Recently, CBC Arts published an article by RM Vaughan titled, Who makes up the 1%? In the arts, it’s the bureaucrats. It drove me nuts for various reasons.
When Devon Ostrom – a visual artist whose other accomplishments include playing a key part in creating The Billboard Tax that led to an 60% increase to the Toronto Arts Council budget, and the Pan-Am Path that I use to ride my bike to work every day, posted to FB a rebuttal in the form of a Hill Strategies report, the following (edited) conversation ensued.
I have an article about that article in me – but as an artist and administrator I’m pretty busy making not that much money.
I’d collaborate on that with you. Original piece was such a stupid distraction from the areas we do need to focus on.
Ok. That would be fun. Will send you a mess tmrw.
Michael Wheeler maybe we do it like a dialogue and back and forth starting now. Then clean up and publish? For me one of the most disturbing parts [of the article] was the use of ‘shock / outrage anecdotes’ at the top. Reminded me of right-wing anti-art stuff from the culture wars used to pit people against the NEA etc.
Presentation style was also very reminiscent of gravy train / anti-elite politics applied to the cultural sector. Heavy on the personal anecdotes, nothing resembling reliable research – sewn together to generalize / tar / demonized large numbers of people. Author even invited people to witch hunt through the sunshine list like an article from the Toronto Sun.
Also found it pretty gross in that the vast majority of arts admin people I am in contact with are seriously underpaid, have made significant sacrifices and constantly at the edge of burnout. Article was a pretty cruel statement to make. I can almost hear them saying ‘…okay and now I am publicly demonized too, f-this’.
Ok good idea. I went in with high hopes – I’m not unsympathetic to some of the problems he [Vaughan] points out where buildings and the staff to run them are consistently prioritized over artists living in poverty. My fave writing on this is this piece is by Mike Daisey on the scene in Seattle circa 2008.
But after identifying a legit problem [Vaughan] conflates it with many of the people who are also living in poverty. There are some institutions in this town with some outrageous salaries, and I actually wish he would name them. Instead all “arts administrators” are lumped into the category, which is frankly insane.
In the almost 2 years since I became Executive Director (this makes me a bad guy now apparently btw) at an organization tasked with assisting indie artists and orgs with new/better ways of producing – probably the single biggest challenge is that arts administrators are paid 30% less in the arts than they would be in another field. (I don’t have stats to back this up – basing it on my experience of $30-40K for admins in the arts vs $45-$50K for similar skill sets in private sector.) So we are constantly losing the good ones.
Meanwhile, the other evolution we have clocked is that – like myself – many administrators are also artists. So the pitting artists against administrators argument is gonna make a lot of us schizophrenic in our hatred of ourselves. I don’t know what boards he has sat on, but no one I know who gets a raise if their org is in deficit. I found it poorly researched, using anecdotes that happened once to someone and extrapolating them to be a common practice in an industry with no facts or stats to back it up.
Ok I gotta sleep but will come back tomorrow (right after I tag all 13 of my friends in this convo who posted the article)
Agreed – there are big problems with the sector around artist pay. Also agreed on the divisive aspect – encouraging people to fight over crumbs rather than making the pie bigger.
The institutional critique angle is interesting – we should exercise care there too though. There are some [organizations] which take a market leader position and create widely available benefits / expand and stabilize the ecosystem – others that are likened to money vacuums on life support. Others who have acted extremely strangely like when the National Gallery was accused of spending more money on lawyers than artist fees (to fight against paying proper artist fees!) That case was a pretty sad reminder of how far some orgs have wandered from their core mission. It should not take the Supreme Court of Canada to re-align national arts organizations to the basic needs of living artists.
Re: your wish, l am unsure about the idea of publicly calling out individuals with high earnings who are arts administrators or practicing artists. For quite a few of them we would be in much worse shape without the revenue they can pull in, or if they were working in different industries. Objective should be to pull people up to an acceptable level, not pull some down. Usually ends with the people who do the pulling down replacing the ‘elite.’
I would be in favour of proposing a new rule on public funding where generally it was unavailable if less that 1/2 – 1/4 of total revenue was going to living artists. (Incl. of OPX and Proj.) Would that work? Minimum Fee schedules are also a big part of the solution.
On a fundamental level I agree about fighting over scraps instead of fighting to improve a system, but there is also a level of inequity that is related to class and privilege that I think needs to be called out – or we just fight for more money for elites to entertain themselves with.
Two of the four the examples in this article – The International Arts Festival with an Exec Director that made $400k and no budget to pay an artist, and the Canada Prizes that were budgeted but never happened (Thank God), are both brainchildren of the same two businessmen who could only do this because of their privileged connections. If you want to open that can of worms further, one of those businessmen was also Board Chair of another org that paid their head of a publicly funded public institution $1 Million a year – so I’m in favour of calling that out (obvs).
The problem is then governments turn around and are like, “we invested X # of dollars in the arts last year” but really it is circulating amongst a few players and it goes without saying it never trickles down to artists. If we don’t start calling that out then we will get more public funding for the arts and then they will swoop in – give us a few Richard Florida quotes, some fast talk about innovation and disruption – and take off with the cash.
I really love the idea of publicly funded orgs being mandated to have a certain percentage of their budget go to artist fees. This could maybe solve some of these problems above. I think CARFAC does a great job for visual artists that way – I get scared when I think how badly CAEA would F that up for theatre though. I wrote a whole thing about why and erased it to not muddy the waters – but trust me – minimum fees are harder in a collaborative artform that requires a significant budget if we want more than elites making theatre. So I love the idea of a % of an institutional budget going to artist fees overall.
I guess this doesn’t solve the problem of arts administrators being largely underpaid though…..
I would agree that we should not measure and reward our ‘elite earners’ based on their ability to secure support from existing pools of government funds – but ability to pull in new resources and expand those pools.
It is my experience this is not the case though. Last year – every org got cut by 5% by The Ontario Arts Council, meanwhile orgs with well connected boards were given extra payments in the millions that skipped the peer review process entirely. The game is rigged and because we’re Canadian and nice or something – or maybe because troublemakers get punished – no one ever talks about this publicly.
I think our best option is a renewed focus on living artists / core creators. Try to build systems that do properly pay artists and let the ones that don’t do that reform or die off. I am unsure about open inter-tribal warfare. Like what are the limits if we start fighting with each other for resources? From my perspective and prejudices, dance, literary and visual get consistently less financial support – should we unite and start taking theatre and music’s lunch money?
I just want to say that fundamentally you are right Devon – that inter-anything warfare is a waste of everyone’s time – and everything that you and your colleagues accomplished with The Billboard Tax is a pretty good Exhibit A.
The stuff I’m raising is the reason why 13 people I know that I consider to be smart posted that article. Because these inequities are pissing people off, they can see the game is rigged, and it makes people susceptible to emotional poorly-researched arguments.
We were able to do the Billboard Tax because we were all pushing together….the big and small orgs. Also the private intervention of ‘elites’ was one of the things that finally pushed release of the funds through.
Agreed – the inequities / lack of attention to the fundamentals have created a toxic situation.
I also had the Praxis Theatre name removed from the Creative Capital Gains Report (that name is hella LOL btw) because the consultation was a farce and the report was already written. At the end of the day, I couldn’t get behind some of the core arguments elites made to be part of that process. I think linking the value of art to economic growth could be MORE harmful in the long run.
Yeah it was a pretty rushed through thing without timelines and not fully balanced. It did contribute though in the end and was an important tool. I do agree that an over-focus on the economic arguments is garbage and part of the problem. Once we start treating art as an investment, the tendency is to focus on the safe and boring. That is how Canadians do investing.
At the time we got over 20 diverse arts groups together at Native Earth Performing Arts old office in the Distillery – we rehearsed what we thought should be in [the CCG Report], what the community values were that we wanted to represent, how consultations worked. Not a single sentence in the report reflected this. Nothing drives me crazier than this, and the people responsible have to understand that this is what generates the animosity. We were ready to play the game – we just didn’t understand that the game was to play us for fools.
Yeah. The purpose was to convince a right wing ruled council to spend and the language and arguments used reflected that.
Elite accommodation is an interesting topic to me within our public systems. For example, if elites don’t have a stake in the public systems then generally the trend is that those public systems deteriorate. The people with disposable time are needed to push it forward. Part of our responsibility is to make sure they are correctly informed.
This whole conversation is pretty good and no longer about how the article was lame, which I like. [But check out this scathing doc Devon made that specifically addresses everything wrong with the article.] And I do get what they say about making sausages and laws. Thanks for proposing this.
Thanks to Jacob Zimmer for making this a google doc that we could collaborate on.