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Should I stay or should I go?: The question that plagues Minnesota artists

Minnesota, a great place to make art, unless you want to make a living making art
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Minnesota, a great place to make art, unless you want to make a living making art.

It probably should be noted, at some point, in some local media, that it is pretty much impossible to directly make a living making art in the Twin Cities. There are arts-related jobs that will provide somebody with a steady paycheck — although, generally, not a great one. 

One can go into arts administration; there’s some money there. One might become a professional grant writer, which I am told can bring in a decent paycheck now and again. One can become an arts educator, which may put somebody into the middle class, depending on the institution. If you’re in the fine arts, you might go into commercial art, and fill your bank account with checks from ad agencies. If you’re an actor, well, you can always try to find work doing singing telegrams and the like. You might become a critic, like me, and make a scurrilous income by having an opinion, sometimes ill-informed, about the arts.

This is not to denigrate any of these jobs, except, of course, critic. But it should be noted that few people get into the arts hoping to dress as a rabbit outside a mall store. But I know almost every actor who has any sort of established résumé in this town, and will guess that the number who make their living exclusively from theater and film or television projects is, at most, a handful. I know a lot of artists, and few of them make more than a few thousand dollars a year from their own paintings or prints. Our two orchestras support several dozen classical musicians, but band members? Get out of town — a gig will generally pay, at most, $100 for a night. Divide that up between six band members, count up the number of hours you spent between sound check and when you get paid at the end of the night, and you discover you’ve worked for less than minimum wage. By my estimation, it takes the average band member, performing once per week, more than a year to just pay off the cost of an instrument — never mind the cost of amps and cables and, of course, beer.

I don’t know what this says about Minnesota, I really don’t. We are a town that rightfully prides itself on our arts scene, and yet there is not a mechanism that allows our artists to make a living at it. When my mood about this is at its darkest, and I hear that oft-repeated claim that we have more theater seats per capita than Manhattan, I feel like offering a rude response. I want to say that we should not judge our theater scene by how many seats we have, but by how much money our actors make. 

I don’t know whose fault this is. I suppose some of the blame lies with artists and arts organizations. I can speak about the world of theater best, because it is what I have the most direct experience with. The current tax laws encourage the development of nonprofit theater institutions, and those institutions have developed in such a way that most of the money goes into rent and administration. Very little, if any, of that money trickles down, and when it does it typically starts with the tech staff, with a little for the playwright (not much; most playwrights see less than $3k per year for their work), and even less, if any, for the actors. There is an actor’s union, Equity, that is supposed to protect against this, but local actors find themselves  struggling with whether to join Equity and only get infrequent paid work or not join at all, which gets them more work but no pay. But even actors who are Equity members and work all the time rarely make enough money for it to be more than a supplement to their real income, which comes from other sources.

I know it is not impossible to monetize the arts. There are really only two ways to do it: One must find a large audience that is willing to pay a little, or a small audience that is willing to pay a lot. Film and television use the former model, while fine arts choose the latter. A third method, the nonprofit method, is only as robust as its donor base, and when you have a really lively and populated arts scene, that money gets spread awfully thin, and most of it tends to get gobbled up but a few big organizations. For whatever reason, the arts in the Twin Cities has generally failed at both mass communicating and developing a collector’s market that is willing to shill out a lot of clams. It is as if some occult hand were at work, discouraging the arts market.

Admittedly, things are bad all over. The Twin Cities is not unique in having a limited arts market, and the arts tend to be a sort of canary in the coal mine of the economy — when it takes a nose dive, funding for the arts gets cut pretty quick. But we also know that this does not need to be the case — it may seem now that Hollywood is quite naturally the center of the film world. It is, after all, located in the second most populous city in America. But when the film industry started, Los Angeles was a speck on the map, and Hollywood itself consisted of barley, vineyards, and citrus fields. Los Angeles was a desert, and thrived despite its many limitations, instead of thanks to its advantages. Look at other centers of the arts in America, where people actually make a living making art. Austin, which is one of the animation capitals of America? Newark, which boasts some of the country’s highest paid fashion designers? Washington, D.C., which spends more per capita on arts than any city in America? Atlanta, which is one of America’s highest-paying cities for artists?

These are not, in general, cities defined by their hugeness; their success is contingent on either them locating a mass market for the art they produce or developing a base of high-rolling art collectors, something that, for the most part, the Twin Cities have failed to do. And the blame for this can’t just be laid at the feet of the artists. Industries develop with the assistance of state and local governments, but we allocate our tax breaks to other industries and literally bribe sports teams to remain. 

And our audiences are notoriously chintzy — if you are part of an audience of 100 for a piece of theater, it’s going to cost you, and it’s still a bargain compared to seeing a band in Target Field. That $100 ticket you paid for a seat in a stadium will net you a worse view and a higher profit margin for the performer than the $20 you pay for a theater ticket, and all it really does is point out that we value out-of-state performers more than we value our own.

I suppose the unasked question is the following: Is this important? Minnesota has a laudable arts scene, and has managed it without having to pay its artists a living wage. We could probably keep on like this forever.

I don’t have an answer for that. Of course I think artists deserve to get paid; I am also an artist, and it’s always puzzled me that I make a lot more money as a critic — an industry that is secondary and dependent on an arts scene to exist — than I do as an artist. I do know this: For every artist who stays in the Twin Cities, scratching for a living that will support them while they make art, we lose a few to cities that actually pay their artists for the art they make. Some boomerang back — moving is no guarantee of financial success, and Minnesota has benefits to offer that sometimes outweigh those found making a living in the arts. But others stay away forever, an ongoing drain of the Twin Cities talent pool. And it’s often, although not always, people who are ambitious and risk-taking, and I think those are the sorts of people that you should want in your arts scene, rather than want them to leave.

Beyond that, having a monetized arts scene is a tremendous source of income for a city — and not just through taxing the profits, but also through secondary industries, like tourism. As an arts patron, I find it especially frustrating that the Vikings can squeeze money out of us just by threatening to leave, and yet we lose dozens, hundreds, thousands of artists per year and we scarcely notice.

I suppose I think the Twin Cities should be the sort of place people move to if they want to make a living in the arts, instead of move away from. And this strikes close to home for me, as this is a decision I am faced with, and in my life I’ve left Minnesota on a few occasions looking for better horizons as a professional artist. In general, I have found them elsewhere, and so Minneapolis, which is my hometown and a place that I think I have demonstrated enormous civic pride for, can only hold me for as long as I am OK not making a living doing the things that I trained to make a living doing.

I suspect there are a lot of artists wrestling with this just now, and I suspect it’s just the sort of thing you have to always wrestle with when you’re a Minnesota artist. I don’t know just what the solution is to this. I do feel comfortable, however, saying that it’s a problem.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Martin Owings on 01/11/2012 - 02:09 pm.

    Max- I’ve heard it said often that for a Minnesota artist to be appreciated they have to be appreciated elsewhere first. It was true when Wanda Gag, Frances Greenman and Grant Wood were artists and it is today. Minnesotans seem so insecure about appreciating and celebrating their own that they’d rather import lesser quality art than to recognize what’s in their own back yard.

    I think practicing art here is both frustrating and humbling for many. If you do get recognized as a, “homegrown” talent, than you’re often pigeon-holed as a, “local” talent. As if your art might only play well in Minnesota or the Midwest.

    In the end, I create art for the love of it because I sure as hell couldn’t feed my family doing it. Maybe that says as much about my art as it does Minnesota, but either way it sure would be nice if we could all appreciate our local artists more, lord knows they could use the attention.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/11/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    My oldest son, former leader of a very popular local band, moved west to california 8-10 years ago and hasn’t been back since. I don’t know if that means the gigs are better there, the weather is friendlier, or the distance from his parental unit is farther.

  3. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/11/2012 - 04:30 pm.

    a propos

  4. Submitted by Cole Sarar on 01/11/2012 - 05:06 pm.

    I have tons of friends in California, basically living on top of one another, trying to eek out a living as artists. Just as hard as here, but different. We’ve got a lot of grant opportunities that they’re Mad Jealous of.

  5. Submitted by John Heimbuch on 01/12/2012 - 07:52 am.

    “Does this market support me and my work?” is certainly a worthy question for any artist to ask, no matter where they live and what their medium. It’s also worth asking “Is it important to me that I make a living from my art?” Those answers are deeply personal and will steer careers to various locations.

    New York has a great reputation for paying some of its artists. There are also a lot of artists who go broke trying to live there.

    The actual crux of your argument doesn’t seem to be about the Twin Cities specifically, but about national visibility vs. local visibility, not just for individual artists, but on a community-wide scale. The majority of Broadway tickets are bought by tourists because Broadway has established itself as a thing people should do when they’re in New York, and New York is a major tourist destination. Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway have the same basic problems we do.

    The secret isn’t community support. If anything, Minnesota has a more art-supportive culture than most other cities. Rallying within your community for additional support is important (and a continual process of reinvestment and reinvigoration), but if you want to reach a larger audience, you need to engage them in ways that are meaningful to them. This means tapping into their mediums.

    It’s no great surprise that the Minnesota bands that hit it big did so because of performances and activities that brought them outside of Minnesota. The fame that TV and national radio brought them only reflected and improved their status within their home state. The same is true of arts organizations (Guthrie, Walker, Playwrights Center, MPR) who have built national reputations. Outside validation justifies and allows that local love, but maybe more importantly, it also provides MUCH NEEDED financial support.

    If anything, we need to focus on putting Minnesota on the map of artistic achievement on a national level rather than railing against the quality of local support we already have.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/12/2012 - 11:59 am.

    For much of human history, consumption of the arts was the domain of the wealthy. That remains true today, in many fields. How many of us own an original painting, drawing or sculpture? Damn few, I suspect. I own one, a photo taken by a friend of an acquaintance. The other original art in my home is either my own, my son’s or my wife’s.

    Why? Cost is a good part of it. Yes, I know that an artist may have spent days on a piece, but time doesn’t always translate into value. I think the distribution system is faulty, as well. Unless artists have a means of displaying their own art, and are reasonable business people to boot, they have to pay someone else to market their work for them. That means space, money and time, all of which results in a substantial increase in the cost of the work. Frankly, most of it simply doesn’t translate as worth that cost to most people. So, original works of art become the domain of those with disposable income, lots of it.

    Mass production is a factor. I can buy a decent print of any number of world class works of art for a relative pittance (though framing it may cost me a relative arm and leg).

    Mass communication is another factor. I can listen to the finest music ever made for absolutely nothing today. So why spend my time listening to someone I’ve never heard of or, horrors, paying an exhorbitant amount of money for a ticket to a live performance which may be a complete disaster? Mass communication and mass production not only have taught us to expect the very best in some areas (television notwithstanding) but they have raised the bar for all artists, who must now compete not simply with local talent but with the best the world has to offer. Why risk a live performance when I can get a known commodity on disc, on demand, on Pandora, or in any number of other ways?

    Again, money determines what I can and what I am willing to do when it comes to the arts. If I can spend only $50 on the arts this month, I don’t want to waste it. If I can spend $500, I’m willing to risk disappointment for the chance of something fantastic. Thus, artists generally require a large population in order to support even a small percentage of them as full-time artists. (Seems to me I’ve heard a similar argument regarding professions sports of late.)

    Minnesota, apparently, doesn’t have the critical mass of well-healed arts lovers necessary to support a larger artistic community, whose members don’t have to hold day jobs.

  7. Submitted by Marianne Combs on 01/12/2012 - 01:48 pm.

    I agree with John and James. There are many factors affecting how much money artists make, but I would argue that compared to other states, MN artists are doing very well.

    You state in your article “we lose dozens, hundreds, thousands of artists per year and we scarcely notice.” Where are you getting these numbers from? And how does it compare to the number of artists moving TO Minnesota? I just wonder if this isn’t a natural ebb and flow.

  8. Submitted by Nick Legeros on 01/12/2012 - 04:07 pm.

    As a working artist with a family I’ve often been baffled by why I’ve been fortunate enough to have a career as an artist. In the past few years I’ve come to realize that it has been my involvement in my community that has given me this chance.

    Right out of grad school I got a job teaching at a local community art center. Teaching is a great way to connect to a bunch of people and since I was able to use the studio facilities for my own work I was there all the time. I got to know many people, not just my own students, and volunteered for fundraising events and exhibitions. My first sales and commissions were to people I knew beforehand. I found this to be very satisfying as I wanted to know that those who owned my work had some connection to me.

    I know many artist who just want to go to a studio, make art and not deal with the public. They hope to be discovered or acknowledged by critics and collectors and thrust into art history. Okay, a gross simplification but you see my point. Events like Art-A-Whirl where artists open their studios to the public are successful because the public can quickly understand an artist’s work by viewing their environment and talking directly to the artist. Unfortunately Art-A-Whirl happens once a year. What if artists spent more time looking for clients? Not just anyone with money but people with whom you had a meaningful connection. People at your kid’s school who you met while helping with a play or sporting event. If you sit on the board of a neighborhood organization it may take a while for people to know that you make art but when they hear your vision for revitalizing a playground they soon will.

  9. Submitted by James Blum on 01/12/2012 - 05:25 pm.

    I think that there are different kinds of success for both different people and in different artistic pursuits. For example, you can make a modest living as a “local” musician (Willie Murphy, John Koerner, Chan Poling, Mark Mallman, etc.) but your income, and impact, may be limited. Likewise, there are many people making a living in the theatre in the TC, although some (most?) supplement their incomes with other, non-theatrical gigs (Mo Perry, the Scrimshaws, etc.). Visual artists probably can’t do it without supplementing, and Mr. Hamilton’s point about marketing your art to potential customers is well-taken.

    There are other “subsidies” out there for artists as well. One method is to fall in love – and cohabit – with a non-artist with gainful employment. That way, if artist makes $X and non-artist partner makes $2X or $4X or whatever, happiness may still ensue (though I know firsthand that money issues can manifest themselves in those situations).

    The other point I’ll make is that although it may chafe to have to work at some non-artistic travail to support a low-paying arts habit, that doesn’t make it much different than the “teacher” who is working as a customer service agent, the “urban planner” whose day job is managing a Starbucks, the “anthropologist” who staffs the kiosk at MOA, or the “book editor” who is a financial analyst by day. Making a living at something other than the field you were trained in is pretty ubiquitous these days.

  10. Submitted by James Miller on 01/14/2012 - 01:31 pm.

    My daughter, who was raised in SF, went to school and has stayed in Kansas City. She has two main “jobs” in Kansas City: Co-owner of a women’s lingerie/swimsuit clothing store and working visual artist (commissioned and exhibited murals, paintings, album covers, and sculpture). KC is somewhat similar to the Twin Cities in size (100K larger). We (her stepmom and I) feel that KC has more local support for visual artists than Mpls. The Walker is generally geared to well-known international artists. The KC museums (Kemper, Nelson-Atkins, Nerman Museum) are not as focused on the international names and regularly include work by KC artists. In short, unless you’re a Rauschenberg or Matthew Barney, you need a second revenue stream to survive in most places. You also have to work nonstop to promote yourself and to get your name outside of your local domain.

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