The New Economy Smack Down 

 
5/19/2009 


By Jon Stancato


Wednesday night I (as producing Artistic Director of Stolen Chair) had the honor of being one of the five artists on the “cultural entrepreneurs” panel at the New Economy Smack Down, co-hosted by The Field and Galapagos (in the latter’s stunning new space in DUMBO). The event sought to bring together artists, gatekeepers, and others who wanted to address the dismal state of the “arts economy.”  As I was an event participant, this certainly won’t make for the most unbiased report, but I’ll try to provide a play-by-play of sorts for those who were unable to make it. 

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The Field’s Jennifer Wright Cook (who, along with Galapagos’ Robert Elmes, co-hosted the event) opened the eve with a short conversation with NYSCA’s Heather Hitchens.  This perhaps too-civil fireside chat didn’t yield any surprises, though it is good to hear and be reminded that everyone at NYSCA is always working on fine-tuning their processes and (wildly underfunded) programs to serve the arts community more efficiently and more broadly.

The evening’s first panel, “Cultural Stakeholders and Gatekeepers,” was comprised of Moira Brennan (Multi-Arts Production Fund), Aaron Landsman (Thinaar / Elevator Repair Service), Morgan von Prelle Pecelli (The Lost Notebook), and Brian Rogers (The Chocolate Factory Theater). Each panelist began with a short “soapbox manifesto” addressing the issues he or she wanted to smack down, and the dominant themes that emerged should be familiar to most ears in the indie theatre community: take longer to make better work, collectively organize to advocate for community-wide change, and remember that artists are citizens, too. 

Rogers and Elmes both seemed to claim that there was no “space crisis” in NYC, the first making the case that there is already too much competition between existing presenters, and the second calling out for new types of spaces which can organize community around the artist (much like Galapagos' resident artist program).  As a student of the original off- and off-off movements and as an indie self-producer who drops over 80% of each production’s budget on space rental, I have a hard time hearing anyone say that a lack of affordable space is not one of the most significant hurdles that companies of any size face.  This panel did, however, kick around a few ideas that are continuing to percolate for me days after the event.  Landsman passionately demanded that we all, if only for our own reflective purposes, begin to make budgets that reflect our real costs, including [gasp!] our time.  I went home and reworked the budget for Theatre Is Dead and So Are You, calculating $15/hr for every moment collaborators and I spent working: $35k quickly transformed to over $150k.  While funders (a word Brennan suggests we fully abandon) would scoff at such a bloated production budget (and I think there's a problem there!), I think it is vital for us to know the real cost of our work.  Pecelli (whose manifesto transcript is online here) had an important rejoinder for all of the artists who are scrambling to get their pages up on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, et al: social networks are not just tools for collecting friends and blitzing them with advertising; they are a possible site of real communication and community building to enrich discourse.

Following a surprise (and quite spectacular) performance by Galapagos’ resident aerialist, Lisa Napoli, the second panel of the night, “Cultural Entrepreneurs,” took the stage as the crowd grew rowdier and drunker. Joining me were Rachel Chavkin (The TEAM), Miguel Gutierrez (Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People), Jeff Hnilicka (FEAST), and RoseAnne Spradlin (RoseAnne Spradlin Dance).   We each presented our manifesti and some sparks started to fly when I suggested that we needed to pull theatre out of the domain of charity since we, as individual organizations, couldn’t compete with “real” charities’ compelling social missions (a transcript of my polarizing speech is here).  Gutierrez was also (bizarrely) booed for his observation that female choreographers he knew tended to be less likely to apply for grants.  I appreciated Gutierrez's admission that he didn’t become a choreographer to be an entrepreneur and a grant-writer and very often would like to “just be a weird f*ing artist.”  Often in conflict with Gutierrez, Hnilicka suggested blurring the lines between artist and philanthropist to find post-economy, barter, and micro-commissioning solutions to artists’ financial challenges.  I found myself nodding alongside both of their statements, wanting desperately to make theatre (instead of running a theatre company) at the same time that I actively increase Stolen Chair’s administrative workload trying to build the types of communities Hnilicka champions.  While panel #1 politely reached quite a solid consensus on how to address the challenges they saw in the current arts economy, I would say the diverse perspectives on our panel may have left the (increasingly inebriated) room more scattered, confused, fractured, and, alas, frustrated .

The evening wrapped with a Q&A which, like many Q&A’s, was far more A than Q and skewed heavily towards the irrational side of the spectrum, and Napoli put a button on the night with another round of (even more) exhilarating aerial work. While I'm fairly certain that the Smack Down did not, as hoped for, offer any real, substantive creative solutions to the problems we face as artists attempting to work in the margins of the economy, the conversations begun on Wednesday have continued, especially on WNYC's Claudia La Rocco's blog, and there are already plans being concocted for smaller, more focused panels charged with the aim of presenting such solutions.  I think that if we really want to smack down the oppressively irrelevant business models that have ensnared so many of us, we need to look to such (daytime, alcohol-free) focus groups of theatre's brightest and boldest minds.


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Unedited audio of the event

Did you attend?  What were your thoughts?



 

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