Writing these words is my way of asking. Asking is hard for me. It is a spiritual and political commitment to activate my connections, ask for help to reach my aspirations, and advocate for what I need.
I am asking for conditions to change.
Next year will mark twenty-five years of my being in the theater. When I first came to that realization, a flood of tears pushed to the surface. I cried for three days on and off. It was a powerful release of emotion, recognition of desire, and assertion of spirit.
With this moment came a sharper clarity of capitalism’s war for the artist’s soul and anger at the working conditions many artists face.
Despite having an age range of 15- 40, a radical range of gender expressions, and a look that passes not only for my own ethnicity of Sri Lankan Tamil, but also for Guyanese, Ethiopian, Indian, Bangladeshi, Trini, Malaysian, Somalian, Fijian, Iranian, South African, and numerous other nationalities; I will have spent twenty-five years shut out of structures that says I look too unique, but in reality refuses to tell the stories of people who look like me. And like so many brilliant artists who would rather expend energy building work than swimming across moats, I will have spent twenty-five years building my career as an independent artist creating groundbreaking work on my own terms. I will have spent 15 years living in New York City as a working artist. And I will have spent 17 years as an artist committed to social justice movements.
More and more cultural workers and artists are relied upon by various movements and sectors to serve as educators, outreach workers, content providers, healers, spokespeople, and entertainers.
Yet, I know too many generous accomplished independent working artists contributing to justice movements who have been performing, painting, filming, writing, composing, creating over decades, who struggle to make even $15,000 a year. I also know too many artists who remain tied to day jobs that mute their light because there is no way they could take care of their child or mother or self on what they would make from their art.
These artists have had films screened at the Angelika, edited anthologies, presented at numerous Ivy League universities, been on HBO, been on the cover of magazines, performed at Lincoln Center, exhibited at high end galleries, have thousands of youTube hits, shared stages with legends, and rejected invitations to the White House. Despite achieving high cultural capital, many artists find themselves not receiving due financial compensation for their labor.
In New York City one bedroom apartments rent for $2666 a month on average and two bedroom apartment rents average $3331. It remains one of the most competitive cities for the arts. Many acclaimed independent artists struggle to keep rooftops over their heads and food on the table. All the while maintaining the bravado, divadom and allure of success necessary to score the next decently paid gig.
According to a survey by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) of visual and performing artists exhibiting in nonprofit exhibition spaces and museums in New York City between 2005 and 2010: “on average, the majority (58.4%) of respondents did not receive any form of payment, compensation or reimbursement for their participation, including the coverage of any expenses.”
Additionally power and privilege play itself out in artistic communities creating huge divides between artists with different accesses to resources. According to the same survey, women artists are less likely to get paid or reimbursed than their male counterparts. While the survey gives limited further statistics on gender, class, race, immigration status, ability and other demographic factors, we can imagine the infinite ways power and privilege play out in peoples’ lives. How do the challenges of being structurally discriminated increase for the artist responsible for their aging parents; the Trans or Queer artist ejected from their community, or the artist with disabilities unable to access necessary meds, assistance, or tools? The conditions in New York City and other large cities are increasingly exploitative. The practice of bars and clubs to pay their Jazz musicians, DJ’s, Hip Hop musicians and other live artists has faded. Today many musicians find themselves in a position to pay to play with bars requiring $3000 bar minimums or producers requiring artists to pay fees to open for bigger names.
These conditions can encourage the worst flavors of competition, secrecy, back talking, social climbing, and individualism amongst artists as they scrape and claw to access the most basic needs survive and create.
Yet despite the currents encouraging otherwise, many marginalized/underground/political/social justice/dissenting/counterculture/revolutionary/conscious/independent artists and cultural workers—sitting at intersections of identities and warding off onslaughts of multiple bigoted forces remain committed to principles of love, generosity, and justice both on stage and off; in the studio and out. So much of our creative energies are poured into making ends meet. And we do so beautifully– trading any skill at our disposal from childcare to choreography for skill-building, healthcare, website design, rehearsal space, studio time, video editing, and all else we need to create our work. We collaborate in our lives, sharing everything from photoshop to asthma pumps, guitar pedals, and ebt cards. We juggle who the check gets written to so that those with health conditions can stay on medicaid, mothers can stay on WIC, or that those who are undocumented can still get paid. We fight our landlords to stay in our rent-stabilized apartments and have each other’s backs when our only means of survival is one that is criminalized. We love through the hardest of times. We model joyous ways to live within our means. We are ballers on a budget. We are resilient.
I imagine that in the midst of mass mobilization centered around the needs and aspirations of working people, the poor, and other survivors of violence; the cultural worker and revolutionary artist can be cared for, housed, fed, and healed. The practices of sharing, feeding, housing, and caring are necessary for these movements to even exist. Because it is difficult to organize day after day on empty stomachs. It is also harder for a system to squash an artist who threatens the power structure when that artist is backed by ten’s of thousands of people.
In a US context, however, progressive movements often center NGO’s, nonprofits, and universities. There are few legal provisions to protect artists’ rights. In Canada the rights of artists are protected through a legal provision that mandates the payment of artist fees by non-profit organizations and ‘artist-run spaces.’ In the US we often see artists being exploited and pitted against each other by dynamics in the same movements they have committed their lives to. Without the power of a mass movement, artists catalyzing new conversations and speaking from the margins are at greater risk of being silenced, slandered, and shut out by the dominant power structures they challenge.
These dynamics not only impact the artist but often also the survivor. In the non-profit, ngo, and academic settings it is the artist, survivor and artist-survivor who serves as the heart coaxers. We perform, present, and speak at galas, fundraisers, events, and conferences for free in front of audiences who make two, three, four, five or more times than we do. We are the outreach workers, educators, spokespeople, content providers, connectors of dots, and heart string pullers. However, rather than giving artist fees a distinct budget line as institutions do for other contract workers or vendors; we are treated as what the financial market considers a speculator. We are often expected to take a risk and perform/present for free with the hopes of exposure and a paid gig. This practice systemically positions artists to work for free for audiences with greater privilege.
Imagine if conditions allowed artists and other people who’s calling is to cultivate and channel insight, critique, light, laughter, wisdom, reflection, and mourning– to commit their lives to implementing and developing their skills. Imagine if more artists were able to commit their time, creativity, and thoughts to their art rather than making ends meet. Imagine if the production, distribution, and, evolution of art was back in the hands of the people.
Thus, I am writing these letters below as a means of asking. I am asking we work together to change these conditions. I am asking we work towards a time where we are all free from violent and exploitative conditions. A future where all people are able to engage in work that joyfully utilizes their full range of gifts and skills. A time where our collective utility provides healing, sustenance, and evolution for human societies.
It is hard. It is hard not to compare. It is hard when someone seems to come out of nowhere and catch all this shine and your hard work goes unrecognized. It is hard to pour your everything into a project and barely have enough money to live. Or to be tied to a type of work that doesn’t serve you or your art or hurts you because that’s what you need to survive. Or have a brilliant vision, the skills to execute it, but not the resources. Jealousy, fear, and bitterness are sign posts. They help direct us to our deeper desires and wishes.
For many these desires are simple. We want to be seen, recognized, granted the space and resources to create, live, and care for our loved ones. We want to be the best artists we can possibly be and make this world a less harmful place.
The details of those dreams are ours to unveil. Let our jealousy and fears teach us about our wants. When our community, comrades, and friends become our fiercest competition, perhaps we’re fishing in a pool too small. After all, we are part of a universe. We are part of a movement. Let’s reach for larger platforms in the service of justice and peace. In defense of this earth. Let’s break down those walls into larger, more resourced, playgrounds and laboratories together. Let our critiques evolve us instead of break us. As we claim our space, let’s create more space for others. Let’s complement and collaborate. Let’s create artistic communities where we heal, trust, and build– where we can share our selves, resources, knowledge, and connections. Let’s tie our success to each other.
And to those of y’all who (like me!) find it so hard to do– ASK. In whatever way is yours. Ask, by writing a grant. Or asking a friend. Or writing a blog post. Or making an intention. Write your wish on a leaf and let it be carried away by wind or water. Sing it in your lyrics. Paint it on the walls. Ask to get paid. Even if you don’t need to get paid, ask in solidarity with those who do need to (and then donate the money or invest in another artist). There is nothing wrong with asking for the support you need to reach your aspirations. We are interdependent creatures. We need each other to survive. It is better to ask than to force, demand, exploit, or manipulate. If it seems there’s no answer or the answer is no or you don’t receive exactly what you want– it’s all good, don’t take it personal, and keep asking.
Dear Non Profits,
Let’s imagine new organizational structures, policies, and roles that implement and integrate the arts, support artists, increase organizational capacity, infuse deeper creativity, and is more sustainable for all involved. Create budget lines for artist fees, materials, accommodations, and travel. Compensate your artists as you would any other vendor, contractor, or consultant. Collaborate with artists in ways that generate revenue for both you and the artist(s). Intentionally integrate creative tools with leadership development, outreach, communication, basebuilding, and providing services. Collaborate with artists in disseminating shared messages and catalyzing deeper conversations with new audiences. Create roles that allow space for staff to cultivate and implement their own creativity.
Let’s work together to implement the vision of the early ethnic studies movements. A vision that fosters interdisciplinary discussions between scholars, organizers, artists, healers, other practitioners, and community. Let’s work together in leveraging resources towards deepening progressive thought and action. Support artists, organizers, and community members by learning how to access the resources for speaker and artist fees, accommodation, and travel. Learn the resources landscape of your institution. Collaborate with artists to create programming that reaches beyond the current borders of academia, deepens the ethics of research practices, reinvents pedagogical approaches, integrates artistic tools, increases participation, and engages multiple intelligences and modes of learning. Collaborate with artists in disseminating shared ideas and catalyzing deeper discussions through multiple mediums in as many spaces we can.
Dear Funders and Patrons,
Let’s actualize an environment where working artists are recognized for what they contribute and independent artists receive a living wage. Mandate that the organizations, initiatives, and projects you fund provide artist fees. Invest and cultivate the longterm health and success of the artists you support. Increase your accessibility to marginalized communities. Develop application processes that do not replicate administratively violent dynamics. Cultivate solidarity between artists of varying cultural and capital attainment as well as between institutions, curators, scholars, and artists. Through deeper investment, support the development of environments where artists thrive rather than barely survive. In doing so increase the potential for paradigm shifting work to emerge.
Without you the artist’s work is incomplete. If you are shaped or moved by an artist, amplify their reach. Let others know about their work. Talk about it with your friends, share their work on social media, and give donations when you can. You are the independent artist’s marketing machine. Allow the artists who have touched you to make mistakes and grow. Most of all keep your artists in your thoughts and hearts. Make intentions and wishes for their journeys, cause their paths aren’t easy.
With Love and Faith,
For more info regarding the rights of working artists in the U.S. go to W.A.G.E.
- perform at the Opening Ceremonies of the War Resisters International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa on July 4th at the historic Cape Town City Hall for an audience 1000 people!
- performing and collaborate with anti-capitalist Hip Hop Collective Soundz of the South on July 7th.
- work with war-affected communities in the North of Sri Lanka
Thus instead of sticking to their work plan of setting up paid work for the fall– they’ve taken a huge leap of faith to answer spirit’s call. They’ve spent the last 6 weeks raising funds/stitching logistics; and will spend the next 6 weeks doing incredible, much needed, yet unpaid work.
As of June 22nd $3309 has been thru grants and individual donations. We need $2200 MORE by the time we leave this June 28th!! to help cover the rest: Click Here to DONATE.