As a culture we are crap at talking about money. But when the thing you need to sell is of intangible value (a piece of performance rather than a certain amount of gold, or wheat or trout) talking honestly and assertively is vital. Bryony Kimmings’s blog post last week highlighted how straight forward ‘I need to charge this much because doing it costs me this much’ conversations are often far from straightforward and how hard this makes surviving as an artist.
Bryony acknowledged the sense of taboo around the subject of money, bracing herself to be brave and warning readers to get a cup of tea. Reading the post got me thinking about how useful it would be to have an open conversation amongst artists about how we afford to make work in a world reluctant to pay.
It’s a conversation I wish I could have been part of seven years ago, when I started making and touring my own work. I was eighteen and had formed a theatre company upon leaving the BRIT School for the Performing Arts. I didn’t have a clue how to speak to venues, what kind of funding was available and how to define the value of what we were making. It may sound like a sort of gap year shambles, but the work was good and eventually we started getting properly funded tours, Arts Council supported residencies and (most) people stopped expecting us to do gigs just for expenses and a few bags of watsits (the first time I saw a rider I said ‘someone’s left a load of drinks in our dressing room’) When I started my practise as a solo artist a few years later I was much wiser about the lie of the land. It was a character building (i.e. unnecessarily difficult) learning curve.
And I’m still learning. Recently I wanted to bring in an artist to collaborate on a piece. I told her how much funding I had from ACE and she said her day rate was more. I had the perverse reaction of being massively excited by this, thinking ‘shit, my day rate should be more. I should have a clearer concept of the value I place on my time’.
As you may have guessed I am terrible at talking about money. I used to not ask when and how much I would get paid because I couldn’t force these questions to pass my lips. Once I did weeks of unpaid ‘training’ before psyching myself up to call and tell the company (anxiously reading from my pre-prepared script) that I actually couldn’t afford to keep coming in for free.
But I’m starting to think it’s not just me that’s crap at talking money. Perhaps the stumbling blocks artists face, the constant expectation that we will do things for free and make up the difference when we’re underpaid are a result of this silence-an expectation that we’ll suck it up and keep quiet. And if you don’t know how other artists stay afloat financially it is very hard to build a picture of what’s possible and what’s acceptable.
So I am going to be honest. Which means admitting something I’d rather not…
I have been enabled to be an artist because I’m from a certain background. It doesn’t feel good to admit this (because it doesn’t mean I haven’t worked fucking hard and fished popcorn out of the toilets in the Odeon to fund doing what I want to do) but it does feel important. There are people who’ve had a whole lot more help (they haven’t had to do ‘performing’ jobs at children’s parties that have been basically cleaning up children’s excitement-induced-vomit) but let’s be clear-I am middle class, my parents don’t bank roll me but they provide a pretty huge safety net, have never told me to get a proper job and sometimes this means I can do things that would simply not be possible otherwise, like internships that don’t provide a single sandwich.
I have been able to live at home for significant periods over the last few years which meant working four days a week and rehearsing for three was a viable option. And I have been able to take risks, both creative (will anyone really want to see a show about animals who want to be people?) and financial (will anyone notice that show in the meat grinder that is The Edinburgh Fringe?) because failure would mean an empty wallet and a battered ego but not a visit from the bailiffs. I’m starting to make art pay (a bit) but I don’t know if I would have got here if things had been different.
I want to be honest about this because we haven’t got it right yet. Of course artists need to cut their teeth and prove their worth before being given serious funding, but I’m worried that the pathways open to what Bryony calls ‘those poor fuckers’ the emerging artists are creating a pretty homogenous pool. I worry about ‘free’ fringe and other free events, because when no one is getting paid someone’s still paying (for rehearsal rooms, train tickets and accommodation, food, posters, the ten pints of milk you throw around in the show) and that person is often Granddad. And I don’t think who has the most generous Granddad is the fairest arbiter of who gets to make work. I worry about venues increasingly expecting artists to top up funding with kick-starter campaigns, which basically is saying ‘we can’t afford to pay you so just ask around your mates’ (I know some artists make it work because they have a lot of fans, but let’s get real, however successful I am I’m not One Direction and fandom isn’t a huge feature of the art and theatre world. If people like my work they are already paying for it by buying tickets) I worry about internships which provide access to the inner workings of theatres and arts organisations and offer invaluable chances to establish relationships because these opportunities are only available to those who can afford not to be paid. I worry about the fact you often have to invoice several times to get paid because… COME ON!
I’m finally starting to emerge from ‘emerging’-that category of artist that means people expect you to turn up and perform for a plate of pasta and some exposure (I’m not wingeing, it was very nice pasta and the work probably was a bit bonkers at that stage). In the last few years I’ve started to get funding and support from venues and ‘teaching’ no longer means £7 per hour and cleaning up sick. I’m lucky but I’ve also played the system. I left school and went straight into touring with my theatre company, feeling like I was bravely forgoing university to get out there with my work and learn on the job. Four years in I found myself gazing at my marigold encased hand as I cleaned a toilet and thinking ‘I want that student loan’. My degree has been fantastically rewarding but I didn’t go to university to learn how to be an artist but to fund it.
So at the moment I live off student finance, occasional bits of funding and yes, my mum. Let’s say these things out loud. It’s not the balance I aspire to but I’m proud of where I am, acknowledge I’ve been massively lucky and that whatever I do in the future this will have been a step that’s not available to everyone.
In May I graduate and I plan to make a go of it as an artist. I’m 25 and a lot of my friends have ‘proper jobs’. Scarred by experiences of ITC courses where artists twenty years my senior would tell me knowingly ‘you’ll be shopping in the reduced section your whole life’ I’m doing my best to be positive about the leap. For those of us who look up to Bryony as an artist who is making it work, her post is a bit terrifying. But I believe one thing-the more we can be honest about what it costs us to make work and how we manage to pay the more informed and assertive artists can be.
This article was first published on Anna’s blog, and is republished here with her permission.