Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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!)