Confusing Art with Money
Confusing Art with Money
With a couple of decades in the indie theatre trenches behind me, I have some complicated feelings around money and art. I believe in paying artists. I think it’s important to give value in a monetary form to people who create. I fight hard to make it happen as often as I can. But I would much prefer to work with a group of people who aren’t doing it for the money. As soon as money gets involved, there’s always someone who starts treating me like I’m PepsiCo and makes demands, defines rigid terms and sets intense limitations. It feels lousy every single time. I find I usually have a more satisfying artistic experience with the people who signed up when they thought they were getting nothing and are happily surprised when I present them an actual check. They get paid either way but in one way the context is clear for everyone and the one with money involved makes things muddy. When I offer money from the start, some people are doing it for the money.
But this is so complicated because I really believe that it is okay to do things for money. Teaching, for example, is full of people declaring they love it, that they’d do it for free but they wouldn’t actually and when I do it, I’m not going to lie, I do it for the money. I’m good at it and I’m not doing it for love. I’ve done acting for the money, directing for the money and writing, too. So where do I get off wanting to have my artistic collaborators not do it for the money? You know? They’re allowed to only want to do my show because they want/need the $200 I have to offer them. That’s okay. Except for art is this delicate vulnerable creative sensitive endeavor and when I smell a mercenary, when someone starts to engage with me like I’m a Hollywood agent, I get a wave of anxiety and despair.
If I have $200 to give someone, it’s because I probably cobbled it together in $20 increments from my uncle, my college buddies and fellow artists. I don’t have more. I’m not out here trying to get something for nothing. I literally just want to make art and make sure folks get at least a little gesture of value for their work. That’s all it is. But almost every time there will be one or two people who make it clear that this art I think we’re making is a business transaction for them. It always confuses me and it makes me feel bad. I know it comes from their history of being taken advantage of or having to chase after payments from shady vendors but it feels so lousy to be lumped in with those people in an art context. It always gives me pause and makes me think, “Oh, I’m doing all of this wrong. They’ll know I’m not built for the business.” But it’s also possible to see it as this person doesn’t understand the context. This person doesn’t understand the world I come from. But even then it makes me question my own judgment in bringing them into my quiet little circle. It’s a real tornado of an experience. When it happened recently, I had a little meltdown and my friend talked me down off the “I can’t do this” ledge by pointing out that I really need an Executive Director for a business manager — someone who can talk the business talk with my collaborators and then send them to me for the art part. But when you’re a one person band like I am, there is no offloading these interactions. They are part of it and I am working very hard to not take them personally.
Most people I work with in the arts have mastered the context leap. They work with Network Executives and agents differently than they engage with tiny indie theatre producers. There are ways of engaging that are fundamentally different when you’re working for PepisCo or for a fellow artist. The folks who don’t work that out don’t last too long in the business. Or they don’t last too long in the art. Whichever one they’ve not nailed the special mores of. Or both.
For many artists, more important than actual currency is social currency and you start to damage that when you lean into the business side of things. It’s confusing for me, too — but it’s like, I want to pay artists but I don’t want to talk to artists about money (unless we’re doing a show about it, which I did) and if they’re doing it for the money please don’t let me know that as I need to believe my art is the best and only art and that you’d do it for free even though you wouldn’t, okay? It is a fragile relationship.
If you’re wondering whether the job you’re about to do is business or art, think about how vulnerable to flattery the creator is. Me? Totally vulnerable. Three of the five people I cast recently let me know how much they liked the show and I don’t think I cast them because they liked the show, or even because it was clear they did some research, but it did tell me that they understood what I was trying to do (it was apparent in their work really) and that all makes a difference. Let me just say a person writing ad copy probably isn’t too concerned whether or not you understand his artistic vision. He just wants to know you can read it correctly and on time.
The thing is, I’ve been at this art making business for decades and I still don’t know what to do when someone starts engaging with me in business mode instead of artistic mode. I get absolutely flummoxed. Their business concerns are fair, of course — but it always turns me around. No, you’re right, it isn’t a lot of money. No, my uncle doesn’t have another $20 for you, I’m sorry. If you need my uncle’s $20, this is probably not the gig for you. Please don’t do it for the money. Or if you are doing it for the money, can you just pretend you aren’t? Just for the illusion. This is theatre after all, we traffic in illusions. Please help me maintain mine!
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on May 2, 2022.