Saturday, May 16, 2009

The speech that got booed

So I was one of the five artists on the "cultural entrepreneurs" on the panel at Wednesday's New Economy Smackdown, hosted by The Field & Galapagos. The unedited audio of the entire event is already online. You can read Claudia La Rocco's take on the event here and Morgan von Prelle Pecelli's own panel statement here. Below, however, is the speech I made, a speech which received the event's first boos. The offending statement is in bold and I stand by the remarks even more after hearing how many hackles it raised.
Jennifer asked all to create a soapbox manifesto reflecting on how the current arts economy is affecting us and our work. I struggled to get any thoughts out, because the more I thought about it, the more I realized none of us in this room should be here talking about the arts economy. There is no such thing as an arts economy since non-commercial arts by their very definition don't follow market logic and can't compete in the market place without dependence on non-profit support structures and the government . So we can embrace our role in the margins of the economy and struggle the way that performing artists have struggled since theatre and religion parted ways, or we can model ourselves on the only other two positions left to us in a market-driven economy: as charity (quite like an endangered species) or as community resource (like a neighborhood garden). Well, if we're a charity we should follow the model of other charities: humpback whales don't send out end-of-year asks or write grant applications, so we shouldn't either. We should depend entirely on the goodwill of people who don't want to imagine a world without theatre and therefore raise awareness, funds, and support to ensure we continue to exist. But, I don't want to be a charity, in large part because I don't think our social cause has enough merit to compete with other charities who actually change lives on a grand scale. So, the only round hole we can force our square peg of a "business model" into is as community resource. In this interconnected, digital age, if our art can serve as a meeting place for communities of like-minded individuals to connect, celebrate, and be challenged, then we might find a way of restoring theatre's primacy in people's lives and creating sustainable theatre-making organisms (not organizations).

But, since we are, however, here to debate the "arts economy," I'll add:

Why is there now, why has there been, and why will there always be prime, beautiful, ready to theatricalized real estate sitting vacant for extended periods in all 5 boroughs? If someone can work out insurance, tax deductions, box-office splits, zoning laws, etc so that businesses have a reason to open their doors to artists then we can do what we do best, drive in droves of foot traffic, people with expendable cash some of whom may be looking to rent a new office or storefront. 80% of Stolen Chair's operating budget goes towards space rental. Knock out that cost and we can pay our artists not only living wages, but competitive ones.

As producer of a company made up of people whose survival jobs are freelance and often paid hourly, I am sick of arranging (or trying to arrange) quid-pro-quo deals that will help Stolen Chair the organization save money at the expense of the individuals who are Stolen Chair. In most cases, we'd be better off adding an extra-hour to our work-weeks and donating that money to the company.

We need the next generation of gatekeepers or, in the very least, our current crop needs to start communicating with each other and rethink what it means to support "emerging" art. The supply of indie theatre in New York will always outstrip the demand, but by presenting, critiquing, and funding the same two dozen artists, our gatekeepers stifle innovation and creative movements the same way corporate monopolies do.
So. Yeah. Boos. (And then some cheers in response to the boos.).

I obviously wouldn't work eleventy-billion "survival" jobs and put trillions of hours into each Stolen Chair show if I didn't believe in the fundamental power of art to transform lives and feel strongly that the choice to wake up and dedicate ones' life to art is nothing short of radical and revolutionary. That said (and perhaps this is due to Stolen Chair's recent experience as a Jenzabar Foundation finalist alongside far more vital social missions), I think that if art tries to compete with "real" charities toe-to-toe, we will not only lose, but feel terrible for entering the fray. So let's pull ourselvs out of this terrain entirely, rediscover art's special place, and develop compelling and innovative ways for people to use the power of their pursestrings to ensure that we continue to exist.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It's out of our hands now

Thanks to all who helped edge Stolen Chair's social media proposal into the final round of the Jenzabar Foundation's Social Media Leadership competition. Here's their official announcement:

The Foundation would like to reiterate how impressed we were with all of the submissions from the 15 organizations that nominated their campaigns. The following FIVE organizations received the most votes, and thus, are the finalists for The Jenzabar Foundation Soical Media Leadership Award:

-The Stolen Chair Theatre Company

-Dream Activist

-Texas Friends and Allies Against the Death Penalty


-The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

The winner will be selected from this pool of campaigns and will be announced by the Foundation on Wednesday, May 13th.