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Art is Work: A Dancer’s Reflection

In September of 2019, I was in an open-air market in Berlin having a small crisis about the state of my career. I’d just met a dancer who had been employed by a government-funded dance company in Sweden. Like all dancers in the company, he’d had a contract that lasted until age 45 — for dancers, a lifetime and then some. At that point he’d retired, pension in hand, to an island in the Mediterranean.

I, too, was a dancer. I was in Berlin to perform with the company I worked for in New York City. Ours was also a government-funded company, somewhat. It got money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the New York State Council on the Arts. The State Department had sent us on a five-week tour abroad. But public funding was a tiny fraction of the company’s income. Like all American arts organizations, the bulk came from private sources, which brought strings attached — one premiere had featured a donor who’d bid for a walk-on role.

During the 20 or so weeks we were off every year, we filed for unemployment and hoped the UI (Unemployment Insurance) office wouldn’t catch on to our under-the-table side gigs.

Every dancer in the company was a less-than-part-time employee, paid hourly for sixteen hours of rehearsal a week, and a flat weekly fee for occasional weeks of performance and touring. During the 20 or so weeks we were off every year, we filed for unemployment and hoped the UI (Unemployment Insurance) office wouldn’t catch on to our under-the-table side gigs. Catering, dog-walking, art modeling—whatever else could pay in cash, not tax our bodies too much, and be dropped at a moment’s notice in case a last-minute dance job came through. No one got health insurance. No one would be getting a pension. Earlier that year, the company had run out of money and furloughed us all.

By American standards, mine was a good job. People wanted it. More than 300 dancers had shown up to vie for a single spot at the most recent audition. The competition was so fierce that the company could get away with offering “apprenticeships” that paid $100 a week and have dancers chomping at the bit for them.

I was lucky to have my job. But that hadn’t stop me from thinking that even by American standards it could be better. Earlier that year, I’d organized all the dancers together to write a letter to the director and the Board about how our contracts could be improved. The director had called me on the phone and fired me. No lifetime contracts here; the shows in Berlin would be my last. “At least I won’t lose my health insurance,” I’d thought, vaguely hysterical. “Can’t lose what you never had, right?”

At that Berlin market, the dancer from the Swedish company had located some curtains that might be suitable for his island home and was deliberating over thread count. I had a vivid image of pension funds burning a hole in his pocket. I debated whether or not to throw a tiny silent temper tantrum about our different lives, but then I decided to focus on the real question: how did the United States end up with our current, enervated system of arts funding? What has the domination of private money done to arts jobs? And what can we, as arts workers, do about it?

The Wages of Philanthropy

Scant government funding in the United States has made the arts reliant on private philanthropy, with consequences for aesthetics, culture, and labor. Currently, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and state and local arts agencies handle government funding for the arts. These agencies represent only 6.7 percent of revenue for arts organizations in the United States, of which local funding makes up 3.3 percent, state funding 2.2 percent, and federal funding a mere 1.2 percent.[1]   The remaining 93 percent of funding for the arts comes from earned income (ticket sales and tuition, for example), interest and endowment income (exclusively for larger organizations), and private contributions. This arrangement obliges venues, presenters, and artists to appeal to the tastes of largely white and wealthy donors and ticket buyers to ensure continued funding. It also allows donors to launder their reputations through charitable giving— e.g., the Sackler family, who showered money made off the opioid crisis onto museums worldwide[2]—and take advantage of associated tax loopholes to hoard wealth and power.

Of the twenty largest dance companies in the nation, all but one are ballet companies, specializing in a Eurocentric art form dominated by white upper-middle-class people, and continually recycling an aesthetics of white supremacy.

Every class and ethnic group in the United States has a tradition of charitable giving, and non-white donors give a greater percentage of their wealth than white donors.[3] Nevertheless, the racial wealth gap—wherein white Americans control nearly seven times as much wealth per household as Black Americans[4]—means that white people have a dominant presence in philanthropy, including cultural philanthropy. Accordingly, it is their aesthetic preferences that dominate the cultural field. This is immediately apparent in what kind of dance gets funded in the United States. Of the twenty largest dance companies in the nation, all but one are ballet companies, specializing in a Eurocentric art form dominated by white upper-middle-class people, and continually recycling an aesthetics of white supremacy.

Take, for example, The Nutcracker. Every ballet company worth its salt, from what the dance world pejoratively calls “Dolly Dinkle” storefront studios to multi-million-dollar behemoths, has a Nutcracker of its own. The ballet, with its familiar Tchaikovsky score, is the most lucrative and most-seen live dance production in the country.[5] Its second act is a series of “ethnic” dances that take place in a dream candyland. In 2008, I, a white New England teenager, was cast as “Arabian Coffee” in a production of The Nutcracker. I wore turquoise harem pants and smoked a fake hookah pipe onstage. In response to practices like this, New York City Ballet dancer Georgina Pazcoguin and administrator Phil Chan started an organization called “Final Bow for Yellowface” in 2018. Among other efforts, they have pushed companies to ditch the heavy makeup and pointed-finger choreography of the “Chinese Tea” section. Earlier, in 2017, Theresa Ruth Howard, a former ballet dancer who now works as a diversity strategist, wrote an article for Dance Magazine about the casting of eleven-year-old Samrawit Saleem as the first Black “Clara” (the lead child role) at Pacific Northwest Ballet. She quoted Samrawit’s father Zithri Saleem: “We celebrate, but we celebrate in the context of whiteness… the ‘first black’  anything is an in indictment of where we are, and we can’t lose sight of that.”

The Gospel of Wealth

Maintaining a context of whiteness and its associated structures of power has always been a goal of cultural philanthropy. In 1899, Andrew Carnegie—a philanthropist as well as a powerful industrialist—wrote a pamphlet called “The Gospel of Wealth”[6] in which he argued that massive inequality and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few was a mark of civilization, and good for the arts:

“The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us today measures the change which has come with civilization. This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial. It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be houses for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor.”

Carnegie, like other so-called “robber barons” of the late nineteenth century Gilded Age, built his fortune largely through exploitative business practices and ruthless strike-breaking. In 1892—just seven years before issuing his philanthropic credo—he and Henry Clay Frick (whose vast private collection of European art became a museum in 1935) hired a militia to break the union at the Homestead steel mill in Pennsylvania. Sixteen people were killed in the ensuing massacre.

Private cultural philanthropy has . . . given the donor class an opportunity to launder their reputations and hoard wealth by avoiding taxation.

Carnegie’s beliefs led him to pursue larger and larger profits, lengthening workdays and driving down wages. He faced little pushback from a laissez-faire government already in the pocket of railroad magnates and under the sway of public intellectuals like William Graham Sumner, whose Social Darwinism and free market advocacy rejected any intervention against economic or social inequity.[7] At the time, there was no government support for the arts. A short-lived National Arts Commission, established by President James Buchanan in 1859, was disbanded only two years later because of a lack of congressional appropriations. How do you get do Carnegie Hall? “Practice, practice, practice” is the old joke. But how we got to Carnegie Hall—to having our arts institutions dependent on private funding—is through unrestrained capitalism, labor exploitation, and an abdication of cultural responsibility by our government.

Private cultural philanthropy has also given the donor class an opportunity to launder their reputations and hoard wealth by avoiding taxation. Andrew W. Mellon, a millionaire contemporary of Carnegie and a close friend of Henry Clay Frick’s, established and endowed the National Gallery of Art in 1936, in the midst of a tax evasion trial centered on a charitable trust he’d created to collect his art. Today, the Sackler family, who have made their wealth off of an opioid crisis that has left half a million people dead, has their name on a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It seems we’re on track to blithely forget billionaire libertarian David Koch’s investment in disastrous environmental and economic policies, and instead just associate him with the New York City Ballet, which performs at Lincoln Center in the David H. Koch Theater.

Carnegie, Mellon, Koch, and the Sacklers all established private foundations—an increasingly popular approach to handling and hoarding massive wealth, at an increasingly high cost to the public. Private foundations are required to disburse only 5 percent of their endowments per year, and they can put that payout towards family salaries. Donor-advised funds (DAFs) are accounts to which donors can contribute in order to reap a tax break, while also retaining a say on where the collected funds ultimately go—if they go anywhere, since there’s no spending requirement.[8] Private foundations, DAFs, and their assets have ballooned. As political scientist Rob Reich notes in his book Just Giving, for every foundation that existed in 1930, there are now five hundred. Those earlier foundations held less than $1 billion in assets; foundations today hold more than $800 billion.[9] Between 2000 and 2015, 30,000 private foundations were created, and the number of donor-advised funds doubled. In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the federal government at least $50 billion.

Workers, not “Athletes of God”

Sometimes people tell me that what I do as an artist is a higher calling. They act like I’m serving the world. They also act like it’s not a job. “It’s amazing that you’ve made a career out of something you’d do for free,” a donor at a gala once told me, mistily. I choked a little on my Two Buck Chuck. I had recently fractured my foot in rehearsal with a choreographer who sexually harassed his dancers. “I would absolutely not ever do this for free,” I said.

I think about the higher-calling rhetoric I have heard as a psychological wage, to borrow a term from W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction in America. The deference and courtesy and flattery we are given as artists by those who financially support us is used to convince us that what we’re doing is so important that we should do it regardless of whether or not we’re paid. This rhetoric doesn’t just come from funders; it comes from employers too. The choreographer George Balanchine, who cofounded New York City Ballet and whose shadow looms over the dance world, said that he didn’t want dancers who wanted to dance; he wanted dancers who needed to dance. A desperate workforce is an exploitable one. The call is coming from inside the house.

Sometimes people tell me that what I do as an artist is a higher calling. They act like I’m serving the world. They also act like it’s not a job.

Rejection of the psychological wage is a first step towards actual wage and funding reform. If dancers come to understand ourselves as workers and not “athletes of God” (thanks Martha Graham), we’ll value our work as work. Esteem for ourselves, combined with collective action, solidarity, and knowledge-sharing within the field, will allow us to negotiate stronger contracts and push “the buck” upwards: first to our direct employers and their boards, then to the venues and presenters with whom our employers negotiate, and on to institutional and government funders. Refusing to work without compensation, as so many of us do so frequently —rejecting the “need” to dance—is the first step.

We also need to push for philanthropic reform. The bipartisan Accelerating Charitable Efforts (ACE) Act is currently in the House Committee on Financial Services. The Act would regulate donor-advised funds (DAFs), which collectively have more than $140 billion stored for “future charitable giving” with no requirement to distribute. It would also stop foundations from including money transferred to DAFs or paid out as family member salaries as part of their 5 percent payout minimum. Beyond this specific bill, arts workers should advocate for increased progressiveness in U.S. tax policy, particularly by raising taxes on the wealthiest earners and corporations, ending special tax breaks on investment income, and strengthening estate and capital gains tax.

But I know no artist who would take a NEA grant over a well-funded housing, health care, and education infrastructure. Those are the components that enable citizens to consider and pursue a career in the arts in the first place.

It would be easy to say that any newfound government income should go straight to the arts. After all, for the United States to raise its central government arts spending to the level of other countries with a similar per capita gross domestic product, the NEA’s annual budget would need to be increased from $162 million to $17 billion dollars. But I know no artist who would take a NEA grant over well-funded housing, health care, and education infrastructure. These are the components that enable citizens to consider and pursue a career in the arts in the first place. Arts workers should loudly advocate for those components above all else.

A New Funding Model

We also need to change the way federal funds are distributed—moving away from a structural and philosophical entwinement with private money, and towards direct provision of funds to cultural workers in exchange for labor and creative output. Public arts funding in the United States now does not function as a counterweight to the ills of private arts philanthropy: it enables them. In 1920, multimillionaire industrialist August Heckscher followed the example of his Gilded Age peers and endowed a museum in Huntington, New York with the wealth he’d made in zinc mining. In 1963, his grandson August Heckscher II handed President John F. Kennedy the outline of a new agency that would come to be the National Endowment for the Arts. Richard Nixon appointed Nancy Hanks, an administrator from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (another Gilded Age creation), to chair the NEA from 1970 to 1978. Hanks established the Challenge Grant model, which conditions awards on the artist-recipient raising matching funds from private sources. This is still the model the NEA uses today, along with requiring artist applicants to hold 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service. This means that artists must necessarily appease private wealth-holders by making themselves available as a vehicle for tax exemptions before they can turn to the government for support.

Instead of this model, artists and their allies should fight for a government structure that understands art work as work, and funds workers accordingly, without seeking curatorial control. Creating New Futures (CNF), an arts worker-driven effort to address inequity in the dance and performance field, released a public document called “Notes for Equitable Funding” which lays out transformative demands as well as strategic recommendations through the lens of social justice —disability justice, reparations, decolonization, and more.[10] Among these are the following:

“Fund arts workers, not projects. Fund community, not individuals. Meritocracy is a trap that perpetuates inequality. Arts funding should not be based on “merit” or “excellence,” which are subjective, patronizing terms often defined by a small group of people, usually not the artist’s community. All art work is dignified work. Require evidence, not merit. We recommend that arts workers receive funding because they are working, rather than on the assessment of work, project descriptions, financial statements/histories, or artist statements.”

This idea has precedent in the United States, most famously through Federal Project Number One (referred to as “Federal One”), a program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA under the leadership of Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins employed 8.5 million people. Forty thousand of those were artists, who worked in Federal One’s five divisions of art, music, theater, writing, and historical surveying. The WPA has been the direct inspiration for post-pandemic public arts worker relief programs across the country. The most notable and well-funded of these is in New York City, where tireless lobbying efforts by arts workers led to the creation of the City Artist Corps, a $25 million recovery initiative. The program, funded by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, gave out $5,000 grants to artists across the five boroughs to produce free, live and in-person programming. A national version of this, funded by the NEA and administered by local partner organizations in every state, could distribute financial support to make free, public art work—no 501(c)(3) status or matching funds required.

For an even more robust jobs program example, we can look to a lesser-known 1970s effort. The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1973, was originally designed as a way to train unskilled workers for public service jobs. When it was amended to allow the hiring of trained professionals in high-unemployment fields, an intern at the San Francisco Arts Commission realized it could be used to employ artists through partnerships with local nonprofits. CETA-funded programs in New York, Phoenix, Chicago, and Washington D.C. followed. Many positions created by these programs were full-time with benefits. To meet CETA’s mandate, employed artists worked primarily in public service—teaching, leadership, and administration—with a portion of time devoted to private creative practice. The CETA programs were highly decentralized, in keeping with Nixon’s “new federalism” approach that gave states block grants and broad discretion to address social issues. States and municipalities were allowed to plan and carry out their own arts programs, often in partnerships with private nonprofits. With conservative politicians skeptical of federal overreach, this structure may be more effective in building the support of a coalition in Congress.

Lastly, a universal basic income (UBI) program would provide a floor for artists to make work without being reliant on grant applications, donor schmoozing, subsistence jobs, and steep ticket prices. Organizations including the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and individual artists like choreographer Dominic Moore-Dunson in Akron, Ohio are already developing or piloting guaranteed income programs for artists. Such programs go beyond artist-as-worker to see artist-as-human, uncoupling artistic output from financial valuation. This is a good thing to do in the performing arts, where the consumable good is the labor itself.[11] Bronx-based performer and curator benedict nguyễn wrote in Creating New Futures’ “Notes for Equitable Funding:” “Of course, the dream is that capitalism is abolished and a new form of living and making and caring for the world is made… It is truly a disorienting exercise to imagine a world not measured in money but what if we started there? What would a world where we took care of each other and made art feel like?”

What Public Resources Do

After the shows in Berlin, I said goodbye to my coworkers and came back to New York. I patched together the usual slate of work, picking up short-term gigs. Then the pandemic hit, and all the work was gone. As the year unfolded in all its directions, I stopped caring about dance. I’d loved it; it had been my job and my whole world. But there was no reason to do it if I wasn’t being paid, any more than an unemployed dentist roams the streets looking for teeth to pull. By summer, I quit taking ballet class over Zoom. By winter, I pulled back from the organizing work I’d been doing with other dancers, because I didn’t feel like a dancer anymore. By the next spring, I told everyone I’d retired. I slept with ice packs tucked in my socks every night to help the pain of my old injuries. I was thirty years old.

Then, in August of 2021, my friend Michelle, who makes dances, texted me: “I got one of those city corps grants. Am planning a thing. Wondering if you might be down?”

I texted her back and said, “Yes”.

A few days later, we got on the phone to talk about it. “This is the thing about public resources,” she said. “When they’re there, we can just do it.” Doing it was: making free art; employing people; thinking for once about what the community might want to see and not what’s going to look good on the grant report to the private foundation with the board of rich white people, or on the marketing flyer that goes out with the donation solicitation to the mailing list of rich white people; dragging your crotchety, arthritic friend out of retirement. Michelle told me she would pay me $25 an hour for rehearsal and $500 for the performance. It was the best rate I’d ever been paid in my career. It would cover the balance of my fall semester tuition at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, which I had been anxious about paying.

In October of 2021, I would stand in a community garden in Brooklyn. My labor would be recompensed by funds from my local government. The show would be free, and people from the neighborhood would be there, tucked in among the trees. I would look at them, and take a breath, and start dancing again.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Samir Sonti and Hope Mohr.


Notes

[1] https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/how-the-us-funds-the-arts.pdf. For a specific and thorough survey of dance funding at the federal level, see Sarah Wilbur’s Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance Making at the National Endowment for the Arts (Wesleyan University Press, 2021).

[2]Rhonda Lieberman. “Painting Over the Dirty Truth.” The New Republic, Sept. 2019

https://newrepublic.com/article/154991/rich-art-museum-donors-exploit-identity-politics-launder-reputations-philanthropy; please also see the advocacy and protest work of photographer Nan Goldin with P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).

[3]Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy By and For Communities of Color. W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Jan. 2021.

http://www.philanthropy.org/seminars/documents/CulturesofGiving_WKKellogg_ExecutiveSummary_January2012.pdf

[4] Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/recent-trends-in-wealth-holding-by-race-and-ethnicity-evidence-from-the-survey-of-consumer-finances-20170927.htm

[5] “Nutcracker Again?” Dance/USA, 4 Dec. 2018, https://www.danceusa.org/ejournal/2018/12/03/nutcracker-again

[6] https://media.carnegie.org/filer_public/0a/e1/0ae166c5-fca3-4adf-82a7-74c0534cd8de/gospel_of_wealth_2017.pdf; for a dramatic reading (by Tess Dworman) of an excerpt of “The Gospel of Wealth,” please see Episode 2 of Miguel Gutierrez’s podcast Are You For Sale: https://www.areyouforsalepodcast.com/episodes/episode2

[7]William Graham Sumner. “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~DRBR/sumner1.html.

[8] Donor-Advised Funds | Internal Revenue Service. https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/donor-advised-funds.

[9] Reich, Rob. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better. Princeton University Press, 2018.

[10] creatingnewfutures. “Phase 2 Document – Notes for Equitable Funding.” Creating New Futures, June 2021, https://creatingnewfutures.tumblr.com/post/653892565806071808/phase-2-document-notes-for-equitable-funding

[11] Heilbrun, James (2003). “Baumol’s Cost Disease” (edited by Ruth Towse; Edward Elgar, 2003). pp 91-101


Author Biography

Megan Wright is a professional dancer and arts administrator based in New York. She is an undergraduate student at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

 

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