Testimony Prepared For:
Committee on Cultural Affairs, Libraries and International Intergroup Relations
Domenic M. Recchia Jr., Chairperson
Council Chambers - City Hall
Thursday January 29th, 1:00 p.m.
“Oversight - Encouraging Self-Sufficiency and Better Business Practices for Artists and Cultural Groups”
My name is Morgan von Prelle Pecelli and I have been working as a producer, strategic consultant, artist and anthropologist in New York City’s performing arts sector since 1999. I have worked primarily with very small arts groups throughout the five boroughs whose budgets average about $5,000 - $75,000 per year, as well as larger more established organizations like Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, The Graduate Center’s annual PRELUDE Festival, and the relatively new 3LD Art & Technology Center with budgets between $400,000 and $1.6million. Some of these artists receive direct local and state support, but many of them receive little other support from private foundations and larger arts institutions. Although, the smaller arts groups I am speaking about remain, for all intents and purposes, unknown to most New York performing arts audiences, these artists have been written about in publications like the New York Times, American Theater, NYU’s TDR/The Drama Review, and ArtForum Magazine as well as international press outlets. And, while they do not have the audiences or budgets of most Broadway or Off-Broadway houses, many of them have attained internationally recognized and culturally historic importance. Furthermore, they are a prominent face of New York City across the globe, because they are the artists performing at large international arts festivals in places like Sydney, Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin and Tokyo.
The arts groups I speak of here have achieved these remarkable heights, against many odds, through their own diligence, talent, and ability to self-organize. They are already self-reliant. Out of necessity and despite the fact that their university training provided them with NO business education whatsoever, they have cobbled together hybrid models for revenue and resource generation, including diverse earned income streams (box office, art sales, and earned income from software they designed), token stipends from presenters here in NYC, across the US and in foreign countries, small amounts of contributed income from individuals government agencies and foundations, and material donations received through wonderful institutions like Materials for the Arts, as well as other off-book practices like bartering for labor and equipment, dumpster-diving for materials, and couch-surfing for housing. However, despite all these avenues for generating resources and “income”, these artists still often fund their art by working jobs outside of the arts industry or as day-laborers for larger artistic institutions. Their art certainly does not provide them with the money necessary to keep a roof over their head, food in their stomach, or fare for the subway, forget about health insurance. Furthermore, as their careers progress, many of them actually hit financial walls, because the foundations that funded them when they were “emerging”, cut them off after two or three years, and there are very few funding sources to replace this loss. So, while the demand, expenses and time outlay for their art has in fact increased remarkably during that ‘pseudo-funded’ time, their income does not necessarily experience a steady rise to match these developments, simply because of systemic issues in the way arts and culture are funded.
I state all this not to complain about their circumstances nor to tout their skills at masterfully eeking out an existence in already dire conditions, but rather to express my concern for their future. The way these artists, - the international face of New York City, artists who could live anywhere in the world, but desperately struggle to continue living here because they love this City, - the way these artists have survived this long is in some part by feeding off of ‘bigger fish’. And in this downturn, I worry that they won’t be able to anymore. What will happen to their prospects as the service industry tightens its belt and restaurants, bars and clubs choose employees who can work any shift all 12 months of the year? What will happen to their income as the bigger non-union theater houses cut their budgets and with it their freelance over-hire carpenters, electricians, and designers? What will happen to their ability to build their sets when the borrowed, recycled and dumpster found materials become more scarce due to the cuts in production costs in New York’s mid and large sized creative institutions?
I know these may seem like trite concerns for a small population, but you are asking today: “how can arts groups employ better business tactics, use marketing strategies, take advantage of technology and community outreach and connections and become more internally organized and self-reliant during these harsh economic times?” For the artists I work with, the economic times have always been harsh. And, rather than cut them out unwittingly because they don’t have big enough audiences or potential box office returns, the larger institutions might want to consider bringing them in closer and asking them: how have you been surviving all these years on next to nothing?
Furthermore, I have to beg the committee here that while they consider these business issues, that they also consider whether or not there is perhaps something intrinsically valuable about the arts that cannot be measured by ticket sales, audience attendance and financial bottom lines. Because, while I am one of the biggest lobbyists amongst artists for improving their business skills, thinking strategically about their professional development, and working cooperatively to improve resource networks, I also know that often times the best, the most challenging, the smartest, the most rigorous, the most culturally relevant art is made by artists who couldn’t tell you the difference between “a bottom line” and “a target demographic” or who could tell you, but simply do not have the time to develop a business plan or implement a new marketing strategy. And, I worry that when left simply to market forces of supply and demand, it is these artists who will fail. I worry, that these artists, who make New York City a flourishing bastion of cultural progression and economic innovation, may disappear not because their art is worthless, but because they can’t hire people with MBAs and marketing degrees to sell their art for them.
The Arts Industry must have more than a financial bottom line. Likewise, it must also have a mission beyond community outreach, beyond educational tool, beyond tourist attraction. New York’s cutting-edge artists and small arts organizations produce work that challenges our expectations and experiences. They confront entrenched ways of understanding the world. They generate culturally relevant methods of connecting people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. They inspire curiosity, experimentation and rigorous investigation into new areas of knowledge. And, they achieve all of this, while also bringing pleasure to audiences of all ages, backgrounds and interests.
If the City wants to maintain its position as a cultural center and as an innovative engine within the broader US economy, then shouldn’t it really be supporting art that is ground-breaking? Shouldn’t it really be asking the large institutions it supports – are you producing art that is relevant to today’s culture, that is forward thinking, that is going to present a face of radical creativity to everyone who lives here and visits us? And, the answer to that question cannot always be found in audience numbers, demographics and marketing data. Because while there should always be a place for popular established cultural expression, shouldn’t a City that wants to remain a dynamic force be supporting the cutting-edge risk-takers in all its core industries? The leaders in cultural progress? The artists, scientists and inventors no one has heard of yet, but will change the world tomorrow?
As you ask the Arts Industry to be more internally organized and self-reliant, I’d like to ask the committee to consider also using its leverage to pressure these large, well funded, arts organizations to come up with new models that reach deep into the arts community and take into account not simply their own currently dwindling financial bottom lines, but also New York City’s cultural environment today, in 5 years and even in 50 years. On the City’s behalf, these institutions should take it upon themselves to diversify their artistic interests in an effort to strengthen their cultural capital as much as their financial capital and achieve not a short-term band-aid, but a long-term solution to ensuring New York’s cultural vibrancy. I do not mean to imply that the larger institutions should help small groups by passing through funding or other such already limited resources. Rather I mean to suggest that the smaller arts groups could help the large institutions. So often, the large institutions ignore smaller groups despite the smaller group’s recognized international and cultural importance. The larger organizations should open their doors, ears and minds to the ideas, skills, and strategies that the smaller arts groups are already employing. They could begin by looking to those free-lance artists (aka leaders of small arts groups) that they hire occasionally and instead of laying them off because of budget cuts, ask them to become strategic consultants. Partner with these smaller scrappier artists who know what it means to make art in harsh conditions, how to network and collaborate for resources, how to recycle and reuse, and how to work closely with other local industries in the community to ensure the neighborhood’s success as a whole. Learn cooperatively how to survive, as the committee so aptly put it, "in harsh times" and to more actively share in building a strong and healthy cultural community.
The smaller cutting-edge artists have played a large role in defining culture in New York City for decades and particularly in defining its image overseas. They might also be able to help redefine New York’s large cultural centers as progressive, culturally diverse, and economically efficient institutions.
Some ideas include:
1. Encourage the institutions you support to create top-down partnership networks between large institutions, mid-sized institutions and the small cutting-edge spaces. In the current climate, many artists find it very difficult to make the career leap from a small theater to one of the City’s larger venues. Through a partnership network, larger institutions, like Lincoln Center, the Public Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music, along with mid-sized houses like DTW, The Kitchen, Performance Space 122 and HERE, as well as smaller spaces like the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s Incubator programs, Chez Bushwick, or The Brick Theater, would be able to invest in the futures of the early higher-risk artists, and create a manageable growth path to established careers. These networks would share in curatorial, marketing and even material resources. The arts institutions involved would commit to cooperatively monitoring the growth of the performing arts industry in New York and make it possible for young artists to have access to more professional resources and be making their art full time and with more robust audiences sooner, all the while ensuring these larger institutions have a foothold in the next generation of audiences. It might mean a short-term reallocation of resources for some of these institutions, but the long-term benefits would be remarkable for the institutions, the artists and New York City.
2. Partner with other city agencies, local universities and arts service organizations to create a stronger and more strategic professional development path for locally based artists. No arts student should graduate with a Bachelor’s degree from any of our local institutions without having taken a business-skills-for-artists course, that teaches them the basics from how to use Excel to how to create and build a committed audience. Artists who do subsist below the poverty line should be shown how to take advantage of the small business development, healthcare and housing services the City provides to others just like them who work in other industries. Artists should be encouraged to work with their service organizations, to articulate their changing needs, and to gain access to larger networks of human, financial and knowledge resources. Artists and community members will benefit most if all of these organizations are acting in partnership, sharing information with each other, creating strong relationships between the arts community and local neighborhood communities, and reducing redundant programs to avoid wasting their own limited resources.
3. Create a North East Arts Corridor. Learning from the touring models many of these artists leverage when they work in Europe, perhaps the City, in conjunction with Amtrak and local transit authorities could take the initiative on spreading the creative wealth and sharing the financial burden. So often recently, I have heard discussions about an exodus from New York City because costs are simply too high to sustain artists. Instead of continuing to view Philadelphia’s recent growth as a cultural center as competition, perhaps New York City could position itself as an anchor in a cultural corridor from Washington, D.C. to Portland, Maine. This corridor could act as a regional touring circuit. It would generate more cultural cross-pollination between cities, defray production costs across cultural institutions throughout the North East, and provide broader access to high-quality cultural events not just to those living in big cities, but also universities, community organizations and smaller arts centers scattered across the North East Metro Area. It could provide desperately needed space and time resources to artists struggling to find appropriately equipped and sized development space in New York so that their work can be realized to its fullest potential. Furthermore, it could raise the profile of New York’s artists as well as of New York City itself as a cultural hot-spot for tourists and business people visiting from nearby. It could also better prepare artists living and working in New York for international tours, making them an even stronger face for the City abroad.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.
Morgan von Prelle Pecelli
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