I was actually thinking that I didn't have much to say today. But then I saw this. And it made me think about one of the bits in this. Olson talks about the cuts he and his hard-working staff have taken and how the theatre doesn't provide healthcare. (And let me make sure I'm clear: I have no doubts that the staff of ASTC all work very, very hard and are looking for ways to operate as efficiently as possible.) Then he boasts that they've raised $4 million for their capital campaign and their new building. There doesn't seem to be much of a disconnect there. And that is pretty much par for the course in the arts.
And then I see that the Public Theater is making a big announcement about, seriously, renovating their lobby. They're going to raise $13 million dollar (and have already gotten 35% of that) to renovate their lobby. Compare that to this.
The real question is where are our priorities? I'm not question The Public's commitment to new works and new voices, not precisely. It's a bigger question than that and not one that we ask, at least not a lot: why is it easier to raise that kind of money for buildings and not for people? I'm not even just talking about giving it directly to the artists (not yet). I have yet to see the "capital" campaign that goes: "We need to build up our artistic staff, so we need $1 million to pay a living wage and cover healthcare." In my experience, staff expenses always come from general operating costs and these are the hardest funds to raise. A lot of theatres and organizations assign part of dedicated funds for gen op, but getting someone to give you money for staffing needs seems impossible.
So we raise money for things from people who prioritize things. They want their name on something, want something they can point at and say "I built that." Hiring a staff member, that won't do. The big question is why do we want that money? Could we find people who want to support purely artistic work and get the money from them? Or even can we negotiate? "Sure, fine, you get naming rights on this column and on this developemental program." That would at least be something.
But the corruption runs deep. Look here (I swear I'm not picking on them, but...). Look at the distribution of staff. 2 literary staff members. 9 development staff members. What are the actual priorities here?
This is so standard, we seem to just accept it. The art stuff is undercapitalized and understaffed, the development staff is full-time. At some point, it becomes more about the raising of money than the spending of money, and our imaginations have atrophied (well, some folks' imaginations) that Olson at ASTC can't even really conceive of how you can just add artists to your staff or ways that you can spend $4 million to support artists. It's not even a consideration.
I think some of this comes from the origins of the standard model, coming from the foundation world, not the business world. The whole point is that the artists "can't" manage the money or organizations. We've invested in theatres as the middlemen, armies of managers who make it all possible. But is that the only way?
We need to be asking our theatres what their priorities are. And the theatres need to be asking themselves what their donors priorities are. If your big donors really only want to open their wallets for walls and lobbies, do you really need their money? Or can you split the donations, balance the scales. And this can happen from the other end, too. What if TCG said, "No support to any organization unless the development staff is half the size of the literary department." This system is not static or unavoidable. It could be shifted, changed, abandoned altogether.
And that priority includes the lives and wellbeing of staffs. It's not just about the art and the artists. Here's a story: I knew some folks working at a theatre a while back. The theatre had hit a rough patch, financially, and had to lay off most of the staff, even though they were still owed money. There was a show going at the time and it was in danger of closing. In order to keep it open, the theatre needed to raise a large sum of money, in roughly an afternoon. The artistic director got on the phone, worked some friends and got a check in about two hours, hand-delivered and the show went on. Much merriment and celebration all around. But one of the laid-off staff members, one still owed money, was rightfully pretty pissed. "You can raise that money for the show, but not for the staff? That's fucked up." And it is. It is fucked up. It's fucked up that the hierarchy seems to go buildings, then art, then people. And we wonder why no one wants to work here.
What are our priorities?