While it's true that the current festival model is not ideal and that everyone could benefit from a few more rehearsals, I have to say that it's a gigantic improvement over what artists went through ten years ago to present their work during the APAP conference.
Before the festivals, artists were forced to cram their ideas into 15 minute showcases that took place in either the Hilton hotel or City Center. A few with resources or connections would get on a showcase at DTW or Danspace Project or a coveted slot elsewhere. Some rented a venue. But overall, there was truly no place for contemporary performance. And the presenters who attended, mostly regional, either didn’t care for rigorous work or didn’t have a place to truly see it. It felt more like a meat market, where contemporary performance was the dusty artisanal snack at a 7-Eleven.
I think the festivals have benefited artists overall. Again, it’s not perfect, but both Under the Radar and COIL came along to not only present more challenging artists, but to give artists full presentations of their work, not poorly lit excerpts. This was a huge shift in what was available for presenters to see. Regional presenters saw new work by a different set of artists, and then took risks in bringing them to their hometowns. This happened.
The larger benefit for artists is that international presenters began traveling more to New York to see work more in line with their curatorial practice. Not that they weren’t coming before, but the festivals gave them an opportunity to see a lot of work, many by New York artists, in a short period of time. Their attendance has been growing each year.
It may feel gluttonous and with the rise of American Realness, Prototype and Other Forces, among a few others, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, maybe too far. However, and perhaps this is too Pollyanna of me, but I think contemporary performance by New York artists is being seen and talked about by more people than ten years ago. I believe contemporary artists feel more supported and that the media, presenters, curators and fellow artists in other disciplines are paying more attention to rigorous work.
It feels better to complain about having too much to see than having nothing interesting to see at all.
Hey John –
Certainly I agree that the conference showcase model is an abysmal one. I’m not at all proposing a return to that (crazy that it still goes on). But I think, at a certain point, some of these festivals start to look an awful lot like showcases, with people rushing in late and leaving early, and artists compromising their work by putting it into spaces that don’t accommodate it. But really what upsets me is that artists continue to foot the bill, and we all turn a blind eye to this—the number of artists, performers especially, who get pressured to do gigs, to take one for the team … it’s gross. If everyone were getting paid, then great, fine. But we are all part of a system that gives lip service to supporting artists while sticking them at the bottom of the food chain. I wish there would be a helluva lot more collaboration among institutions, pooling money and resources to really support a smaller number of artists, creating smart contexts and frameworks.
I hear you Claudia, but I think you’re hoping for a kind of performance utopia that will never exist in the United States. Does that mean we should be silent about money? No, but I don’t think in this country we’ll ever create a system where artists are truly compensated for their work. Or even close. It ain’t gonna happen for work that has a limited audience appeal and when the audiences that do show up, demands an affordable ticket. Unless we, as you suggest, pool our resources and support fewer artists. Like WAY far fewer.
I constantly ask myself, “Is there too much art being made? Are their too many venues? Have mid-career artists peaked and need to move on? Are emerging artists, much like I was, making work because they have nothing better to do? Should we limit the voices at the table? If we do, who decides? Is that censorship? Is it a privilege to be an artist?”
I’m confident the revolution we want will never happen in our puritanical, capitalist society. Art will always live on the margins.
As to your specific point, I know that four COIL projects (Tyson vs. Ali, a quartet, House of Dance, Bronx Gothic) did receive a commissioning fee from PS122. The fact that their venue is under renovation forces them to collaborate with others and I’m hopeful that artist fees are relatively healthy. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of the COIL artists were forced to compromise their work in order to fit a venue.
“ wish there would be a helluva lot more collaboration among institutions, pooling money and resources to really support a smaller number of artists, creating smart contexts and frameworks.”
I have two questions regarding this. One, is how do you do this and avoid elitism? Or worse, it sounds like the result of this would be to actually just have fewer artists? I think I'm just reiterating the point John made above in a different way, but you seem to be arguing for more gatekeeping, higher barrier to entry, fewer shows, less art. Sure there are great examples of small institutions that show few artists instead of trying to serve a huge number (Chocolate Factory). But if everyone did that, doesn't that just mean a smaller art world, fewer participants? I fail to grasp how this would overall be better for the system—it would be “better” for the elitist audience member who only wants to see great work and never sit through a chance production, but you've always advocated for taking chances.
Anyhow it's just a confusion.
The other question I have—when you say that artists are “subsidizing” the whole thing, who exactly is the beneficiary of that subsidization? As many note: who exactly is getting paid here? Surely, a few people are, but you make it out to sound like there is some big mastermind loanshark who is scheming everyone. Of course, I would also love if money conversations were more transparent and open, but I feel if anyone is a beneficiary of this “subsidization” you speak of, it could only be audiences, who get the opportunity to see a huge number of artworks and performances, however shoddy and underbaked you claim some of them are. (Some people enjoy these opportunity, even if it just seems to make you tired.) The only solution I see would then be to charge audiences a lot more, but since most of the audience are artists anyway, who is stealing from who?
Hey there—well, a few responses to this. I think it would be better because artists would get paid something closer to the real cost of making a show. The gulf right now between what it costs to make the work that we see and the commissions and grants that support this work is shamefully big. So, it would be better for the artists, who routinely go into debt or work extra jobs and otherwise beg, borrow and steal to subsidize this system in which administrators largely do have regular paychecks and health insurance and paid vacation and etc. (Of course not all administrators, especially at the very small and artist-run spaces—but a lot.) And since many of these organizations are already programming the same artists (do you really think we don’t already exist in an elitist system governed by gatekeepers??), it seems to me that, at moments of high density like this, there could be more of an effort put toward collaboration, so that the artists were getting higher fees, and more of a context were being created around their work. Especially the performers, who are typically being, umm, bent over the box office.
I don’t think this system exists because of mastermind evil beings; I think most of the people who work in the nonprofit arts world have their hearts in the right place. But, you know, the road to hell, etc. The resources are terribly, terribly finite.
And I also don’t think that there would be fewer shows happening if some festivals and theaters collaborated more; there are myriad indie efforts happening all the time. I just wish there were more of a monetary difference for the artists between those indie efforts and the ones that are, ostensibly, presented.
I also do not think there is a link between taking chances and poverty. Come on. Artists can be well paid and make horrible work, and vice versa. I also don’t think wanting to see rigorous work (which can still be messy, flawed, etc.) makes an audience member elitist.
My only follow up to this is again to focus on one point of confusion I have to your point—“I think it would be better because artists would get paid something closer to the real cost of making a show.”
Perhaps, but what you are saying seems to imply only a concetration of resources towards fewer artists. Meaning, taking the (agreed) piddly sum most artists are paid, reducing those to zero, so that a select few can get something resembling a decent reimbursement. Again, I am confused how this makes the system as a whole better. Collaboration among institutions doesn't increase the overall resources available (at least not in terms of $$), it just shifts the distribution.
My point is really just that it seems to me one byproduct of your recommendations would be that many artists would go from getting almost nothing to actually nothing. Perhaps it is not that big of a deal in the larger scheme of things. But I'm not sure.
And obviously I don't think wanting to see good work makes one elitist (well, it kinda does, but an elitism that I'm maybe okay with). But again, my confusion is that your recommendation seems to want to create a heirarchy where some artists get decently compensated at the expense of reducing overall number of people compensated (however poorly). That's why the word elitism came, perhaps not the most accurate, but I guess I'm being lazy because it's a comment section (or I'm just being lazy). It just seems to me that it's not so cut and dry, and that what you ask for would hurt some people to help others. Perhaps that's just how it has to be. Again, I'm not sure.
Thanks in any case for the writing, I appreciate what you do and reading your perspective.
Hiya – and sorry to be so slow, got felled by a migraine.
You bring up a lot of important questions. I agree that nothing is cut and dry here. But, in the end: yes, I do think it would be better for the system if the APAP-related festivals (and institutions in general) would collaborate more and would make more strong curatorial decisions, together, so that each year there would be fewer artists but these artists would get decent sums (remember, some of them already are getting zero resources, while still being marketed as part of a festival), and more of a context created around their work. It seems that saving on marketing, tech and venue costs would free up a not insignificant amount of money to go to the artists. And then I think these artists would rotate (because, as I said, many of these places are drawing from the same pool of artists), so that people wouldn’t be at APAP every year, maybe more like every three years—I think this would be better for a lot of artists (who complain, rightly so, about being on a treadmill in which they have to churn out work more often than they would like in order to secure funding) and for audiences, who would see stronger work (potentially), and for the system in general.
Of course, this brings up the fact that many funders are so misguided in tying money to new projects, new initiatives. That this would change is maybe the one way in which I agree with John that I want a bit of a performance utopia—otherwise, actually, I think I am talking about the opposite, which is acknowledging that there are not enough resources to go around—certainly not as they are now deployed, with far too much emphasis on architecture, getting bigger, institutions lasting in perpetuity, etc. The arts sector is not artist-oriented, as far as I can see, as someone who works as an artist, a journalist, a consultant, a curator (I’m not saying I am separate from this problem—I think we are, all of us, caught up in a broken system and making compromised choices as a result).
And now of course we’re teetering on the edge of the supply-demand morass. Which, shall we not even get started on the corrupt arts education system?
No worries about delay, obviously. Appreciate the clarifications.
Your clarifications do make sense, though the image it brings to my mind is perhaps that these smaller institutions/festivals should band together to become a 2nd Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM certainly pays artists decently, for example (though I don't know how much), but is a juggernaut of an institution in terms of size, scope, and budget compared with any of these others. But if all these smaller ones combined resources, I don't know that it would rival, but at least be in the same ballpark as BAM, perhaps.
Obviously this has advantages, but I wonder if it would bring as many downsides. Particuarly, as an audience member, I personally enjoy having options, and think it can be great to be forced to make choices about what I'm seeing because there are options. And while its true these various institutions draw from the same pool of artists, they also each make unique choices about who they support, featuring artists that none of the other institutions would, or at least don't. More gatekeepers also means more gates, sometimes.
This isn't really a counter to your argument at this point—I agree with your points. But I don't know what would, in the end, be best. But it seems clear that some kind of possibility for diversity would be lost, and that at least makes me hesistant.
Another BAM - ugh! Perish the thought .. beyond the increased funds (nevermind that BAM is now poaching from these other institutions, curatorially, for its small theater. ugh times 1000) (that isn't really a well thought out parenthetical, maybe best to ignore. but I stand by the emotions)
Well ... yeah ... I don't disagree with you, either, your concerns about things getting all mashed together in uninteresting middles of uninteresting roads. I am not arguing for total collaboration, just more smartly deployed sharing of resources, and especially at peak times like APAP. It's great, for example, that a lot of international curators are coming in for these festivals; it's not so great that I heard from a lot of them that the work seemed slack and underdone. Might there be a happy middle that isn't about curating by committee? Or is that really naive of me?
This discussion is better than most articles in AF.