Above: Durham artist Ashesh Chatterjee addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on October 10th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Ashesh Chatterjee and Justin Argenio for sharing their comments. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), and here (September 19). 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.
Please click here to listen to Ashesh’s comments (forward to Item #29).
Please click here to listen to Justin’s comments (forward to Item #30).
Hello to all. My name is Monica Byrne. I’m an independent artist who’s lived here for fourteen years, and organized this speaker series. My comments are short this time. I want to thank all of you for your attention these past two months. We really appreciate having this opportunity to speak directly to you, and we really appreciate being heard. We’re currently reaching out to meet with each Council Member in person—I met with a couple of you just this morning—so please, be on the lookout for an email from one of us to sit down and talk.
At the next Work Session on October 24th, we plan to introduce our official asks to the city. We’re finalizing these asks based on conversations within the independent artist community, conversations with arts personnel in our peer cities, and your input. As we understand it, the Council’s desire for the future of Durham is not unlimited growth. It is making sure that the growth that is inevitable in the near term is equitable and beneficial for all citizens. We ask that you consider a healthy, well-funded independent arts workforce not peripheral to that project, but central to it. Independent artists are the eyes and ears and nerves of a city. Art is how we sense ourselves and make meaning of our place in the world. If we lose those faculties, we risk losing our unique identity; if we cultivate them, I firmly believe, we’ll become the best Durham we can possibly be.
On that note, thank you again for your attention, and we’ll see you on the 24th.
Photo credit: Ashley Melzer.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on September 19th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. You can listen to the audio here (begin at Item #23). Thank you to Justin Cook and Omari Akil for sharing their text below. See speakers from September 5th here (begin at Item #32) and August 22nd 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 Council, I’m Justin Cook, an independent photographer here in Durham.
I want to thank you all for the ways the city has supported the very arts community that helped spur Durham’s recent renaissance.
With its skyrocketing cost of living and vanishing art venues, Durham has become a difficult place to work and live as an artist.
So, I’d like for the city to reimagine its support a little bit — to consider directly funding and subsidizing local artists and local indie arts spaces.
My own photographic life can testify to the artists’ struggle in Durham.
I’ve been a working photographer for almost 15 years and I make 100% of my income from my camera through editorial and commercial work.
It’s been a career of feast or famine, of floating debt so I can survive until the next check comes.
What really sustains me — my “art” — are self-funded photographic essays about issues in Durham and around North Carolina.
But these projects require funding that is becoming harder to find. Grants are a great way to offset costs, but I have grown tired of competing with national and international photographers for grants that have steep entrance fees, or grants that try to grab the rights to my work.
More funding should be available, in abundance, right here in Durham.
In Durham, we have incredible creative talent, and models for the future of art spaces.
The Carrack, which is closing this weekend, wasn’t simply an art space, it was a clear manifestation of Durham’s best values. And with a lean $80,000 annual operating budget it was a space the city could have helped.
Can you imagine a Durham where The Carrack wasn’t an experiment, or the exception? Imagine a Durham where it is the standard. Don’t you want to be a part of building that culture?
So instead of subsidizing artists who don’t live here by spending $100,000 on parking garage art, $200,000 on police murals, and instead of giving $700,000 annually to an out-dated institution like the Durham Arts Council, I ask that you consider allocating funds for:
a) A year-long Durham Artists Fellowship, with a priority on artists from marginalized communities, that pays a handful of artists a living wage salary so they can focus on making art, especially art that challenges Durham to better live up to its ideals.
b) And/or consider splitting some of that money into many $10,000 and $15,000 artists grants, available only to folks living and working in Durham.
c) And subsidizing our indie art spaces so they can continue to drive the arts culture of Durham.
Durham is one of eight North Carolina SmART Communities, that according to its website, “demonstrat[es] how the arts transform downtowns and build sustainable economic development.” But how is that development actually sustainable if artists can’t afford to live and work here?
When it is time to draft the next budget, please remember that the arts do not exist apart from Durham’s economy as simply an engine for driving cash into the pockets of businesses, or to increase the city’s tax base. The arts are an economy — our economy.
Durhams artists have done all we can to build the arts community and economy to what it is now.
So the challenge is yours to work with us to not just maintain our arts culture, but to help it thrive and evolve so that Durham can become a model for the rest of the country.
Thanks for listening.
Good afternoon and thank you Council Members for hearing my statement today. I’m Omari Akil Dennis and I’m an independent board game and card game designer. I moved to Durham in 2008 and at that time I could feel at it’s core, that Durham and the people of Durham had an artistic and creative flair that made me happy to call this city home.
But 11 years later, I’m afraid for the trajectory of the arts here. What I see in Durham mostly is a community of artists who support each other fervently. Sadly, this loving sentiment, speaks more to the dire situation we all find ourselves. Our support of each other has become mandatory. We share stories of the challenges we face in a system that isn’t designed to work for us. We help each other find the part time work that we need to cover basic living costs. We buy each others creations, sometimes at lower rates, because buying beautiful art can be outside of our normal budget. We collaborate with each other for low or no compensation because we often can’t afford to do otherwise. We should be able to support one another out of love and inspiration, instead of out of hardship and necessity.
We need your assistance to try to break this cycle. We need you to be a more significant part of this creative economy. The artists and creators of Durham deserve support from our government and frankly recognition for making it one of the most desirable places to live in the state. I came here today to request changes to how you support artists, by providing more new programs that fund local art and updates to existing programs and grants that are offered.
As a board game designer, I create an experience. (As you can see…) Creating modern games often requires stunning visual art which is not my area of expertise. Stunning art deserves appropriate compensation. What I would love is to be able to apply for funding to work with a local Durham visual artist. This simultaneously allows me to elevate the quality of my creations, puts money in an artist pocket for the brilliant work that they do, and continues to build the relationships between local artists. This is just one of the many ways the city can help. Even though some opportunities like exist I think they need changes to fully fit the needs of myself and the community.
Today I’m asking that you take a serious look at the needs of the artists and creators of Durham. We need your help to move the in the right direction. In the direction that keeps Durham art authentic, life changing, and local.
Good afternoon, Members of City Council. 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 Jon Fuller and I’m an art activist. This is my first time addressing the council and I’m here to speak on behalf of other art activists, freelancers and independent artists of Durham. Durham artists and galleries are being pushed out because they cannot afford the cost of working or living here. Spaces such as The Carrack, which has given affordable opportunities to reach audiences many including black, brown, and queer folks. Has had to relocate and now announce that it’s closing its doors.
Instead the growing amount breweries, cocktail bars or co-working spaces “for artists” is actively contributing to the blatant gentrification process. What we need to see more of is affordable housing and independent-safe creative community spaces that are not fixated on profit.
The Durham Police station has 2 murals from a $200,000 budget but the artists who finished it were not from Durham. That amount of money could have been divided into grants to support more artists, spaces and public art—Here in Durham. Personally I don’t know too many folks who would want to “stop in” at the Police Headquarters to see murals.
If you want to see more art in this community, we need ya’ll to invest in the artists who live in it. You have the resources and platform to do that. I’m asking you to move on that today.
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.
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?
I’m so pleased that American Theatre Magazine has published their September issue, dedicated entirely to #metoo stories.
Here are six brave theatre artists who came forward about abusers Gregory Boyd at Alley Theatre in Houston; Gordon Edelstein at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven; Darrell W. Cox at Profiles Theatre in Chicago; Jason McLean and Josh Peklo at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis; and Michael Halberstam at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, IL.
Here is a journalist’s story about reporting on her own harasser.
Here is a piece on how the Actor’s Equity Association can change to better protect its members.
Here are resources for survivors, including resources specific to the theatre world.
And here is the op-Ed by Editor-in-Chief Rob Weinert-Kendt, explaining how he and the TCG board came to the decision to publish this issue.
I thank him for acknowledging my role in it. It was really hard to do. (For background: here is my first blog piece about my experience of sexual harassment by Raphael Martin—then the Literary Manager at SoHo Rep, now proprietor of The Lit Shop in London—and ATM’s solicitation of the story, and then, their failure to publish it; here is their response to my blog post; and here is why I found that response so unsatisfactory.) But the work was worth doing. I truly hope TCG and ATM continues to take an active role in dismantling the structures of silence and enablement that have allowed so many abusers to abuse for so long in American theatre. We need them. We need all hands on deck to address this problem.
I’d also like to thank Diep Tran, the dedicated and brilliant journalist who saw this story through from beginning to end; my patrons on Patreon who enabled me to take a stand by paying me a salary for the work; the theatre artists who stood up with me to create a petition advocating for ATM to publish these stories; the 1,556 signatories, ranging from undergrads to MacArthur Fellows; and last but not least, again, ATM Editor-in-Chief Rob Weinert-Kendt and TCG Executive Director Teresa Eyring, for listening to our concerns and deciding to do the right thing, even though that necessitated a massive internal shift in institutional structure and funding.
I appreciate it. Survivors appreciate it. And everyone who’s had to struggle against the toxic patriarchal power structures in theatre appreciate it.
This is how we make change, and this is only the beginning.
Photo: Brownsville, United States, June 28, 2018. EPA-EFE/Larry W. Smith
In support of the protests happening this weekend, I’m making freely available my near-future science fiction story, “Blue Nowruz.” Listen to the audiobook if you can, because the story was written to be performed, not read; but the text is there too.
It was commissioned for TED 2015 by Neil Gaiman and Chris Anderson, the only prompt being: it had to occur in the next fifteen years, and it had to offer an optimistic vision of the future. So—having been pro-open borders for as long as I’ve been aware of the concept—I wrote about what a simultaneous, worldwide border protest would look like, and how it would begin to change the world.
I hope we’re getting closer to realizing that vision.
Photo: The Nature Geek.
It’s finally warming up in North Carolina, which means the carpenter bees are out and about. Dad and I waited until now to publish this poem, one of my favorites of his, and of all time. Read it aloud.
by Donald E. Byrne Jr.
A fat, black bee
whirls down from its
hole, bored in the
trim of the porch,
to bless me in
my chaise. So close
to the nape of
my neck I thrill,
so near my bare
chest I feel the
breath of its wings,
the quick bee signs
up, down, left, right,
as if to ask:
are you the one?–
up, down, left, right–
are you the one?
Are you the one,
a sweet balm, a
bee balm, the one
who called me with
you, bee, bless me;
black bee, bless me;
bless me, fat bee,
with your sun sign:
up, down, left, right,
up, down, left, right.