What does an artist have to do to survive here in the San Francisco Bay Area, circa 2017? As the world keeps on changing and Bay Area cost-of-living inflates out of control, it’s becoming increasingly unclear how independent local artists will manage to keep living and producing art here.
I’ve held out here in the Bay as a full time independent artsy person since I shed my last “job” (Yerba Buena Gardens Festival staff) in 2004. In that time, I’ve seen many folks (old stalwarts and young upstarts) succumb to economic reality and move to cheaper frontiers. Each time it feels like a small tragedy, then life goes on. But how much longer can things go on like this? The Bay Area is poised to lose what’s left of our once vibrant local artist class.
Models of Support
Since time immemorial, a thriving artist class has been vital to the fabric of societies.
How the heck have artists survived through the ages? Somehow or other, in most places through all of knowable history, there have been artists and their respective communities have supported them through various economic models. I thought it might be helpful to think about different models of support that have worked in the past:
Court – lineages of artists are supported and patronized by the royal/ruling class. As in the old days of India. Not sure if this is happening much anymore, but many wonderful artistic “court” traditions like Japanese Gagaku are still performed today.
European – the state devotes resources to the livelihood of its artists. The people pay high taxes and the bureaucrats dole out funds to artists and venues. No one is getting rich off these funds, but there is an ecosystem of support within which the artist can freely produce their work.
Traditional “village” – the people give their time, labor, and money to create an event together. They do this not only for themselves but also for the village’s perseverance and protection. There is less of a defined professional artist class and more of a shamanic/healer class trained in multiple artistic modalities. Everyone participates in the music, dance, ritual making of the culture, as a matter of course. What we think of as art is manifested in ritual form. The village model has been wiped out in most places, but there are still places like Bali, Indonesia where this way of life lives on.
Part timer – Artists work a day job and can self-fund their weeknight/end artistic practices, with no economic imperative to make a living from their art.
Private donors – big and small, they lurk elusively at the periphery of our universe. We know they are out there – we see them in every nook and cranny of the city – and they’re looking back at us – for a cause and tax break (not necessarily in that order).
Dohee Lee Puri Arts
For the last seven years I’ve performed with and managed the Oakland-based organization, Dohee Lee Puri Arts. We produce multi-disciplinary performance pieces rooted in Korean-shamanic based practices, under the artistic direction of Dohee Lee.
Dohee Lee’s home of Jeju Island, Korea is an example of what is happening to most locales where the village model once thrived: these ritualistic practices are becoming rare as the indigenous peoples lose their connection to their land and their myths. Traditional practices are being supplanted/appropriated by tourism/capitalism and aggressive forms of Western religion.
Dohee emigrated to Oakland in 2002 after many years of training in traditional Korean arts practices. Leaving behind a touring career as a master traditional artist, she came to the US to follow her vision of creating a new art form that blends ritual with elements of post-modern immersive art performance. She has been creating genre-defying performance works in the US since 2004.
We are a contemporary performance organization with an international reputation rooted in Oakland. Here at home, we are working with Oakland immigrant/refugees, using art to heal past traumas and build healthy communities. This work embodies everything I’ve hoped to do through performance. In many ways, I feel like I’ve made a successful career here. I get paid to perform and produce amazing, socially relevant art. Though coming from completely different origins, both Dohee and I are living out that same dream that drew so many of us from afar to San Francisco/Oakland to see where our creativity might carry us.
What’s the model of support today in the USA? These days, us creative folks take a mishmash of approaches towards garnering financial support. The not-so-free market rewards a handful of artists with unfathomable riches. The rest exist in a persistent state of scarcity, fighting over the tiny pool of money leftover from the Lady Gagas, SF Symphonies, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theaters of this world. The budget of any of the above – just one of their performances – would fund several years of operation for a tiny organization like ours. The federal government doles out some crumbs of support, but most state funding was gutted during the Reagan era. San Francisco has Grants for the Arts and is in some respects better at providing general operating supporting to a range of art organizations than most cities; Oakland city funding was slashed during the financial crises of 2008 and never bounced back. Corporations throw big sponsorship money towards marketable projects. Theaters and some big art orgs work the subscription model. Foundations fill in the gaps as much as possible.
It’s all fine and dandy, right up until cost-of-living outstrips available resources.
For the last seven years, we’ve been eking maximum value out of every dollar and often putting in our own dollars when need be. We have chased grant money and made papier-mâché peaches to sell at performances. Our approach has been stubbornly non-commercial and so have the results!
The strength of our work garners awards to fund the next project. But each project grant we get highlights the absence of a path towards sustainable operational funding to run our three-person organization. $50,000 looks like a lot of money at first, but it’s not ever enough pay an actual Bay Area living wage. It’s just enough to keep us afloat until the next project.
An organization like ours is resigned to forever hustling to draw from the same pool of money as the likes of a Kronos Quartet (a world-class ensemble with a fulltime development staff), every newcomer on the scene, and everything in between. We’re all vital to the thriving artistic eco-system, and yet all living hand-to-mouth from one fiscal year to the next.
This financial mishmash was adequate when rent was cheap. I lived in the Mission for 13 years, through the entire 2000’s, and never paid more than $350-a-month in rent. The economic imperative behind my choices was minimal. It was in that environment that I decided to follow my dream of playing in a klezmer band and running a Korean shamanic community arts organization. But those days are gone. Take my old rent and multiply it by 10. And there isn’t 10 times as much funding. There’s less funding than in those days. It shouldn’t surprise anyone where this is headed.
It’s only a matter of time for this structural imbalance to eventually starve out the entire artistic ecosystem.
Are the affluent denizens of the Bay Area – the ones who can afford to stay and enjoy the luxuries of SF 3.0 – going to let this happen? Will they even notice? Admittedly, there will still be lots of cool performances to go to. Just not the sort of community work made by local artists that we’re doing. Maybe that’s okay? But I’m hoping not everyone feels complacent about this.
As part of our work at Dohee Lee Puri Arts, we’re not just producing shows and workshops, but also, trying to reimagine what sustainable support might look like moving into the future.
In the so-called “village” model, the artist didn’t have to go asking for money. The people themselves would go to the shaman/healer, “We need a good harvest!” and the shaman would say, “If you want this sort of harmony in the community, these are the resources I need to make the ritual.” And the members of the local community would come together and provide those resources. They had to do that because their very health and vitality was at stake. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in tree spirits or ancestor ghosts or anything like that. It’s not about the specific details of the religion/practices – these are the concepts that function as the universal crazy glue that holds people together and sustains the community through hard times.
Somewhere along the way from the village to the urban metropolis, this dynamic got subverted. Nowadays, the artist goes palm extended to their community for the resources to make their work.
The community that Dohee Lee Puri Arts works with – predominantly immigrants and refugees living in East Oakland – they give what resources they can. Proportionally from what they have, it’s an immense sacrifice/commitment. But it’s nowhere near enough to keep doing the work we’re doing. Not here in the Bay Area.
We’re torn up about how we ask for money. Not only that we have to ask, but how we ask. About the tchotchkes and access we offer in return for these tax-deductible “gifts.”
It’s painful to think how say, $150,000 – a pair of Warriors playoff tickets – someone’s fun-night-out play money – could fund our operational budget for a year.
Is going for this money the only path for our organization to become a sustainable endeavor? Are we willing to go there? Everyone wants that money. So many people need that money. It’s awful to put ourselves in the position of needing that money. It makes me feel like I would rather be doing something else or living somewhere else.
I’ve worked in various capacities for Bay Area non-profit arts orgs for 15 years. I’ve raised millions of dollars in arts funding for small projects from foundations and local/national government. I’ve almost never asked individuals for money. Why the resistance to courting individual donors? For sure, there’s pride in not wanting to have to jump through the hoops that the wealthy often demand to their suitors.
But more than mere pride, we continue on our current path because of hopefulness. There is a hopefulness in our hearts that if we persevere and keep doing this work, that if we’re sincere and dedicated and keep working and striving, that our community will keep growing, and that together, community and artist, will find a way to sustain this relationship. There is hopefulness that we can revive some version of the village model of mutual support for our modern times. This doesn’t mean we would stop writing grants or selling peaches, but that this dynamic between community and artist, this interdependence, could provide a foundation to sustain the work we do and, in doing so, amplify its impact.
The Google Option
Another option of course is going to work at Google where we can utilize our artistic talents and insight into the human condition to make their products more engaging and addictive. At Google our work would reach billions of “users” and have true lasting impact on the world, with the bonus that we’d be able to afford to live in Oakland! I hear the food is soooo good there and if we weren’t too tired, we could still perform on the weekends. Not the worst deal in the world…
But someone has to stand up to the flickering screen fixation. To the instant gratification industrial complex. To the mini slot machines that most everyone on earth carries in their pockets. There must be some unrestrained voices – local voices – community voices – to remind us of human connection that exists beyond social networks. This can be our offering to our home, if we can find a way to stay here.