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The Economic Prescience Of J.B. Priestley

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Theatre-makers in America undeniably work in an embattled field.  Artists face low salaries, inconsistent opportunities, and the difficulties any freelance American worker must manage apropos of health insurance, retirement, and child-rearing.  The organizations that employ them face cuts, conundrums (e.g. as government funding levels decrease annually, their compliance and reporting requirements for not-for-profits increase, requiring us to spend a higher percentage of declining dollars on administration), and competition for audiences’ time and attention from forms that are increasingly more convenient, accessible, and affordable. #

Almost every non-commercial production “loses” money in commercial parlance – very seldom does anyone make more at the box office that they spent on artistic, marketing, and administrative costs components – so artistic leaders are, de facto, looking for what to cut.  More often than not, artists’ salaries and benefits CAN be cut: we all know by now that most theatre artists’ will work for minimum wage and that their union will consent.  So that’s the first place cuts are made, often to the point that artists are more or less subsidizing the work of the organization by accepting less than a living wage.  And I don’t know anyone in our field who’s really happy with that. #

But when we discuss the reasons we’re in this position solely in terms of money – which generally leads to an argument about whose fault it is that none of us have enough – we often miss the bigger contextual picture, and a much more complex set of challenges, regarding artists’

value in our society. #

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The low salary problem is just one bullet point of a much bigger problem of low perceived value: too many Americans don’t see theatre artists as vital to improving their quality of life.  This blog series will explore why that’s happening and what we can all do to change it.  But we’ll have to start with a pretty elementary mental shift (and by we I mean everyone in our field, from artists to producers to funders): we’ll have to stop believing in, and working in accordance with, a “scarcity principle” regarding opportunities, audiences, and money. #

In economics, the

scarcity principle focuses on how an insufficiency of goods that have high demand can drive up prices for these goods beyond the natural equilibrium, such that only the wealthiest can afford them.  The scarcity principle we suffer under is sort of the reverse.  Because we don’t sufficiently cultivate demand for our goods, we’ve gotten focused on competing for scarce opportunities and constituencies; this culture of competition has slowly led us to believe that it’s our only possible “business model” (and this applies equally to artists, leaders, and funders). #

There’s a great exchange in J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways (the first play Epic produced Off-Broadway!), in which the conservative Ernest and the socialist Madge argue about labor strikes in England in 1919: #

Ernest:  The working class is out for itself.  Then why shouldn’t the middle class be out for itself? #

Madge:  The middle class must have already been successfully out for itself or it wouldn’t be a comfortable middle class.    Then why turn against the working class when at last it tries to look after itself? #

Ernest: That’s easy.  There’s only so much to go ‘round, and if you take more, then I get less. #

Madge: I’m sorry, but that’s bad economics as well as bad ethics. #

Who among us in our field hasn’t felt what Ernest articulates?  That there’s a lack of artistic opportunities, or funding sources, or potential audiences, and that we have to put our resources towards competing for those that already exist, rather than toward trying to build new ones?  But as Madge points out, it’s just bad business.  A business that fails to actively create demand for its’ product, and just relies on historical demand – unless it sells something like milk – will swiftly lose significance.  So the economic side of this thing is just common sense, self-protection, even, and there’s lots of easy solutions that can be employed to shift this paradigm toward the development of new audiences, opportunities, and funds, which this blog will explore in later Chapters. #

The ethical side of things is a lot more controversial, I think.  I’ll be developing an argument for the ethical importance of increasing artist value over my next few blogs.  But let me start with a question.  Most of us cringe when an American corporation moves operations to a country where much lower salaries can be paid for the same quality of work, right?  Most of us know that this kind of practice is bad for both the country the corporation has left and ultimately the one it has entered, even if those workers have freely consented.  We know how crippling this lack of investment in local resources has been to the quality of life of middle- and working-class American families.  Sure, these corporations do it for profit, but here’s my question: really, how is it any “less bad” to underpay our workers for artistic and educational profit than for financial profit?  We can’t expect these for-profit corporations to take any kind of moral or ethical stand on this issue, obviously; but have we gotten to the point where we no longer expect it from ourselves? #


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Source : http://www.artsjournal.com/theatricalimperative/2012/01/time-to-say-no-to-the-scarcity-principle-2.html

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