I consider doing things with intent an important marker of queer identity. As a community, artists and queers of conscience generally strive to create things like art and community with intent. To me, “with intent” means we try to check our privilege, exploring the impact or potential impact of what we create on our community and the world. We think critically about our ideas and practices, what those ideas and practices look like when we take them apart, and whether they read the way we expect them to. We have a certain way of communicating, a language of consent that helps us create space for better understanding.
There is one thing many of us don’t like to talk about – or think about, really: money. What do we know about money? It talks, it’s dirty, it makes the world go round, it’s the root of all evil, it can’t buy you happiness. No matter how much wisdom or truth you find in any of that, one thing is certain: in the world as it is today, we all need money to survive. Are you able to sustain yourself on what you make as an artist?
It’s a constant struggle for any of us to get paid fairly for our art. So what do we do? The same thing we do with any other problem: think critically about our ideas and practices, talk about it, explore it, take away the taboo, make it transparent, find out what works and what doesn’t. We take control and find ways to live up to our ideals. In other words, we create an economy with intent.
The most well known economic model for the arts is still the patron model. The patron model has been in place for thousands of years in some form or other. The idea is that some generous benefactor gives us enough to squeak by in completing a project, we take that pittance and we are grateful for the opportunity to produce our art. This has been referred to as the “cultural discount” (discussed further here along with many ideas and resources, and lots more questions for us to think about). There are a lot of problems with this model including the fact that arts funding is always in danger in the current political climate and, of course, that our gratitude for being able to produce art doesn’t actually pay the rent. How do we tell a patron that their generosity might be perpetuating an unsustainable cycle that ultimately undermines the value of our work? And how do we interrupt that cycle and build something better without destroying any producers, artists, or patrons in the process? Are there feasible alternative models that make more sense or are more in line with our ideologies and general politics?
Like any analysis or exploration, a good place to start is to gather some data. What economic models are currently in use in our community? Who decides this? How much are people getting paid? How is any particular venue, producing entity, or event set up to pay people right now? Getting answers to these questions allows us to better understand our own communities and share resources and ideas in a very basic way. However, even this level of questioning is difficult as long as there is such a taboo around talking about who gets paid what.
Why so secretive? Because that will lead to more and tougher questions; questions that producers and patrons might not be ready or willing to answer. As a producer, I have struggled myself with paying different performers different amounts. I have to ask myself those tough questions. What do I pay this person? Why does this person get paid more? Is that fair? Why does this person get paid less? Who does that serve? Perhaps more importantly who does it not serve? From the producer’s perspective, the answers generally revolve around getting audience in the door. This performer has a bigger draw and will help me sell more tickets, so I can justify paying them more. At least, that is the simple answer.
Would I like to fully analyze that equation for myself and with my community? Absolutely. This commonly accepted idea has serious implications for artists, producers, and audiences. It boils down to one of the oldest arts debates around: filling seats versus the integrity of the art presented. It’s a fine line. I tried to choose performers who I know create their art with integrity. It is important to me to put seasoned artists that audiences already trust alongside emerging artists that need more exposure to create a good experience and opportunity for everyone. Maybe emerging artists don’t get paid as much now, but gain more opportunity and audience trust so that they can make more art and money in the future. And, of course, they are grateful for the opportunity to produce their … aw, damn. See? It’s complicated.
So, is it inherently wrong to pay artists different amounts? Certainly not there are far too many variables at play. Ultimately this brings us around to letting the arts consumer decide the value of our work, which is subjecting us to the kind of free market economic theories that easily lead to abuses and inequality of opportunity that may not fit with our ideologies. This works against the well being of our arts communities as a whole (to consider how this theory plays out on a larger scale, think of Hollywood’s excesses and biases). How much do you think your art is worth? What do you base that on? How does that compare with what you generally get for it?
As an arts worker, artist, and producer my experience has been all over the map regarding how much money I have made or lost in the arts. In my early twenties I lived and worked in New York City. My gigs were in fringe theatres that mostly paid something on principal, but, to their credit, they always paid something. I worked in a diner on the side. My partner at the time, a visual artist, worked in much more profitable sex work to help us make ends meet. We didn’t eat well (or sometimes at all) and could never afford to see Broadway shows, which had, of course, been one of the major reasons I wanted to live there in the first place. I decided I needed to go back home and finish my BFA if I wanted to get anywhere in the arts.
That is really funny to me now. Go back to school. That will help. But, you know, we all follow the narrative we are taught as children until we know better. I did go back to school and continued working in fringe theatre. After I was done with school, with New Orleans recently laid to waste by Katrina, I ended up in Atlanta. When I arrived, I called on the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local # 927 to help me find work.
Being a union stagehand became the most exciting, profitable, and ideologically torturous era of my career. I worked operas, ballets, Broadway tours, and major award shows. I met celebrities, enjoyed my work, and made good money. I was a proud, hard working union stagehand. I have always been pro labor and I believed in the power of the union. I didn’t have time for fringe theatre anymore. I also never got the opportunity to design lights. Or stage manage. I quickly learned the reality of union politics. In Atlanta, that included an intolerable mix of blatant misogyny and racism, good ole boy cronyism, classism, and plain ole “nobody gives a fuck about your BFA” attitude. Fighting against these issues flat out meant not getting work, but after a point I just couldn’t take it anymore. I stopped working with Local #927, thoroughly burned all my carefully built bridges in Atlanta, and rode off into the sunset.
That eventually landed me here, in Seattle. Still pro-labor, I went first thing to Local #15, hoping that most of my problems in Local #927 were more about Atlanta than IATSE. I still believe that might be true, but I don’t know for sure yet. Silly boy that I am, I gave up my yellow card before I left Atlanta. Now I find that I would have to pay about $1000 in back dues and transfer fees to reinstate my card. So I am back on the bottom of a very (very) long work list. Not able to get by on the work calls I was getting from Local #15, I sought out other work. That leaves me asking myself whether my pro labor politic can still be genuinely in line with my ideologies regarding economic accessibility and equality of opportunity. What can we learn from the models of solidarity that precede us? Are they still functioning as intended? Who is in the struggle next to us and who are we organizing against? Is there a common enemy? Are we the enemy?
Now I have a day job that is not in production, but is technically in the entertainment industry. I still take side gigs for a few extra bucks here and there, but mostly have the freedom to choose what I am interested in working on. That day job, along with a little help from the Office of Cultural Affairs, also affords me opportunities to gamble away little chunks of money producing my own shows. Leaving me grateful for the opportunity to make my art. Sort of. If no one in any given production equation is making any money, then how do we ask anyone for more money? Where is it going to come from and where is it all going? There has to be a better way, right?
Exploring queer new worlds of art and intent, struggling to live up to our own ideals, it’s not a topic we can avoid, nor should it be. Why do we avoid it? It’s a complicated subject, but certainly not any more complicated than anything else we engage in with intent. As artists, we know that our art is worth something, but what it is worth is relatively subjective. As critical thinkers, we perceive that the current economic systems in play are broken. Maybe we have an idea of how we would like to see things work, or maybe we don’t, but try as we may, it is impossible to just avoid being part of an existing economy.
I don’t have all the answers to the questions presented here, or any of the answers, really. My gut feeling, though, is that the answers lie somewhere in solidarity. History has proven over and over again that when people work together they can accomplish more. So how do we harness the power of each other to make sure that our entire community has the resources to thrive and grow? Do we genuinely want the entire community to thrive and grow or have we fostered a culture of competition? Does that serve us? Hmm. Real solidarity is a bit more complicated than putting your fist in the air.
The biggest questions might be: who is willing to engage in this conversation with me? Who is willing to examine their current practices and adjust for new ideas? Who is willing to talk to their colleagues about this? Who is willing to poke the entire arts community’s sore spot? Artists and activists that we are, we fight everyday in small ways and large to make the world a more beautiful place to live for everyone. What arts workers, artists, and arts administrators contribute to the world has real value and deserves real compensation. It’s time to get paid.
Logan Bruch has been a live production arts worker for over 15 years. He is currently the Arts Director of Queer Social Club, bringing the arts and social justice communities together to produce great events that make a difference. Logan is a trans-queer artist/activist living and working in Seattle.