Independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council II, September 5, 2019.Posted: September 7, 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 Akiva Fox, Ashley Melzer, and Nicola Bullock for their words. Listen to audio here (begin at Item #32). See previous speakers from 8/22 here. If you are an independent artist in Durham and would like to speak to the Council on this matter, please get in touch at monica at monicabyrne dot org.
Good afternoon. My name is Akiva Fox, and I’m an independent theater artist. When I moved to Durham in 2011, it was for two reasons: affordable housing and a vibrant arts scene.
I don’t know if I’d make the same decision today. Eight years after I moved here, both affordable housing and the arts scene are threatened, and for similar reasons. When cities grow as fast as Durham has been growing, the folks who made that growth possible are often left behind.
I applaud the Council for taking the affordable housing issue as seriously as you have – many of our peer cities have not, and are paying the price now in quality of life. Without that serious action, Durham could become a place for wealthy people only, losing the vibrant diversity that originally made it a desirable place to live.
Local arts are facing the same crunch, and for many of the same reasons. Performance space, already at a premium, has become more expensive as real estate prices have gone up. And both public and private support for local arts and artists has not grown along with the city.
Durham’s art scene is holding on, but we lose members every day, and not enough new artists and groups are replacing them. Why? Because of specific choices made and not made in rooms like this.
Look at this chart – it represents the funding choices made by North Carolina’s major county Arts Councils, the independent organizations that help to distribute public arts funding. Durham’s Arts Council spends only 9 percent of its money on grants, much less than its peer cities.
In the budget you approved this year, there’s a line item of more than 1.8 million dollars dedicated to Arts and Culture in Durham. That money does not support local art and artists. It funds four buildings (buildings, incidentally, that remain unaffordable for most local artists to use).
Look to our neighbors in Raleigh by contrast. Wake County’s Arts Council spends 60% of its budget on grants. And Raleigh also had a 1.8 million dollar line item for Arts and Culture – that is money the Raleigh Arts Commission gives directly to 39 local arts organizations. If you want to know why Durham’s local arts are struggling and Raleigh’s are not, there’s your answer.
I am a member of Bulldog Ensemble Theater, one of the Durham arts groups trying to make our city a more fulfilling and exciting place to live for all its citizens. This past season, three dozen local artists made work that was seen by more than 3,000 local audience members. Our artists are devoted to this city and to making work that reflects its people and its issues. They are working-class artists from the same diverse backgrounds as their fellow Durhamites. Our tickets are cheap and our shows are high quality. This work is of Durham, by Durham and for Durham.
But if we don’t make deliberate choices, work like this will disappear. We artists are excited to work with the Council, with local stakeholders and civic organizations, and with private funders to guarantee that our arts can thrive. A vibrant arts scene is much less expensive to support than affordable housing! It just requires will and action. Thank you.
Good afternoon, Members of City Council, Mr. Mayor, and all. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I am one of many working artists who call Durham home.
Three years ago, almost to the day, Mettlesome, a comedy collective I founded, produced its first indie improv show at The Shed jazz club in Golden Belt. The Shed closed almost exactly a year later, because of the most recent developments there. At the time, we weren’t worried because we weren’t looking for permanent space. We thought using available venues would help us network, reach new audiences and save us financial strain. Plus, we were also doing shows at Manbites Dog Theater. Funny thing though, it also closed about a year later.
Not having a choice, we moved on. We started doing shows at bars (where we had to bring our own chairs and lights), breweries (where we struggled with sound and unwilling audiences), and music venues (where we competed with out of town touring acts for time).
We found a new sort-of home for our classes and twice-monthly shows at Monkey Bottom on Trent Drive. To use that venue, we bought and setup our own sound system, lights, and even our own chairs. We literally transported 40+ of our own chairs in the back of a truck for months. We left that venue after just over year, not because it closed, but rather, because a bar development group approached the owners about taking on a full-time lease. The reason? A condo high rise is planned nearby.
Since March, we’ve been renting a room at The Mothership, a co-working space behind Motorco. It’s a 350-square-foot black box that works great for our needs. The building, though? We’ve been told the owner will probably knock it down in the next two years. We’ll get a six month warning when permits have been approved.
These location changes have always meant overcoming venue specific problems and re-teaching audiences how to find us, while still doing the hard creative work well. In all, Mettlesome has produced shows in at least twelve triangle venues. Despite our tenacious work ethic, I and so many of the others responsible have largely not been paid for our time.
You may be thinking “it’s not the city’s problem that you have a bad business plan.” But given the erosion just we have faced in the last three years, I am here to ask you to look at it differently.
I and so many others are trying to create meaningful work in Durham, but we are running up hill.
In the last three years, I personally have taught 50+ students, coached 200+ rehearsals, and produced over 150 comedy shows. And that’s not even talking about my other work. In just the last six months, I produced a piece for Audio Under the Stars, produced and directed a new one person show at the Durham Arts Council, and world premiered a documentary at the Full Frame Film Festival.
I share that to show that it is not for lack of trying that we are struggling. So many Durham Artists look like we are thriving, but we have 15 irons in the fire, precisely because we are not.
We are struggling and we are every day wondering if we should move or quit. The impact we make is cultural. It is economic. And we need it to be valued.
Please advocate for us. Thank you.
I’m nicola, I’m an independent dancer and choreographer, and I’m here to advocate for two things for artists here in Durham:
I lived here from 2009-2016. When I arrived, the performing arts scene was easy to connect into in part because it was everywhere. Venues such as the Trotter Building, the Durable Durham Warehouse, Muse, the Cordoba Center for the Arts, the Carrack, and the Cotton Room all hosted arts events (performances, classes, open studios), which provided space for creativity, connection, and community. In my time here I watched as these venues have closed, sold out to microbreweries or yoga studios, or now make their income through private events such as weddings and parties thrown on the Duke budget. I, along with the performing arts community, experienced being pushed out of these spaces. As a result, our ability and capacity to make art suffered, and my work stagnated. In large part because of this, I moved to Berlin in 2016.
I moved in order to experience a new approach to art and the creative process. I chose Berlin because it was my observation that the city values artists and wants to attract them by offering a myriad of grants, funding opportunities, and subsidized programs for artists. An example- I applied for artist-health-insurance called the KSK, which is a government program wherein the KSK acts as an artists “employer,” and pays a large portion of health insurance for artists. In order to get into the KSK, you have to prove you’re a working artist with contracts and payment receipts. When I got accepted, I felt amazement and relief. Amazement, because instead of the government expecting artists to fit the model of 9-to-5 employee, they understand that to be an independent artist means working project-to-project and hustling like hell in the time in-between. Relieved because I can go to the doctor when I need to, and not worry about medical bills.
This experience was a revelation. For a city to value, want to attract and keep, and even support artists, was a gift to me and all artists there.
Art is a gift to the world.
art helps people express themselves
art connects communities
art stimulates brain growth
art lowers crime rates
art raises awareness about causes
art takes on some of the biggest challenges to society and
it dreams solutions and alternatives
Art takes space and money. I believe that Durham can be THE place for artists to live and make in the triangle. I’ve witnessed the power of independent artists here- to create, connect, transform, energize, excite, produce, fundraise and work. I sincerely hope that the city chooses to value independent artists and their contributions to the city by hearing our requests for space and money, and doing everything they can to support us.