April 7, 2011 — There are three big lies about artists.

The first big lie is that all artists are, by definition, emotional, unstable, constantly in need of attention: in short, children. The second big lie is that there is something highly romantic about struggling to practice an art form for no or next-to-no compensation. The third big lie is that the dream of making it in Hollywood, or being produced on Broadway or playing a jury foreperson for one episode of Law & Order: Winnetka will, one day, make it all better. These three big lies have been told to artists, about artists and by artists. And all exist for the same purpose: they are the three parts of The Starving Artist Myth, an informal marketing campaign to make us feel less guilty about expecting talented artists to entertain us for free.

Imagine an accountant. She is a good accountant. You know, because you have been told, that most accountants in Chicago dream of, one day, being accountants in New York, where all the real accounting is done, and that the accounting work happening in Chicago is, essentially, practice for the real thing, which happens elsewhere. You also know your accountant isn’t in it for the money: you have heard her talk of her love of accounting, how she’s dreamed of being an accountant since she was a little girl, and besides, you’ve heard many famous accountants reflect wistfully on their Starving Accountant Days. To top it off, you suspect (because everyone knows this) that inside your accountant’s warm, professional exterior lurks an overgrown child; needy, volative, constantly seeking attention. How much would you expect to pay this person for the service they provide you?

You probably wouldn’t expect to pay her. You’d expect a thank you note for letting her do your taxes.

And if our accountant friend goes unpaid for long enough, she’s not gonna be a Chicago accountant forever. And we’ll all have one less place to get our taxes done. How can she do this, we might think. I thought she loved accounting. She does. But also, she has to eat.

You, as a Chicago theatre-goer, have more power in sculpting the future health of Chicago theatre than you probably realize. I would like to suggest how you can use it.

Most of the art-making institutions putting work on Chicago stages have been granted the privilege, by the state of Illinois, to exist as non-profit corporations. This means that, by law, they receive a benefit (exemption from sales tax and tax-deductions for their donors) in exchange for providing a service to the community. Non-profit institutions are based on values. These values define the service they provide.

This is where you come in.

Do the folks that run the non-profit theatre you support pay artists fairly for the entertainment they provide? If they are not yet able to do so, do they have a plan for how to get there? Are they trying? Do they value the people that help them achieve their mission, or treat them as disposables? Are they so focused on crafting an award-winning, critically-acclaimed hit play that they refuse to invest in people?

Let me be clear. By no means would any reasonable person suggest that an artist, any artist, is entitled to make a handsome living simply for engaging in the creative act, regardless of its quality. Nor would any reasonable person suggest that if everyone involved with an institution is volunteering, that actors at those places should be paid high wages. However, if an actor you love is working for nothing, if a writer you love is writing for nothing, if a director you love is directing for nothing, and if the theatre you support is profiting by letting them, it is time to ask yourself: are you part of the problem?

Allow me to offer some thoughts on the solution:

If you are an actor, playwright or director, and someone who offers you a job will profit because of your work, and you will not, don’t take the job. BUT, you might say, if I don’t take the job, someone else surely will. Fine. Let them.

If you are a theatre administrator, and you are paying artists the lowest amount they might possibly accept to help you earn your annual salary, you are profiting at the expense of the long-term health of Chicago theatre. Do better.

If you play a role in marketing your theatre’s work, and all you tell your audience members about are awards, four-star reviews, Jeff nominations and critical-acclaim at the expense of introducing them to your values, and the individual people that earn all that ink, you are doing artists a disservice. Do better.

If you are an audience member or a supporter of non-profit theatre, and you haven’t asked the folks at the theatre you support how they compensate artists now, and how they plan to in the future, do so. If they don’t have an answer you believe in, take your money elsewhere where it will be used as an investment in the future of Chicago theatre.

All these actions will require some level of bravery, but they are all within your power, and they are essential to the long-term health of Chicago’s arts scene. Because if you continue to lead, to patronize, to attend, to perform for, or to finance art-making institutions that do not attempt to compensate artists fairly, this is what will happen:

Many years from now, you will have a hankering to see a play, or watch a movie, or take in a concert. But this particular weekend there will be no plays, or movies, or concerts you wish to see. And some days later you will meet a creative and talented someone, in your office, or bridge club, or softball team. They will be a marketing assistant, or a real estate agent, or a school teacher, or a police officer and they will make you laugh, and they will tell great stories, and they will be creative. And you’ll think to yourself my goodness, this person makes me laugh, tells great stories, is creative: they should be an actor, or playwright, or musician. And you’ll mention this to them. And they’ll say oh, I did that for awhile. And you’ll say well, my goodness, why’d you give it up? And they’ll say because there was no money in it.

And it will be your fault.

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