MA Artists, Advocates Grouse and Gather “Under The Dome”

Artists Under the Dome 2012

Boston, Massachusetts, Thursday, November 8th, 2012: Two days after the election that returned President Barack Obama to the White House, under light snow and freezing drizzle, the Massachusetts State House hosted the sixth annual Artists Under the Dome event. Named for the gold leaf-gilded dome that tops the Federal-style building on Beacon Hill, the event brings together artists, arts advocates and state legislators for a day of discussion and networking in the Great Hall of Flags, an atrium created when the State House’s original courtyard was covered over with a skylight. The event, organized by the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development and the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition (MALC), claims to be unique to the Bay State. The event also drew representatives of state agencies as well as lobbying and advocacy groups, thus providing a snapshot of the current state of arts policy in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as well as a basis for comparison with other states.

Artists Under the Dome 2012Under the flags of the Commonwealth’s 351 incorporated cities and towns, MALC co-founder Kathleen Bitetti and Katherine “Kay” Sloan, board member of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC), a state agency, welcomed artists and introduced the legislators from the Joint Committee on Tourism Arts & Cultural Development. The committee co-chair, State Rep. Sarah Peake, (D-4th Barnstable District) noted that despite the economic impact of the arts, there was frequently a lack of discussion of how to support or fairly compensate artists for their contributions. She specifically cited examples from her native Provincetown, where artists are often solicited for public art, or to donate for charity fundraisers. This problem would be revisited in greater detail at a panel discussion later in the afternoon.

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Peake was followed by her co-chair, State Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D-1st Middesex District), who cited her previous experience as Mayor of Lowell, during which time the abandoned textile mills of the town’s downtown were converted not just into museum spaces but a great many artist studios, performance spaces and galleries — in many cases providing homes for artists who were driven out of Boston’s Fort Point area due to real estate development during the late 1990s and early-to-mid-aughts. Appropriately, Donoghue called art an economic “engine”; she noted that much as her city had repurposed factories build by the city’s founders, they had repurposed, too, the 1826 city motto, which is still found on its official seal: “Art is the Handmaid of Human Good.” To the 19th century founders of Lowell, she explain, “art” meant the industrial arts, although it may mean much more now.

Replacing State Rep. David T. Vieira (R-3rd Barnstable District), who had been prevented from driving to Boston due to weather, was State Sen. Jack Hart (D-1st Suffolk District). Hart’s message to the artists in attendance was “thank you for adding such vibrancy to the life of the Commonwealth.” The final legislative speaker was State Rep. Paul McMurtry (D-11th Norfolk District). As well as being a legislator, he is the proprietor of the Dedham Community Theatre, an art-house cinema, which also hosts the one wing of the Museum of Bad Art. With some humility about his office, he said, “When you look back at ancient cultures, you look at the artists, not the politicians.”

During a break, many artists sought to lobby their legislators. Unfortunately, little of the legislation currently under consideration in the legislature was relevant to theatre artists; their major need continues to be a dearth of affordable performance and rehearsal spaces. As a result, there was something of a theatrical discussion between myself, StageSource Executive Director Julie Hennrikus and Small Theatre Alliance of Boston then-president John Geoffrion. (Full disclosure: I sit on the events committee of the Small Theatre Alliance, and Geoffrion chose not to seek reelection at the Alliance’s Dec. 3 general meeting to focus on his role as artistic director of the newly-founded Hub Theatre Company of Boston, where I will be serving as dramaturg and puppetry choreographer in an upcoming production.)

Artists Under the Dome then reconvened in the Great Hall for a panel discussion entitled “Fair Trade Means Fair Trade: Addressing Fair Treatment of Artists and Their Work in the Commonwealth and Beyond.” The panel was a good introduction to both the state agencies and the non-governmental lobbying and advocacy organizations involved in promoting the economic well-being of Massachusetts artists. While many widely cited studies point to the benefits provided by the creative economy, cited less often is the manner in which the creative economy is built on unpaid and/or underpaid labor. Visual artists, for example, are rarely paid to exhibit in non-profit galleries, and when they do, the stipend rarely covers the costs in time and materials incurred by the artists. Similarly, stipends paid to performing artists by non-profit venues rarely cover their expenses. A handout distributed by MALC also warns that many nonprofits use work-for-hire clauses in their contracts — this can result in artists losing the intellectual property rights to their work. MALC also noted that current tax law only allows artists to deduct material costs when donating their work to charitable causes and institutions, not the work’s market value — highlighting an issue raised by Peake. Present on the panel were also other representatives the MCC as well as from the Office of the Attorney General, the Executive Office of Economic and Housing Development and such advocacy groups as MASScreative and the Massacusetts Production Coalition.

Jocelyn Jones, Deputy Chief of the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, discussed the manner in which employers classify artists in order to avoid paying for their healthcare and other benefits. Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association, who was in attendance, illustrated the point by describing a struggle with an orchestra in which the symphony attempted to reclassify orchestra members as independent businesses while still employing them full-time (the orchestra in question went unnamed in the discussion but the National Labor Review Board clearly identified it as the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra) Another unfair labor practice discussed was the tendency for both nonprofit and for-profit institutions to use the labor of students or early-career artists on the grounds that “the experience” or “exposure” or even “beer, high-fives and hugs” constitutes sufficient payment. It is not that hard to see how little distance there is between an orchestra classifying full-time musicians as independent contractors and Amanda Palmer classifying back-up musicians as “fans” in order to avoid paying wages and benefits.

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Kelly Bennett, speaking for the MCC, noted that despite years of budget cuts — the state legislature budgeted the MCC for $6.2M in FY2013, with the rest of the $10.7M in expenses coming from trusts and federal grants — the agency still provides a number of services focused on the economic well-being of artists within the Commonwealth. Bennett listed programs that provide grants to individual artists, apprenticeship programs, funding dispersed to the local cultural councils and programs like ArtistLink, an information broker and advocate for artist space in Massachusetts. She also cited ArtSake, a blog that lists opportunities for artists in all media and follows the work of MCC grant recipients; Matchbook, a social networking site developed with the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA); and state arts agencies in other New England states for the purpose of connecting artists and venues. In the discussion of fair trade, Bennett was quite unambiguous that educated artists should not accept a “gentleman’s agreement” with presenting organizations simply to protect their economic interests. Though the MCC is not a regulatory agency, one audience member suggested that because the MCC is a grant-giving agency, it could codify fair trade practices to be followed by grant recipients.

Given MASSCreative‘s role as a policy advocate for the creative economy, it is not surprising that its executive director, Matthew Wilson, comes from a background in political campaigning (he previously served as national director for MASSCreative, he explained, not only pushes for for increased funding for the MCC and municipal arts agencies across the state but for making one year of art in high school a prerequisite for admission into the University of Massachusetts.

Helena Fruscio, the Creative Economy Industry Director for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), mentioned her recent CreativeNEXT listening tour of the state. CreativeNEXT, unlike some local arts advocacy initiatives, gives equal weight to the for-profit and non-profit spheres and a wide range of industries. I had attended the Aug. 20 stop on that tour that focused on the performing arts, co-hosted by StageSource and the Boston Dance Alliance. A major concern raised at that meeting was that while the creative economy made Massachusetts attractive to corporations, often providing a talent pool for their “creative departments” and cultural offerings that enhance quality of life, it was not matched by corporate investment into the arts in the form of robust patronage. It had been stated, in fact, that financial institutions already reluctant to engage with nonprofits are even more reluctant when those nonprofits are arts organizations.

Don Packer of the Massachusetts Production Coalition (MPC), an organization concerned with film, TV and new media in the Commonwealth, had a simple message for artists: “Freeware is a terrible business model.” He said it earns an artist “no respect” when doing free work and that artists need to say “no.”

As the conversation turned from the panelists to the attendees, Geoffrion raised the issue of how, outside of large and midsized companies, theatre artists so frequently go unpaid. While acknowledging that smaller companies don’t have the budgets to pay actors, directors, designers and production crews a livable wage, his view was that companies unable to at least provide stipends season after season need to rethink their fundraising strategies. He added that artists can only do better work when financially compensated and that they, themselves, need to keep making that case. Some of Geoffrion’s ideas are filled out in greater detail in his “Non-Equity Actor Manifesto.” (The aforementioned Hub Theatre Company has said that stipends will be available to actors and production crews.)

Interestingly, one attendee mentioned similar issues in the video production industry. It seems that non-union crews and non-union actors are often hired on a deferred-payment basis (that is, if there is any contract at all), but then, too often, there is then no ultimate payment because the company has no strategy for selling its final product — assuming there is a final product.

The event clearly laid out the challenges facing artists working in the creative economy of Massachusetts: lack of proper infrastructure; poor compensation for creative work. But then, just as clearly, there is a constellation of state and local agencies and organizations trying to address some of these challenges. So the question remains: How do we best mobilize our resources in the coming legislative session? Let’s hope 2013 provides an answer.

Correction: an earlier version of this report had stated that Pat Hollenbeck of the Boston Musicians’ Association had cited a labor dispute with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Hollenbeck had not identified the orchestra in his statement. The dispute was in fact with the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra. We regret the error and extend our gratitude to Kathleen Bitetti of Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition for bringing it to our attention.