I’ve tried to resist jumping into this week’s hot debate in the arts - how much artists earn - as it’s one of those areas that is so filled by personal experiences and passions that it is hard to engage a 360 degree debate without being burned at the stake. Offering a counter view is a lose/lose scenario. But since the story now seems to be popping up in every arts journal, blog and feed going, fuck it. I’ve been working in arts and entertainment for over twenty years now, I’m comfortable with losing.
My first thought is that whilst there are a huge number of artists and makers who are underpaid or not paid at all, it isn’t anyone’s fault. Suggesting that haggling venues or metropolitan focussed funders are to blame is entirely missing the enormity of the problem. Artists and makers on the whole don’t earn very much because we, on the whole, don’t buy very much. We don’t buy very much because a lot of what is made doesn’t speak to us, is out of date or just a little bit crap. There is some good stuff out there, but not nearly enough to feed all of us who think we deserve it.
Then again, most people don’t buy what we make or turn up to our things simply because when they were little, maybe 4 or 5, we began to wean them off creativity and free thinking altogether, preferring instead to feed them measurable skills and employment focused learning. The result is that when most people - them - those who are not us - have enough money in their pockets to buy our stuff, they don’t, because we spent 10 to 15 years telling them it wasn’t really important.
It is everybody’s fault that most artists and makers don’t get paid very much (I say most, because of course not all artists, creatives and makers are underpaid, not by a long shot), and dividing us up into saints and sinners won’t help anybody. More than that, that path and type of response is part of the problem, and the reason why we never seem to move any further forward, despite endless proposals, initiatives and hashtags.
Venues. I have worked at, set up and run a fair few, but I can’t speak for all of them. I can, however represent The Firestation and how that fits with the current conversation and language. Venues like The Firestation are not sentient, they are run by people who, like artists and makers, have professional and personal choices to make.
Pete, Benn, Chloe, Chantal, Charlotte, Adrian, Hannah, George - there are lots more - and myself are all on salaries lower than we could earn in other sectors. We know this, and we revel in it. Why? Because we all work here on purpose, because there is nowhere else quite like it and we understand each others motives. We have all made sacrifices, but more importantly we have made the decision to trade a little salary and maybe a few perks for living a life that makes us feel alive. This business pays what it can (which is not bad all things considered), and directly supports around 20 people in varying degrees. We joke about the New York Office and staff trip to Tahiti. One day.
Benn is our Programme Manager, I guess he would be the principle “haggler” referred to in the articles and posts on this topic. I prefer to think of him as an extremely good negotiator. His job is to match the needs of an artist or touring company with the realities of our audience and space and the aesthetic aims of the company, which for the record go like this;
"Life is better, for the individual and collective, when creative activity is prolific and culture is rich and dynamic."
"Firestation Arts and Culture adopts a dynamic and progressive role in the celebration and promotion of all forms of contemporary culture and entertainment. By showcasing and instigating performing arts, visual arts, critical thinking and production it aims to support and drive forward cultural activity and the importance of a creative life."
A normal conversation(s) with Benn, or any other regional venue might go like this;
"Hi Benn, we’d like to bring War Horse to you next year. Want it?"
"Well, hey, it is one of the most talked about pieces of theatre in the last decade, we’d love it. How much is it?"
"Right… well I know we’d sell out, but we only have 150 seats. That’s £200 a ticket (VAT init). Can you do it for £8k??"
"Hi Benn, we’re an emerging theatre company and we’re like to include you in or 2014 tour."
"Great, I’ve heard or you, it’s a very interesting piece. How much do you need?"
"Ok. Our audiences are growing, but they’re not huge for new writing just yet. I’d like to think we’ll get 100 in, but it might only be 50. If we do a £15 ticket, can you do a £600 guarantee with an 80/20 split to you after that?"
"Ooh, Benn, you’re a tough haggler, but it sounds fair enough. Lets do it!"
"and we’ll make sure we get some excellent copy and images to you in a timely manner so you can market the shit out of us!"
Or something like that.
As I said, I can’t speak for every venue, booker or experience, but certainly every venue I have visited or worked with in recent years, the many people I spoke to when researching “Fireworks” and all the others I meet at conferences, drop ins and the lavish champagne receptions we hold every month all work in a similar way to us.
There are of course funding opportunities and some superb initiatives (House for example) that address this mechanic, but they are ultimately sticking plasters (no disrespect intended) when dealing with the core problem, the gap between how much most people will pay for the arts (because this isn’t a comprehensive cultural problem) and how much we need/want to earn.
The Firestation isn’t perfect of course, the deal may be done but cash flow haunts us like Bela Lugosi in a mood! With multiple revenue streams and types of income, keeping track of it is a full time job (mine in fact), and with HMRC kicking the shit out of us every quarter (not a charity you see) more than one artist or supplier has had to wait longer than we’d like to get paid. But most of the time people understand that we’re all caught together in a bit of a cultural shit storm. We understand each other, we’re all on the same side. Right?
We could of course blow what little funding and resources we have in a blaze of egotistical glory over a year (probably more like 6 months) - booking stuff that we think is important and shouting at people for not coming and funders for not funding - but that’s been done before. Aside from what we’re doing this week, next month and next year, our job is to make sure that we’re here in 5 years time, maybe even 10, so that there will still be some kind of arts provision in Windsor, and places just like us, in 50 years time.
I have two daughters aged 7 and 10 and there is no doubt that underlying much of my decision making today, is the desire that when they are older they too will have a place to embrace culture and creativity in whatever shape that may take. To visit events, engage with ideas, immerse themselves in beauty and poetry, or simply get trashed in a place where people and creativity bounce and collide around them.
Of course, it may already be too late. In much the same way that we fret about global warming and environmental catastrophe whilst buying rapidly obsolete technology in our sweat-shop clothes, most of our conversations about culture, value and getting paid happen as the probability of a creative renaissance drifts further over the horizon.
I came across an old photo of the D-Day landings in a newspaper the other day, and was struck by a powerful thought. There was a soldier lying in the surf, half in and half out of the water, and I wondered if he knew that he died at Omaha? We’re all heroes in our heads, survivors. Did he know that his brave and terrifying leap from the landing craft lasted only a few steps?
On some days I think that we, us arts people, us underpaid but righteous creatives, are a little like the soldier on the beach. Everybody whose looking back down the beach, everybody looking at the photograph for over 65 years knows that we’re dead in the water, but in our minds we’re still heroes, running up the beach to take on the enemy.
On other days, like today for example, I know that whilst he only made it a few steps on the beach, others made it. He can’t know this of course, lying alone with his face in the sand, but others made it, and carried on the charge.