Independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council V, October 24, 2019.Posted: November 3, 2019
Above: Durham artist Alyssa Noble addressing City Council. Photo by Ashley Melzer.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on October 24th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Marshall Botvinick, Alyssa Noble, and Jack Reitz for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #31. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), and here (October 10). 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. On behalf of all the artists who’ve come before the Council, we would like to thank you, again, for your attention to our concerns. After several months of research and community conversations, we’d like to introduce a major proposal to transform arts funding in the city. Our hope is that, in sharing this proposal with you at this stage, we can further refine it in advance of a final proposal.
For the upcoming fiscal year, we are asking the city to create a grant program that will distribute $1.2 million dollars in funding to individual artists and arts organizations. We arrived at this number by using a formula comparable to the one Raleigh uses to calculate its support for the arts. On the city of Raleigh’s webpage are these words: “A major example of the City Council’s dedication to the cultural development of Raleigh, the [arts grant] program is supported currently by a $5 per capita allocation, which resulted in grant awards totaling $1,856,176.” We are asking this City Council to make a similar commitment. In fact, what we are asking Durham to do is something that city governments across the country have been doing for years. From Raleigh to Durham’s benchmark cities like Augusta and Norfolk, municipalities are funding substantive grant programs for the arts. We aren’t coming to these sessions because we are looking for a handout or special favors. We are simply asking the Council to recognize the contribution that the arts make and to back that up with meaningful financial support. This can be done through a city-administered program, as happens in Raleigh and Norfolk, or the city can allocate this money to an outside organization, like an arts council, and charge them with the task of administering the grant program. Such is the model in places like Houston and Augusta.
It’s our vision that $800,000 be used to provide operating or project support to arts organizations headquartered in Durham. Operating support grants would begin at $15,000 and be capped at $40,000. Project support grants would begin at $1,000 and be capped at $15,000.
The remaining $400,000 would be used to support the work of individual artists. We’re asking that $140,000 be doled out in grants ranging from $3,000 to $10,000. The remaining $260,000 be used to establish a Durham Artist Fellows Program, in which four artists would receive a salary of $40,000 each, plus up to $25,000 for the creation of a major project that will be free to the public. To our knowledge, this program would be the first of its kind in the United States and would establish Durham as a national leader in progressive arts funding.
Our request grows out of our belief in equity. The city has a long history of investing in and subsidizing large arts organizations and festivals, but it has never made a comparable investment in smaller arts organizations or individual artists. The arts are no different than any sector in the economy. Just as Durham has a vested interest in attracting both large corporations and promoting local small businesses, Durham’s relationship with the arts should operate on a similar principle.
To close, in their 2016 report on how American cities fund the arts, the Boston Foundation notes: “Nationwide, local government provides the largest source of funding for arts organizations, with states coming in next, and federal funding last.” In short, if the arts community in Durham is to receive government support for its work, it must almost certainly come from the city. For far too long that support has been absent, and we are here today because we are asking you to change that. Thank you.
Hello members of the council, Mayor Schewel. Thank you for granting me the opportunity to speak today.
I am here on behalf of independent artists in Durham, but more specifically, on behalf of local dance artists. I have been a member of the Durham dance community since 2011 – I moved here after spending a summer at the American Dance Festival and have since performed in work by several local dance artists. In 2016, I became a community organizer with Durham Independent Dance Artists, who most people know as DIDA, and I co-founded A+A Dance Company.
DIDA was originally founded in 2014 in response to a lack of resources and a lack of local performance opportunities in the city of Durham. Local arts institutions like the American Dance Festival, Duke Performances, and the Durham Performing Arts Center program exceptional national and international dance companies and, as such, help to create the illusion of a robust local climate for the performing arts. But the reality is, for dance artists who are living and making work here, our situation is hardly viable.
The truth is, we exist despite the resources available to us in this city. Local organizations and institutions rarely commission local artists to create work, and finding independent donors for the arts can be a full time job. Trust me when I say that we are all *already* working full time jobs on top of our artistic practices just to get by.
We exist in an economy of scarcity, and our whole community competes for extremely limited artist grants annually and biennially. Several local and national grants for arts organizations require a $20K annual budget to even apply, and I don’t know anyone who runs a local dance company who has access to that kind of capital.
And because dance artists have such limited access to funding, we create opportunities for ourselves to perform. We self-produce short works and evening-length performances, and in most cases as a result, we go into debt. In June, I produced an hour-long show that had a $15,000 projected budget. To a lot of people, that sounds high for a dance performance. But the reality is, that budget only allowed us to pay our dancers $5/hour for rehearsal time, and, for more than 400 hours of labor over 18 months, it allowed us to pay our company directors – myself and my collaborator Allie Pfeffer – $1300 each. That’s $3.25/hour.
Except, and here’s the kicker, we didn’t raise all of the money we needed to to fulfill that budget. And dance artists cut ourselves out of our project budgets first. It’s just what we do. So for my 400 hours of labor, I made $300 for this project. And making $0.75 an hour is hardly sustainable. It doesn’t make me want to keep producing.
A major granting program would allow me, and artists like me, the ability to create work regularly without economic strain. And if we could all spend less time making pleas on crowdfunding campaigns and passing the same $20 from artist to artist, we could reinvest that time and energy where it belongs – in our art. That’s the art I want to see.
Art is work. And it should be work. It just don’t think that it needs to be this hard. And I think that the city could help.
In 2016, along with a dedicated team of other artists, I co-founded Mettlesome. A Durham-based creative collaborative. Our roots are in producing and making comedy shows but we’ve also produced storytelling, standup, sketch, and drama.
In 2019 as of last weekend we had produced 137 shows. We have had the privilege of working with hundreds of artists and serving thousands of audience members. I bring up these numbers in hopes that they’ll serve as some sort of tangible indicator of the work that myself and other Mettlesome artists have been putting in and the impact that we’ve had on that community of audiences and performers. (I think it’s pretty cool and I’m proud of what we’ve done.)
That said, it’d been hard. It’s been SO hard and the root of this challenge is financial.
When I talk about the financial burden, I’m not even talking about paying the artists. I’m simply looking at operating costs. Paying the bills is buying a set of 50 stacking chairs and storing them in the back of my truck so we could perform in the arcade in the back of a bar, it’s spending hundreds of dollars on lights or water. Last winter we had to buy 3 different space heaters to warm our rehearsal space and this summer more money than we had to buy an air conditioner. After 3 years we finally bought a new sound system to replace the one that I got out of a dumpster. More than anything, paying the bills means paying rent on space to rehearse.
In March, Mettlesome produced a two hour long Vaudeville style variety show with original music, homemade costumes, and a tapdancing yam. This show took six months to write, rehearse, and perform. It ran for 5 performances and at the end of the day did not make enough money to cover the cost of the venue or props. (Paper-mache yams are expensive.) So we took a financial loss.
This Spring, Mettlesome piloted “Mettlesome Kids,” a program intended to put young people in the directors chair. A small group of teaching artists led a class of 8-13 year olds, and through the process of writing, rehearsing and finally performing their own original short plays (complete with a musical score). Throughout the process, a few of the families involved asked for financial aid, a completely reasonable request that we are not responsibly able to accommodate.
In addition to our work with children, Mettlesome often teaches adult classes in improv comedy where again, we’re often met with reasonable requests for financial aid that we’re not able to responsibly accommodate. Not being able to responsibly accommodate these requests doesn’t mean that we don’t accommodate them; it just means that we don’t have the financial infrastructure to do it responsibly. Instead of being able to re-allocate funds from any sort of scholarship pool, in the case of Mettlesome Kids, the requests were met by drawing funds from my own hopeful paycheck, which meant that though I’d hoped to be paid for my work, I worked for free and the program also ran at a net-loss. Prevented us from running this fantastic program again.
For the past three years I’ve been spearheading a monthly show called “Golden Age” where artists of different disciplines share their art to inspire a comedy show. It’s part talk show, part art exhibition, part comedy show. We’ve been able to feature 36 different artists from dancers, to DJs, to visual artists, and this weekend we’ll be interviewing our first chandler. It’s cool. The director and the cast never gets paid we pay rent for rehearsal and performance space. The show has never made a profit.
So much of the work that we create is for “love of the game,” but love of the game has a limited runway. Three years in, it’s impossible to imagine another three years creating work for “love of the game” alone.
A major granting program to provide actual scholarships for our students for our childrens and adults programming.
Financial support from the city would enable us to continue to empower goofballs to tapdance dressed as a giant yam AND to continue creating performances that elevate Durham artists and change the conversation from “how much will we lose on this show?” to “Can we begin conversations about compensating our artists?”
Financial support from the city means that we could rehearse in spaces that were properly heated or cooled without the fear of a significant financial loss.
One last point of perspective “significant financial loss” to US is in the ballpark of $5-$10 thousand dollars, a deficit amount that is existentially threatening to our own ability to create this work but seems paltry compared to the hundreds of thousands that I see being budgeted towards other institutions. Being able to apply for a small financial grant to help ease this cost, would be world changing for our organization.
I’ve been speaking from my own perspective on the challenges of running a small arts organization but I know that my challenges are not unique. Durham’s artists reflect on the culture of our city and make it an artistic beacon. We support the city what the city with the hard work that we do, with the art that we make. Please help make it easier. Please help support us back.