Every now and then on Twitter, a thread goes viral about how the Real Path to Success in a Creative Field just comes down to a combination of persistence, resourcefulness, and “being true to oneself.” The authors tout them as some kind of secret knowledge when really, it’s just garden-variety meritocracy porn, almost always written by white men who imagine that their audience is also white men who inhabit a reality similar to their own. If the authors consider the realities of the rest of the population at all, it’s as an afterthought: “Oh right, and—I’ve heard none of this applies if you don’t look like me? Idk.”
To its credit, science fiction—the field I know best—has become much more self-aware in recent years. But I’ve recently started to follow screenwriters and showrunners, and I’m really surprised at how popular (and uncontested!) these threads still are.
So I want to write my own list, based on my own experience and that of artists I know. I’m a USian able-bodied white cis woman from a middle-class background, with a lot of educational privilege, so of course my perspective is informed by that, and necessarily incomplete. But I’m hoping it’s a closer snapshot to the lived reality of the larger artist population in the U.S.
Here are my Five (Actual) Factors of Success for Artists, ranked by importance. Some qualifiers: All the factors intersect with each other—it’s like a five-way Venn diagram, rather than five discrete factors. I wrote it specifically for the U.S. context, which I know best. None of the factors are meant to be determinative or absolute; there have always been exceptions and compensations. But overall, I hope it’s a more accurate picture of how creative success is achieved than the one presented in so many of those viral threads, where success is achieved by effort alone. In mine, an artist has control over only one and a half of these factors—#3 (Hard Work) and #2 (Connections). This isn’t meant to be discouraging; on the contrary, the only way we can change is to first tell the truth.
And—to be clear—none of this is new. A lot of folks have been telling this truth for a long time already.
- Privilege. Your privilege is a huge factor in your ability to achieve creative success. This is by far the most important factor, because it intersects with and constrains all the others. U.S. society is built for the advantage of white men (given changing definitions of “white” over the centuries), and has been since the Spanish invaded in the 1500s. If you’re disabled, trans, poor, queer, indigenous, chronically sick, neurodivergent, an immigrant, a person of color, a woman, or a combination of these, then our society is deliberately designed to make it more difficult for you to prosper, including in creative fields. The cumulative, intergenerational impact of this design is impossible to overstate.*
- Community and connections. An artist has two communities. The first is the one you’re born into, which you have no control over and largely overlaps with privilege. The second community is the one you seek out as you grow up, to whatever extent you’re able. Both of these communities determine your connections—that is, supporters and gatekeepers. Supporters are the people who love you, who encourage your work, who read it or listen to it or come to see it, who talk about it with you, who wish you well, who want to see you prosper. Supporters are essential, but they might not have access to capital. Gatekeepers do. Gatekeepers are the people who say yes, who buy your story, who read your screenplay, who loan you money, who give you a chance, who do you a favor, who pull some strings, who write a recommendation, who donate a space, who put in a good word, who pay the tab, who introduce you to other gatekeepers. Work and talent can only get you so far. A career is built on connections.
- Hard work. On this factor, I agree with the viral threads. Hard work is incredibly important. So much of the job is just showing up, day after day, and doing the work even when you don’t feel like it. I’ve seen so many talented artists give up after a few years, or a lack of attention, or a series of creative rejections; when setbacks, fallow spells, and rebuilding years are just part of the job. But again: the ability to put in the work—usually without pay, for extended periods of time—is largely determined by privilege.
- Talent. This one is controversial. I do believe in raw talent. That is, an artist either has the spark or they don’t, and it can’t be taught, only encouraged. But again, it’s nearly beside the point, because the question of who has talent is impossible to separate from the question of who has the opportunity to develop their talent. As Leila Janah said, “Talent is equally distributed. Opportunity is not.”
- Luck. Again, it’s hard to distinguish pure luck from the cumulative “luck” of privileged circumstances. But sometimes, crazy things just happen because someone was in the right place at the right time. This factor is maddening because it’s the least controllable, but its role in “success stories” is very real—I know a lot of artists who’d put it higher on the list.
Again, as you can see, privilege is the factor that encompasses all the others. I don’t want to imply that anyone born to privilege has to feel guilty all the time. I do wish, however, that those born to privilege—including the authors of those viral threads—would express humility and realize their responsibility: humility, that whatever success they’ve achieved, they’ve achieved because they had the chance to build their skills in the first place; and responsibility, to help build a world where everyone has the same chance. I hope this list is a useful baseline for anyone who truly wants to do that. Also, I encourage anyone reading to comment with their stories of how these factors played a part in their careers.
Also: I approve all comments before they get published. So if you want to write about how white men are actually very disadvantaged or something like that, I’ll likely just delete it and block you from being able to make further comments. Thanks.
*If you’re curious about learning more about the role of privilege in U.S. society, I recommend “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the classic essay from 1988 and “The Myth of Meritocracy,” a new classic from 2019; The 1619 Project, which demonstrates how the U.S. was built by disenfranchised people who remain so to this day, by design; “The Case for Reparations” explains how to begin to right that wrong. And finally, “Explaining Privilege to a Broke White Person” and “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting” are really useful pieces by white people who came from poor backgrounds.
Above: Durham arts activist Laura Ritchie addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 19th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Andrew Aghapour, Laura Ritchie, Ed Hunt, Monét Noelle Marshall, and Mark Iwinski for sharing their comments. http://link? See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), here (November 21), and here (December 5th). This is the final installment in the planned speaker series. Thank you to all who spoke or showed up to support.
[Audio link forthcoming]
“My name is Laura Ritchie. I’m a founder of The Carrack, a community art space that opened on Parrish Street in 2011 and closed this September on East Main. I serve on the Public Art Committee, on the boards of several arts organizations in our region, and am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. I’m here to share some of The Carrack’s story, and to call attention to the urgent need for increased funding for, and more equitable stewardship of, the arts in Durham by our city’s leadership.
The Carrack was started to address a need. A need for a radically accessible gallery model that could support underrepresented creators, including artists of color; queer and trans artists; and local emerging artists. And we did that. In our eight year tenure, we exhibited work by over 1,000 visual artists in more than 150 solo or group shows, and programmed hundreds of community gatherings, performances, and art events – all at zero cost to artists.
But The Carrack, like so many arts organizations, was dependent upon free labor. Labor I could afford to give because I am a white woman with a wealthy family. For most years as director, I worked more than 40 hours a week. I never made more than $8,000. Annually. At our best, under capable new leadership, two staff made $15/hour for a cumulative 35 hours a week. At the end of that year, they’d worked over 300 hours without pay. Though we achieved our mission outwardly, we failed the artists at the core of our organization – our staff. And rather than continue to center white, class-privileged leadership out of financial necessity, and thereby perpetuate the inequity we were fighting against in the first place, we decided to close.
I have heard Mayor Schewel emphasize the need for more private sector support. I’d like to respectfully counter that that was not the key to saving The Carrack. Our annual fundraiser drew 500 attendees four years in a row and many donors gave through our monthly sustainer program. What we needed was access to ongoing operational support so we could fairly pay our staff – so they could keep building on the development efforts we already had in place. These grants do not currently exist for organizations like The Carrack. The closest options, through our state and city arts councils, would have granted us a max of $10,000 annually, combined, and came with requirements that would have increased the strain on our already taxed staff.
I commend Monica, Akiva, and Marshall for their immense effort, and am heartened by the attention their proposal is receiving. It deserves it. I am also concerned that the work to protect, preserve, and nurture the arts has been left to us – the already overworked and underpaid artists and arts organizers – motivated by the urgency of our art scene’s potential disappearance and the harmful ways art has been wielded and discarded in the process of Durham’s gentrification.
“Good afternoon, members of the council, thank you for your time.
My name is Ed Hunt. I am a 35-year Durham resident; I moved here in 1984. I am here to speak in support of the independent artists initiative.
A quick history:
My partner and husband Jeff Storer run Manbites Dog Theater, a company we founded in 1987 in downtown Durham. We were a vagabond company for our first ten years, performing in makeshift spaces in Durham and all over the Triangle with very little funding.
In 1998, thanks to grassroots generosity from our audiences and supporters, we were able to raise enough money for a down payment and purchased a building on Foster Street, which became our home for the next 20 years. During our 31-year run, we produced over 150 plays and presented the work of dozens of other local theater companies and artists.
Last year we closed down as a producing company, sold our building, put the resulting assets in a fund, and transitioned into a support organization for Triangle theater companies and artists.
In August, we awarded our first round of grants, totaling over $38,000, to support 25 Triangle theater projects being produced this season. Over 60% of these projects are being created by Durham artists and companies.
Our grants aren’t large – the maximum amount is $2,500 – but we know from experience how important that kind of support can be for small companies.
Our overall strategy is simple: more support for theater means more local theater. More support for artists means more local art.
I want to live in a city known for its locally created art, and that means a city willing to support and encourage its artists. That’s why I encourage your support for the initiatives being proposed.
Thank you very much for your time.”
“Good morning! My name is Monèt Noelle Marshall. I am an artist, facilitator and cultural organizer. I serve on the Public Art committee and I am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. And I choose to call Durham home.
“Good Afternoon Mayor Schewel and City Council.
Thank you for fitting me in. I appreciate the opportunity and your attention as I speak before you today in support of the arts initiatives set forth in the proposals by Monica Byrne and her colleagues over these last sessions. Some of you may know me as a member of Durham Area Designers engaged in promoting good urban design for Durham through charrettes, including the vision plan for East Main Street and the light rail [The light rail is dead, long live the light rail.]. But you probably don’t know that I am a nationally recognized visual artist living in Durham since 2008, an art professor at Elon University and the recipient of multiple state and private grants from Vermont, New York and North Carolina as a 2010 North Carolina Arts Council Fellow.
The NCAC fellowship is an amazing award and as a fellow I can testify to its’ significance in bolstering an artist’s career. [So much so that I stood before the NCAC board of directors during a public hearing after a republican majority was elected to the legislature and arts funding was in doubt. I asked the chair and the board to protect the artist grants from defunding and was assured during that session that indeed they would be.] But NCAC fellowships only touch a small fraction of the artists in our entire state over a given year. What is being proposed here is a robust, visionary, localized granting program on par with other major cities which would ensure the longevity, vibrancy and diversity of the arts in Durham.
It has been written (Timberg) that the perfect combination for a strong cultural life in a city is “a slightly decaying downtown” we all know how Durham prides itself on its grunginess, “a university that gives you an interested public” we have two! [Three, if you count the suburb of Chapel Hill.] And “a scene”.
Here in lies the rub. A cultural, artistic scene requires investment and supporting institutions. Great cities have all recognized that long term significant investment in arts and cultural institutions needs to be part of their ongoing strategy. This is not just about importing Broadway here as the DPAC so effectively does. It is about attracting, engaging and supporting independent artists and arts organizations so that Durham is the generator of cultural export other cities desire. City’s which do so not only attract fortune 500 companies but see multiple spinoffs suffusing the local economy.
We do have the Durham Arts Council and their Emerging Artists Grants. But do they meet our needs? In a word no. The DAC and its granting process are completely insufficient to the task in their current iteration and will not be able to support or guide the mature growth and cultural investment necessary to make Durham a great cultural city. The grants themselves, progressive when first instituted, are now woefully inadequate financially to accomplish significant work. Fine for someone just out of school but as a true catalyst for serious artistic growth in the community they are wanting. And the DAC has a high proportion of administrative overhead compared to granting. Further, the grant process itself is hampered by limited thinking and lack of vision both by the board and those administering them resulting in a status quo that has not altered in over a decade.
No, a new visionary model for the arts in Durham required. And to reach a state of maturity all cities, [ states and nations] systematically invest in the arts. It is a sign of cultural and political maturity for a city to make such investments and Durham is poised to become that mature city. But only if you have the political will. The proposals authored by Ms. Byrne and her colleagues are a robust, mature vision for arts funding in Durham. Democratic government at its best should encourage and enhance the life of the mind. (Frohnmeyer) And so Durham needs to become a leader in the realm of ideas, to demand wisdom and vison from its citizenry and its institutions and to foster and substantially invest in this vision through access to and support for the arts, humanities and education.”
Above: Durham artist Meg Stein addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 5th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Meg Stein, Mary Alta, and Margaret Chapman for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #19. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), and here (November 21).
“My name is Meg Stein. I am a visual artist and a proud resident of Durham since 2006. I recently joined the Durham Cultural Advisory Board and also am a member of the local arts advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent. I am here to speak to the need for more funding to individual artists here in Durham. I haven’t seen the proposal that Monica Byrne, Marshall Botvinick and Akiva Fox are writing, so I can’t say whether I support it, though I am very grateful for all their hard work. And I do very much support the idea of direct city funding to independent artists, but only if that funding is used to repair not exacerbate inequality in the arts.
Being an artist is very hard, but some of us are advantaged—usually not because of anyone’s intention to do so, but because of how social and cultural structures in our country are designed. Because I am heterosexual, I married a man who makes a higher salary than I do, one that I benefit from. Because I’m white and my husband is white, I inherited through marriage financial resources that allowed us to buy a home—wealth that my husband’s family started accumulating back when only the white portion of our population could own businesses and homes. Having access to generational resources means that I have had financial support—from my in-laws and from a home equity loan. That has meant I’ve been able to only work part-time and spend the rest in mostly unpaid artistic work in my studio. The affect that this kind of middle class access has had on my artistic career is profound. Of course I’ve worked hard, but I didn’t gain these resources through hard work alone—but because of structures that advantage people, and artists, who are part of dominant groups.
I’m sharing all of this, because I’m not an anomaly. Everywhere I look I see how, even in our progressive city, white artists are more supported, more resourced, more listened to, more trusted than artists who are Black & Indigenous People of Color. Arts funding cannot and will not be impactful if it does not directly address these disparities and work to transparently, aggressively and clearly right our wrongs. Any city funding for independent artists must include mechanisms that guarantee a significant percentage of the funding will go to BIPOC artists and BIPOC-led organizations so that our whole community can benefit from this, not just some of us. I say we need to address racial equity over other forms of equity since race is the single greatest predictor of outcome across all of our institutions.
Many of us already know all this, but despite that these disparities remain, which is why good intentions are not enough. We need concrete mechanisms in place so that city funding outcomes do not rely on the jurors’ and administrators’ intentions alone. The City of Durham has precedent for including race-explicit factors in how it uses its money—for example, in how the city hires contractors. Since approximately half of Durham’s population are POC, then at least 50% of this funding should go to POC artists. Anything less is the equivalent of watching a concert where half the musicians don’t have microphones. Anything less hurts all of us because we as a community are not connected, are not supported, are not allowed to be creative. Thank you.”
“My name is Mary Alta, I’m the director of the Durham-based nonprofit Girls Rock North Carolina, and I’m here today to advocate for the proposed expansion of funding for the arts in Durham. Girls Rock NC was founded in Durham 16 years ago. We offer arts-based programs for girls, transgender youth, and gender- nonconforming youth in the Triangle, from second grade through high school.
Our mission is to work to empower young people of marginalized genders through music, creativity, and collaboration, to be more confident and engaged members of their communities. We do this work because we believe that creative collaboration, community building, and social justice education are some of the most powerful and impactful tools we can give young people that will serve them the rest of their lives.
Each year, we work with more than 350 young people through summer and intersession camps, in-school after school programs, a teen mentorship program, an adult program, and community workshops. We collaborate with other local youth-serving organizations like Student U, arts orgs like Music Maker Relief Foundation and Duke Performances, and loads of local businesses.
At our programs, young people learn to play instruments, write original music with others, and perform at music venues like The Pinhook or Motorco. They attend workshops on topics ranging from zine-making and DJ-ing to Transformative Justice and Oral History. Above all, we build a supportive community between and among young folks and our huge community of volunteers. Countless adults and young people come to us with stories about how this organization has changed their life. One in four of our young people receives financial assistance to attend our programs and we never turn anyone away. We do and build so much with so little.
Girls Rock NC began in Durham, grew up in Durham, and contributes hugely not only to the massive community surrounding music and the arts in the Triangle, but also to the lives of young people whose voices are traditionally not heard or not valued. Our mission is to elevate the voices of those most marginalized, and that is at the forefront of everything we do.
We work with more than 350 young people each year but can only pay a staff of two people. It’s difficult for me to talk to girls and trans kids about how much their voice matters and how they can use it to express their thoughts or to protect their communities when we the organizers know that our own work isn’t adequately funded or valued by our city. Thank you.”
“I’m Margaret Chapman and I’m co-chair of the Board of Directors of Girls Rock NC.
We are one of the first and longest running Girls Rock organizations in what has become an international movement. We have gone from being an exclusively volunteer-run summer camp in 2004 to having 2 year-round employees and a handful of seasonal staff who not only run 5 weeks of summer camp in two cities but also run multiple year-round programs. A quarter of youth participants in camps and afterschool get full or partial financial aid, and our teen-run programming is free. We are continually expanding our reach and our community, and we feel like the work we do amplifying youth voices and giving young people—especially girls, and trans, and gender-non conforming folks—a supportive space to be creative and to express themselves is more important than ever.
We do all this on a budget of around $150,000. About ¾ of that comes from programming fees; the rest comes almost entirely from small donations from our community.
Unfortunately, we are getting priced out of new Durham in many ways.
While Girls Rock is an international movement, it’s not an international organization. Each local girls rock is completely independent and autonomous. There is no umbrella organization that gives us any funding. When we look at other successful Girls Rock organizations, they often have access to government and foundational funding that just does not exist for the arts in North Carolina.
We still rely on hundreds of volunteers to run our programs. We do not want to exploit the passion of our overworked staff and incredibly generous volunteers. We are always nervous that we will burn through our seasonal staff because we can’t pay them enough, and that we over-rely on the good will of volunteers.
But given the rising cost of living in Durham, we are stretched to the limit making sure our current staff are paid a living wage. This is a situation many small local arts organizations face, one that sees many organizations closing because it is unsustainable.
Not to mention we’ve long envisioned having a space where we could run our year-round programming without having to pack up all of our musical gear each day, a place where our LGBTQIA teen group could meet regularly, where we could hold weekend and evening programming for our community.
But we are priced out of new Durham.
The women and non-binary folks who started GRNC and kept it going for the last 16 years represent part of what has always made Durham itself. The young people who have been part of our community over the last fifteen years are the activists, artists, musicians, community leaders who make Durham appealing today, who are driving this amazing and quite frankly overwhelming Durham renaissance.
We urge you to allocate competitive funding for small, local arts organizations like ours that could go towards operational costs. Please, as Durham continues to change, don’t leave us behind. Thank you.”
Above: Durham artist Emmett Holladay Anderson addressing City Council.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on November 21st, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Ranganathan Rajaram and Emmett Holladay Anderson for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #22. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), here (October 10), here (October 24), and here (November 7).
My name is Ranganathan Rajaram. I’m a DJ and Event Promoter – I’ve been based in Durham since 2013. My event resume includes DISHOOM at Motorco and Super Secret Dance Party at Arcana, 2 successful party concepts I’ve created and run for the past 6 and 4 years respectively.
Over time, my work has shifted towards high budget private events, which while more lucrative, have taken me away from community/nightlife events, which is why I got into DJing in the first place.
This led to the creation of DISHOOM, an open format international dance party. Rooted in Bollywood/Bhangra music, we combine a plethora of musical genres throughout the night, culminating in a high energy experience complete with live drums, dance lessons, and retro visuals on the big screen!
This involves quite a bit production. One event employs 15-20 people and has expenses in the neighborhood of $3k. The parties, while always well attended (200-400), don’t always turn a profit, and are usually break evens or slight losses. It’s increasingly difficult to cover all expenses out of pocket while running a business and supporting a family.
Recently I’ve been approached by a national organization that is interested in sponsoring the event. This sponsorship allows us to both increase artist pay and make admission free to the public.
Prior to this opportunity, it was my plan to end or downsize the party. Without this investment the event would be over as we know it.
However, I got lucky here. I was approached out of the blue – an extremely rare occurrence, which I am thankful for. It makes me realize that there is a lack of similar opportunity for artists in our city.
To be honest, I originally was skeptical of this proposal, and wasn’t planning on attending today. I’ve seen the benefit that this type of program would have on our community and must voice my full support.
The proposal for a direct artists fund would go a long way towards ensuring Durham specific events, which employ our artists and are for the people, are not lost as our city grows.
Thank you for your time.
Hello everyone. Thank you for giving me the time to speak today. I’m here to encourage you to allocate funds toward Durham’s independent artists.
I have been making theater in Durham since 2003, when my youth theater company rehearsed in what is now The Parlour. Since that time, I have come and gone from Durham a few times, forever drawn back to this vibrant city. I see so much potential: spaces that could make amazing blackbox theaters, people walking downtown on a Friday night who would go see independent theater, creatives moving here who I would love to collaborate with. The reality, however, is that until there is more funding directed toward independent creative endeavors, I simply cannot afford to live or make art in this city.
From 2006 to 2016 I was a member of a theater ensemble called The Delta Boys. As a group of energized young people with a relative amount of privilege, we were able to make theater without paying ourselves for that entire decade. We relied on the generosity of landowners to gift us rehearsal and performance spaces. In 2016, we produced a sold out 3 week run of ORLANDO at Manbites Dog Theater. We had no outside funding. We bought costumes, props, and paid designers from our own pocket. This was one of the most successful shows that Manbites Dog saw in its 30 year history. I don’t share this to pat myself on the back, but to express that even with full houses of paying audience members, we needed support. Our budget was minimal. We had a small cast and an even smaller crew. For the 3 months of labor that went into this show, we paid ourselves $1,000 each. And in terms of indie theater, this was a big paycheck. And only because of the privilege we were all coming from were we able to do this. Imagine how many talented artists in this city could never possibly afford to invest so much time into something with so little financial payback.
I love making art on a shoestring. I don’t think that art needs to be expensive to be moving. When I talk about money I’m talking about paying for artists’ time, rehearsal space, performance space, and essential technical elements. What would be a relatively small amount of money to Durham could be a game changer for an artist making a life in this city.
Several things have shifted for me lately. I turned 30. I started valuing the 20 years of training and experience I’ve put into my craft. I stopped saying yes to unpaid gigs. And I stopped asking other theater artists to work with me without pay. This has essentially put my work on hold.
With support from the city, I would be able to produce theater here again. Art has the unique power to bring community into conversation with itself. It allows us to dream bigger, to be the most compassionate versions of ourselves, and to do the necessary work of imagining new futures. Broadway tours at DPAC won’t do this, but I could give you a list of 50 local artists who will. By investing in independent artists, you would be investing in the continued deepening of these conversations and the resiliency of Durham’s vibrant ecosystem. Thank you.
Hello Council Members and city staff. It’s nice to be back and see all your faces! I’m here to provide an update on the status of our proposal on behalf of independent artists.
At the request of the Mayor, we’ve begun meetings with the Cultural Advisory Board, the CAB, whom he has charged with providing an evaluation of our proposal in time for the upcoming budget cycle. Yesterday, the chair of the CAB graciously permitted my colleague Marshall Botvinick and I to attend their annual retreat. We had lots of productive and clarifying conversations with city staff and board members. In light of the Mayor’s charge, the chair of the CAB has committed their next two meetings—in December and January—specifically to discussing and evaluating our proposal. Of course, our hope is that the CAB will choose to recommend it. The next steps are: (1) that the CAB members will send us questions and concerns about the proposal; (2) we will answer them and try to clarify them in a revised proposal, and (3) we will send it back to them by December 15th, in time for their meeting on December 18th. And we will go from there.
Meanwhile, there are two Work Sessions left in the calendar year. There may be more than three artists at each of them, since everyone is now rushing to have their say, but the formal speaker series that began in August will end on December 19th, as planned. We thank you, as always, for your attention.
Above: Durham artist Jessica Flemming addressing City Council. Photo by Ashley Melzer.
Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on November 7th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Jessica Flemming, Holland Gallagher, and Dawn Reno Langley for sharing their comments. You can listen to the audio here, starting at Item #29. See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22), here (September 5), here (September 19), and here (October 10), and here (October 24). 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 Jessica Flemming. I am a performing artist with over 20 years of experience. I have been working professionally as a theatre artist, technician, and educator for over 10 years and I’ve been living and working in North Carolina for over 7. Thank you all for your continued concern and attention to the needs of the artistic community in Durham. While I do not live within the city limits, the bulk of my non-creative career as well as almost all of my creative projects have been based in Durham. I have continued to pursue opportunities in Durham over Raleigh because of the culture and quality of the art that has been created here.
I was raised in a city with the exact opposite problems that Durham is currently facing. Flint, Michigan was a shrinking city with little hope and even less opportunity. Despite that, I grew up with access to art because of local, independent artists who believed in the importance of expression and community. And that might be why I fell in love with Durham in the first place. The artists I’ve met here have much of the same desire and determination as the people who inspired me to pursue the arts as a young person.
Throughout my creative career, I have worked alongside people with steadfast determination to create art and music and stories. And my life has been made richer because of these people and the work they create. I’ve seen the impact of truthful and meaningful art in a community. I’ve also seen artist’s sacrifice and struggle: The balancing act of art with 40+ hour work weeks, family, and other responsibilities; Choosing between gainful employment opportunities and the creative work that gives you purpose for little and inconsistent pay ( A cross roads I found myself at 3 years ago); The constant hunt for money, resources, and space with no sustainable solutions.
The work that my fellow independent artists have been doing is essential and we are very much looking forward to partnering with the Cultural Advisory Board. The possibility of city subsidized funding would be an immeasurable boon. The access to art, music, and storytelling can be life changing and life saving. There is so much talent, drive, and heart in this city. Making the investment and commitment to the people who are here would speak volumes. The opportunities and impact of sustainable art funding will pay dividends in the short and long term.
Growth and change in this city is inevitable. Innovation and development in Durham shouldn’t be limited to tech companies and other well funded institutions. Having a strong foundation of art and culture is only going to make this city stronger. Investing in Durham artists is a direct investment into Durham itself. Thank you.
Hello City Council. I’m Holland Gallagher, a working filmmaker here in Durham. I spent my adolescence in Durham and moved back to the city as an adult after graduating from UNC, working with the creative team at Runaway downtown and writing and directing films. Most recently, I’ve directed documentaries for the NC Arts Council on Durham rap group Little Brother and premiered my scripted series Hype at the Carolina Theatre.
Hype is a show about the shifting culture of our city; how the influx of startups and wealth has impacted the independent arts scene, and that’s what I’m here to speak about today. The changes in Durham have been sweeping and front facing over the last decade, and I think one of the selling points that the city has made in its pitch to newcomers is on the strength of the independent arts scene. This grant proposal ensures that that arts scene is supported and sustained.
Within the arts, I can speak specifically to film. Though the state of North Carolina has film tax credits that incentivize productions to shoot in our state, the floor to qualify is in the millions-of-dollars range. The credits are set up to court Hollywood, not to develop independent films done by creators within the state. The cost of cultivating emerging filmmaking talent in our city, of which there is plenty thanks to our great state universities, cannot fall solely on the filmmaker if we want to build infrastructure that lasts.
Durham artists and citizens carry a deep pride for our city, which echoes in our work. That sense of pride fueled Hype, which was to be a show like Atlanta or Portlandia that was place-specific, independent, while telling a Durham story. We crowdsourced just ten thousand dollars from the community and, using Durham actors and crew and locations, we created
twenty-minute episodes of a story that was by and for Durham. Between the cast, crew, extras, premiere attendees, and contributors to the soundtrack, that investment in the project reached hundreds of Durhamites, and thousands more have since streamed the show online. Everyone involved came together to make a web series about Durham not because it was profitable, or the best career play for everyone, but because of our collective love for the city and a desire to tell our own stories with our own voices.
However, particularly in recent years, I’ve seen many of my collaborators leave Durham for places where there is a more established industry. Grant programs like the one we are proposing, one that is comparable to our neighbors in proportional money given to directly to artists, affords an opportunity for the filmmakers and the storytellers of Durham to do their work
and tell our stories. It affords the time to build networks and grow infrastructure, the connective tissue of an arts scene. It affords relief from the immediate financial pressures that lead to artists fleeing to more developed arts-industry cities or quitting the arts altogether.
Without an investment in our own arts culture, I fear that Durham in its rapid growth, runs the risk of becoming the type of mid-sized city indistinguishable from its peer cities across America.
The arts are a city’s handwriting, that unreplicable part of its culture. We are working with the Cultural Advisory Board to refine our grant proposal, and I hope the council considers the value of our city’s artists and the great benefit that direct grants would afford them.
Good afternoon. First of all, I want to thank the members of the council and Mayor Schewel for your consideration and for listening to us speak to you today about a $1.2 million direct granting program for the arts.
I’m DRL, and I write. I’m also president of Rewired Creatives, Inc., a member of the Carolina Theater Board of Trustees, a teacher who runs workshops for writers in the Triangle area, a member of the North Carolina Writers Network, and a reviewer for Triangle Arts and Entertainment. I’ve written since I was able to put a sentence together, have 32 books out (with more in the works), and have written hundreds of articles, essays, poems, and reviews. In addition, I have taught at the high school and college level in the Triangle and currently teach an online class at the MFA level. I am a Fulbright scholar, a TedX speaker, and a PhD evaluator for several universities in Pakistan. I’ve straddled the creative communities here in Durham, becoming a rehabber/house designer responsible for bringing some of our buildings back to life, while writing, editing, and teaching to make ends meet.
When I moved to Durham in 2005, this city was locked down at night. Many of the downtown shops were shuttered or, worse, had plywood over their windows. It wasn’t a place where I wanted to live, but my husband had a job at Duke, so we made it work. I became involved with the writing community and connected with some local artists, and within a few years, I realized this city was coming alive, largely because of the creative individuals who live here and have invested their time and energy in the arts.
Everything that my fellow creatives do takes time and energy. Our output generates a lot of capital for the Durham area. Yet the artists, musicians, dancers, writers and other creatives usually make less than the federal poverty level of $12,490 a year/for one person. However, the cost of living in the Durham area is approximately $13,200 (and I’ve just accounted for average rent and utilities).
I’m one of the more successful writers, yet my income last year was below $13,000, though I work 60 hours a week. It’s a struggle, but we create every day because, here in Durham, we can see what the arts has made.
A $1.2 million direct granting program would not only help grow the current Arts community, thus creating a stronger creative economy in Durham, but it will also sustain the other businesses that ride on the coattails of the arts.
As former governor Jim Hunt said when I first heard him speak about the creative economy, “Creativity fuels innovation, and it’s what all states should strive to instill in the next generations.” Let’s do that for Durham. Let’s make sure the creatives who are here now are shown they’re appreciated and that they’re given the support they need to help the next generations of artists.
Thank you for your consideration.
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.
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?