Soapbox: Making It Together

Article by Carl Atiya Swanson

Carl is a Twin Cities' creator, performer, writer, and artist. He is Director of Movement Building with Springboard for the Arts where he where he manages Creative Exchange, a hub of toolkits and stories for artists and communities to work together on fun, relationship-building and inspirational projects. He is a theatermaker with Savage Umbrella, a company dedicated to creating new, relevant works of theater, as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - Twin Cities. Swanson holds a BA in Studio Art from the University of Southern California and an MBA at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

Photo of and by Carl Atiya Swanson

Photo of and by Carl Atiya Swanson

By now you will have heard that Equity in Los Angeles has decided to change their much-debated 99-seat plan, the structure that allowed small theaters to pay union actors wages at below scale. This was after the Equity members, by a two-thirds majority, voted to keep the plan in place in an advisory vote. As Derek Lee Miller noted on Minnesota Playlist, it was a weird place for a union to be, writing, "We ostensibly have a situation where a union has a choice between representing its members' financial interests or respecting the opinion of its members, which seems to run counter to their financial interests."

The situation in Los Angeles highlights the paradox of living as an artist: we love what we do so much that we want to make a living from it, and yet we love what we do so much so that we'd do it for free.

Now this piece won’t be about Equity or the 99-seat plan, there has been plenty of bandwidth taken up by that conversation on all sides. But I would like to propose some things here that can be done – whether we are Equity members, self-producing artists, contractors or company players – by us and for us as we work to make our creative lives supported and sustainable. These things do not necessarily need to come with a membership structure, but I believe that they come from a fundamental place of union, an in-it-togetherness that is needed to recognize the breadth, depth and strength of our creative community. Here are a few notions:

Be in the budget – Budgets aren’t just a dry, crazy-making list of numbers that have to add up to the same thing on both sides. They are a story, in numbers, about the priorities of an organization and the work being done. As such, whether we are making the budget or being offered a role in it, our own creative work needs to be represented. When people want you to work with them but tell you that there is no money to pay you in their project, ask where they are spending money. Can they re-align some spending to pay you as an artist? What is the value they are offering to you? On the flip side, when we are creating our own work and writing our own budgets, we can’t consider our own creative work as separate or write it off just as an in-kind donation. I have written more about this here, and Huge Theater also has a post about their process for arriving at their ability to pay artists. To build in the practice of asking to pay ourselves as a whole part of our work enables us to turn around and communicate that value to others.

Don’t die of exposure – An extended, specific point on being in the budget and about the value exchange that is being proposed when you are being asked to work for someone for free, or on a speculative venture that “may lead to other opportunities.” If that speculative venture is with your best friend who you love and make things with all the time, great, go for it. But more often than not, that proposed exchange of your work for “exposure” comes from other, larger organizations, and you should challenge that proposal. As an artist, you create specialized, unique experiences that draw people in, create emotional connections, and offer new avenues of meaning and understanding. That should not be devalued because the organization asking has a lot of people walking through it. I’ve written more about it here, but those organizations don’t hold the negotiating cards, you do. You bring the value, audience and experience with you, and don’t forget it.

Say “No” more – This is hard. It is hard for me as someone who wants to do all the things, all the time, and who wants to have no opportunity pass me by. It is hard to do to an outside ask, and harder still to do to ourselves when we are formulating a new project. But a well-placed “No” is an affirmation of your own value and can lead to being a better artist, a more focused collaborator, and a better representative of your own agency. As Psychology Today put it, “No says, "This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will choose to act." We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need No to carve and support that space.”

And if you feel as though saying “No” or pushing back on budgets and advocating for your own value is causing you to miss out on opportunities, let it go. There are an abundance of ideas and moments in life to create new work, both under your own steam and coming from others. There really are, if you live and frame your work in abundance. As Andrew Simonet writes in his excellent book Making Your Life As An Artist, “The success of other artists is good for me. I chant this because, first of all, it’s true. If another contemporary dance artist gets attention in the world, it creates opportunities for me. I also chant this because I don’t want to live in a community of artists defined by competition and backstabbing. Once in a while, another artist will get a specific opportunity or gig or grant that I want, and I may have to grit my teeth and say it. But I still do. Art isn’t a race where the winner erases the efforts of others. Other art magnifies and enriches the art I make.”

Say it to yourself a couple of times – “The success of other artists is good for me.” Say it and then we get to the heart of the union – that as we are all makers, we are making the conditions of our work together. By standing up for our own value, we stand up for the value of our fellow artists.