Innovation in Arts Funding: Eight “Actual” Responses


This long post may not win any popularity contests, but here are some reflections on my professional beginnings in the theater. They arose as I began to craft an initial reply to a Howlround post on innovation in arts funding published last month.

Caveat: I don’t know with total certainty that the top half of this post will organically lead to the bottom half. But the Howlround post — “Eight Steps to Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding” — raised a lot of emotions in me, and I just had to consider why that was.

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Three basic facts about me in 2015:

  1. It gives me no pleasure that American arts funding is perpetually poor.
  2. It gives me no pleasure that American arts still can’t have a meaningful supply/demand conversation.
  3. It gives me no pleasure that we talk more about how to fund work than about the work.

While most folks now know me as a journalist, blogger, critic or figure in public service, I spent my first post-college years (roughly, 1990 to 1999) as a playwright, director, dramaturge and nonprofit producer here in New York. From the start, I realized a singular truth: those who go the furthest the fastest are generally those with trust funds or at least the good fortune to be relieved of needing a day job to support them. Not only did I never land in either category, I bitterly resented it — for years. Not emotionally healthy, but I’m being honest. If I am sometimes disposed toward playing the class card, the economic card, there’s a reason for that. I know what it’s like to think that I’m just as talented as someone else and yet at a disadvantage because, basically, they don’t have to work.

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Let me go back to my start — Off-Off-Broadway after the first Gulf War. Rehearsal and performance space was prized then as much as now, but it was actually more scarce. And the outer-borough colonizations of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx? Completely unheard of. There was no Internet.

I’m 22. Let’s set aside the fact that NYU did a lousy job prepping me for the business of the business, I know I had a vague sense, as a budding artist, that public money might flow in if I could do my work for a few years, so that funding source was a medium-term goal at best. Short-term, in other words, was everything, and who else does short-term better than a 22-year-old? I co-founded a theater company and went to orientation at the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York to find out what to do next. (ART/NY’s longtime executive director, Ginny Louloudes, still recalls the preposterous pun that was our company’s name.) I attended a class at the Foundation Center. A year or so later, I attended the first meeting of Theatre Resources Unlimited in the co-founder’s living room. Unlike some 22-year-olds, I lacked the focus to prosper within preexisting structures. To put it another way, all that information was grand, but I was in a rush. I wanted plays (mine and others) up on their feet. Was it wise? Was I wise? You know I wasn’t. My mantra was beg, borrow, steal.

My first professional theater production took place in an Equity-approved performance space at NYU. Today it’s called the Black Box Theatre, but then I think it had no name at all, other than possibly “Shit-hole.” The educational theater department in the School of Health, Education, Nursing and Arts Professions (now the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development) oversaw the space. It was just empty, with lights.

And I wasn’t an educational theater major. I was in the Gallatin Division, now Gallatin School of Individualized Study. From the name alone, I needn’t explain that it wasn’t a full-fledged school; it was still that hippy-dippy University Without Walls where you forged your major from the far-flung resources of the far-flung university. There were 20 people in my 1986 freshman class; Gallatin was really geared for established, career-positive adults aiming to finish their unfinished undergraduate or graduate work. Not undergrads groping toward some idea of who they were and where they were going or how they would get there.

The Gallatin leadership, I think, liked the fact that while I clearly wanted a theater education, I’d just as clearly rejected the conservatory-style approach of the Tisch School of the Arts. (Why I chose NYU at all, as opposed to another university, is another story.) In terms of academic work, the attitude worked out just fine. But I was writing like mad then — plays, poetry, essays — and for the plays, especially, I hungered for praxis, not theory. I’d written a serious play (my subtitle: “a mellow psychodrama”), and as Gallatin didn’t offer resources to put a play on its feet, I was on my own two feet.

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Tisch had a nasty attitude toward all things non-Tisch, especially us unwashed Gallatin masses. Yet I had to get hands-on training, so I’d been cozying up to the ed theater folks, who welcomed the alien in their midst. I studied directing for a year. I studied acting and briefly immersed in the application of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which they sort of fetishized. I took a year-long, graduate-level course in dramatic criticism.

The chairperson of the ed theater department was a chain-smoking, intellectually unmatchable doyenne by the name of Nancy Swortzell. I wish I’d studied more with her, beyond directing. On her desk she kept a large calendar, and in it she recorded who could use the black box and when. It was April, I think, or maybe May. By day, I interned as listings editor of the now-defunct TheaterWeek magazine, but at night I still had that “mellow psychodrama” awaiting production.

No one was in Nancy’s office, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanted the space for those weeks in June, and…

…Yes, Your Honor, Nancy left her door open with the date book wide open;

…Yes, Your Honor, I took a pencil and blocked out three weeks in the space;

…Yes, Your Honor, I stole a theater.

Again: beg, borrow, steal. Why wait three years for public funding? Why write endless grant proposals that are probably turned down? It was easier to steal a space!

Our central set piece was a coffin, and my collaborators knew of one in the Tisch building somewhere, so the unwashed masses “borrowed” it, rolling it down Washington Place with effusive nonchalance. Then Nancy figured out who’d snookered three weeks of unauthorized time in her black box. Please let us do the play, I begged. And make no mistake: I begged. We had a cast, we had a set; we’d done our friends-and-family fundraising; we’d rehearsed. Nancy’s forgiveness felt like punishment, but I think she kind of admired my pluck. I was grateful for her mercy.

And so as I read and reread that Howlround post, “Eight Steps to Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding,” written by a theater maker named Adrienne Mackey, I began to reflect on this particular story. (Thanks for asking about the play: the production went great!) I learned how to operate more professionally, of course, but I think I developed some core values that remain with me today. Yes, I wanted funding, but I never felt entitled to it. I would have been grateful to know that funding was a possible for my work, but I didn’t presume that just because I declared myself to be an artist that I necessarily had a right to it. Mackey may very well share these values. Indeed, I bet she has her own stories — better ones than mine. But I thought about all this very deeply as I read her post.

And here, I should add, is Mackey‘s (enviably impressive) bio:

…founder of Swim Pony, dedicated to works that are loud, strange and never seen before on earth! She has directed SURVIVE! – a 22,000 square ft installation exploring the universe and LADY M – an all-female take on Macbeth. Most recently, Adrienne directed THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL at Eastern State Penitentiary boasting a completely sold out run and a profile on NPR’s Radio Times. She has received two Knight Arts Challenges, an Independence Fellowship and a Live Arts LAB fellowship. Adrienne also sings backup vocals as “The Truth” for Johnny Showcase and the Mystic Ticket.

If you read her post — and obviously I encourage you to — I hope you like her hypothetical construct:

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…if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there…

So I’m going with that. If the giant pile of money belonging to The Moneybags Foundation were up to me, here’s how I’d actually propose to use it. First I’ll give you excerpts from Mackey, then my response.

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“Give $5,000 to the first 30 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked”:

…in the grand scheme of foundations who give larger grants, 30 $5K grants is nothing. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set. …my very first show, The Ballad of Joe Hill, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 30 upstart artists could do with 5K…

Thirty “upstart artists” with $5K might kick ass — that first play in a stolen space was also made with $1,500 — but the assumption that those 30 artists are “likely the most shit-together folks” is based on what? I’d bet they don’t all have to stitch together a living from x jobs but have certain advantages, including time to schmooze to get on the right lists from the right funders at the right time. And speaking of 30, why should they be under 30? Because if you’re over 30 and unfunded, you’re a loser? Save the ageism for Logan’s Run: The Musical. The Moneybags Foundation wants to give $5K to the first 30 people who ask for it? Great: come one, come all.

“Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours of time to anyone that asks for it.”

Space is one of the first things that start costing creators money fast and it’s especially hard when they are at that total blank canvas stage. …But what happens in that time, in the cracks and spaces between ‘real’ rehearsal, is often the most important research. Such investigative work is where real innovation can happen and if that’s what you want, this is a way to incentivize it.

The phrase “if that’s what you want” also has an inherent assumption that The Moneybags Foundation will be less jazzed by the final product as by the process. If so, great! But actually actually, if you want to prioritize the process over the product, think big — apply this rationale to commissions across every artistic discipline, too.

“You funders want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the arts community.”

…The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples…

Not feeling this one. Are deliverables for grantors a pain? Yep. It’s also their money, and if they want a video work sample, it’s their right to ask for it and your right either to tell them to fold it five ways from Sunday or to give them what they want. But let’s set that aside for a moment. In 2015, with selfie sticks and YouTube and Snapchat and Periscope and Meerkat and I don’t know what some of those things are, does a video work sample really constitute “fancy”? Or, if it does, would a staff videographer for The Moneybags Foundation travel across cities, states or the nation? Given America’s sheer size, you’d realistically need multiple staff videographers in multiple locations, and what would that cost? How much time would pass before recipients (and disgruntled non-recipients) would accuse The Moneybags Foundation of spending more money on the videographers of the work than on the artists who make the work being recorded by the videographers?

“Democratize the grant-writing process. Hire a foundation staff writing team that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost, have them work on a commission basis commensurate with an applicant’s budget size.”

…It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge nonprofit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability….

This assumes artists will feel fully comfortable with someone else characterizing their work, and while some artists may like not having to explain themselves, it’s hard for me to imagine, say, playwrights cheerily handing off  such authority to someone with no relationship to it. (That person is usually called a “critic.”) What if the writer or team a) misconstrues or misrepresents the work, b) subtly biases the language to favor those artists they like, or c) relies on so much cookie-cutter language that all the art sounds the same? Yes, artists would need to sign off on a grant proposal, so that might mitigate the possibility of misconstruing or misrepresenting, but how many hours would be available per application? The assumption that artists can’t write as compelling a grant proposal as a “huge nonprofit” does a disservice to the power of language. In reality, large nonprofits are capable of hiring terrible grant writers and development directors, and poor artists are capable of writing grant proposals to blow your mind. It’s the time that it takes to write these proposals that causes the problem, not the size of the budget or the project or the organization. Language is free. Time is not.

“Fund an entirely ‘research’-based phase with no required showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.”

…People believe that research for research sake is valuable whether or not it becomes a viable product. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. ….What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does?…

How would that work?

“No project grants. For five years. Only operating support.”

Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.

Private philanthropy’s massive shift from general operating support has hurt the arts. If I ran The Moneybags Foundation, however, I’d ask about that five-year timeline. What, if anything, would arts groups do in those five years to prepare for the day — implicit in this idea — when project grants would return to favor?

“Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.”

…I think we need to start imagining a world where artists get to use money for their art in the way that they see works best for making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?

Nice world, but here’s the dilemma: it’s not your money. If The Moneybags Foundation was down, then like Pope Francis I’d say “Who am I to judge?” But grantors micro-managing their money isn’t moral injustice, it’s merely unwise and a pain in the ass. Like not having a trust fund or a space to perform your first play.

“For one year, forget about trying to define ‘excellence’ and just give all the money out by random lottery.”

…It was a real lesson in what a little bit of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. The difference between the way people talked about the project with me and my collaborators before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective…

Wouldn’t a million dollars fund the work of 200 artists at $5K apiece?

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