A Call to Sustain Our Freelance Selves
by Dalton Alexander
Our performance scene is not financially sustainable. While my perspective and argument are US-centric, this also applies globally. We artists require practice and we attempt to live off of performances, lectures, showings, or anything that exposes work to a broader audience. Capitalism requires our work be a commodity for sale. Regardless of grant-funding, makers are frequently required to sell outrageously priced tickets - yay $20 “artist tickets” that I can’t afford; and a genuine yay! to pay-what-you-can/NOTAFLOF evenings - often ostracizing current practicing artists due to our lack of funds.
If we want any sort of live performance art that values the work more than making money, that invites conversation without having to pay for it, there must be another way to allow us, artists, to live, to make, to collaborate, to attend performances, to fuel conversations, to create change. What we need is time. What we need is sustainability.
Valid work - work with depth, complexity, social grounding, and relatability - takes time. Time allows artists to shift concepts. Time allows artists to take rests. And, ideally, time can give artists space to find nuance. For artistic work to create deepening impacts, we must give time, space, patience. We must step away, let things simmer, return, put it on a shelf for later, take it down, crumple it up, throw it away, then fetch it to smooth out the wrinkles, knowing that it won’t ever look as it did before. And even if something has been presented previously, it is once again ‘new’ in its next presentation - carrying with it the experience from the previous audience and shifted in accord. That is the beauty of live performance.
Time is what makes established dance companies so attractive. When a company is funded to employ its dancers, makers, and production team full time, works are created with acute focus and little distraction. Everyone involved is supported financially so that their time is not taken up by other obligations like second jobs. Yet for many performance artists, our current performance scene looks quite different. In fact, dance companies are far-fetched fantasies for some and turn offs for others. Many artists - performers and makers - are self-employed freelancers. They work project to project. Why is this?
Our current funding atmosphere in the US loves projects that are ‘new works’. Let’s call it the New Project Culture. It follows the hyper-capitalist ideal similar to the energy behind the new iPhone, new apps, new dietary restrictions. In this New Project Culture, makers are forced to condense working periods and produce one to two new works per year because of restrictions implied by foundations that fund them. Contrary to the potential environments created when a new work is funded over the course of two or more years (as the MAP Fund promotes, for example) or a previous work is resuscitated, New Project Culture creates a community of freelancers hopping from project to project and working second jobs in-between. Great! We artists get variety in our working environments; however, it is not energetically, or emotionally sustainable.
In our current dance performance environment, a group of dancers will get together for a length of time spanning anywhere from 3 weeks to 8 months (just examples, don’t shoot me). If they are lucky, everyone gets paid hourly at a fair rate. But whether you are working 30 hrs/week for three weeks or 12-18 hrs/wk for 8 months, what happens in that last week of the month? in those other 22-26 hours in the typical work week? in those other 4 months of the year before the next round of work (assuming you have something lined up)?
What do we freelance artists do to finance our rent, food, transportation, and student loans in those in-between moments?
I am a professional performance artist with a Masters degree. I just moved to the Bay Area, performed with FACT/SF for Remains; produced my own solo, #whitenoise - A Neologism; and am currently rehearsing one or two days a week for a show with punkkiCo to premiere in March. FACT/SF paid hourly and I was able to live off the pay for a month and a bit. Footloose Presents paid me a stipend for my solo and punkkiCo is paying a stipend for the March performance. Still, for November and December, I had little way of paying rent and could hardly purchase groceries - having spent way too much money on BART public transport to get into SF to rent a Scoot to deliver food for Postmates - because it provides flexible working hours! - and ending up with $0.12 and $0.85 in my bank account for two weekends in a row. Thank you capitalism for revealing to me that my work is not currently in high enough demand. (I now work at Trader Joe’s grocery store 32-40 hours each week.)
A proposal. We need a freelance artist sustainability fund - a fund that supports practicing artists in those in-between moments: in-between projects, in-between funding cycles; or when one is getting underpaid, which is often the case because “the job will look good on my resume” and “at least I still get to dance.” Screw that! You deserve better. We deserve better. I propose a fund that says, “No, don’t take that second or third ‘side-hustle’. Keep going with your art.” I propose a fund that one either pay into with union fees (when they are making sufficient money on a project) or, ideally, is funded by a myriad of foundations, the City of San Francisco, the State of California, and/or the meagerly funded National Endowment for the Arts. Yes, that means redistributing American tax dollars.
Two programs come close to this model. The Dancers’ Resource (a part of The Actors Fund) currently provides emotional and financial assistance to dancers displaced from the workplace due to injury. To obtain this support as an active dancer (amongst other scenarios), The Actors Fund requires that the dancer “must have earned in the performing arts and/or entertainment industry a minimum of $2,000 per year for the past three years,” (actorsfund.org). The second program, Bay Area’s local Dancers’ Group, used to offer the Parachute Fund for dancers living with HIV/AIDS. This fund, which ended in 2015, not only valued the person as an artist, but as a human being - providing help to pay rent, medical costs, and quality of life care such as a bike, a trip home to see family, and funds to take dance classes.
These two funding models are the closest our American performance community has come to supporting the overall livelihood of dance artists - only when we are down and out due to health issues. But what about financial issues? Perhaps, we can combine the eligibility requirements set forth by The Dancers’ Resource with the model of support provided by the Parachute Fund to work towards a more financially stable freelance artistic community.
We need a coming together like never before. But because I just moved here to the San Francisco Bay Area, I admit that I have no clue how to go about this.
We need the heads of our dance organizations - those with knowledge of the system, with relationships and connections, with influence - to contribute to a new conversation, be that in the form of a conference, dinner, or cafe meet-up. I am willing to work out logistics, but I need your advice and consult. By sharing with others in this new conversation, you not only support the active search for funding of new projects, you support the life of the artist as a whole. And what better place to start than the San Francisco Bay Area?
I call on you, Wayne Hazzard of Dancers’ Group.
I challenge you, Julie Phelps of Counterpulse.
I implore you, Joe Landini, Hope Mohr, Charles Slender-White, Jess Curtis, Joe Goode, Debby Kajiyami, and all those who work to make this Bay Area freelance community what it is.
Is this attainable? What is/are the best route/s to go about accomplishing this? Can it live beyond our involvement?
I understand you are all busy. We performers, we opportunists, we artists thank you for your long hours and steadfast work towards bettering what you can with what you have. But with full-time dance jobs in low supply, a funding environment that prioritizes new projects over recurring ones, and cost of living skyrocketing, we must come together and refocus our energies.
We need a sustainable fund for freelance artists. Let us unionize. Let us join forces. Let us lobby. Let us fight our asses off to not only continue doing what is so desperately needed, but to have the support and space for this as well. And let us be a model for others. The “gig economy” is growing. More and more people are freelancing. Let us start something that ripples into our society.
I like Trader Joe’s, but I need time to focus on my art. I need financial stability in my in-between artistic moments. Let us support our broader community. We deserve better.
Dalton Alexander, MA Dance Performance, comes from Albuquerque, NM and has lived in Europe for three years - Berlin, London, and Brussels. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 2017 where he currently works and performs.