Living wages and the arts

Perhaps it’s the over-prevalence of holiday parties this time of year, but I’m finding myself answering the question of what I do for a living more than usual. My response has changed of late. It’s always been an awkward question because I never have just one job, and in the past I’ve usually responded that I “have a bunch of jobs” or that I do freelance writing and some teaching and acting and theater stuff. But now I just drop the second two answers, saying simply “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a blogger,” or something like that.  

It’s not that I don’t do theater anymore- I’ve done about the same amount for the past seven years- one or two shows a year, little side projects here and there, and occasional other gigs. For the larger projects, I get some sort of payment, a stipend, which is maybe a few hundred dollars for a project that lasts a couple of months. When you count out the hours, it’s less than minimum wage, but really it’s considered more of a token appreciation for the gas money and time put in.

The stipend money is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s nice to have some money in your pocket after working so hard. On the other hand, it kind of gives you a false sense that it’s some sort of job, that at some point you might live off your art if you stick with it. That’s true for some people — there are indeed some theater artists in town who make a living, but there are also a whole lot of people who work indefinitely in that space in between — not really professional, not really amateur.

I’m in the process of accepting that I’m not a professional despite my two theater degrees and years of experience. I do it for the love of it, because it’s my form of expression, because I’m passionate about it, because I enjoy the other people who do theater.

I haven’t totally embraced theater as a hobby but I’m getting there. Still, for many people it’s not a hobby, and they’re doing show after show for little or no money as they work at their day jobs. Some eventually are able to break into the next tier of professional theater, where they’re making closer to a living wage.

The argument is that these small theater companies can’t afford to pay their actors that much. Maybe some can’t, but what would happen if we suddenly said you have to pay everybody for the time they put it? Or even — if you get a grant, you have to budget in, if not minimum wage, at least something that approximates the actual time put in? I’m not totally on board with this, just because it is nice to get a little money even if it’s not a lot. I think I’m like a lot of people, in that I’d rather the opportunity was there even if it wasn’t huge pay. On the other hand, this doesn’t feel healthy for the arts community either, especially because it tends to draw only from a pool of people who can afford to support their arts career by some other means.

If you really are working for nothing because you love it and it’s a hobby, that’s one thing. But if you’re doing it to “pay your dues” in hopes of getting to the next level, there’s a problem of access, and it becomes just another way in which privilege proves a barrier to those who lack the financial stability to make that kind of commitment without adequate compensation. I don’t have an answer here, but I wonder how our theater and arts ecosystem can actually support artists who are first starting out. 

  • I don't think philanthropy can save the arts. I don't think philanthropy can save many things actually. It can't solve everything, can it? Not only is art such a hard field to break into, which already doesn't pay well, it's also dominated by white people (this includes journalism as well). The field of art has gotten a lot of bad press especially in an economic depression, so it's hard to see friends who are in the field let go of their passions, but I don't see it as a field that can generally provide income or stability for families let alone one person. And I think persuading people to the arts as a career or saying "it will be ok" is misleading. For now, it's a hobby or a side interest, but to make a career out of it takes effort and money most people can't afford. There is a joke that goes like this: What's the difference between an artist and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of 5. Sad, but even sadder that it's true. - by Tiffany Vang on Mon, 12/23/2013 - 1:12pm
  • Good thoughtful article again, Sheila. I think this is another discussion that has internalized the "invisible hand" myth. The reason our economy benefits the 1% to the extent it does is because we've legislated for that, and made the market work that way. (By we, I mean the US and our government.) We could make the markets and government work in other ways. Harry Potter was written with a state arts grant. The band Laibach was state supported. If we value art, it should be valued in the economy. Jay's comments remind me of something the faith based group ISAIAH talks about; that you either believe in scarcity or abundance. I think the economy is so deformed right now that there is a growing pressure to change. Bill Blasio and other candidates ran straight progressive populist messages in the last election and did pretty well. Which is to say I think there IS value to imagining a world with more government and corporate support for the arts - and where incomes increase so community support really means something! (For folks seeing this on Facebook, this is a comment about a TC Daily Planet story by Sheila Regan, writing about getting paid to do art) - by John Slade on Wed, 12/25/2013 - 1:47am
  • This is a lot like the should-writers-write-for-free debate, which in turn is like the unpaid-internship debate. It's an argument that often frustrates me, because saying "everyone should get paid" sounds progressive in theory but would in practice describe a world where opportunities would be fewer and where solely money would dictate what gets produced. There will never be "enough" money for art, so ideally you'd have an ecosystem where the very limited cash in the system is spread around in a way that both rewards success (making something audiences actually want to see) and stimulates innovation (you can't fund ALL the risk-taking new companies, but you should fund SOME of them). I don't know what the best way to design that system is, but it does seem that imagining a world where there's significantly more money from various sources available for art than we currently have in Minnesota is—given that we're near the top of the heap for government, corporate, and community support for arts—imagining a world that's not very likely to come about in our lifetimes. - by Jay Gabler on Mon, 12/23/2013 - 1:25am
  • As producer, I make no money. But I pay everyone who works for me (including myself, when I'm the playwright). It's the only ethical thing to do. Yes, the amount of money amounts to less than minimum wage most of the time, but it's still money and it still says, "I value your work and your time, and you are a professional artist." I have received as little as $150 for my work, and I would rather have had that than nothing. I do not understand the logic or the ethics of not paying people unless you can pay them a living wage (which, in an ideal world, I would do). - by Daniel Pinkerton on Mon, 12/23/2013 - 1:40pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.