Independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council, August 22, 2019.Posted: August 23, 2019
Posted below are the comments, in sequence, made by three local independent artists to Durham City Council on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Marshall Botvinick and JaMeeka Holloway for their words–you can listen to audio here (begin at Item #22). If you are an independent artist of Durham and would like to speak to the Council on this matter, please get in touch at monica at monicabyrne dot org.
1 . Monica Byrne
“Good afternoon, Members of City Council, Mr. Mayor, and all. Thank you for your attention. I understand how many issues you have to consider every day and I really appreciate being able to speak here.
“My name is Monica Byrne. I’m an independent artist and I’m here to speak on behalf of other independent artists of Durham. Since I last addressed the Council in March 2018, our community has fallen deeper into crisis. Last month, The Carrack announced it would have to close. The Carrack was a cornerstone of the community, providing affordable exhibition and performance space, especially to Black, brown, queer, and disabled artists from Durham. Now that it’s closing, there are only a handful of affordable spaces left in downtown.
“When I’ve spoken to city officials about stepping in, I get the response, “Why should the city be involved in choosing which kind of art to support?” The answer is, the city already overwhelmingly chooses what kind of art to support. The city chooses to fund corporate art and very expensive buildings. On its own, I actually have no objection to this. Both are important to a diverse arts ecosystem. For example, I’m glad the city stepped in to save the Carolina Theatre, despite gross financial mismanagement by its staff, because the city knew that the theater was crucial to Durham’s cultural life.
“But I do have a major objection if that’s the only kind of venue, and the only kind of art, that the city deems worth saving. Why the big institutions and not the Carracks? Why is there a full-time paid staff at DPAC, booking the racist misogynist Jordan Peterson, while the owners of The Fruit and Mettlesome and the Living Arts Collective forgo a salary to keep their spaces open to women and people of color? In other words, whose art is the city choosing to preserve, and whose art is it choosing to let die out? To us, the answer is very clear. The artists who made Durham a desirable place to live are now the ones left behind.
“In the past year and a half, I and other artists have brought many proposals to the city…and then never hear back. Honestly, we don’t know what to do. I understand that no one is acting in bad faith; but at the same time, I need to emphasize that, after the closing of the Carrack, we don’t feel we can wait. We also feel we independent artists have no one to properly advocate for us in city government, so we have to advocate for ourselves. To this end, we are organizing to speak at every Work Session until we feel our proposals are being heard and acted upon. I have concrete proposals I’ll outline at future Work Sessions; but for now, I’d like to welcome the first of my fellow artists to speak, who is Marshall Botvinick.
“Good afternoon. My name is Marshall Botvinick, and I am a theatre maker living in Durham. I am here today for one reason. I believe the City of Durham can and should do more to support artists that live in this city. When compared to other cities across the Southeast, Durham falls noticeably short in the support it provides to artists. Rather than being a city that artists are inspired to relocate to, Durham is fast becoming a city that artists feel compelled to leave because there simply are not enough municipal and institutional resources available.
“I don’t think I was truly aware of how dire the situation is until I moved to Winston-Salem. During the three years I lived in Winston, I saw firsthand what a robust investment in the arts can produce. Home to the National Black Theatre Festival, an opera company, a symphony, a ballet company, two major art museums, a large craftsmen guild, a film festival, and a LORT theatre company, Winston Salem is a model for what’s possible when a city and its arts council invest in its arts organizations.
“Durham, on the other hand, is a model of what happens when arts council operational expenses take precedence over direct support of artists. If you look at the Arts Council’s 2016 tax filing, you’ll see that they gave a total of $189,539 in grants to organizations and individuals while salaries totaled almost $700,000 and other expenses equaled a little more than 1.2 million dollars. In short, 9% of the budget was devoted to grants, 33% was devoted to salary, and 58% to other expenses. No other major county in the state has a ratio that’s even close to this.
“There are many things Durham can do to make itself more welcoming to artists, but an obvious place to start is with our arts council. The city gives the Arts Council $704,000 annually. This accounts for 35% of the Arts Council’s budget. As the Arts Council’s main funder and owner of its building, the city needs to step in and demand a budget that is more focused on supporting local art. Simply getting grant funding to 25% of the Arts Council’s annual budget by 2021 would go a long way towards improving the current situation.
“The city must also place a greater emphasis on local art in its own budget. In the current fiscal year, the city has earmarked 1.4 million dollars in tax revenue for DPAC, a building that never hosts artists who actually live in this city. But what is the city doing for its own artists? Why are we less important than DPAC? The city needs to increase its arts and culture resource allocation to either subsidize existing studio, gallery, and performance spaces or to build new studio, gallery, and performance spaces for local artists.
“Durham needs to do better. The status quo is untenable. The rising cost of space has made it almost impossible for artists to present work in this city. The city needs to recognize the extent of this problem, and it needs to take steps to remedy it. Durham shouldn’t be a place where great art is simply brought in from out of town. It should be a place where great art can be made by the people who live in and love this city. Your support and strategic planning can make that a reality. Thank you.”
3 . JaMeeka Holloway
“Last year I was offered jobs at two out of state nationally recognized theatres. During this time, with space support from the now-closed Manbites Dog Theater, my small theatre group, Black Ops had just presented the vibrant Bull City Black Theatre Fest, I covered the IndyWeek, I was so excited about the possibilities of creating and curating more in my hometown. So, I turned those two profile-raising, living-wage jobs down. I turned them down because I’ve lived away before, and no place compares to my city and the fulfillment of being able to engage this community with my art and energy. It’s a sensation that can’t be duplicated or replaced. I thought, “If I am going to offer my gifts to a place, it should be the place that shaped who I am.”
“This morning, and many before this, I kicked myself.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for me to participate in the creation of art here. With only spaces like The Fruit being affordable and having the capacity to hold the entirety of what a live theatre production could require, the challenges of producing are real. I know many artists are redefining space and are finding unconventional places to create work, however, I wonder why Independent artists are constantly being encouraged to find “creative” / “ out of the box” ways to fundraise and make money while large institutions that are often economically and socially inaccessible are given continued fiscal precedence.
“One wonders if the message being sent is that to create art and survive or be supported, you must connect yourself to some sort of institution or convention.
“Today, I want to ask how can we be more forward-thinking about our support of all artists? How can we expand our ideas around legibility and “credible” art? How can I and other independent artists who are creating dynamic and inclusive art for the whole community be prioritized by our city government?
“I don’t want to have to move away from Durham to make money as an artist. I’m a mom, and I don’t want to have to consider moving to rural Vermont, removing my child away from the vibrancy of Durham’s culture to make a living. Severe investment is needed from our local government to prevent the dilapidation of quality offerings and facilities here in Durham. Durham has positioned itself as a destination location for the arts. How can we keep it home for facilitators of this art?