive and losing popularity doesn't, by itself, indicate a market breakdown. Just the opposite, in fact: we usually think of market breakdowns in areas where there's a lot of demand but, for some reason, the market isn't meeting it.

Now, I, Kevin Drum, happen to like classical music but not jazz. I like film but don't really get much of a kick out of theater. I love novels but have never developed an appreciation of poetry. Etc. etc. If it turned out that my tastes were broadly shared, would that mean there's a market breakdown in jazz, theater, and poetry? Or would it mean that public tastes have changed over time and artists ought to change with it? If great playwrights are producing scripts for HBO movies instead of scripts for regional theaters, does that mean the market is working or failing? If serious modern composers produce music that the public has to be bribed to listen to (usually with a post-intermission performance of a popular old warhorse), does that mean there's a breakdown in the market for serious modern music? Or does it mean that serious modern composers ought to rethink the kind of music they write? How do you know?

In any case, I look forward to part three. I view the decline of live theater with equanimity because I think that modern film, video, and multimedia performances are better than live theater on virtually every level. Obviously Isaac disagrees, and that's fine. The question is, why should the federal government adjudicate our disagreement?
The thing is, Drum thinks that the problem we're saying is that people aren't coming to the shows. I think one strong argument is that the system we've built is that even the most successful playwrights are making $40,000 / year or less; less than administrative assistants! We've built up a theater where major theaters in New York can have no non-white non-male playwrights produced.

When we complain about theaters that are "nonprofits" but don't behave like it, it's not just an aesthetic argument. It's an argument about how to communicate with more people, rather than more money. Severing the government support of the arts narrows the scope of the arts. For realms of art that are cheaper to produce, the commercial model can still produce a wide range of options.

For me, the only aspect of the arts that are "broken" are thus:
  1. Our major institutions aren't serving our needs (in terms of diversity and access), and the money is going to the major institutions.
  2. The people who work in the field, who make the field really work, aren't getting paid to survive.
The latter is what we're looking for the government to help address. Anyways, it's funny to hear a progressive asking us to justify ourselves in terms of the market. Does Kevin Drum think the fact that teachers are paid almost nothing and bankers can take home billions is not a government issue? Does he think that the fact that non-white male playwrights can't get wider audiences because of conservative institutions isn't a government issue? Because the market is okay with those things; the government should not be.

Bloggers: First Reviewers Or Last?

Chris Wilkinson at Guardian Online (in response to Matt Trueman and various responses):
If amateur bloggers really want to carve out a niche, then surely they should be taking advantage of the fact that they can give themselves more time and space to respond to what they have seen? Additionally, if they really are just "ordinary theatregoers", then why not go and see shows after press night, as the vast majority of people do? A show that has settled is surely a more "real" experience than one that is still tentatively finding its feet. Blogging plays an increasingly welcome and important part of the debate around theatre. But bloggers will only flourish if they find something fresh and distinctive to do.
Honestly, this is an example of "Why do we have to make the choice?"

I, personally, like writing a review within the first 24 hours, because writing the review is how I process the show. If I don't write or talk aloud to friends about the show soon after the show, it just disappears into the crevasses of my brain.

But Chris Wilkinson is also true, that bloggers have the ability to review a show later, and more in depth. Oh, and it turns out that they do -- take, for instance, George Hunka's review/analysis of Grasses of a Thousand Colors, a show which is now two years old.

It boils down to this: blogs, unlike columns in a paper, tend to primarily serve the blogger. This is part of the weakness of blogs, and also part of its recipe for success. I don't have any deadlines to make (hence sometimes I go quite silent).

You could write your review immediately, and get a snapshot of your initial impressions. The advantages are:
  • You won't overthink it.
  • You'll get a chance to crystalize your response and think through things while the memories are fresh (rather than later when your memories might become fuzzy)
  • You'll get to be part of the conversation that theater audiences use to gauge whether or not the show is worth their time -- with shows that aren't Spiderman, there's a significant difference in posting while the show is still running.
Or, you could take your time and write it at your leisure. Advantages:
  • Clearer thought with more perspective.
However, the one thing that should not be part of this equation is some producer's blatant attempt to protect shoddy work from criticism by manipulating a polite social convention to his needs. Any reasoning in favor of not reviewing a preview doesn't apply to a show like Spiderman because it's a preview in name only; the case has been made repeatedly and more eloquently.

Quote of the Day

"The biggest waste of money since
The millions sent to Port-au-Prince."
-- McSweeney's, laying into Spiderman.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Art Invading The Neighborhood

The National Parks Service has allowed St. Ann's to renovate an old Tobacco warehouse in Dumbo to create a new theater. And apparently the neighborhood is none too happy:
Sure enough, in November, the world-renowned theater troupe St. Ann’s Warehouse was given development rights to convert the crumbling and roofless building into a $15-million mixed-use performance hall and plaza.

Opponents, including the Brooklyn Heights and Fulton Ferry Landing associations and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, then sued, saying that the “state was pursuing a personal agenda on behalf of private commercial interests.”
I like St. Ann's a lot, and although the opponents may or may not have a point about how this happened, I'm not sure what their intrinsic opposition to the theater itself is.

Ticket Prices

Matt Yglesias talks about ticket prices in context of LCD Soundsystem's rant against scalpers screwing out genuine fans. Key point:
Optimal allocation of LCD Soundsystem tickets requires demand-responsive ticket pricing. But good rock bands are not composed of narrow-minded amoral profit-maximizers. Consequently, they’re motivated to price tickets at a lower level than the market will bear leading, in turn, to middlemen getting the rents. What’s needed is a way for bands to price tickets at demand-responsive levels in a way that’s consistent with the norm that the guys in a cool band shouldn’t be narrow-minded profit-maximizers. The best solution here, I think, is charity.
Someone should tell Matt Yglesias that even non-profits have trouble solving that issue.


Even CPAC conservatives can't hang out with racists?

(Update: It's worth remembering that every crowd or organization has a diversity of views on individual subjects. The guy with the mutton chops who tells the racist that he doesn't represent Ron Paul, well, he's the one shouting 'Show us the Shekels' at Dick Cheney. But whoever took this video did a good job of not simply running a hatchet job on CPAC and showing the juicy racism.)

Supply/Demand cont'd (A Response)

The response to the 'Don't Start A Theater Company' is 'I'm Starting My Theater Company, Damn It'. As someone in the same camp... kudos!

I actually asked the head of my college about this today, in passing, and all she had to say was, "They're just threatened. Then again, everyone's threatened."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The NEA pt 3: Can You See Me Now?

Can you see us in this budget? I didn't think so.


The true face of the "Supply/Demand" talking is really this: the "Please Don't Start A Theater Company" talking point.

The NEA pt 2: Your NEA

Tell us about a project–or multiple projects–that enriched your community, projects that would not have been possible without support from the NEA.

Use the comments here and, if you’re on Twitter, take a moment and post there using the hashtag #NEA365.
Here's my problem... I'm not sure if I can contribute. I can't think of an institution that I visited in the last year that had an NEA logo on a program. I could put up TCG, but I'm not sure they've reached me ever. And certainly I'm not sure any of these projects would not have been possible without the NEA. The only time I ever heard the NEA's funding referenced by a recipient was someone derisively noting that the NEA's funding is nice to have, but not significant in their budget.

How We Make Our Case II

Isaac asks another important question:
I know there are quite a few people from the arts advocacy and funding sector who read this blog, so I have to ask: are there studies out there that can tell us whether Drum is right? Has anyone reliable gamed out what the potential impact of doing away with charitable deductions would be? Because I think this is the kind of scenario where data is really going to drive the argument.
No clue what the answer is.

However. I do have to point out that there's another comparable deduction, which is the deductions of losses for small business owners.

I, as a small business owner, have the right to deduct any losses I take after my profits from my income, if I make an income from a different source. In other words, I could donate to charity, or I could invest income into my business, and it is equivalent in terms of tax deduction terms. (And it runs into similar skepticism -- see "Proving Your Hobby Is A Business")

The reason I bring this up is because if we proposed taking away that tax deduction, you would never the end of it. What's the economic case for that tax deduction? Because it's based on the same theory -- allowing people to deduct their "losses" (a donation being a "loss" from an individual capitalist perspective, as you are giving money for nothing in return) to further a social goal (building the economy, or building culture/education/literacy).

Don't Save the NEA - Replace It?

In practical terms, he's absolutely rights. In writing How We Make Our Case, I realized that the NEA and CPB are probably the smallest things our government does to bolster the arts; the biggest thing (at least, that are arts-specific) is the donation tax deduction for the arts.

But the GOP attempt to destroy the NEA is not merely about that practical support. It's also incredibly symbolic. Once the NEA goes, there is no part of our government that is even nominally responsible for supporting the arts. Sure, we'll be part of the Department of Education, and part of the State Department, and part of a thousand other projects, but once the NEA is gone, it won't be anyone's job to even try to look out for us.

However much flak Rocco Landesman has gotten for his remarks, I think we can all agree that the reason they're a firestorm is because he's one of the few people who gets to take the arts to Washington. He's the person who's supposed to be championing us in Washington. I'm not convinced he's doing a great job of that aspect.

So while I agree completely with the many of the points Don Hall makes (and disagree with others, but that's a different post), at the core, I think that something called the NEA -- or some sort of successor -- needs to survive. If only to remind the American people that there's something called the arts in this country.

And, lastly, if we want something called the NEA or some successor to survive in American culture, it had better start doing its job better.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Who Is Arcade Fire?

The "Who is Arcade Fire" tumblr is not just an amusing diversion for those hipsters who still enjoy sneering at people who haven't heard of their favorite bands (yes, I realize Arcade Fire is pretty damn popular in one genre but until last night they didn't cross over into the radar of people living in areas without vibrant indie scenes).

But the one I nabbed before makes an interesting claim: how can the "best album of the year" not have been "known by everyone"?


There is an underlying assumption that persists in our culture that if you make something of very high quality, it will enter the main stream. With the internet, it certainly increases the idea that "If it's so good, why haven't I heard of it?" because we assume that someone would have linked it to us before.

The post I wrote earlier today, about Kevin Drum's objections to arts funding, touched on a similar point. Considering as we have no lack of distribution media for music, and Arcade Fire is considered a quality band (not just by the Grammy's, but by a lot of people and people inside the music industry), how could people not have heard of them?

Whereas, on the flip side, I don't like Lady Gaga's music all that much (although I do respect what she's done, and I think the performative aspect of it all is fascinating). But try as hard as I could (I did actively avoid finding out who Lady Gaga was), I found out about her. The same bridge was finally crossed for me when Justin Beiber got to do a quick little segment on The Daily Show. Justin's shrewd distributors had gotten someone from circles I don't inhabit in front of my face.

I'm curious why it took so long for Arcade Fire to do the same?


When Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize before really making any significant worldwide peace contributions (yeah, he did some work on nuclear non-proliferation, but the treaty wasn't ratified until this past December, which was quite a while after his award).

However, the Grammy's I think did a good thing by choosing to honor artists who still have audiences to conquer (both Arcade Fire and Esparanza Spalding).

Should an award greet you after the finish line, or should it boost those who have proven their mettle, to help boost their ability to fulfill their potential?