The COVID-19 crisis has exposed what many of us in the arts already know: We live in a society with attitudes and public policies that subject artists to the same forces that govern the rest of the goods-and-services economy. 

But the arts are not, nor should they be, goods and services. The nature of artistic production demands a different relationship to time and resources, and if we value the arts as a culture, we have to do more than pay lip service to that—we have to act on it.

I’m not going to make an extensive argument for the value of the arts; I’ll just mention that they represent 4.2 percent of American GDP—a greater segment than agriculture or transportation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Still, artists are seen as expendable, and the economic sector offers little protection for independent contractors who draw income from gig to gig and live from month to month. 

Many artists have internalized this culture and produce art by depleting ourselves, considering our labor as infinite and, too often, free. Instead of creating sustainable financial support systems, we hope to keep our heads above water by getting enough butts in seats each time the curtain opens. And if it just doesn’t open at all—say, when it becomes unethical to gather in large groups—our income drops to zero.  

I am a performing artist, and with Murielle Elizéon, I co-direct Culture Mill, a nonprofit performing-arts lab in Saxapahaw. It goes without saying that Culture Mill is financially impacted by the pandemic. We have so far lost at least $15,000 in revenue, mostly through canceled residencies, events, and commissions. However, we are fortunate, as this loss is not yet an existential threat to our organization or to my ability to pay rent and buy food.

We don’t think earned revenue should be the measure of success for an arts organization. 

This is because the way we are set up is counter to the prevailing model for performing artists in the U.S., which is to draw a variable income from single-run productions or tours that depend largely on ticket sales or contracts that are subject to market forces and disruptions. 

We have a financial model in which earned revenue (like ticket sales) is not the primary or even a major source of income. Our financial stability is based on public and private grant-funding and monthly sustainers who support our facilities. We, in turn, gift our facilities rather than charging rent, and then leverage this community support to gain funders, fostering a model based on generosity rather than scarcity. 

We don’t think earned revenue should be the measure of success for an arts organization. This is partly because we believe in making performances as well as space free, or at least affordable, and partly because we believe that more innovative programming results from financial models cushioned from market forces. We pay ourselves a fixed monthly salary as artist-employees, based on long-term projects that involve extensive planning, grant-writing, relationship-building with local and national funders, and constant communication about our vision. 

It’s not that our model is not without problems. Major political shifts, as well as long-term economic downturns, can pose an existential threat to Culture Mill in the form of restricted funding options, fewer foundation resources, and a dwindling sustainer base. But we have built-in a safety net that mitigates the absolute shock of the current crisis. You don’t need a nonprofit to do this. I know artists that make themselves employees of their own LLCs and pay themselves a monthly stipend despite fluctuation in gigs. 

None of this changes the fact that lost income due to COVID-19 is devastatingly real, not only for artists but for a huge segment of workers in service jobs and the gig economy. Artists manage to keep going in these insane conditions because we are tough, resourceful, and resilient. The incredible creativity currently on display from artists finding solutions during this crisis is truly inspiring. However, when the show simply cannot go on, then the rickety, unsustainable state of our artistic models, habits, and structures is revealed.

So, what is to be done? To start, we need comprehensive change in public-arts funding, nonprofit and philanthropic practices, and the culture and behavior of artists. Those of us privileged to remain secure in our basic needs (for now) bear a responsibility to create spaces to imagine what systemic change can look like in the broader arts sector. 

This should include advocating for better public policies based on existing models in other parts of the world, drawing on ideas from American traditions of alternative economics, engaging in radical imaginative thinking on a societal scale, and building better skill-sets in financial literacy and management. 

We need to go further than finding creative solutions for lost income. This is an opportunity for total systemic change. As the designers of imaginary worlds, artists have an opportunity to envision a future for sustainability and demonstrate leadership for other economic sectors. We should first redirect our resources to support struggling artists in the short term, from crowdfunding to online performances to direct giving. Then we should use our theaters and studios to convene thought leaders in economics, sociology, literature, history, ecology, and sustainability to source existing models and build new ones reimagining sustainability in the arts, based on a broader set of ideas than American capitalism has to offer. 

Elements of those models might be adopted in governmental, nonprofit, and philanthropic circles. Our habits as producing artists might shift toward designing our projects and income more sustainably. We must find a way to go on, even when the show must be canceled. As my first dance teacher always said, if we cease to think there, we cease to move there.

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